On 11 September 2001, aircraft hijackings killed 2,976 people in New York, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field, in an event that changed the world.
This year marks the 20-year anniversary of the bone-chilling attacks that left a deep mark in the memory of all those alive to witness it, whether in person or on their television sets.
For a majority of the past two decades, the US government has been holding five men, accused of plotting the attack, at their infamous military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. These men are yet to face trial.
The military’s legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay have faced setback after setback, to the dismay of families of victims that have waited two decades for the trial.
After much back and forth, a final legal timetable was set, and jury selection in the 9/11 trial is scheduled began in January 2021.
However, this schedule has once again suffered a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ knock that promises further delay.
The coronavirus crisis has cut off almost all access to Guantanamo Bay, complicating the work of prosecutors, defence teams, judiciary and support staff who shuttle between the base and the mainland.
Most of the pre-trial work, including legal meetings, have been put on hold.
This has primarily been crucial in the case of one of the accused – Ramzi bin al-Shibh. The 48-year-old Yemeni is accused of financing the 9/11 hijackers and helping plot the attacks.
A member of the Al Qaeda cell based in Hamburg, Germany, al-Shibh is alleged to have helped the hijackers enter the US and find flight schools.
He was captured in Pakistan in September 2002, a year after the attacks. He has recently been appointed a new lawyer, David Bruck, after his previous lead attorney, James P Harrington, asked to leave the case, citing health issues and ‘incompatibility’ with his client.
Since being moved to Guantanamo Bay in 2006, the accused has appeared increasingly erratic, and is said to be experiencing delusions, according to court records.
Bruck officially began full-time work on the case on 1 July 2020.
Being appointed a trial in the middle of a pandemic that has over 33,000 pages of pre-trial hearing transcripts so far, Bruck has estimated it will take him approximately 30 months to prepare for trial, says an NPR report.
He cannot begin preparing fully until normal work and travel resumes at Guantanamo, as he has not even met his client yet.
The prison at Guantanamo does not allow the five defendants to meet with their lawyers by telephone or video link. In April 2020, the plan to begin the trail on 11 January 2021 was postponed by at least two months.
But, in the light of Bruck’s announcement – demanding an estimated 30 months for preparation – it is likely that the the trial will be pushed back even further.
This has been the most recent among many problems that have caused a setback to the trial, pushing the start date even further.
TESTIMONIES INADMISSIBLE IN COURT
Even before the coronavirus complications, there were a series of events that led to a delay in the trial of the five men accused in the attacks.
When first captured in Pakistan, in 2002 and 2003, the prisoners were kept out of reach of courts and a trial, under the belief that they they might have information that could prevent another attack; help shed light on, and disrupt the Al Qaeda terrorist network as well as pave the way for the US to Osama bin Laden.
They were taken to remote overseas ‘black prisons’ operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
“The CIA was never interested in prosecuting,” one of the architects of the interrogation programme, James E Mitchell, testified at Guantanamo.
The prisoners were transferred to Guantanamo Bay for trial only in 2006.
When in CIA custody, there were a series of measures taken that further complicated the testimonies of defendants.
“During that period, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, accused of being the architect of the attacks, was waterboarded 183 times. All five defendants were brutalised, isolated and kept incommunicado,” according to a report in The New York Times.
The testimonies of the accused, so obtained, are inadmissible in court. The interrogations began once again in 2007, six years after the attack, to obtain testimonies unsullied by torture.
In 2008, more than five years after their capture, the five defendants were finally charged for the first time at Guantanamo Bay.
BUREAUCRACY AND CHANGE OF GUARD
The 9/11 trial has further been affected by bureaucracy.
The multiple changing of the guard at the White House has caused further delay. Notably, the case was revamped under the Barack Obama administration, who came to office promising to close Guantanamo Bay.
This suspended the military trials for a period of review, causing it to be started anew on 5 May 2012. The accused had been in the US custody for close to a decade at this point.
Travel restrictions, too, have contributed to the delay.
“Everyone but the men accused of the crime commute to Guantanamo from Washington, and points beyond for one-to three-week hearing sessions that have been plagued by flight delays, cancellations, mold-damaged offices and communications failures,” the report says.
“Judges have also cancelled (pre-trial) hearings because of hurricanes, health issues, higher court challenges and, recently, the coronavirus,” it further adds.
Who are the Other Defendants?
In addition to al-Shibh, the defendants include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ammar Baluchi, Mustafa Hawsawi, and Walid bin Attash.
Mohammed was named “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” in the 9/11 Commission Report. The chief manager of the “planes operation”, he was seemingly popular among the Al Qaeda rank and file, and “regarded as an effective leader, especially after the 9/11 attacks.”
Al-Hawsawi of Saudi origin is accused to have served as a paymaster in aiding the facilitation of the attacks. He is accused of providing money, travellers cheques, air tickets, Western clothing and credit cards to four of the hijackers.
Al-Hawsawi also worked in the Al Qaeda media centre in Afghanistan from 2000 until he departed for the UAE in early 2001. He was captured in Pakistan in 2003.
Ammar Baluchi is Mohammed’s nephew. He is a computer technician who is accused of providing funds for the hijackers. He was captured in Pakistan in 2002.
Attash, a Yemeni national, allegedly helped Al Qaeda pick and train the 9/11 hijackers, teaching them hand-to-hand combat skills in the Afghan camps.
Prosecutors say Attash took practice flights carrying a razor knife to test airport security, briefed the lead hijackers on his surveillance, and later studied airline schedules to choose flights for a multiple hijacking, says a CBS News report.
Baluchi, Attash, and al-Shibh are accused of assisting Mohammed with the logistics of the 9/11 plot. Hawsawi is accused of training some of the hijackers.
(With inputs from The New York Times, CBS News and NPR)