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Sixteen Years After 9/11 Attacks, Pretrial Hearings Continue For Accused

More than 700 detainees have been held at GTMO since it opened in 1903
Arun Rath/WGBH News

WGBH News and NPR correspondent Arun Rath spoke to WGBH's Morning Edition anchor Joe Mathieu about the pretrial hearings for the five men accused of plotting and supporting the September 11 terrorist attacks. Below is a lightly edited transcription of their conversation.

Joe Mathieu: You're listening to WGBH's Morning Edition. We head to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, this morning to find our correspondent, Arun Rath, who is now reporting on pretrial hearings for five men accused of plotting and supporting the 9/11 attacks. Yesterday, the court heard some dramatic details about the attack, including some vital evidence recovered from Logan Airport. Two of the four planes, of course, hijacked that day 16 years ago took off from Logan. WGBH's Arun Rath joins us now from Guantanamo Bay. Good morning, Arun, and thanks for being here.

Arun Rath: Good morning. Good to be with you.

JM: Tell us about the evidence for starters that came from Logan Airport. What did you see?

AR: Well, definitely the most dramatic item on that point would be photos of Mohamed Atta's suitcase and some of its contents. Mohammed Atta is probably the most famous of the hijackers. He was the oldest. He's often been referred to as the ringleader. He is the one who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Now, Atta did not start that day in Boston. He actually flew into Logan from Maine. American Airlines Flight 11 was his connecting flight. But it turns out that day it was a tight connection, and his suitcase didn't make it onto the plane. It got left behind at Logan. Now, if that hadn't happened, that suitcase and its contents would almost certainly have been utterly destroyed when the plane hit the tower. So that ended up being a hugely important piece of evidence for investigators.

JM: Wow, Arun. What was inside?

The Guantanamo military commission is stationed at Camp Justice
Arun Rath/ WGBH News

AR: Well they describe the contents. There was a knife, a couple of videotapes about aviation and a flight calculator. Remember, he was recently trained as a pilot so he could take over after the hijacking. There were clothes, other documents. The most dramatic thing, though, which we got to see was this four-page letter handwritten in Arabic. The FBI agent testifying called it a martyrdom letter. It's also been referred to as the last night letter — as in the last night these men would be alive. Basically, it's a document written up to prepare these men for their suicide operation. And it's chilling. Some of the language is coded, but it's clear what it's about. There are lines like, "Check your weapon before you leave, and long before you leave, you must make your knife sharp and must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter." It's really disturbing. There are prayers and rhetoric to encourage these men and to reinforce that what they were doing it, in their minds at least, was right and just and in service of God.

JM: Wow. This is something, Arun. It's part of a pretrial hearing. Why are they getting this into evidence already?

AR: Before they can have an actual trial with the military commissions, the rules of the military commissions require the prosecution establish that the court actually has jurisdiction. They basically have to prove that a defendant participated in or supported hostilities or were a member of al-Qaida when the attack took place. So by laying out these details of the attack, it seems like the prosecution is laying the groundwork for that. Although the arguments in this case are being made for only one of the defendants — this is Mustafa al-Hawsawi — the same rules will ultimately apply to all of them. So, the government needs to establish the fact that the U.S. was at war with al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001 for that war court to have jurisdiction to try them. Hawsawi's lawyer says that by the rules of war we were not properly at war with al-Qaida until the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001 and that therefore the court does not have jurisdiction. And in this instance, the burden is on the prosecution to prove. 

JM: In terms of this process, Arun, what's next? Where do we go from here?

AR: The prosecution will be calling more witnesses to establish those facts we talked about and the defense will get to cross-examine them. The defense is also calling in their own law of war expert to try to make the case that the U.S. was not properly at war with al-Qaida and that the court doesn't have the right to try al-Hawsawi. There are a few other items on the docket as well. One of them involves laptops that were seized from the defendants allegedly for trying to modify them, and there was some contraband involved. And, the lawyers are asking for an abatement of the proceedings until they get those laptops returned.

Rath reports from his tent at Camp Justice
Arun Rath/ WGBH News

JM: Can I just ask, Arun, as we consider your location here, you're at Guantanamo Bay. If you're a reporter covering this, where do you stay? I'm assuming there's not a hotel room.

AR: Actually, Joe, there are hotels. There are hotels here but we are not allowed to stay in them during the commissions. They put us up in tents. We kind of live like soldiers in a way.

JM: So you're camping in Cuba right now.

AR: Pretty much, yeah. There are big canvas covered tents, we use military style latrines and communal showers. It's kind of like being on 'MASH'.

JM: Fascinating. Keep us posted and stay safe there. WGBH News correspondent Arun Rath joining us from Guantanamo Bay. Thanks for the update today, Arun.

AR: Thanks, Joe.


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