Tirade Offers Insight on Would-Be BomberThane Rosenbaum in The New York Times, July 05, 2010
By BENJAMIN WEISER
When Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the failed Times Square bombing, pleaded guilty last month, the judge asked whether he knew what he had been doing was a crime.
“I would not consider it a crime,” Mr. Shahzad replied.
Was he aware he had violated United States law? the judge asked.
Mr. Shahzad said he was aware, but added, “I don’t care for the laws of United States.”
It was a revelatory moment in a court case that abruptly ended on June 21, when Mr. Shahzad expounded for more than half an hour on how and why he had tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square on a crowded Saturday evening.
Lawyers, prosecutors and others who have heard such statements, when the defendants are given an opportunity to explain their actions and motivations at length, say they can offer valuable insight into terrorists’ minds, particularly in a case as baffling as Mr. Shahzad’s.
The would-be bomber had cooperated for more than two weeks without counsel and “provided useful information,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has said. But then Mr. Shahzad turned around and endorsed attacks on the United States, declaring he was a “Muslim soldier” who believed that killing children was justified in the war against America.
“I don’t recall that I’ve really ever seen or known of someone who was actually an activist operative, a committed jihadist, who in this length of time became converted, showed remorse,” said Mary Jo White, a former United States attorney for the Southern District of New York who oversaw terrorism prosecutions from 1993 to 2002 that led to some 30 convictions.
Ms. White said Mr. Shahzad’s statements recalled a 1998 fatwa by Osama bin Laden directing Muslims to kill Americans, civilian or military, anywhere in the world.
“His allocution really embodies that credo,” she said, “and he’s telling the world that just because he’s pleading guilty under the U.S. criminal justice system, which he doesn’t credit, that does not mean for an instant that he has any remorse for what he did.”
Some of those interviewed suggested that Mr. Shahzad’s statements, delivered in response to questions from a judge, were an attempt to rehabilitate his image among jihadists, given his botched bombing attempt on May 1 and the perception that he gave information to investigators that led to arrests overseas.
“He’s not your conventional criminal who’s trying to receive leniency,” said Thane Rosenbaum, who teaches law at Fordham University and is the author of “The Myth of Moral Justice.”
“His crime is entirely based on some symbolic gesture of hatred and retaliation,” he added. “For him, the only way to validate the symbolism is to publicly proclaim what he wanted to do.”
Joshua L. Dratel, a lawyer who has represented accused terrorists in federal court and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, said, “It’s not unusual for defendants to have buyer’s remorse between spilling their guts and resolving their case.”
“The evolution of a defendant’s attitude is not scripted like a television show,” Mr. Dratel added. “Everything doesn’t have to fit at the end of the story.”
Another terrorist who pleaded guilty and used the courtroom as a platform for his views was Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker on Sept. 11. At his sentencing in 2006 in Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., he praised Mr. bin Laden and claimed to be “a mujahid” — the same word Mr. Shahzad used last month in describing himself. And in an earlier hearing, Mr. Moussaoui, who ultimately received a life sentence, testified about his delight at hearing of the grief of victims’ families, and said he would kill Americans again — “anytime, anywhere.”
“You realized the depth of the fanaticism and hatred,” Robert A. Spencer, a former federal prosecutor who cross-examined Mr. Moussaoui, recalled. “It wasn’t that he was trying to distance himself from it and save his life. He was proud of it. He was embracing it. It underscored what we’re up against.”
In the debate over where to try terrorists, critics have said the traditional civilian courts offer terrorists a public platform to spew their hatred. But statements have been made in the military system as well, albeit somewhat less publicly.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed said in a statement to a closed military panel at Guantánamo in 2007 that he was “responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z,” and offered a rambling confession of his role in a series of other terrorist plots, according to a transcript released later. And in an outburst during an open hearing the next year, another 9/11 detainee, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, called on Mr. bin Laden to “attack the American enemy with all his power.”
Not everyone convicted in a terrorism case takes such a militant stand.
Last month, Syed Hashmi, a former Brooklyn College student, received a 15-year sentence after pleading guilty to conspiring to provide material support to Al Qaeda. He had admitted that while studying in England, he knew a man staying with him was planning to deliver outdoor clothing and other gear to Al Qaeda for use in Afghanistan.
Prosecutors said Mr. Hashmi believed “in Al Qaeda’s terrorist mission” and willingly played a role within the group’s “secretive support network.”
Mr. Hashmi criticized United States government policies and what he called the “cruel” conditions under which he was held pending trial. But he told the judge he had made “a mistake” helping the operative.
“Clearly, I was wrong,” Mr. Hashmi said, “because as a citizen of the United States, I was not Islamically allowed to give that material support to those who waged war against America.”
Although defendants are often given time and leeway to make their statements, which are usually offered at sentencing but may occur during pleas or in other appearances, judges have been known to respond.
When Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who led the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, called himself an Islamic militant at his sentencing, the judge, Kevin Thomas Duffy, picked up a copy of the Koran from the bench and read several passages aloud, suggesting Mr. Yousef’s acts had violated Islamic teachings.
“Your god is not Allah,” the judge said. “You worship death and destruction.”
On June 21, Mr. Shahzad told Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum that he wanted to read aloud from a piece of paper. But the judge told him not to read it. “I want to know what happened,” she said. “Tell me what you did.”
The judge made clear she wanted to be sure Mr. Shahzad was competent to plead guilty and understood the charges and the rights he was giving up. He will most likely have another opportunity to address her, and the world, at his sentencing in October.
But after that, like so many convicted terrorists before him, he will probably go silent.
Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, who sentenced Mr. Moussaoui, told him: “You came here to be a martyr and to die in a great big bang of glory, but to paraphrase the poet T. S. Eliot, instead, you will die with a whimper. The rest of your life you will spend in prison.”
Mr. Moussaoui began to respond, but Judge Brinkema continued. “You will never again get a chance to speak,” she said, “and that is an appropriate and fair ending.”