Terror suspect Britain failed to spot charged over 11 September attack

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The Independent US

A London-based Islamic radical was yesterday charged with conspiracy to commit mass murder for his involvement in the suicide hijack attacks on America on 11 September.

Three months to the day, the United States announced a raft of charges against former Brixton resident Zacarias Moussaoui, which carry the threat of the death penalty.

Mr Moussaoui, a 33-year-old French national of Moroccan extraction who spent much of the past nine years living in London under the eyes of British intelligence, was picked up on a passport violation while attending a flight school in Minnesota in August. He was seen cheering in his jail cell when the hijacked airliners smashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. He has spent the past three months being held as a material witness at a high-security correctional centre in New York.

The charges against him were announced by John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, who has come under heavy criticism recently for suppressing the civil liberties of Arabs and Arab Americans with little to show for his efforts. Mr Ashcroft told reporters in Washington that Mr Moussaoui had conspired with Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida to "murder thousands of people" and that he stood accused of, "undergoing the same training, receiving the same funding and pledging the same commitment to kill Americans as the hijackers".

"Today, three months after the assault on our homeland, the United States of America has brought the awesome weight of justice against the terrorists who brutally murdered innocent Americans," said Mr Ashcroft.

Mr Moussaoui came under suspicion right from the start, and was a source of considerable embarrassment to the US authorities because they had ignored specific warnings about his alleged links to al-Qa'ida from French intelligence while under arrest before the 11 September attacks.

As reported in yesterday's Independent, British Intelligence and police also ignored similar warnings as long ago as 1994, when a French magistrate tried and failed to obtain permission to interview him in connection with the murder of three French consular officials in Algiers. Information that he had attended al-Qa'ida training camps in Afghanistan in 1999 was similarly brushed aside.

Now, according to Mr Ashcroft, he stands accused not only of receiving al-Qa'ida training but of receiving funding from the group's operatives in Europe and the Middle East.

The prosecution theory is that Mr Moussaoui came to the United States from Britain earlier this year to receive flight training, just like the 19 men who hijacked four planes used in the 11 September attacks.

He appeared to have been dropped from the plan early in the summer after he failed to obtain a pilot's licence, but was then reactivated, investigators say, after another member failed to obtain a visa to enter the United States. The Independent reported yesterday that he received $15,000 from Hamburg, where Mohammed Atta and other leading members of the team were based, and spent time on the phone with the man he was allegedly replacing, Ramsi Bin Al-Shibh.

His involvement was finally ended after officials at another flight school in Minnesota became suspicious about his motives for learning to fly commercial airliners. The immigration authorities discovered his visa had expired and that he was in possession of a fake Algerian passport.

But he was not immediately investigated by federal agents and it was only after 11 September that information was found on his computer related to crop-dusters and the possible wide dispersal of chemical or biological agents.

The charges filed against him in federal court yesterday were six counts of conspiracy – to commit acts of terrorism, to commit aircraft piracy, to destroy aircraft, to use weapons of mass destruction, to commit murder and to destroy property.

Mr Ashcroft described the 30-page indictment delivered by a grand jury in Virginia as, "a chronicle of evil".

Four of the six counts are capital offences, raising the possibility that Mr Moussaoui could become the first foreign terrorism suspect to be executed in the United States.

Mr Moussaoui's mother, Aicha, said last night she feared her son was the victim of fabricated charges.