In a genuinely surprising announcement from Guantánamo, the five men accused of plotting and facilitating the 9/11 attacks -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who stated in his tribunal at Guantánamo last March that he was "responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z," Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash -- have declared at today's pre-trial hearing that they "request an immediate hearing session to announce our confessions."
The hearings, which are supposed to last all week, have already attracted significant media attention, partly because relatives of some of the victims of the 9/11 attacks are in attendance, and partly because they were seen as the Bush administration's last attempt to justify its much-criticized "War on Terror" detention policies. In the run-up to the Presidential election, the Military Commissions had dropped off the media's radar, and almost no one turned up at Guantánamo in the last week of October when Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, an alleged al-Qaeda propagandist, received a life sentence after a disturbing one-sided show trial in which he refused to mount a defense.
This week's hearings were widely expected to involve further attempts to resolve some long-standing complaints regarding bin al-Shibh, whose lawyers maintain that he is mentally unfit to stand trial, and al-Hawsawi, whose lawyers contend that he has been bullied by his co-accused. It was also expected that, as in the arraignment in June, and a previous round of pre-trial hearings in September, Mohammed would take the opportunity to dominate the proceedings and to make sly references to his torture at the hands of U.S. forces.
What no one foresaw, however, was that Mohammed would use the global media spotlight to return to another theme that he mentioned during the arraignment six months ago: his desire to be martyred. And yet this, it seems, is exactly what has happened. The trial's new judge, Col. Stephen Henley, read from a document that was filed by all five defendants on November 4, the day of the Presidential election, following a number of previously undisclosed meetings between the men.
"We all five have reached an agreement to request from the commission an immediate hearing session in order to announce our confessions ... with our earnest desire in this regard without being under any kind of pressure, threat, intimidations or promise from any party," their statement said.
As Mohammed lived up to expectations, slipping in a reference to torture when, after telling Henley, "I do not trust you," he added that he didn't trust an "agreement between Bush and the CIA who tortured me," Ali Abdul Aziz Ali also spoke out, assuring Henley that all five had reached their decisions willingly. "All of these decisions were undertaken by us without any pressure or influence by Khalid Sheikh," he said. "What was said or will be said by Khalid Sheikh will be repeated by us, also."
Quite what this means is not yet clear. As the Guardian explained, "The letter implies they want to plead guilty but does not make clear whether they will admit to any specific charges," although it does establish that they "wish to drop all previous defense motions." Bloomberg added that "Henley asked military prosecutors to submit legal briefs on whether the commission can 'accept a plea of guilty to a capital offense,'" and doubts also remain about the status of bin al-Shibh and al-Hawsawi, who are still represented by military attorneys.
As we await further clarification, I can only wonder if Mohammed and his co-defendants have indeed chosen to focus unerringly on their pursuit of martyrdom, and have decided that their best hope for advancing al-Qaeda's cause lies in trying to secure a conviction in the tainted Military Commissions of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney before Barack Obama can dismantle them.
This interpretation would seem to be borne out by an additional comment attributed to Mohammed by AFP: "We don't want to waste time." And as with every previous occasion when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has had the eyes of the world's media upon him, I can only wonder who's really running the show.
UPDATE 6 pm EST: As suggested above, Col. Henley delayed a verdict on the request by Mohammed and his co-accused, giving lawyers time to investigate whether he is allowed to accept guilty pleas in capital cases, and also whether this would prevent the imposition of the death penalty. He set a deadline of January 5, when the next pre-trial hearings are scheduled to take place, for the lawyers to submit briefs.
In addition, although he accepted the request from Mohammed, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash, he ruled that competency hearings were required for Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, because of doubts about their ability to stand trial. As a result, the defendants stated that they would wait until the results of these investigations were known before entering pleas. As Ali Abdul Aziz Ali explained, "Our plea request was based on joint strategy and I would rather wait."