GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The accused mastermind of the September 11 attacks told a U.S. war crimes court at Guantanamo on Friday that Osama bin Laden’s driver had no role in al Qaeda attacks and was unfit to carry them out.
Anyone who thought all bin Laden’s associates were involved in his plots “is a fool and does not understand al Qaeda,” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said in written comments submitted as defense evidence in the trial of Yemeni prisoner Salim Hamdan.
The jury of six military officers is scheduled to begin deliberating their verdict after the lawyers give closing arguments on Monday in the first U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War Two.
Hamdan acknowledges he drove for bin Laden in Afghanistan for $200 a month but denies joining al Qaeda or participating in its attacks. He faces life in prison if convicted on charges of conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism.
The Bush administration says it can still hold him as an “unlawful enemy combatant,” even if he is acquitted of the charges, until the “end of hostilities” in the war against terrorism declared by U.S. President George W. Bush.
Mohammed, the highest-ranking al Qaeda figure in U.S. custody, is also imprisoned at Guantanamo awaiting trial and potential execution on charges of plotting the September 11 hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Hamdan’s lawyers asked him written questions about Hamdan’s qualifications and his work with bin Laden.
“He was not a soldier, he was a driver,” Mohammed said according to a redacted English translation of his Arabic.
He described Hamdan, who has a fourth-grade education, as a “more primitive (Bedouin) person” who did not share bin Laden’s ideology but wanted his money and was “only searching for pleasure and money in this life.”
“He was not fit to plan or execute. But he is fit to change trucks’ tires, change oil filters, wash and clean cars and fasten cargo in pick up trucks,” said Mohammed, who called himself the military official responsible for overseeing al Qaeda cells abroad and “the executive director of 9/11.”
Hamdan is the first captive tried in the special tribunals created by Bush to prosecute non-U.S. citizens on terrorism charges outside the regular civilian and military courts.
The U.S. government charges that in addition to driving bin Laden, Hamdan acted as his bodyguard and had two missiles in his car when captured in Afghanistan in November 2001.
Prosecutors contend he had been part of a broad al Qaeda conspiracy since traveling to Afghanistan in 1996, and therefore shared the blame for al Qaeda attacks, such as the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in east Africa, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and September 11.
Mohammed said those attacks succeeded precisely because they were kept secret from many members of bin Laden’s inner circle, from other al Qaeda members and cells, from trainers at the camps and from what he termed “civilian employees” such as cooks, translators and computer engineers.
Referring to bin Laden, he said, “It is not logical that anyone who knew UBL or visited him or associated with al Qaeda (had) to be a terrorist trained to kill people as your bad media put it.”
One of the prosecutors had initially warned that “buildings will fall” if any of Mohammed’s words were made public, but ultimately did not object to admission of the evidence.
The military jurors showed no emotion as they read his words. In order to decide whether Hamdan’s acts were war crimes under the 2006 law authorizing the Guantanamo tribunals, they must also decide when the U.S. war against al Qaeda began.
The defense contends that the U.S. military had no “rules of engagement” identifying al Qaeda as a target until shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Whatever the verdict, the Bush administration may claim victory in seeing the first trial completed.
Military defense lawyers have fought vigorously to prevent trials they contend are rigged to convict and violate international law, and won a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the first Guantanamo court system.
“I don’t know that I’d characterize it as a success and I wouldn’t call it a trial,” Deputy Chief Defense Counsel Michael Berrigan told journalists. “I think it’s an obscenity.”
Editing by Michael Christie and David Storey