After spending weeks making the case for military tribunals for terrorists, Attorney General John Ashcroft walked into the Oval Office last week to make the case against them--at least in the first terrorist case stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks. Ashcroft told the President that there was no need for a military trial for Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged al-Qaeda operative arrested in Minnesota last August. The President asked Ashcroft, "Will any of the evidence you need to use jeopardize the security of the United States?" When Ashcroft assured him that it wouldn't, the deal was done.
Moussaoui's may be the first terrorist indictment since Sept. 11, but it won't be the last. Just as the military campaign in Afghanistan is reaching its denouement, the curtain on the legal war is being raised. This initial prosecution is by no means easy--in either the courtroom or the worldwide court of public opinion. The French are protesting the possible imposition of the death penalty for Moussaoui, a French citizen. Other nations in the European Union, which outlaws the death penalty, are expressing concern too. But the trial, however controversial, is unlikely to become an O.J.-size spectacle for one simple reason: TV cameras are forbidden at federal trials.
The possibility of a death sentence is a further shock to those in France who knew Moussaoui. Recalled as a typical, if somewhat rowdy, Eurokid raised by a Moroccan-immigrant single mother, Moussaoui embraced strict Islam at 19 in his native southern France. His radicalization accelerated in England, where he studied international trade and came under the sway of a leading al-Qaeda organizer. That London journey to extremism, French officials charge, is typical of the European Islamist militant. "British law and British society create an environment where extremist, at times violent, messages and militant indoctrination can enjoy the cover of religious freedom," says a French investigator.
While Britain rejects that charge, what appears indisputable is that Moussaoui, with his French citizenship, enjoyed easier travel in the West than did other al-Qaeda suspects, whose passports from countries like Yemen and Pakistan drew closer scrutiny. The indictment alleges that Moussaoui traveled to Afghanistan in April 1998 to train at Khalden, an al-Qaeda camp. It doesn't say how U.S. officials know this, but TIME has confirmed that one source was Ahmed Ressam, the terrorist snagged at the Canadian border in 1999 and convicted of trying to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. Ressam and Moussaoui studied at the camp together, and Ressam identified Moussaoui's photo.
When Moussaoui entered the U.S. this year on a program that does not require European tourists to get visas for 90 days, he went unnoticed. He quickly signed up for flying lessons, first in Oklahoma and later in Minnesota, where he wanted to train on a 747 simulator though he wasn't credentialed to fly even a small plane. His ham-handedness at the controls aroused the suspicions of the instructors. Federal authorities took him into custody on Aug. 16 for staying in the country past the 90-day mark. Although he was in detention when the Twin Towers were hit, prosecutors maintain that Moussaoui was intimately connected to the conspiracy.