Person of the Week: Zacarias Moussaoui

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Zacarias Moussaoui pleads guilty before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema

Not much has gone according to plan for the 20th hijacker over the past year. First, on September 11, Zacarias Moussaoui missed his flight into the glorious afterlife imagined by al-Qaeda's suicide terrorists. Now a U.S. judge won't even accept his guilty plea.

Moussaoui's "martyrdom" mission went ahead without him, largely as a result of his own sloppiness. The hapless 34-year-old Frenchman had been arrested by the FBI on immigration charges after carelessly arousing suspicion at a Minnesota flight school. Even in those infinitely more innocent days, a man impatient to learn to operate a Boeing 767 in midair but singularly uninterested in the art of takeoff and landing was not going to pass unnoticed. His more disciplined comrades were careful to avoid triggering alarms, diligently mastering the superfluous skills of takeoff and landing during their time at American flight schools. Moussaoui was a bust.

So, from al-Qaeda's point of view, the September 11th "martyrdom" mission was a roaring success, its 19 perpetrators to be eternally lionized in the terror network's video hall of fame. No such plaudits for Number 20. Indeed, for Moussaoui the portal to paradise that fills the fevered imagination of terrorists inspired by a twisted reading of Islam closed that day, leaving him stranded on this Earth.

And then things got worse. The U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and wiped out al-Qaeda's sanctuaries, capturing hundreds of its operatives in the process. Still, there was no company for Moussaoui in the U.S. criminal justice system. For his comrades captured in Afghanistan, there was no habeas corpus or court-appointed counsel. They were packed off to the U.S. military's own version of Devil's Island 90 miles off the coast of Florida and interrogated in circumstances unthinkable anywhere that U.S. Federal law applied. Yet there was Moussaoui showered with court-appointed attorneys, his own ranting second-guessed by American jurists concerned that he get the legal protections guaranteed by the constitution of a nation he loves to hate.

But when Moussaoui finally faced his accusers and took the blame, his most defiant statements were simply overruled by the judge. "I'm guilty," said the prisoner, now eager to prove his terrorist credentials. ''I am member of al-Qaeda. I pledge bayat (a loyalty oath) to Osama bin Laden.'' But Judge Leonie Brinkema overruled him, entering a not-guilty plea and telling him to go away and think about the consequences of his choice.

Strangely enough, Moussaoui had flip flopped: Two weeks ago he had professed his innocence in motions he filed in his own defense Moreover, judging from his words in court, the professed terrorist who'd chosen to defend himself suddenly appeared to be desperately seeking a plea bargain. Moussaoui may once have vowed to die for his cause and professed a loyalty oath to bin Laden, but on Thursday he declared his willingness to rat out bin Laden as a means of further postponing his journey into the next world.

"I want to enter a plea today of guilty, because this will ensure to save my life," he said as carrot dangling ensued. Concerning September 11, he told the court, "I know exactly who done it, I know which group, who participated, and I know when it was decided." To sweeten his offer of cooperation, he added: "I have many, many information to give to the America people about an existing conspiracy."

Brinkema called a halt, telling Moussaoui that her courtroom was not the place to strike a deal with the prosecution, and sent him away for a week's reflection.

Unless the prosecution takes the bait, Judge Brinkema may have to work hard in the coming weeks in navigating the challenging waters of a trial in which the defendant's competency to defend himself is in question, yet he insists on going it alone even as he plainly hopes to avoid the maximum sentence. But Thursday's courtroom episode appeared to confirm that the "martyrdom" chapter in the life of Zacarias Moussaoui has been closed — even if he's convicted and sentenced to death. Because "martyrdom" by definition involves choosing to die, and Moussaoui is suddenly desperate to live.