GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Defiant, confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed went before a military judge on Thursday, refused his U.S. defense counsel, and said he would welcome a death sentence.
Mohammed, 43, became the first of a succession of five alleged co-conspirators in the 2001 terror attacks to reject the legitimacy of the first U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War II.
"In Allah I put my trust," the Pakistani intoned in Arabic from a Koran, then personally translated the verse into English for the benefit of the audience.
Judge Ralph Kohlmann, a Marine colonel, asked Mohammed whether he understood that the crimes for which he was accused are punishable by a death sentence.
"This is what I wish — to be martyred," Mohammed replied in the broken English he learned as an engineering student in his 20s in North Carolina.
The arraignment was the first time the alleged senior al Qaida leader had been seen in public since he was detained in Pakistan in 2003 and swept into secret CIA custody, where he was subjected to harsh interrogation.
Their Pentagon charge sheet alleges Mohammed and four others conspired with Osama bin Laden to orchestrate the U.S. airline hijackings that toppled the World Trade Center, shattered the Pentagon, and slammed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 2,973 men, women and children.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said all came willingly to the military commission. One of the five, Ramzi bin al Shibh, was shackled at the ankles — with his chains bolted to the courtroom floor.
By afternoon Bin al Shibh echoed Mohammed's martyrdom message — in Arabic, through a translator.
"I've been seeking martyrdom for five years. I tried for 9/11 to get a visa. And I could not obtain that visa," he said. "If this martyrdom happens today I will welcome it. God is great, God is great."
The 92-page charge sheet alleges that Bin al Shibh, 36, tried to get a U.S. visa to train at a Florida flight center for the attacks.
A Yemeni, he's also accused of videotaping "martyr's will" along with two of the 19 hijackers before they traveled to the United States in 2001, hijacked the American airliners and turned them into missiles.
Air Force Maj. Gail Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon commissions, said he had "mental issues." Bin al Shibh's military attorney, Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, said defense lawyers had learned only at 8 p.m. Wednesday that the Yemeni was on "psychotropic drugs."
In contrast to his disheveled appearance in photos taken at the time of his capture, Mohammed was tidily attired in pristine white tunic and turban — and had grown a massive, mostly white, bushy beard that reached his chest.
He wore dark-rimmed, prison-issue eyeglasses and had an uncanny resemblance to Ayman al Zawahari, the still at-large bin Laden deputy and founder of Egypt's radical Muslim Islamic Jihad movement.
Throughout it all, a U.S. security officer had his finger on a mute button for the microphones in use, in case any of the men uttered something that Kohlmann said "would be harmful to national security."
Reporters and other observers were allowed to view the proceedings through a window, but sound from the courtroom was closely monitored in case any of the defendants mentioned matters deemed too sensitive to be disseminated to the public — such as how they were treated while in CIA custody. A special security officer had control of a mute button that would cut off the audio feed at any time, and there was the surreal feel of seeing lips move, but the sound coming 20 seconds later.
Mohammed, who the CIA has acknowledged was subjected to a questioning technique known as waterboarding that is widely considered torture, made only brief mention of his treatment.
''I do not mention the torturing. I know this is a red line,'' Mohammed told the judge.
The first mention of ''torture'' came at 10 a.m. and the hearing had been underway for nearly an hour. Audio of it was permitted, apparently because Mohammed didn't offer any details.
At the time, Kohlmann was repeatedly questioning Mohammed on whether he understood the dangers of serving as his own attorney.
''You fully understand that, if you are ultimately convicted of the charges in this case, you could be sentenced to death?'' the judge asked Mohammed.
"I will not accept any attorney. I will represent myself," Mohammed said. "I will not accept anybody, even if he is Muslim, if he swears to the American Constitution."
Mohammed said he recognized Islamic shariya law and rejected the U.S. Constitution, in part because it allows for "same sexual marriage and many things are very bad."
The accused sat under the steady, sober stare of a specially trained U.S. guard force inside a windowless bunker-like courtroom with two or three guards within feet of each man's chair.
Teams of U.S. military and civilian attorneys also sat alongside each alleged terrorist, as Mohammed, Waleed bin Attash and bin al Shibh rejected their appointed counsel — and the legitimacy of the U.S. war court.
"You have killed my brother, who is younger than me, in this war," said bin Attash, 30. "This is my time to be in your hands."
It was unclear whether bin Attash was aware that his younger brother Hassan, 23, is also detained at Guantánamo — and had arrived here two years before him.
Several of the civilian defense attorneys assigned to the case by the American Civil Liberties Union sought a delay in Thursday's proceedings, arguing that the men did not fully understand the implications of firing their attorneys.
"Mr. bin al Shibh has a distrust of American military personnel. He believes that he is a warrior, and that he should be treated as a warrior and not a criminal," said Thomas Durkin of Chicago.
Mohammed's ACLU attorney, David Nevin, of Boise, Idaho, protested a ruling by the judge to the defendant represent himself. "Mr. Mohammed is not in a position to understand the impact, the reach of the decision he has made today," he said. "He is willing to die."
Bin al Shibh was the most animated, chatting with the other detainees.
His lawyers asked for a continuance of the hearing to give them enough time to examine Bin al Shibh's competency to defend himself. Kohlmann rejected the request.
"It is not true that I can't represent myself. Or I am weak or sick," Bin al Shibh said. "I am worthy to represent myself."
The judge gave attorneys an extended noon lunch break that included a 1 p.m. prayer time for the accused al Qaida conspirators.