Twenty years after the 9/11 hijackings, the U.S. government still hasn’t brought the five men accused of conspiring in the terrorist attacks to justice. And as pre-trial hearings begin this month at Guantanamo Bay, the case is running into roadblocks already, leaving family members of 9/11 victims once again waiting.
Much like the last decade, the case is running into issues with the current judge. The ongoing pre-trial hearings, which kicked off in earnest last week, have already been delayed by the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review ruling on a challenge to the judge selection process.
The hiccup comes as no surprise to the family members of the 9/11 victims—the entire case has been marred by setbacks and a lack of continuity since the men, including accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were brought to Guantanamo Bay years ago. The pre-trial hearings are only beginning this month, but the men accused in the case were arraigned in 2012. The hearings taking place now have been delayed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Already the case has had four judges. Last year the judge on the case, Col. W. Shane Cohen, announced he was retiring. The current judge, Air Force Col. Matthew McCall, began presiding over the case for the first time just last week.
The way the U.S. government has tried to hold these men accountable has been a disappointment to the families of 9/11 victims, says Terry Rockefeller, whose sister, Laura, was killed on 9/11 while working a two-day job in the World Trade Center.
“When the arraignment happened in May of 2012 they said, ‘Well it’ll be about a year before the trial starts,’ and then two years later they were saying, ‘Well it’ll be about two years.’ And right now I’m feeling like it’s nine-and-a-half years later, it’s probably going to be nine-and-a-half years [more],” Rockefeller told The Daily Beast. “It is an ever-receding horizon.”
The gaps and postponements have spanned multiple administrations. But now that the war in Afghanistan is over, and the 20th anniversary of the attacks are upon the nation, several family members of 9/11 victims at the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and hijacked flights are longing for some sort of resolution in the case.
“We’re on our fourth judge and he’s going to have to get up to speed on 9.5 years of material and a large number of cases,” Rockefeller said. “It’s time to really acknowledge that it’s a failed system that leaves us in a very, very difficult position.”
The way the U.S. government has run the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, criminal courts run by the military—riddled with missteps and shoddy planning from the outset—has left families without answers and without justice, said Kevin Powers, who used to serve as a legal adviser to the Department of Defense on Guantanamo Bay cases.
“It wasn’t set up—I don’t want to say wasn’t set up for success—it just seemed like there was no strategy in place,” Powers said. “For a case to go on [like this]… it’s 2021. It’s almost 10 years for the 9/11 case. And where are those cases now? Nothing has happened. That’s somewhat incredible to me.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, also said the time had come for this case to move to trial.
“We owe it to the victims, the loved ones of those killed on 9/11, and all the first responders who risked their lives that terrible day to hold the individuals behind the attacks responsible,” Khanna told The Daily Beast last week. “Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and we still do not have justice or even a trial date for the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The American people deserve to have full transparency and 9/11 survivors and families deserve justice now.”
Although pre-trial hearings are beginning now, trouble lies ahead. The chief prosecutor on the case has just announced his retirement, well before the case is expected to reach a close. And the chief defense counsel is also expected to retire soon.
With a new judge on the case just as pre-trial hearings are kicking off, Rockefeller said she has her doubts the new judge—however qualified or good-intentioned he is—will ever be able to catch up.
”It has nothing to do with his integrity or quality as a judge,” Rockefeller said. “I feel like he’s being asked to assume an impossible task. My sense from watching the [hearings this week] is he was just beginning to have an inkling of how much he’s taken on.”
Dianne Hudder, whose brother Billy was killed in the attacks on the Twin Towers, told The Daily Beast she never expected the case to drag on this long.
”For all of the families left behind it’s tremendously frustrating that we’re 20 years later and we’re still in pre-trial proceedings,” Hudder told The Daily Beast. ”People who lost loved ones in the towers and in the other planes—some of them have already died without knowing what’s going to happen. The prisoners are going to probably die where they are before anything happens... That’s going to leave a very big hole in people’s hearts.”
The five men who still have yet to be brought to trial for the hijackings—Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abd al-Aziz Ali, Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi—could face the death penalty.
Hudder said she doesn’t support the death penalty and isn’t interested in seeking revenge, but said she is longing for a legal resolution to the case. Hudder, who is a part of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, supports a plea deal agreement that may not involve capital punishment.
"I would be fine with a plea deal and knowing they were not going to return to their lives before,” Hudder said. “Because my brother can’t come back and finish his life.”
But for family members of the 9/11 victims, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks and the Guantanamo Bay hijackings case aren’t just about losing loved ones and seeking justice. According to Rockefeller, it’s about all of the carnage that has come from America’s ever-expanding war on terror and how sprawling the atrocities have become over the years.
“When I grieve for Laura—and I do—I also have to grieve for all the other victims of that day. I think equally of people in Afghanistan, in Iraq, Syria, Yemen whose lives have been in many ways thrown into far greater chaos than mine has been. I think that’s a very steep price to pay and it adds to my grief,” Rockefeller said. ”The expression ‘to be in the wrong place in the wrong time’—that’s not what matters. What matters is that we had choices on September 12 to not let her murder lead to more pain and devastation elsewhere, and it really is to honor her that I do the work I do.”
Powers said one of his worst fears is that people who were born after the hijackings might assume justice has already been served and that elderly people may have already forgotten about Guantanamo Bay.
”The ones who still remember are the victims’ family members. That’s the people from 9/11, USS Cole, little babies who lost their mom or dad or grandparent, aunt, uncle, brother, sister—they’re the ones who remember and… they’re not getting their day in court and they’ve been told they will,” Powers told The Daily Beast. “And it just hasn’t happened.”
Moving forward, no matter what happens with this judge and questions raised in pre-trial hearings on Friday about evidence obtained through CIA torture at black sites, Rockefeller says family members of the 9/11 victims still need answers about the attacks.
”We need proceedings more like a truth and reconciliation commission [in which] we begin to get some explanation of how the planning was carried out, how the crimes were executed, and the motivation of the people—and what they thought then and what they think now,” Rockefeller told The Daily Beast. “These are all very human questions.”
Family members of 9/11 victims have also sought to make public government assessments about whether Saudi Arabia helped the 9/11 hijackings. A U.S. commission found that the government did not aid the hijackers. And the Biden administration has, in recent days, moved towards unraveling that quagmire—Biden ordered a declassification review of records in question.
Families of the 9/11 hijacking victims are also currently suing Saudi Arabia in federal court in an effort to show ties between Riyadh and the hijackers. The Saudi government has denied a role in the attacks.