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Trial to Begin for Man Linked to Sept. 11 Hijackers

German prosecutors say the Moroccan was a key member of Mohamed Atta's Hamburg cell. But he denies involvement in terrorist acts.

October 22, 2002|Jeffrey Fleishman and Dirk Laabs | Special to The Times

HAMBURG, Germany — He worked in a pub and played soccer, but as he grew into his mid-20s Mounir Motassadeq drifted toward radical Islam and became a key player in the terrorist cell that sprang from obscurity and struck with devastating surprise on Sept. 11, 2001.

That is the composite prosecutors will begin sketching out today as Motassadeq enters a courtroom in Germany's first trial of a suspected terrorist linked to Mohamed Atta and other Sept. 11 hijackers. The 28-year-old Moroccan is charged with belonging to a terrorist organization and "aiding and abetting" the murder of more than 3,000 people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in the Pennsylvania countryside. Motassadeq admits that he was friends with Atta but denies involvement in terrorist acts.

According to prosecutors, Motassadeq arrived in Germany at 19, studied in the town of Muenster, traveled to Hamburg and pledged himself to jihad. He trained in Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and provided cover and finances to the hijackers, becoming, authorities say, a kind of business manager for Al Qaeda assassins.

"Motassadeq was involved so deeply with other persons of the cell that one simply has to conclude, 'If he wasn't part of it, then who is?' " German Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm said.

U.S. authorities are monitoring the case closely. After Sept. 11, Washington criticized German police and intelligence agencies for failing to detect militant Islamic activity in Hamburg. German investigators have spent the last year hunting suspected terrorists, and the government has passed tough laws on immigration, money laundering and militant organizations.

The case comes as Washington is asking Germany to hand over evidence against Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Moroccan awaiting trial in the U.S. in the terror plot. He faces the death penalty if convicted. German laws prevent sharing data that could lead to a suspect's execution. This has strained relations between the countries, but U.S. officials hope to glean important details about the Hamburg cell from Motassadeq's trial.

In court, Motassadeq will deliver a long statement countering all charges, said his lawyer, Hartmut Jacobi. Motassadeq is expected to address his relationship with members of the Hamburg cell and his trip to Central Asia and to deny allegations that he recruited terrorists, spoke about holy war or made anti-Semitic remarks.

The trial, with a list of 160 witnesses, is expected to conclude next year. If convicted, Motassadeq faces life in prison.

The challenge for prosecutors will be to convince the court that Motassadeq was in the inner circle of Atta's cell and helped plan the attacks. Much of the evidence suggests he knew some hijackers and assisted them by finding apartments, paying bills and transferring money. But he apparently was not selected to be one of the 19 hijackers, and many of those who could testify about his involvement -- such as Atta -- are dead.

"We can't tie him anywhere near the actual attack," Nehm said.

Another of Motassadeq's lawyers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it is "very, very, very daring for the attorney general to indict him for helping to murder at least 3,116 people ... because of gas bills my client paid."

The lawyer said the government's case is based on circumstantial evidence, adding, "I get the impression they need to put somebody in prison to prove they were successful with something."

Prosecutors say Motassadeq's turn toward extremism began after he came to Germany in 1993 from Marrakech. He moved to Muenster, a university city of 280,000 in the west of the country. He enrolled in classes to improve his German. He worked in a pub and played for the FC Gievenbeck soccer team. In keeping with the tenets of his Muslim upbringing, Motassadeq was modest and showered after practice wearing bathing shorts. He prayed five times a day.

In 1995, Motassadeq moved to Hamburg, where he studied engineering at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg. There, he met Atta, an Egyptian urban planning student. They prayed together in local mosques, and when Atta left for summer vacations in Cairo, Motassadeq moved into Atta's room in a student apartment.

The two became close and, according to prosecutors, Atta, Motassadeq and Atta's roommate, Ramzi Binalshibh -- who was arrested in Pakistan in September and is now in U.S. custody -- formed the core of the Sept. 11 cell.

In a TV interview last November, Motassadeq, who signed Atta's will in 1996, said he and Atta "were normal friends. That means we are Muslims. We help each other out. We meet in mosques. We discuss things. Totally normal."

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