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Sept. 11 Suspect Is Said to Be Central to Terrorist Cell

Ramzi Binalshibh was secretive but always in the know about the German group's activities, states an alleged member on trial.

October 24, 2002|Terry McDermott and Dirk Laabs Special to The Times | Special to The Times

HAMBURG, Germany -- Ramzi Binalshibh, a young, apparently rootless drifter from Yemen, was described in court testimony Wednesday as a man who seemed to be in the middle of everything the members of Hamburg's Sept. 11 terrorist cell did.

Binalshibh, who was captured last month in Pakistan and is in U.S. custody, has emerged in recent months as a central figure in the Hamburg cell that produced three of the suicide pilots for the Sept.11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Binalshibh described himself in an interview before his capture as a coordinator of the attacks. U.S. intelligence officials have said that description seems to conform to information they have been gathering about him, and it was reinforced in testimony here Wednesday by Mounir Motassadeq.

Motassadeq, a 28-year-old Moroccan electrical engineer, is on trial accused of aiding and abetting the murder of more than 3,000 people. He is the first person accused of direct involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks to go on trial anywhere. In the trial's second day, he continued to disclaim any prior knowledge of the September attacks but provided fresh insight into men accused of carrying them out. "Binalshibh was somebody who never had a fixed abode," Motassadeq said. "You never knew where he was or what he did."

Binalshibh was secretive about his own activities, but he always knew what the other men in the small group of Hamburg Islamists were doing, when they traveled and where they went, and what they needed to have done, Motassadeq said.

For example, Binalshibh once asked Motassadeq to call the girlfriend of Ziad Jarrah, one of the hijackers, and tell her Jarrah had gone to Chechnya. Jarrah was actually en route to Afghanistan, Binalshibh told Motassadeq.

Prosecutors allege that Motassadeq was part of the Hamburg cell, providing logistical and financial assistance. One of the primary pieces of evidence is a wire transfer of money Motassadeq helped arrange from Hamburg to the United States when the suicide pilots were in flight school.

One of the pilots, Marwan Al-Shehhi, had granted Motassadeq power of attorney over his bank accounts when he was preparing to leave Hamburg.

"One day, I was called up," Motassadeq testified. "A voice said in Arabic: 'Turn to fax! Fax! Fax!' " He then received a handwritten fax from Binalshibh. The fax said: "Dear brother Mounir, please transfer the sum of 5,000 marks from Al-Shehhi's account to the following bank account .... Marwan needs money."

Motassadeq said he thought the fax came from Yemen and that he recognized Binalshibh's handwriting. He said he thought that Al-Shehhi was in Afghanistan at the time. "I just did it for Marwan, that's all," he said.

Motassadeq's lawyers said it was actually Binalshibh who sent the money to Al-Shehhi in Florida. The defendant said he thought he first met Binalshibh in late 1996 or 1997, when Binalshibh was enrolled at college in Wismar, a German town on the Baltic Sea. Motassadeq said he never saw Binalshibh study and that he didn't stay long at the school.

Motassadeq said he probably met Binalshibh through Mohammed bin Naser Belfas, a man much respected by young fundamentalists in the Hamburg Muslim community. Binalshibh lived with Belfas often, Motassadeq said.

Prosecutors allege that Motassadeq's actions were not innocent. They said Motassadeq used his power of attorney over Al-Shehhi's accounts to provide cover for the hijacker, to make it seem as though Al-Shehhi was still in Hamburg when he was instead in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. He paid bills in Al-Shehhi's name, and canceled a mobile-phone contract and an apartment lease by signing Al-Shehhi's name to a letter.

"This looks like you wanted to show the man is still in the country," said the judge, Albrecht Mentz. Motassadeq said he was simply doing a friend a favor.

The defendant added that he didn't know where Binalshibh, who left Germany for Pakistan in early September 2001, went. He never heard from him again. He said he thought Binalshibh would have gone to Afghanistan, just as he thought Al-Shehhi had.


Times staff writer McDermott reported from New York, and correspondent Laabs from Hamburg.

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