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Witnesses in Terror Trial Threatened, Germany Says

One has retracted his statement to police. Al Qaeda backers in Hamburg are suspected.

January 30, 2003|Dirk Laabs | Special to The Times

HAMBURG, Germany — The prosecution of a man accused of providing logistical support to the Sept. 11 hijackers has been hindered by the strong backing that still exists for Al Qaeda in Germany, according to records of the investigation.

The trial of Mounir Motassadeq is coming to a close this week, and prosecutors are seeking the maximum 15-year sentence in part as an attempt to persuade him and others to cooperate more fully with the investigation, German security sources said.

Meanwhile, suspected Al Qaeda supporters in Hamburg have threatened witnesses and offered to pay legal expenses of people facing criminal prosecutions, according to the records

Motassadeq has admitted knowing the three hijackers from a Hamburg cell -- Mohamed Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah -- and attending an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, but he has steadfastly denied any knowledge of the hijack plot, and prosecutors have been unable to link him directly to it.

Motassadeq and witnesses at the trial have said the hijackers belonged to a group of several dozen people of similar beliefs. As many as a dozen members of the group fled Germany around the time of the attacks, but investigative documents make clear that not everyone left. Criminal investigations of at least eight other suspects continue in Germany.

Interior Minister Otto Schily said last week that the Al Qaeda network is capable of launching another terrorist attack at any time. The possibility, he said, "is at least as severe as before Sept. 11."

The CIA told the German government late last year that it suspected that an Al Qaeda cell was still present in Hamburg. Whether it is a cell or simply sympathizers, German investigators say they have evidence of attempts to silence witnesses in the Motassadeq trial.

One witness retracted his statement to police when he was told that he might be called to testify publicly. In his statement, Ibrahim Dihab said two Arab men threatened to harm him if he cooperated with authorities. Dihab also said he saw Ramzi Binalshibh, a suspected coordinator of the Sept. 11 plot, in a camp in Afghanistan celebrating the attacks. He said his own trip to the camps was paid for by Mohammed Haydar Zammar, suspected of being a main recruiter of the Hamburg group. Zammar warned him in August 2001 to go to the camps as soon as possible because something big was about to happen, Dihab said.

Zammar is now in custody in Syria. In the trial Wednesday, defense attorneys requested copies of interrogations of Zammar conducted by the Syrians.

Another witness, Shahid Nickels, a 21-year-old student who lived with Binalshibh for a while, told investigators that he was urged after Sept. 11 by a Moroccan student named Mohammed Raji to destroy any telephone numbers or other contact information he might have for members of the Hamburg group. He said he told Raji that he had no such information.

Raji, who is now in Morocco, was under investigation by the German domestic intelligence service before the attacks. He was a member of Takfir wal Hijra, a radical Islamic group whose ideology mirrors Al Qaeda's, and had extensive contacts with other radicals in southern Germany, authorities said.

More than 8,400 telephone calls to 1,400 different numbers were made in three years from the Hamburg apartment Binalshibh, Atta and others shared, compounding investigators' problems in discerning coincidence from criminal activity.

For example, police confiscated a notebook from one Hamburg suspect, Mohammed bin Nasser Belfas, that had phone numbers from all over Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. Most of the numbers had no names next to them. Belfas said most of the numbers were for people he contacted trying to find a videotape of a documentary on the prophet Muhammad.

Telephone records indicate that hijacker Jarrah contacted Abbas Tahir, a Sudanese man, several times during the years leading up to the attacks. Tahir, who has since moved from Hamburg to Munich, was described by a witness as "a close friend of Atta." Shortly before the hijackings, records show, Atta sent a cellular telephone text message in which he told the recipient to "send my love to Abbas and Mounir." When Tahir was called to testify, he said he barely knew Jarrah and Atta.

Since Motassadeq was arrested in November 2001, police have taped telephone conversations of people -- who never identify themselves -- telling Motassadeq's wife that they would give her money if she needed it, implying that Motassadeq will be assisted as long as he remains quiet.

Several of the Hamburg men had clear links to Al Qaeda's leadership, according to investigators. Osama bin Laden personally invited Zammar to Afghanistan, and Binalshibh was in close contact with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

One dilemma for German authorities is that Binalshibh, the man with probably the most knowledge about the Hamburg group, is in U.S. custody and has cooperated somewhat in interrogations, but his statements can't be used in German court or to lead to new arrests in Germany because the U.S. maintains that the information is classified.

The Germans in many respects are in the same position now as before Sept. 11. They continue to monitor suspects but have great difficulty amassing evidence to arrest them.

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