HAMBURG, March 8 -- An attorney for the Sept. 11 commission testified Tuesday that the conspiracy to fly hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was conceived and planned outside Germany, complicating prosecutors' efforts to convict a Moroccan man for aiding the Hamburg cell that carried out the attacks.
Dietrich Snell, who headed the commission's team that investigated the origins and role of the Hamburg cell, told a panel of five German judges hearing the case that the ringleader, Mohamed Atta, and the other Sept. 11 hijackers did not develop the idea for the plot on their own. Rather, Snell testified, they were recruited by al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden during a visit to militant training camps in Afghanistan.
"This is a subject that we spent considerable time investigating," Snell said. "Ultimately, we did not arrive at the conclusion that there was solid evidence of any contact" between Hamburg cell members and al Qaeda leaders about the plot before the Hamburg group's trip to Afghanistan.
The commission's findings contradict the heart of Germany's case against the Moroccan defendant, Mounir Motassadeq, who is accused of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization.
Prosecutors must prove that important elements of the conspiracy took place in Germany. Before Sept. 11, 2001, it was legal in Germany to belong to a foreign terrorist organization such as al Qaeda as long as it was not active in the country.
Motassadeq, a college student in Hamburg before the attacks, was a close friend of Atta's and others involved in the operation. Prosecutors say he traveled with them to Afghanistan, gave them financial assistance and helped cover for their absence when they left for the United States to prepare for the hijackings. But prosecutors have been unable to produce direct evidence that Motassadeq knew about the plot, another crucial point necessary for a conviction.
German authorities and the judges had pressed the Sept. 11 commission since last summer to send an emissary to Hamburg to testify about the commission's landmark report released last summer. But after the first of Snell's two days of scheduled testimony, it was the defense that seemed most pleased with what he had to say.
"Today's statements have been very good for us," said Udo Jacob, an attorney for Motassadeq. "Everything so far has been nice."
Motassadeq, 31, was convicted on the charges in 2003 and sentenced to 15 years in prison, the maximum under German law. But an appeals court overturned the verdict, ruling that the evidence did not justify the result.
The appeals court also said Motassadeq deserved access to statements made by al Qaeda leaders in U.S. custody, reasoning that they could be used to help his defense.
In response, the U.S. Justice Department provided the German court with summaries of interrogations of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, two al Qaeda figures deeply involved in the hijacking plot. The statements were made public in August at the start of Motassadeq's retrial and largely supported the defendant's alibi -- that he was unaware of the plot and had been intentionally kept in the dark.
The judicial panel hearing the case has expressed frustration with what it considers a lack of cooperation from the United States. Requests to interview Binalshibh and Mohammed have been denied, as have petitions for more detailed investigative reports from the FBI and CIA.
On Tuesday, Ernst-Rainer Schudt, the presiding judge, repeatedly prodded Snell to provide background information about the commission's sources and findings. Snell declined for the most part, replying that such information was classified and that he was largely restricted to testifying about details in the commission's published report.