HAMBURG, Oct. 22 -- Members of the Hamburg cell that led the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks wanted to fight alongside separatist rebels in Chechnya, but were told while in Afghanistan for training they were not needed in the southern Russian republic, a man charged with helping the hijackers told a court here today.
The statement by Mounir Motassadeq, a 28-year-old Moroccan who has acknowledged knowing the hijackers, buttresses the argument that the Sept. 11 plot originated with the leadership of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
Mounir Motassadeq, foreground, at opening of trial in Hamburg, is first person to be tried for direct involvement in Sept. 11 attacks.
(SKETCH JULIANE GARSTKA VIA AP)
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The precise origins of the attacks have remained the source of speculation over the last year. Some Western officials have theorized that the leader of the hijacking group, Mohamed Atta, conceived the basic idea, but others have said it flowed from the top of al Qaeda. Motassadeq's testimony was consistent with the description of a chain of events in which the Hamburg group went to Afghanistan with one idea and returned with another.
In the opening day of his trial in a Hamburg state court, Motassadeq testified that he knew of Atta's ambition to fight in Chechnya and that the two men spoke together after Atta returned from Afghanistan in February 2000.
"Atta said to me, 'I was in Afghanistan and the people said to us that the Chechens do not need [fighters] anymore,' " Motassadeq testified.
Motassadeq has denied knowing anything of the Sept. 11 plot and said today that Atta, upon his return from Afghanistan, told him he wanted to leave Germany to obtain a doctorate in Malaysia.
"Atta was respected because of his behavior and not because of what he said," Motassadeq said. "He prayed regularly, and when he spoke, he was calm. He did not give off an aura of power."
The trial opened under heavy police guard in the city where the al Qaeda cell led by Atta operated undetected for 2 1/2 years before spearheading the attacks. Motassadeq is the first person anywhere to go on trial accused of direct involvement in the attacks; proceedings in a federal court in Virginia against an alleged al Qaeda operative, Zacarias Moussaoui, remain in the pretrial stages.
Motassadeq is facing more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder, as well as being charged with membership in a terrorist organization. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
The defendant "was aware of the objectives of the organization, aimed at the commissioning of terrorist attacks, and assisted in the planning and committing of those attacks by a great number of activities," the indictment states.
German prosecutors contend Motassadeq acted as the cell's banker. He forwarded money to hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi in the United States and paid rent, utility and school bills for him in Germany to hide his activities, according to the indictment.
Hartmut Jacobi, one of Motassadeq's attorneys, complained to the court that the prosecutors had portrayed the case as a "terror trial" and said his client's activities were entirely unwitting. "We will ask the court to acquit him," Jacobi said. "We hope that the court will preside over a fair trial."
The trial could test the extent of U.S. cooperation in a foreign prosecution. Motassadeq's attorneys said in an interview this week that they want the court to call as a witness Ramzi Binalshibh, an alleged Hamburg cell member who was arrested in Pakistan last month and is being held by U.S. authorities at a secret location.
The defense hopes that Binalshibh will support the contention that Motassadeq assisted the hijackers out of brotherly courtesy because they were fellow Muslims, but was unaware of their plans. If U.S. officials do not permit his testimony, the attorneys said they will ask the panel of five judges to abandon the trial.