Court Told Sept. 11 Plotters Aimed to Fight Russia
by Philip Blenkinsop
October 29, 2002
HAMBURG, Germany - A Moroccan charged with supporting the Sept. 11 suicide hijackers told a German court Tuesday that some alleged plotters wanted to fight against Russians in Chechnya.
Mounir El Motassadeq, the first suspected attack conspirator to stand trial, said that the men headed to Afghanistan to train before combating what they regarded as Russian crimes in the breakaway province.
The four were Mohammed Atta, Marwan Al Shehi and Ziad Jarrah, whom U.S. authorities believed piloted three of the hijacked planes on Sept. 11, as well as Ramzi Bin Al Shaibah, an alleged accomplice arrested in Pakistan last month.
"Atta, Al Shehi, Bin Al Shaibah and Jarrah wanted to go to Chechnya because of the massacre that the Russians were carrying out," Motassadeq told the court, divided into two by a bullet-proof glass screen.
His comments appear to back up allegations by Russian authorities of a possible link between Chechen rebels and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda guerrillas. Motassadeq said the men left Germany shortly after Russia ordered troops back into the republic in October 1999.
Chechen guerrillas took more than 700 people hostage in a Moscow theater last week. Russian special forces used a mystery gas -- possibly opium-based -- to end the siege early Saturday morning. The gas was responsible for 115 hostage deaths.
Russian officials talked of seeing Afghan and Arab faces among the hostage takers.
Motassadeq, a 28-year-old electrical engineering student, is charged with being an accessory to 3,045 murders in New York and Washington and with belonging to the Islamist cell in Hamburg accused of leading the attacks.
Prosecutors say that the four men went to Afghanistan in November 1999 to prepare the Sept. 11 attacks. A second group, including Motassadeq, followed six months later.
The accused acknowledged on the opening day of the trial a week ago that he had attended an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in 2000 to learn to fire Kalashnikov rifles.
But said that was to fulfil a demand of Islam to be trained in the use of weapons and not for any specific attack.
At the end of his testimony Tuesday, Motassadeq also said that a Muslim student group he joined in Hamburg did little more than pray and meet for dinner. German authorities believe the group, Islam AG, was a front for the Hamburg al Qaeda cell, run by Atta, who U.S. authorities believe flew the first plane which smashed into the World Trade Center.
"Much has been said that isn't true... We just had a small prayer room," said Motassadeq, a slight figure dressed in a brown shirt and beige trousers.
The accused also told the court he knew little about a bank account which prosecutors say he ran to bankroll some of the hijackers when they were in the United States.
Motassadeq described last week the power of attorney he had for Al Shehi, who U.S. officials believe crashed the second plane into the World Trade Center. Prosecutors say Motassadeq sent money from Al Shehi's bank account to the hijackers to cover U.S. resident permit applications and flight training.
Defense lawyers say Motassadeq did little more than help a fellow Muslim by covering gas bills and rent in his absence.
Prosecutors say Motassadeq was well aware of the attackers' plans and served as a back-up and paymaster in Hamburg. Chief Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm described him as "a cog without which the whole business would not have functioned."
Tuesday's court business concluded with Motassadeq asked to recognize a number of people in photographs. Many of the names were those of plotters prosecutors say the accused helped. Motassadeq acknowledges he knew many of the key figures, but only as friends from the mosque or fellow students.
The trial is the first anywhere of a suspected Sept. 11 conspirator. The only other person to have been charged is Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national whose trial is expected to start in the United States in June.
The trial is expected to last several months and shed light on the network blamed for the suicide hijackings as well as Germany's role in unwittingly harboring key perpetrators.
Motassadeq could receive a life sentence if found guilty by the five-judge panel at Hamburg's Higher Regional Court.
The trial continues Wednesday.
Copyright © Reuters 2002
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