Guilty of terrorism

The accused looked stunned as the verdict was read out. Staring blankly at the judge, Mounir al-Motassadeq appeared unable to believe what he was hearing: that he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his direct involvement in the worst terrorist act in history.

Yet Albrecht Mentz, the presiding judge, was absolutely sure. Mr Motassadeq, he said, "knew the scale of what was being planned and, worse, he wanted it to happen".

Those words will reverberate far beyond Hamburg courtroom number 237 where Mr Motassadeq, a 28-year-old Moroccan, stood trial. The verdict, a landmark in the international campaign against al-Qaeda, represents the first major legal breakthrough since the attacks in New York and Washington 18 months ago.

The panel of five judges convicted Mr Motassadeq of being an accessory to murder on 3,066 counts - the number of people known to have died on September 11 2001. Significantly, he was also found guilty of membership of a terrorist organisation, despite al-Qaeda having no formal membership structure.

Flawed prosecutionThe Hamburg trial was plagued by problems, mostly because key defence witnesses were prevented from giving evidence. Read

In a 100-minute ruling, Mr Mentz argued that while Mr Motassadeq was not one of the main agents in the terrorists' "absolutely unimaginable act", the scale of the assaults in the US meant that "a lower sentence is simply not an option". Mr Motassadeq's involvement, the judge said, included the transfer of money to pay for the flight training in the US of Mohammed Atta and the other hijackers. "He was involved in the planning [of the attacks] from the beginning, and had the role of covering the backs of those directly involved while they were away from Hamburg."

Mr Motassadeq, a former electrical engineering student, had admitted he knew several members of the Hamburg cell but denied knowledge of, or involvement in, the planning of the attacks. His lawyers on Wednesday signalled that they would appeal.

Yet despite the legal clarity of the verdict - and a sentence harsher than many legal observers had expected - questions remain. From the outset, Kay Nehm, Germany's chief prosecutor, conceded that Mr Motassadeq was not a top globetrotting al-Qaeda operative with dozens of aliases. Rather, he was a "small wheel" in the cogs of the Hamburg cell.

What emerges from four months of court testimony is a story of an intelligent and devout Muslim who, far from home, sought solace and support from friends who understood his background - but drew him into a world of radical Islam and terror.

Like millions of young Muslims living across the continent, Mr Motassadeq came to Europe seeking a better life. Born in 1974 in Marrakech, the son of an affluent doctor and property owner, he completed his baccalaureate - the Moroccan secondary-school degree - with distinction before deciding to continue his studies in Germany. "I wanted to study [electrical] engineering, in order to use this knowledge back home in Morocco, to do something good for children, women, villages in Morocco," he told the court. "Some towns there don't even have electricity for washing machines."

In 1993, Mr Motassadeq moved to Münster, a university town, where he studied German, worked in a guesthouse and played in the local soccer club, FC Gievenbeck.

By 1995, he was fluent enough to be accepted to Technical University Hamburg-Harburg's electrical- engineering programme. Shortly after his arrival in Hamburg in September, Mr Motassadeq moved into apartment 3.4.2B at Schuetzstrasse 3. His room was one of four in the student-housing complex, with a shared kitchen and common living area. It was his home until late 1999.

During this time, witnesses told the court, Mr Motassadeq surrounded himself with a small group of Muslim friends, among them three of the September 11 suicide pilots: Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian, who flew the aircraft that hit the north tower of the World Trade Center; Marwan al-Shehhi, from the United Arab Emirates, who piloted the second aircraft to hit the WTC; and Ziad Jarrah, from Lebanon, who flew the aircraft that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Like many devout Muslims but unlike some of his western room-mates, Mr Motassadeq drank no beer and did not go to bars. But over time, witnesses said, a stricter Islamic attitude became noticeable in his everyday actions and comments.

Holger Liszkovski, now 29 and an engineer in Böblingen, lived in Room 3.4.2C, next door to Mr Motassadeq. Based on conversations he either overheard or participated in, Mr Liszkovski said religion and politics were "a main theme" of discussion for Mr Motassadeq and his group. In one incident, sometime in 1999, Mr Motassadeq told another room-mate that "they want to do something again and it will be really big" and that "the Jews will die and we will all dance on their graves". Mr Liszkovski also testified that, on a later occasion, Mr Motassadeq described a man in a group gathered in the student housing's kitchen as "our pilot".

The judge said on Wednesday this evidence was "very believable" and crucial to the guilty verdict.

The first meeting with Mohammed Atta was sometime in 1995 or 1996, while both were at TUHH. Both men regularly attended al-Quds, a mosque on Steindamm, near the main train station in Hamburg's city centre. Witnesses testified that the two were close, often praying together at university and in the al Quds mosque, and frequently taking meals together.

In 1998, Mr Motassadeq helped Mr Atta set up an Islamic prayer room at the university so they could pray close to where they studied. Other members of the close-knit group also prayed at al-Quds and came to Mr Motassadeq's Schuetzstrasse apartment for meals.

Over time, other witnesses also noticed changes in behaviour. The group "became more religious, stricter, over time", said Yazir Mukla, a 28-year-old Moroccan student who knew the group from about 1997 to late 1999. Mr Mukla, an old and close friend of Zakariya Essabar - an alleged Hamburg cell member wanted under an international arrest warrant since September 2001 - told the court that the group of friends would meet at al-Quds once or twice a day, pray and discuss religion and politics.

Mr Mukla left Hamburg in 1999, after his father, who visited him briefly from Morocco, convinced him that the atmosphere at al-Quds was too radical. "My father forbade me from returning to al-Quds," Mr Mukla said.

Mr Motassadeq, however, gave a different account of events. He denied ever talking of "dancing on the graves" of Jews or of "our pilot". He also denied his "loose group of friends" were ever extremist, or had changed over the years. On the trial's penultimate day, under tough questioning from the judge, he admitted that "someone or other [among his friends] may have voiced the opinion that force was justified" - for instance, in solving the Palestinian problem. But he was never "anti-Jewish, nor anti-US either".

Earlier in the trial he said that, while there was resentment against the US, "the only real idea there was to act on this was to boycott American food".

Mr Motassadeq's view of himself was supported by Ahmed Maglad, a 28-year-old Sudanese student who, according to many witnesses, knew the defendant best. Mr Motassadeq, he said, had helped him when he arrived in Hamburg, explaining things difficult for a foreigner to understand. He had no doubt that "Mounir is a good man, a friendly man, and always willing to help out".

He painted a picture of Mr Atta as the clear leader of the group - and Mr Motassadeq as a quiet listener. "El Amir [as Atta was known among friends] was the strictest in the group . . . Mounir enjoyed joking around sometimes, like I did. Atta did not like jokes, and scolded me for not being serious enough."

Like Mr Mukla, Mr Maglad left Hamburg in 1999 because the group was distracting him from his studies.

On Wednesday, the judge suggested some witnesses had gone out of their way to protect their friend. Certainly, the trial was characterised by differing interpretations of the same events. This was most apparent in Mr Motassadeq's explanation of why, in 2000, he spent three weeks in a military training camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan. Under police questioning immediately after September 11, he denied attending such a camp - a story he corrected on the first day of the trial.

Mr Motassadeq said he went to Afghanistan "for religious reasons", namely that the Koran says Muslim men should learn to shoot. He did so with Kalashnikov rifles, in a rigorous camp routine that included early morning prayers and sport. But his time there did not include seeing or hearing Osama bin Laden, Mr Motassadeq insisted. Only after he arrived did he learn that Mr bin Laden ran the camps. "I didn't know that before, and I didn't meet him."

Another witness, Shadi Abdalla, a Jordanian awaiting trial in Germany on suspicion of terrorism, told a different story. He was in the camp with Mr Motassadeq and saw him listening to Mr bin Laden speak. "All the people [in the camp] knew bin Laden said there was going to be something done against America," he told the court.

As on other evidence, Judge Mentz had no doubt where the truth lay. The Moroccan's "religious motivation for going to Afghanistan was not believable". The true purpose was terror - to plan for the suicide pilots' training in the US.


Flawed prosecution, a landmark verdict nonetheless

The verdict against Mounir al-Motassadeq marks a turning point in efforts to crack down on al-Qaeda, terrorism experts said on Wednesday.

"It is all very well arresting hundreds of people across Europe with alleged links to al-Qaeda," said Magnus Ranstorp, acting director of the terrorism studies department at St Andrews University, referring to over 300 such detentions since September 11. "It's crucial also to come to full-scale trials, that reach a conclusion, possibly with convictions."

The Hamburg trial - the first directly linked to the 2001 attacks - has been watched closely by law enforcement officials worldwide for new evidence on how the terror attacks were planned and al-Qaeda's international operations. They also sought answers to difficult legal questions to do with pursuing terrorism charges and about handling the different priorities of legal systems and security and intelligence services.

"This case will send a signal, and can now be used in France, Britain, the US and elsewhere, as a precedent, when it comes to showing that people can be members of al-Qaeda - which until now has been seen as a loose, religiously and ideologically-based network," said Kai Hirschmann, a terrorism expert at Germany's College for Security Studies in Bonn.

But the Hamburg trial was also plagued by problems, mostly because key defence witnesses were prevented from giving evidence. It remains unclear exactly how, and to what extent, Mr Motassadeq was directly involved in planning and carrying out the attacks. Such an involvement is required under German law for a prosecution as accessory to murder. Bernd-Rüdiger Sonnen, Hamburg University criminology professor and a practising lawyer, said: "I was surprised by the verdict, because there appeared to be holes in the evidence, that, to my mind, would have prevented the judges from finding him guilty on the charge of accessory to murder."

Albrecht Mentz, the presiding judge, argued witnesses' evidence showed that the Hamburg cell started planning the attacks in early 1999. He said that since it was clear Mr Motassadeq was a full member of this "isolated conspiratorial group" for the subsequent two years, this was sufficient basis for concluding that he was directly involved in the attacks. The defence said it was "completely unconvinced" by this argument.

Prosecutors argued that Mr Motassadeq's power of attorney over the bank account of Marwan al-Shehhi, who flew the second plane into the World Trade Center, showed that he was the "co-ordinator" of the Hamburg cell's operations. His transfer of DM5,000 from this account to that of another cell member in 2000, allegedly to p ay for flight lessons in the US, showed he knew in advance of the terrorists' plans. His signature on the will of Mohammed Atta, the Hamburg cell chief - dating back as {b }far as 1996 - showed he had been immersed in extremist Islam for years.

The defence countered that none of these facts made Mr Motassadeq a terrorist. Hartmut Jacobi, one of Mr Motassadeq's lawyers, argued in his closing comments last week that the evidence was like a mosaic where "the pieces can be placed wherever you like. It's not like a puzzle with one solution. No one has a clear picture of who did what and when."

During the trial, the defence tried repeatedly to call as witnesses two close Hamburg friends of Mr Motassadeq, who it said would confirm that the accused knew nothing of the September 11 plans. Both men, Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohammed Haydar Zammar, have been arrested since September 11 - Binalshibh by the US and Zammar by Morocco - on suspicion of being plotters behind the attacks on New York and Washington.

Despite the international attention the Motassadeq case received, legal requests to call the two men as witnesses were denied. The US Department of Justice re fused to explain why Mr Binalshibh, a Yemeni now seen as a ringleader of the Hamburg cell, could not appear in court. Syria, which took custody of Mr Zammar after his arrest, officially denies any knowledge of him. Mr Zammar is a German of Syrian origin. Even the German government refused to submit statements by the two men that it admitted receiving from US investigators who have questioned them. Passing on such evidence would "jeopardise national security" and break an agreement with US intelligence services, chancellor Gerhard Schröder's office said.

Defence lawyers on Wednesday complained that this and other aspects of the trial showed that it had been held in a "political atmosphere" unhelpful to their client. They used the Binalshibh issue to petition, unsuccessfully, for Mr Motassadeq's case to be dropped. Mr Mentz said on Wednesday this petition had no legal basis. But he said that when Mr Binalshibh comes to trial, either in the US or Germany, comments related to Mr Motassadeq could be grounds for a re-opening of the latter's case.

Mr Ranstorp concluded it was important the trial had successfully reached a verdict. "Trials in the UK, Holland and elsewhere have collapsed due to such problems with intelligence information. Therefore this trial represents progress."

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.