Testimony complicates 9/11 case

Caught al-Qaida leaders say man on trial wasn't in on the hijacking plot

The World

August 12, 2004|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Dirk Laabs | Jeffrey Fleishman and Dirk Laabs,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HAMBURG, Germany - A Moroccan man facing a retrial here on charges of aiding the Sept. 11 hijackers knew nothing of the plot, according to interrogations by U.S. officials of two key suspected al-Qaida operatives.

Summaries of the interrogations were disclosed in court yesterday after Germany's two-year ordeal to convince Washington to share intelligence. The new information heightened the drama around the fate of Mounir Motassadeq, a 30-year-old electrical engineering student and the only man convicted in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The summaries - the United States refused to provide detailed transcripts, or to allow the suspects to appear in court - offer a narrow glimpse into events leading to the attacks. Statements by Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the plot, suggest that Motassadeq was not informed of the plan and was not in the tight circle extremists that became known as the Hamburg cell.

Those characterizations appeared to be a setback for prosecutors. But a letter sent by fax to the court by the U.S. Justice Department noted there were concerns about the reliability of Binalshibh and Mohammed.

"Because of inconsistencies by at least one of the individuals there may be reason to question the assertions regarding Mounir Motassadeq," the letter read, adding that the suspects may be "employing counter-interrogation techniques."

Federal investigators previously have said that Binalshibh, in particular, has not been an entirely reliable source of information. In its final report published last month, the 9/11 commission said evaluating the credibility of interrogations was "challenging."

In the new summaries, at least some information attributed to Binalshibh is contradicted by other information. For example, Binalshibh is quoted in the summaries as saying Motassadeq had no involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. But he is also quoted as saying two key al-Qaida operatives, a Yemeni named Tawfiq bin Attash, and an Indonesian known as Hambali, had no involvement in the attacks. There is substantial other information, some of it detailed in the Sept. 11 commission's reports, implicating those two men in critical roles in planning the attacks.

The Motassadeq case has unfolded amid the larger world of diplomacy and intelligence gathering that has strained relations between the United States and Germany. Until this week, Washington has refused to grant the Hamburg court access to its interrogations, saying such disclosures could hinder other investigations. The German judicial system has blamed the United States for jeopardizing two high-profile militant trials.

Prosecutors here have been under pressure from politicians and the media since Motassadeq's arrest in 2001. He was convicted last year and sentenced to 15 years in prison. But he won a retrial after a second alleged Moroccan accomplice, Abdelghani Mzoudi, was acquitted of similar charges. The judge in Mzoudi's case said the defendant couldn't receive a fair trial without testimony from suspects in U.S. custody.

An echo from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq is also reverberating through the case.

Motassadeq's lawyers asked the court to dismiss the charges, arguing that statements made by Binalshibh and Mohammed should be discarded because they may have been forced through torture by U.S. interrogators.

Binalshibh, according to eight pages of summaries, said he met Motassadeq in Hamburg in 1995 or 1996 at meetings for Arab university students who "engaged in vitriolic anti-U.S. discussions." Binalshibh said, however, that the Hamburg group was limited to himself and three of the hijackers: Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah. He said he and the hijackers "never discussed actual operations and they never formed a terrorist cell to commit jihad."

The summary continues that Binalshibh stated that Motassadeq "was not privy to the activities ... regarding the 11 September operation." Motassadeq acknowledged friendships with Atta and other members of the cell. He signed Atta's will and trained in an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. He testified the he had no knowledge of the group's plot. Prosecutors argue that Motassadeq provided logistical and financial support for the cell, including arranging for apartments and making at least one money transfer.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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