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Suspect denies knowing of 9/11 plot
( 2002-10-23 17:02 ) (7 )

A Moroccan student charged with aiding the Hamburg terrorist cell involved in the Sept. 11 attacks admitted Tuesday he trained in an Osama bin Laden camp in Afghanistan but denied knowing about the plot against the United States.

Mounir el Motassadeq, 28, is the first person to go on trial in connection with the suicide hijackings that killed thousands in New York, at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.

El Motassadeq testified that he learned to fire a Kalashnikov assault rifle at the camp during three weeks of training in mid-2000 but was unaware it was run by bin Laden's al-Qaida organization until he got there.

"I learned that bin Laden was responsible for the camp and had been at the camp sometimes," he said. But, he added, "I didn't know that beforehand and I didn't meet him either."

El Motassadeq, in custody since his arrest in Hamburg two months after the attacks, faces a possible life sentence if convicted of membership in a terrorist organization and more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder.

His attorneys told the court he is innocent and denies prosecutors' charges that he provided logistical support to the Hamburg cell, which included hijacker Mohamed Atta and two of the other pilots.

El Motassadeq said he met Atta at school in 1996 and that the two were friends, often eating together and discussing religion and politics. But, he said, Atta never told him about the Sept. 11 plot.

"I never expected Atta to do anything like this," el Motassadeq said. "I still can't believe he did it."

Security for the trial was tight, with the road blocked in front of the Hamburg superior court. Visitors had to pass through three security checkpoints before being escorted by police into the courtroom.

El Motassadeq told the court he thought it was his religious duty to learn how to handle weapons. He said Atta recommended going to the camp after Atta returned to Hamburg from training in Afghanistan in May, 2000. El Motassadeq said he last saw Atta at that time.

"In Islam it is wished that one learns to shoot," el Motassadeq said, adding that he did not take explosives training in the camp, although it was offered.

El Motassadeq's admission contradicts his initial statement to police that he had never been to Afghanistan.

When el Motassadeq was charged, Germany's chief federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, said the hijackers knew by October 1999 they would attack the United States with airplanes, but the idea likely originated elsewhere in the al-Qaida network.

In court, his attorneys argued the trip "proves nothing," saying that thousands went to such camps without necessarily becoming terrorists.

El Motassadeq, wearing a gray button-down shirt the sleeves rolled up above his wrists, and black pants, appeared nervous as he began his voluntary testimony, frequently stroking his beard or fidgeting with his hands.

He relaxed during an exchange with presiding judge Albrecht Mentz about his background and studies. But el Motassadeq was less forthcoming as Mentz asked again about the trip to Afghanistan.

Asked by the judge to reconcile an earlier statement that he did not believe in violence with his paramilitary training, el Motassadeq said the two were not contradictory.

"It was only training, you can do something else with it," he said. "Just because you study math doesn't mean you're going to become a mathematician."

El Motassadeq learned German after arriving in 1993 to study electrical engineering at Hamburg's Technical University. Still, certain words gave him pause and he occasionally sought help from a translator.

He said he funded the trip to the training camp with money his father gave him as a wedding present in 2000, but that his wife did not know where he went.

He testified he flew from Germany to Pakistan then made his way to Quetta, where Atta had told him to ask for the "Taliban bureau."

After getting a visa, he took a taxi to the border, then another to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he lodged in an Arab-run guest house for about a week. He said he ran into Abdelghani Mzoudi at the house a Moroccan friend and Hamburg resident who was arrested by German officials this month on charges of supporting a terrorist organization.

At the camp, el Motassadeq said he saw another friend, Zakariya Essabar, who also is suspected of supporting the Hamburg cell. Essabar, also a Moroccan, fled Germany around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks and has not been captured.

El Motassadeq said that once they were all back in Hamburg, they never talked about their Afghan experiences because of warnings they received at the camp.

"Someone said it will give you many problems," el Motassadeq said. "When you say you were in Afghanistan here in Germany, that is suspicious."

With more than 160 witnesses expected to testify, the trial before a five-judge panel is expected to last for months.



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