A shared hatred of the United States and Israel drew three Sept. 11 hijackers together with four other purported Al Qaeda recruits into a terrorist cell in Hamburg that plotted the elaborate attacks for at least two years, Germany's federal prosecutor said Thursday.
In the most detailed account of the cell's activities since the Hamburg connection was discovered two days after the U.S. attacks, prosecutor Kay Nehm described how the hijackers and their alleged accomplices became acquainted at a mosque frequented by vehemently anti-Western Muslims.
The portrait was constructed through investigation of bank accounts, wiretaps and interviews with thousands of witnesses, including a librarian who recalled how one of the hijackers, Marwan Al-Shehhi, boasted more than a year before the attacks that thousands would die and "you will all remember me then," Nehm told reporters at a news conference in the city of Karlsruhe.
The prosecutor's depiction of the cell in Hamburg, a port city in northern Germany, described the initial contacts, terrorist training in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and the financing of the hijackers' preparations. For the most part, he confirmed and put into perspective previously known details about the hijackers' cell.
But it remained unclear how the perpetrators came into contact with the network run by fugitive Osama bin Laden. To date, there has been no recruiter or linchpin identified as the link between the Hamburg group and Al Qaeda. Neither did Nehm explain how the money carefully controlled by one member of the Hamburg cell came into the group's hands.
Nehm's retrospective on the German-based figures in the U.S. attacks accompanied his announcement of charges against the only Sept. 11 suspect in custody in Germany, 28-year-old Mounir Motassadeq. The prosecutor described Motassadeq as "the governor" of the cell's affairs while its members were abroad for combat training and flight schools.
"The accused remained behind in Hamburg but was just as involved in the preparations for the terror attacks as the perpetrators right up to their commission," Nehm said. "He was aware of the aims of the terrorist attacks committed by the cell and supported their planning and preparation with an array of activities."
Motassadeq was spotted training with Al Qaeda near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in May 2000, Nehm said, though he refused to specify the source of the sighting.
Motassadeq, a Moroccan who studied electrical engineering at the Hamburg Technical University also attended by Al-Shehhi and Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, has been charged with membership in an illegal terrorist organization and 3,116 counts of accessory to murder, Nehm said.
"He was a wheel in the works without whom the affairs of the group wouldn't have functioned," Nehm said of Motassadeq, who told journalists before his Nov. 28 arrest that he hardly knew the hijackers.
In reality, Nehm said, Motassadeq was an important member of the seven-man cell, funneling money to the others during their foreign preparations, which included training in Afghanistan, flight schools in Florida and meetings in Spain.
Motassadeq was one of two witnesses to Atta's 1996 last will and testament.
"The will demonstrated that he was ready to give his life for the holy war," Nehm said of Atta's declaration.
Motassadeq, who was charged Wednesday before the Hamburg Superior Court, also is pictured in videos of alleged accomplice Said Bahaji's 1999 wedding, which was attended by the rest of the cell, Nehm said. The prosecutor's statement confirmed information leaked to the media months ago.
"He said the Nazis' mass murder of Jews was good and he approved of terrorist attacks, as well as using violence as a way to convert others to Islam," Nehm said, quoting from a 90-page sealed indictment against Motassadeq.
The formal case against Motassadeq coincided with charges filed in Seattle and Chicago against other suspected supporters of Al Qaeda.
German investigators and judicial authorities have been under intense pressure from U.S. colleagues to discover the links between Al Qaeda and the Hamburg cell, which operated in this country for years without raising suspicion.
Atta, an Egyptian who had just completed a master's degree in urban planning before launching preparations for the suicide attacks, became the leader of the group by virtue of his age, organizational skills and command of German, Nehm said.
"All of the members of this cell shared the same religious convictions, an Islamic lifestyle, a feeling of being out of place in unfamiliar cultural surroundings that they weren't used to," Nehm said. "At the center of this stood a hatred of world Jewry and the United States."
The cell espoused "violent Islamic ideology aimed at attacking countries like the United States and set itself against the cultural values of the West," Nehm said. "The Hamburg group was part of an international terrorism network of Islamic fundamentalists linked with Osama bin Laden."
According to Nehm, the Hamburg group began, at the latest, in October 1999 talking about "a holy war against the United States in which the maximum number of people could be killed." Six months later, the group had decided on the World Trade Center as a fitting target at the suggestion of Al Qaeda sponsors, the prosecutor said.
Cell members then set off for Afghanistan in two groups for training, he said, with Atta, Al-Shehhi, Ziad Samir Jarrah and Ramzi Binalshibh departing Germany in November 1999 and Motassadeq, Bahaji and Zakariya Essabar leaving the following spring. Motassadeq spent May through August 2000 in Afghanistan, Nehm said.
The terrorists used their time in the Afghan training camps to consult with their Al Qaeda hosts on details of the U.S. attacks, Nehm said.
Atta, 33, is believed to have piloted the first Boeing 767 that crashed into the World Trade Center; Al-Shehhi, 23, was reportedly at the helm of the second. Jarrah, a 26-year-old Lebanese, was thought to have been behind the controls of the Boeing 757 that crashed in rural Pennsylvania, apparently after passengers stormed the cockpit to stop the hijacking.
Arrest warrants have been issued for Binalshibh, Bahaji and Essabar, all believed to have fled Germany ahead of the U.S. terrorist strikes, most likely to remote regions of Pakistan. Binalshibh, 30, and Essabar, 25, are suspected of having been, each in turn, intended to be the 20th hijacker--five each aboard the four doomed planes, including a jet that hit the Pentagon. But both were denied U.S. visas to attend flight schools.
Instead, Nehm said, Zacarias Moussaoui flew to the United States in February 2001. Moussaoui was arrested after exhibiting suspicious behavior at a flight school and is now on trial in Virginia on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Nehm said Moussaoui met in London in December 2000 with Binalshibh, who transferred more than $11,000 to the United States to pay for Moussaoui's flight lessons.
Motassadeq, whose wife and child live a few blocks from the apartment where Atta ran the Hamburg cell, has been detained since his arrest at a jail in North Rhine-Westphalia state. Nehm said the suspect has been uncooperative during questioning, the results of which the prosecutor described as "worthless."
In television interviews in October, Motassadeq acknowledged that he had power of attorney over a bank account held by Al-Shehhi, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates who received a monthly stipend of nearly $2,000 from his homeland's government. Other members of the Hamburg cell reportedly received generous support from family members that might have been applied to their plot against the U.S. landmarks.
Nehm declined to reveal much detail beyond a statement issued at the start of his news conference but acknowledged that investigators have so far found nothing to link the Hamburg cell with the 16 other perpetrators who died aboard the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.