The New York Times
August 12, 2004
MUNICH, Aug. 11 - Imprisoned leaders of the terrorist network Al Qaeda told American authorities that Mounir el-Motassadeq was not involved in the plot to attack the United States in September 2001, according to evidence introduced in his trial on Wednesday.
The claims, made by two Qaeda leaders during interrogations, were supplied to a German court in Hamburg by the Justice Department after the United States said it would cooperate in a limited way with the prosecutors.
The new evidence could shore up the defense of Mr. Motassadeq, a Moroccan engineering student who is the only person to have been successfully prosecuted for involvement in the Sept. 11 plot. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but an appeals court overturned the verdict in March, saying that American authorities had withheld crucial evidence.
German prosecutors have long maintained that such evidence could answer the question of whether Mr. Motassadeq, 30, helped plot the Sept. 11 attacks, or merely befriended the people who did. But the edited summaries read in court seemed only to deepen the debate.
Lawyers for Mr. Motassadeq claimed he was exonerated, even though they had earlier criticized the potential American evidence as unreliable. But both prosecutors and American officials questioned the credibility of the prisoners' claims. "We must consider what this means for the trial, and what it means for the volume of evidence we will listen to," said the chief judge, Ernst-Rainer Schudt, summarizing the confused atmosphere.
The key assertion in the summaries was made by Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a Qaeda leader in American custody, who said Mr. Motassadeq "was not privy" to the plans of Mohamed Atta or the other hijackers.
Mr. bin al-Shibh, who is believed to have played a central role in the plot, said Mr. Motassadeq was a regular visitor to Mr. Atta's apartment in Hamburg, where he and others "studied jihad" and "engaged in vitriolic anti-American discussions." But he was not part of the cell that planned the attacks.
That group, he said, consisted only of himself, Mr. Atta and two other men who hijacked planes on Sept. 11: Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah. Mr. Motassadeq transferred money into Mr. Shehhi's bank account while he was in the United States at pilot training school.
Mr. Motassadeq's outsider status was affirmed by another Qaeda leader, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who told interrogators that he never discussed the plot with him, although he helped Mr. Motassadeq arrange a trip to Afghanistan, where he spent time in a training camp sponsored by Osama bin Laden.
The eight pages of summaries from the Justice Department, which were dated Aug. 9 but received by the court on Wednesday, came with a caveat that the prisoners may have been "intentionally withholding information and employing counter-interrogation techniques."
A cover letter from the Justice Department said, "there may be reason to question the assertions regarding Mounir el-Motassadeq," citing inconsistent statements by at least one of the prisoners.
The assertions are not new. During the trial in Germany of another Moroccan suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda, Abdelghani Mzoudi, the German police faxed a letter to the court summarizing intelligence that Washington had made available to the German authorities.
The letter said that a man - who was not named but who is widely believed to be Mr. bin al-Shibh - told his captors that neither Mr. Mzoudi nor Mr. Motassadeq were aware of the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Mzoudi was acquitted by the court in Hamburg in February.
Although Mr. Motassadeq's lawyers were buoyed by the evidence, it puts them in an awkward position. On Tuesday, his chief lawyer, Josef Grässle-Münscher, said that any material handed over by the Americans would be tainted because it might have been obtained through torture.
A day later, Mr. Grässle-Münscher was forced into some verbal gymnastics, arguing that the prisoners' statements were credible because they had withstood a long and rigorous interrogation process.
"For us, the question is why didn't the Americans turn over this information sooner?" he said.