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German court reinstates conviction of student for role in Sept. 11

BERLIN—A German federal court on Thursday reinstated the accessory-to-murder conviction of a Moroccan student who was an associate of lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and others involved in the plot.

The decision that Mounir el Motassadeq, who also knew at least two other people involved in the Sept. 11 hijacking, should be sentenced in the case came on the same day that Germany's top security official warned that Germany has become a top terror target.

Ernst Uhrlau, head of the German Federal Intelligence Agency, the equivalent of the CIA in the United States, said police have prevented five terror attacks since the year 2000. German investigators now are probing 220 suspected terrorism plots, he said.

Motassadeq, who, like Atta, lived for years in Hamburg, Germany, had been the first person convicted of involvement in the terrorist attacks when he was found guilty in 2003 of 3,066 counts of accessory to murder—one charge for each of the known victims.

But an appeals court overturned those convictions in 2004, arguing in part that there was no evidence that Motassadeq knew the scale of what Atta and the other hijackers were planning when they hijacked four commercial jetliners and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

Thursday's federal court ruling overturned that finding, saying that while Motassadeq may not have known that more than 3,000 people would die, he certainly knew enough to be held accountable for the deaths of 246 passengers and crew members aboard the hijacked jets.

"There is no doubt that the defendant intentionally assisted in the killing of these victims," the court found. "Contrary to the view of Hamburg state court, he cannot elude or escape legal responsibility for the reason that the hijackers killed far more people than he had imagined."

The court ordered the Hamburg court to sentence Motassadeq for the deaths of the victims aboard the planes and to keep in mind "the entire scope" of the attacks in the sentencing.

Still, the maximum sentence Motassadeq can receive—15 years in prison—is far less than the life sentence that a U.S. federal judge in Virginia handed out to Zacarias Moussaoui, whom a U.S. jury convicted earlier this year for involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.

There's little dispute that Motassadeq, who remained free on bail Thursday night, had close ties to the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Motassadeq, who spent three months at an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan, witnessed Atta's will and held power of attorney over the bank account of another hijacker, Marwan al-Shehhi. He transferred $2,500 to another suspected plotter, Ramzi Binalshibh, and he sent money to the United States to help finance the hijackers' flight training.

By reinstating the conviction on a lower number of charges, the court avoided ordering a new trial and having to rule on whether German lawyers should question suspected Sept. 11 plotters now being held by U.S. authorities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Motassadeq's lawyers had argued that testimony from Binalshibh and suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would clear Motassadeq of involvement in the attacks. At the time of Motassadeq's first trial, both Mohammed and Binalshibh were being held in a secret CIA prison. But in September, the two men were transferred to military custody at Guantanamo, where they await eventual trial by a military tribunal.

German officials have been expressing growing concern that Germany is a target for international terrorists since the discovery in July of two suitcase bombs aboard commuter trains. The bombs failed to explode but sharpened focus on terrorism in a country where there's been no successful attack since an explosion at the La Belle Disco in Berlin in 1986.

That explosion killed two American servicemen and a Turkish woman and prompted then-President Ronald Reagan to order retaliatory airstrikes on Libya.

Joerg Ziercke, president of Germany's federal bureau of investigation, told a law enforcement conference in Wiesbaden that the commuter train bombs were designed to cause maximum injuries.

The bombs were filled with corn starch that upon detonation would have coated anyone nearby with "a burning oil-film," he said.

"If they'd exploded, the consequences would have been devastating."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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