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Witness says suspect was close to hijackers

HAMBURG -- A Moroccan being retried on charges he aided the Sept. 11 plotters was part of lead hijacker Mohamed Atta's inner circle and knew of the group's arguments for turning to violence, a witness testified yesterday.

Shahid Nickels, 23, told the Hamburg state court that Mounir el Motassadeq, 30, was part of a small group that grew increasingly radical and talked about waging jihad -- holy war -- against the United States and Israel.

"They said that something had to be done against America -- it was the general opinion," Nickels testified.

Because el Motassadeq was close to Atta and other key Sept. 11 plotters, he "must have known of something," Nickels added.

"They may not have known of the plans, but it was clear that they wanted to fight and die for Islam," he said of el Motassadeq and Abdelghani Mzoudi, another Moroccan who was acquitted of helping the plotters in February.

El Motassadeq's 2003 conviction and prison sentence of 15 years on more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization was overturned in March and sent back for a retrial. The appeals court ruled he was unfairly denied evidence from Ramzi Binalshibh and other terrorism suspects in US custody.

Binalshibh is thought to have been the Hamburg cell's primary contact with the Qaeda network, and in a surprise disclosure the US Justice Department provided summaries of their interrogations of him when el Motassadeq's new trial opened last week.

In the summaries, Binalshibh said that only he, Atta and the other two suicide hijackers based in Hamburg -- Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah -- had any knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.

Prosecutors said Nickels' testimony provided an important counterbalance to those statements by showing how closely other people were involved with the plotters and their jihad discussions.

Nickels, a student whose mother is Muslim, testified he became close to the group in 1997 after meeting Binalshibh at Hamburg's radical al-Quds mosque, where he had gone to learn more about his religious roots.

Nickels, who also testified at the 2003 trial, said that he was introduced to Atta, el Motassadeq and others and that he was a regular guest at Atta's apartment.

The group believed that "Israel didn't have the right to statehood and suicide attacks were legitimate," Nickels said. "In America, they believed that the Jews had a lot of power."

He testified that a mentor to the group once approached him and Binalshibh and told them jihad was a "Muslim's duty" and urged that they "go to Afghanistan," where Al Qaeda had training camps.

The conversation, which Nickels told police was in 1998, seems to contradict a statement that Binalshibh made to US interrogators: that the Hamburg group went for training in Afghanistan after a person they met by chance on a train introduced them to an Al Qaeda contact in Germany who told them of the camps.

El Motassadeq maintains he knew and was friends with most of the principals of the Hamburg cell, but was not privy to the Sept. 11 plot.

Defense attorney Josef Graessle-Muenscher said the fact that Nickels was so close to the hijackers showed that many people who were uninvolved in the attack knew the plotters, who he said never betrayed any hint of their plans.

When asked by Presiding Judge Ernst-Rainer Schudt who constituted the "inner circle" of the group, Nickels put el Motassadeq together with Atta, al-Shehhi, Binalshibh and Said Bahaji -- a fugitive wanted by Germany on an international arrest warrant.

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