HAMBURG - A German court has convicted a Moroccan of aiding the September 11 2001 suicide hijackers and sentenced him to the maximum possible 15-year jail term in the first trial of an attack conspirator.
Mounir El Motassadeq, aged 28, a slightly built electrical engineering student, was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 3,066 people in the hijack plane attacks on the United States, presiding judge Albrecht Mentz said.
Mentz said Motassadeq had belonged to a Hamburg-based al Qaeda cell led by Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian who also studied in the German port city and who US authorities say crashed the first plane into the World Trade Centre.
"The accused belonged to the group surrounding Atta from the time it was founded. This group of Arab-Muslim students planned the attacks out of hatred for the United States and Israel," Mentz said.
"They wanted to strike at the foundations of the United States with this attack of unprecedented dimensions."
Motassadeq, who stared at the floor as the verdict was read and shook his head on occasions, had denied the charges but admitted he had known Atta and had trained at a camp in Afghanistan run by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
The Hamburg court was ringed by tight security as Mentz delivered a two-hour explanation of the decision by the panel of five judges.
Sporting a thin beard, Motassadeq had portrayed himself as a man of peace who had studied hard and loved soccer, a man surrounded by men whose plans he could not have imagined.
The prosecution's case hinged on Motassadeq's close friendship with six alleged plotters, his financial transfers for Marwan Al Shehi, the man said to have smashed the second plane into the World Trade Centre, and his Afghan training.
A German witness who heard Al Shehi warn of "thousands of deaths" and another who said Motassadeq had talked of burning Jews so he could "dance on their graves" had also been crucial.
Mentz said Motassadeq helped other members of the cell who had already left Hamburg for the United States in preparation for the attack, even if he was not a central part of the operation.
"He fulfilled this task, he knew about the preparations for the attack and supported the planning," the judge said. "He covered the backs of the main plotters and kept secret their real intentions."
German Interior Minister Otto Schily said: "I think this marks a success in the international fight against terrorism. It is a harsh sentence but I think it is justified."
But he told reporters in Berlin that he doubted that the verdict would deter future attacks. "People who are willing to destroy their own lives are hard to deter," he said.
Stephen Push, a co-plaintiff in the case whose wife Lisa died in the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon, welcomed the ruling at the end of the four-month trial.
"I'm only sorry he couldn't get a longer sentence because someone who is committed to al Qaeda is a very dangerous person who needs to be kept away from society," he told Reuters. Under German law, relatives of victims are allowed to join as co-plaintiffs.
Defense lawyers had said Motassadeq did little more than befriend fellow Muslims and insisted his Afghan training did not mean he was violent. They said they would appeal.
"We cannot accept the judgment. The reasoning was unsound and our client should have been cleared," said Hartmut Jacobi.
The trial, which began in October, gave insights into the al Qaeda network that is widely blamed for the suicide attacks and Germany's role as a host for key perpetrators.
It has also highlighted the difficulties in pressing terrorism charges and the potential for conflict between justice systems, designed to deal openly with actual deeds, and security services, clouded in secrecy and preferring preventative action.
"There will be a lot of people looking at this trial believing it is swayed by politics, although I do believe the judges are trying to ensure impartiality," said a German lawyer who has followed the case closely, but declined to be named.
Motassadeq's defence team complained that governments blocked testimony from potential key witnesses and this was likely to form grounds for their appeal.
Mentz said he believed the governments had been correct to withhold information out of security concerns and that the verdict would not have been different.
Motassadeq arrived in the German city of Muenster in November 1993 to learn German and later moved to Hamburg, Germany's second largest city with a population of 1.7 million people, including 200,000 Muslims.
Hamburg became the base of an al Qaeda cell and it was there that Motassadeq met Atta.
In court, Motassadeq recounted a modest life, sharing apartments to save money, regularly visiting the mosque and frequently discussing religion and politics with the people there.
Some lawyers saw the trial as a test case for future prosecutions against al Qaeda members and supporters.
"It shows the fight against terrorism can be fought in a courtroom as well as in the field," said Andreas Schulz, a lawyer representing relatives of victims.
Critically, the judges ruled the Moroccan had been a member of a terror group. Prosecutors elsewhere have found membership hard to prove and have often relied on normal criminal charges.
"The accused was extremely close to the other members of the group and it seems judges can take that to mean he must have known their plans," said one lawyer who followed the case.