German Univ. Dealing With 9-11 Tie
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HAMBURG, Germany (AP) _ As the place where key members of the Sept. 11 hijacking team studied, Hamburg’s Technical University is finding it hard to forget the men who had lived seemingly benign lives, all the while plotting the attacks on the United States.
For students and staff, reminders of the threat in their midst continued with last month’s indictment against former student Mounir El Motassadeq as a member of the Hamburg terror cell and questioning of former student Abdelghani Mzoudi in July over suspicions he was plotting a new attack.
``Sometimes you ask yourself if it was naive to believe that everyone who came over here was friendly and peaceful and only interested in getting an education,″ said school spokesman Ruediger Bendlin.
``But we have no real feeling of guilt _ we are able to look into the mirror and say there is nothing that we can blame on ourselves, there’s nothing that gave us any hint,″ he said.
Bendlin recalls that El Motassadeq called him in the days after Sept. 11, saying he was being hounded by the media and needed help dealing with it. To avoid the reporters staking out the school, Bendlin met with the 28-year-old Moroccan in a town square.
``There was a man full of fear and despair, it was really despair in his eyes,″ Bendlin said. ``But on the other hand there were some hints from police not to get too close to him.″
El Motassadeq was charged late last month with 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization. His trial is to begin this fall in Hamburg.
German investigators believe men of the Hamburg cell chose the city as a place to study because it has a large Muslim population and the Technical University has a good international reputation.
In an interview to be broadcast this week by the Al-Jazeera satellite channel, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, believed by U.S. officials to be one of the highest-ranking al-Qaida leaders still at large, maintains that hijacking ringleader Mohamed Atta came to Germany as an undercover al-Qaida agent in 1992. But Bodo Franz, director of the Hamburg police unit that investigates extremism, said he still believes all the men were recruited into al-Qaida here after coming to study.
``The bottom line is it is sheer coincidence it was Hamburg,″ Franz said.
In addition to Atta, fellow hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi and El Motassadeq, the school was also attended by Said Bahaji and Ramzi Binalshibh, who are being sought on international arrest warrants for their alleged logistical support of the Hamburg cell.
A German security official said Tuesday that a member of a German-Syrian family under suspicion for supporting terrorists also went to the Technical University at the same time as Atta and belonged to his Islamic prayer group.
Students who cleared out the room where Atta and Bahaji held their Islamic prayer meetings found about 80 audio tapes of Arabic prayers punctuated by the sounds of automatic rifle fire.
Arab students say rather than getting the cold shoulder from their peers, there has been an openness at the school, where foreign students make up almost 25 percent of the population.
Jihed Ben Zid, 23, of Tunisia, said the presence of the media after the attacks was the hardest part to deal with.
``Last year we had our exams at that time and the television cameras were here every day with more and more questions, over and over, and we couldn’t study,″ he said. ``They would even try and talk with us in the library.″
Ben Zid said he knew El Motassadeq casually.
``He was very nice and very quiet. I find it hard to believe he had anything to do with it, but I only knew him to say hi,″ he said.
As the school gears up for the beginning of a new term in October, Bendlin said it is difficult for professors and administrators who knew and worked with Atta and the others to treat incoming students with complete impartiality.
``It was a big psychological blow to some, because it’s hard to understand how these people you helped in student life could have been plotting such things,″ Bendlin said. ``It’s hard to get that trust again.″