Prosecutors allege Mounir el Motassadeq, 28, was a key cell logistician. The first Sept. 11 suspect to face trial, he risks life in prison if convicted on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder.
A calm and reserved el Motassadeq told the Hamburg state court Tuesday that he first met Atta in 1996 when he started studying in Hamburg, and that they often talked about religion and politics — including the situation in the Palestinian territories and Chechnya.
Asked by Presiding Judge Albrecht Mentz whether there had been any indication that Atta planned violence, el Motassadeq replied: "In my opinion, it is no solution."
"Perhaps Atta was of a different opinion," he added. "But Atta never spoke about any attacks."
Earlier, el Motassadeq listened with no visible sign of emotion as prosecutor Walter Hemberger read out a summary of the indictment.
Prosecutors say el Motassadeq trained at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and helped the Hamburg cell with logistical support leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. When terrorist pilots Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah left Hamburg in 2000 to begin flight training in Florida, el Motassadeq stayed behind, filtering money through an account to al-Shehhi in the United States, according to the indictment.
El Motassadeq admits close ties with members of the cell, but says he was not privy to their attack plans and never traveled to Afghanistan. He has told investigators he paid utility, rent and school bills for al-Shehhi, but transferred no money to the United States, according to his defense team.
"We expect a fair trial — free of zealousness, anger and indignation," defense attorney Hartmut Jacobi told the court Tuesday.
El Motassadeq sat facing prosecutors with his two attorneys and an Arabic translator beside him, leaning into a microphone as he answered the judge's questions in German. Initially making nervous hand gestures, el Motassadeq appeared to relax during the two-hour questioning.
Atta, he said, had helped him and the other suspect being held in Germany over the Sept. 11 attacks — another Moroccan, Abdelghani Mzoudi — to find an apartment.
El Motassadeq said that Atta had spoken of Chechnya, and "I know that he wanted to travel there and fight alongside" Chechen rebels.
For the trial's opening, police blocked the busy street in front of the Hamburg superior court building in the center of the sprawling port city and deployed extra officers. Metal detectors and guards were set up at the side entrances, the only way for visitors to enter.
Photographers were ordered out of the courtroom before el Motassadeq appeared. About 100 journalists and spectators watched the proceedings from behind a bulletproof glass window.
El Motassadeq was arrested in Hamburg two months after the attacks. Mzoudi was arrested in the city this month on charges of supporting a terrorist organization.
Germany's chief federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, has said the hijackers knew by October 1999 they would attack the United States with airplanes, but that the idea likely originated elsewhere in the al Qaeda network.
All were united by "hatred of world Jewry and the United States," Nehm said in unveiling el Motassadeq's indictment in August.
El Motassadeq came to Germany in 1993 to study. By 1995, his German was good enough to win admission to a Hamburg technical university's electrical engineering program. In Hamburg, he met his wife Maria — a Russian who had converted to Islam three years before — and, during the same time, Atta and other future cell members.
El Motassadeq's wife and his sister, who lives in Morocco, were expected to attend the trial. His father had wanted to come from Morocco, but the German Foreign Ministry rejected his visa for undisclosed reasons.
With more than 160 witnesses due to testify, the trial was expected to go beyond the three months of sessions scheduled so far. A panel of five judges will hear the case and lead the questioning, as is custom in Germany.