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Hijackers Chose WTC in ’99, German Prosecutors Charge

By Peter Finn

One of the Sept. 11 hijackers boasted a year and half before the attacks that the World Trade Center would be hit and “there will be thousands of dead,” Germany’s chief prosecutor said Thursday, providing one of the most detailed public reconstructions of terror planning that took place in Germany.

The hijackers began to coalesce as a cell in Hamburg in 1996 and by October 1999 had committed themselves to striking the United States and killing large numbers of people, said the prosecutor, Kay Nehm. Members traveled to Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000 to receive training and specific instruction about the attacks.

The boast about the attack offers a rare glimpse into the timing of the secret planning and selection of targets. It would constitute a rare breach of security among the tight-knit conspirators.

Cell member Marwan Al-Shehhi, who investigators believe piloted the second airliner that struck the trade center, had a conversation in April or May 2000 with a female librarian in which he mentioned the trade center as a target, Nehm said.

“There will be thousands of dead,” Al-Shehhi, originally from the United Arab Emirates, told the librarian, according to Nehm. “You will all think of me.” The librarian later came forward as a witness, according to the federal prosecutor’s office, which declined to identify her or say when she provided the information.

The Hamburg cell, recruited into al-Qaida by a German of Syrian origin, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, slowly united around Egyptian citizen Mohammed Atta starting in 1996, Nehm said. Atta was a natural choice for leadership because of his organizational skills and because he was slightly older and had been in Germany longer than the others, Nehm said.

“At the latest in October 1999, the members of the group decided ... to actively participate in jihad through terrorist attacks on America to kill a large number of people,” Nehm said.

“All of the members of this cell shared the same religious convictions, an Islamic lifestyle, a feeling of being out of place in unfamiliar cultural surroundings. At the center of this stood the hatred of the world Jewry and the United States,” he said.

In November 1999, Atta, Al-Shehhi, and Ziad Samir Jarrah, a Lebanese citizen who piloted the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, traveled to an al-Qaida camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he lived in a guest house run by the country’s Taliban movement, Nehm said.

They were accompanied by Ramzi Binalshibh, a native of Yemen, who is now being sought on an international arrest warrant issued by German authorities.