The imam, who returned to his native Morocco last year before the attacks on the United States, likely helped radicalize Muslims living in the city, according to Andreas Croll, a senior state police official in Hamburg. Investigators turned their attention to the fiery cleric, known to them only by his surname al-Fazazi, while pursuing a group of suspected Islamic extremists believed to have been plotting new attacks.
Launched in February, that investigation led German police this month to question seven men in Hamburg after raiding their apartments and a bookshop close to the al-Quds mosque, where al-Fazazi used to preach. One of the suspects was a man who once shared an apartment with members of the Hamburg cell that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.
Investigators were alerted to al-Fazazi by videos of his anti-Western sermons that are circulating in Islamic circles and are believed to reflect the sort of message he also preached while in Hamburg, Croll said. The videos show him saying that "Christians and Jews should have their throats slit" and calling on followers to "fight the Americans as long as they are keeping Muslims in prison," he told The Associated Press by telephone. "We know that he was at the mosque before Sept. 11 and we know what he preaches," he said. "We believe he spread similar messages at the al-Quds mosque. "When someone transmits such messages, there is the danger that people who hear them will fall into extremist circles."
It was unclear whether al-Fazazi met or preached to Atta, who is known to have attended the Hamburg mosque. Croll said he knew of no evidence linking the imam directly to the Sept. 11 attacks, and added that German authorities have not placed him under investigation.
Atta was among three of the suicide pilots in the Sept. 11 attacks who lived and studied in Hamburg. Several others believed to have helped plan the attacks also lived there.
Croll refused to say whether the vidoes of al-Fazazi were among the materials seized by German police in the July 3 Hamburg raids. But he said that investigators believe the seven men questioned after the raids had links to the mosque and heard al-Fazazi preach.
One of the men lived in a Marienstrasse apartment with Zakariya Essabar and Ramzi Binalshibh, two members of the Hamburg terror cell who remain at-large. Atta also lived in the apartment at one time, but had moved out by the time Abdelghani Mzoudi moved in on Sept. 1, 1999, German federal prosecutors have said. Mzoudi, 29, had other links to Atta: He signed Atta's will and both men appeared in a wedding video.
The men were released after questioning but remain under investigation. Officials said there was not enough evidence to hold them despite a five-month investigation. Federal prosecutors say they suspect that the men, along with an eighth questioned in Italy, had formed an Islamic fundamentalist group with the aim of carrying out unspecified attacks.