One of only two men to be jailed over the 9/11 terror attacks is back in his home country as a free man – where he is being given a hero’s welcome.
The Daily Mail tracked down Mounir el-Motassadeq to a suburb of Marrakesh where he is now living in the family home with his wife and children.
In the first sighting of him since he was deported from Germany following his early release from prison, he was seen being greeted by well-wishers as he returned from prayers at his local mosque.
A friend of the family described scenes of jubilation on his return and said people were coming from all over Morocco to see him.
El-Motassadeq, 44, who was described in German courts as the ‘treasurer’ for the 9/11 hijackers, spent less than 15 years in prison for his part in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon which killed 2,977 people in September 2001.
He was friends in Germany with Mohamed Atta, who crashed a plane into the North Tower and was one of the ringleaders of the Hamburg Al Qaeda cell who planned the atrocity.
The only other man convicted over 9/11, Zacarias Moussaoui, is serving six life sentences in a maximum security prison in the US after admitting to being part of the plot.
El-Motassadeq grinned and said he was too busy to speak as he shook hands with old friends in the street outside his home, a three-storey semi-detached house which belonged to his deceased father Ibrahim.
Wearing a bright blue polo shirt and dark trousers, he was seen holding hands with an old friend in a djellaba robe on the way back from the mosque.
The pair discussed prayers as they laughed together on the dimly-lit street lined with orange trees in the middle-class Dawdiyat neighbourhood.
El-Motassadeq was later seen wearing glasses and a red top, getting into a BMW with his bearded brother, who was wearing a black robe and carrying a walking stick, and two other men.
A couple of hours later he returned carrying a bottle of water and his mobile phone, and headed straight back into the house.
There was no obvious surveillance at the property, although police sources said he would be watched.
His sister, who lives in the same house, said ‘hamdullah’ – Arabic for ‘praise be to God’ – when asked by the Mail if she was happy about his release.
Neighbours said they were ‘very happy’ to have him back. One – Hayat, a former model for Louis Vuitton – said there were jubilant scenes after his return on Friday.
She said: ‘We are very happy. The neighbours were not afraid to find out he was back. During the first and second day after he was released the streets were full of people coming to see him.
‘His family were coming from different cities to greet him. They were really happy that he is back. His mum was crying tears of joy. His siblings were really happy.’
She said el-Motassadeq had rarely emerged from the property, other than to greet relatives and attend mosque.
She continued: ‘We have been neighbours for years. I knew him before he went to Germany. He goes to the mosque to pray. There’s nothing suspicious. People come and see him and sleep over at his house.’
She said el-Motassadeq was ‘very well brought up’ and did not believe he had done anything wrong, adding: ‘I understand he was just friends with people who did.’ She said his parents were ‘very kind and pious’.
Hayat said el-Motassadeq’s wife, Maria Pavlova, a Russian Muslim convert, is a ‘stay-at-home mum’ who lives in the house with his mother and sister and her children. She added: ‘She wears the veil and does her prayer and is very kind.’
Miss Pavlova had lived with el-Motassadeq and their two children in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, where they both studied before his arrest.
They had a third child together before he was jailed. They have a daughter, now 18 and at university, and two sons, 17 and 12.
El-Motassadeq was released on October 15 before completing his 15-year sentence on the condition he agreed to be deported to Morocco. This allows Germany to re-arrest him if he ever returns. It is understood he was meant to be released in January.
Escorted by special forces officers and snipers, he was blindfolded and shackled as he boarded a Puma helicopter from Fuhlsbuttel prison in Hamburg to Frankfurt.
He was flown on Royal Air Maroc flight AT811 to Casablanca the same evening.
Pictures taken on board showed him grinning as he sat in seat 31E during the commercial flight, flanked by two federal police officers, and was served chicken and vegetables alongside members of the public.
At the time, it had been unclear what would happen to him once he touched down in the North African country.
El-Motassadeq’s involvement in the September 11 attacks was the subject of five years of trials, with multiple convictions, appeals and overturned verdicts.
He had arrived in Germany as a 19-year-old student in 1993, and studied electrical engineering at Hamburg’s Technical University.
German prosecutors believe he met Mohamed Atta there and stayed friends with him while Atta founded a radical Islamic group with links to Al Qaeda.
El-Motassadeq was arrested in Germany two months after 9/11. Investigators discovered he had power of attorney over a bank account owned by Marwan al-Shehhi, the pilot of one of two planes flown into the World Trade Center.
He also arranged a bank transfer for some of the cell’s members and knew when they were in the US, where they acquired their flight training.
That led prosecutors to label him the group’s treasurer and an accomplice to their attacks.
He was first convicted in 2003 of membership of a terrorist organisation and 3,066 counts of accessory to murder related to the 9/11 deaths.
After several overturned verdicts and appeals he was finally jailed in 2006, with the number of counts limited to the 246 people killed aboard the four planes.
The courts ruled he was aware Atta, al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah – three of the 9/11 hijackers – planned to take over and crash the planes, even though he might not have known the specifics of the plot.
Prosecutors said he had helped ‘watch the attackers’ backs and conceal them’ by paying their tuition fees and rent and transferring money.
This was so they could keep up appearances as students in Germany as they plotted, it was said.
El-Motassadeq, who always maintained he was not aware of the plots, shouted in German at a sentencing hearing: ‘I swear by God that I did not know what they wanted to do.’
He had admitted attending an Al Qaeda training camp sponsored by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2000 and having signed Atta’s will.
The US government made more than 1,200 arrests in the months after 9/11. But others suspected of being involved in the planning of the attacks have been stuck in legal limbo.
The only other man to be tried and convicted of criminal involvement is Zacarias Moussaoui.
The French-Moroccan is serving six life sentences in a maximum security prison dubbed the ‘Alcatraz of Colorado’ after pleading guilty to being part of the plot.
He had been arrested less than a month before the attacks on August 16 on a minor immigration charge.
He had aroused suspicion while taking flight lessons in Oklahoma, and was questioned by FBI agents.
At his December trial he denied involvement in the plots but four years later confessed to being part of the 9/11 terrorist plot and said had been planning to fly a fifth plane into the White House.
The case against the alleged mastermind of 9/11 and his co-plotters could drag on for years.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of the attacks, and his four alleged co-conspirators, are still awaiting trial. Mohammed – who was arrested in 2003 – is currently at the US jail in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and prosecutors say jury selection in his trial could start in January.
It is alleged the other men – Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa al-Hawsawi – trained hijackers.
El-Motassadeq is banned from re-entering Germany until 2064. Hamburg’s interior minister Andy Grote said: ‘It’s a good feeling to know that Mr Motassadeq is out of the country.’
The Hamburg cell he was part of was a group of radical Islamists including students based in the German city who eventually became key operatives in the 9/11 attacks.
Important members included Atta, who led the four hijacking teams and piloted American Airlines Flight 11, which flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center; al-Shehhi, who piloted United Airlines Flight 175 which hit the South Tower; and Jarrah, who flew United Airlines Flight 93 which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers thwarted an attempt to attack Washington DC.