By Holger Stark
Once in Casablanca, Zammar obtained a divorce from a young Moroccan woman he had taken as a second wife a year earlier, during Ramadan. He then visited the parents of Mounir al-Motassadeq, the Islamist a Hamburg court later convicted of membership of al-Qaida and sentenced to seven years in prison. Zammar reassured Motassadeq's family that everything would turn out well for their son, that German authorities didn't have much of a case against him.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center
On the morning of his return flight to Hamburg, Moroccan intelligence agents took Zammar into custody and, together with American agents, interrogated him for the next two weeks. The CIA then put him on a plane to Damascus. It was shortly before Christmas 2001. Zammar had become one of the first victims of a secret intelligence campaign that the US government has been running since Sept. 11, a campaign that has deeply divided public opinion in the United States.
The orders to set up the program called "Extraordinary Renditions" came directly from US President George W. Bush. The program focuses on hunting down suspected bin Laden supporters like Zammar worldwide. The hunt usually ends in the suspect being taken to any of a number of US special detention facilities at the US airbases in Bagram, Afghanistan and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, in Guantanamo Bay and, presumably, in Eastern Europe -- a chain of secret prisons scattered around the world, where terrorism suspects like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Ramzi Binalshibh are held and interrogated.
"We do not torture"
Regimes like Syria's play a central role in this campaign. They enable the beleaguered US government to practice the kind of double standards that Bush demonstrated yet again two weeks ago when he said, categorically, "we do not torture." But the US government does allow others to torture on its behalf, prisoners like Zammar, for example, so that the administration in Washington doesn't have to get its hands dirty. Instead, it's a role the Syrians seem more than happy to assume. Indeed, Syria is to the campaign against al-Qaida what Saudi Arabia is to the oil industry: a never-ending well. It brings information about the inner workings of the bin Laden network to the surface. But this only raises the question of who is actually given access to this resource in fighting terrorism.
Many of the most salient details come from the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which has been brutally suppressed by the Syrian government for more than 20 years and has served as a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist organizations supporting bin Laden's cause. News about al-Qaida seeps from the finely woven net a dozen Syrian intelligence agencies have thrown over the Islamic opposition -- a sort of byproduct of the Syrian government's ongoing efforts to remain in power. On at least three occasions, Damascus has furnished information that prevented terrorist attacks against US interests, including planned strikes against Navy bases in the Middle East.
This practice raises what one high-ranking official in the German government calls "the $64,000 question." Which is more important, concern about a regime that suppresses and tortures its opposition or the ability to gather information that can help officials deal with al-Qaida more effectively?
The German Federal Chancellery clearly answered this question in July 2002, when it met with a high-ranking delegation from Damascus in Berlin.
The man leading the delegation was a Syrian general who is currently in the global limelight: Assif Shaukat, 55. UN special investigator Detlev Mehlis believes that Shaukat may have been one of the key figures behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But in the summer of 2002, Shaukat was in Berlin as the Germans' negotiating partner and as a trusted associate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose sister is Shaukat's wife.
Shaukat, a tall man with flashing eyes, a thick mustache and a prominent forehead, has a reputation for being as dangerous as he is charismatic. At the German Federal Chancellery in Berlin, he met with a select group of high-ranking officials, including the heads of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA). The purpose of the meeting was to cement a political deal, and the meeting itself quickly turned into the kind of give-and-take one might otherwise see at an oriental bazaar in the old section of Damascus.
Shaukat brought two demands to the negotiating table. First, he wanted the Germans to call off Federal Public Prosecutor Kay Nehm, who was investigating two Syrians, a non-accredited cultural attaché at the Syrian embassy and a Syrian student living in the German city of Mainz. Nehm had indicted the two men, who had blown the whistle on a Syrian exile with German citizenship who had been arrested by Syrian agents during a visit to Syria, and charged them with espionage and contributing to unlawful detention.
Shaukat's second demand related to a case implicating the family of the Syrian president. German prosecutors have accused President Assad's uncle, Faisal Sammak, of aiding and abetting a 1983 attack on the Maison de France in Berlin, where a young man was killed. Sammak, then Syria's ambassador to East Germany, had apparently allowed the attackers to store their explosives at the diplomatic residence. Sammak is still being sought today under an international arrest warrant.
The Germans also had two demands. First, they wanted the Syrians to disband their network of agents in Germany. And they wanted access to Zammar.
For their part, the Syrians promised to tone down their espionage activities, and even recalled an undercover agent from the embassy, just as Berlin had demanded. They also offered access to Zammar, but also threatened to sever all diplomatic relations if this accommodating offer led to a public discussion of the prisoner's story.
A German delegation made its way to Damascus on Nov. 20, 2002. It included two officials from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Cologne, two from the BND in the Bavarian town of Pullach and two from the BKA near Bonn. The six men, who landed at Damascus International Airport on a mild autumn morning, had known or been aware of Zammar for a long time.
The officials from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution have known him since 1997, when they tried to convince him to work for them as an informer in Hamburg. They called it "Operation Tenderness," an allusion to Zammar's stature. A foreign intelligence service had drawn their attention to Zammar, a known bin Laden supporter. The two German agents met with him twice, but Zammar laughed at them, saying that he had no intention of serving the West, that he would only serve Allah and jihad. But then, to be on the safe side, he added that this only applied to the world out there -- to Bosnia or Afghanistan -- not to Germany.
Then the men wiretapped Zammar's phone and watched him, only to lose his trail when he disconnected his telephone service in late 1997. They eventually picked it up again and in 1999 passed on the information to the CIA, which had its own undercover agent in Hamburg. The CIA was concerned that Hamburg could be developing into a launching pad for volunteers being sent to Afghanistan to support bin Laden in his cause. As a result of "Operation Tenderness," Zammar had made it onto the Americans' internal most-wanted list.
The Germans eventually concluded that the heavyset Muslim was a lightweight when it came to terrorism and discontinued their operation in early 2000. It was a tragic mistake. One day after the Sept. 11 attacks, it was revealed that German intelligence officials had recordings of telephone conversations between Zammar and the group surrounding Mohammed Atta in their files, recordings that could have led them to the Atta terrorist cell. But they wouldn't have known what to make of the conversations before the attacks, and the German agents have had a score to settle ever since.
The men from the BKA, knew of Zammar because, only hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, their agency, together with the FBI, had more than 600 men on the ground looking for people with possible ties to the Sept. 11 pilots. Brother Haydar was one of the suspects.
Finally, Zammar had been on officials' radar screen because their agency had received wiretapped recordings of Zammar's conversations from foreign intelligence agencies in Italy and Afghanistan.
But was the prisoner they were finally facing in Syria truly that heavyset fanatic their government had once viewed and treated with such contempt? Zammar had lost weight, perhaps as much as 50 kilograms (110 lbs.), and looked almost emaciated. A day before the Germans' visit, the Syrians had taken Zammar from his cell, given him a haircut and new clothes, and were treating him with unexpected courtesy -- all in an effort to disguise the fact that the prisoner had been interrogated daily in the preceding weeks. Judging by the screams other prisoners were able to hear in their cells, the interrogations had been anything but tender.
When the Germans began their interrogation, Zammar seemed well prepared to answer their questions about Atta, Sept. 11 and Osama bin Laden.
Zammar took the officials on a journey back in time into the 1990s, to a Germany that had its hands full dealing with right-wing extremists and German reunification, a Germany in which Islamic fundamentalism was allowed to flourish without hindrance. He talked about the first time he went to Afghanistan, in 1991 -- traveling to Peshawar and Khost via Karachi, Pakistan -- and about how he taught Algerians to use explosives in camps he called "Farm 2" and "Farm 4." Zammar stayed in the Hindukush region until the winter of 1991, despite knee and back problems, which were only exasperated by driving across rough terrain in SUVs. After spending an icy night in a guesthouse near Peshawar, Zammar decided to return to Hamburg.
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