By Holger Stark
At the time, Afghan exiles were openly selling propaganda videos in Hamburg. One was called "Kabul Seeks Liberators," and seeing it convinced Zammar to return to Afghanistan to fight. Once there, he learned how to use rocket-propelled grenades, later also learning the intricacies of the poison business from a heavyset specialist named Abu Chabab. Chabab's training center was on the second floor of a building guarded around the clock by Arab Afghans. This time Zammar stayed in Afghanistan for two months and, in the summer of 1995, went to Zenica in Bosnia to help the Bosnian Muslims fight the Serbs.
It was Zammar's way of supporting holy war. It was almost exactly one year before the Sept. 11 attacks. It also got him a face-to-face meeting with Osama bin Laden in a camp near Kandahar airport, where bin Laden was staying and where he was the guest of honor at a Syrian wedding. It was an uplifting encounter for Zammar, almost the way a Catholic would feel if given an audience with the pope.
In October 2000, al-Qaida blew a large hole in the USS Cole, an American destroyer which was docked in the harbor at Aden, killing 17 GIs. Zammar was living in a camp near Kandahar at the time. He told the German officials in Damascus that news of the Cole attack was cause for celebration among his fellow mujahedeen. But it also meant that no one in the camp slept that night, for fear of an American reprisal attack. That autumn, it seemed to Islamists that America, the Great Satan, could indeed be brought to its knees.
Interrogation details remain sealed
Then the German investigators asked Zammar their most important question: What do you know about preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks? Zammar's response sheds some light on what happened in Hamburg before the attacks, but it is also exculpatory, despite the fact that Zammar repeatedly incriminated himself during the interrogation leading up to this critical question. The German officials now believe that Zammar, despite his role in paving the way for the Sept. 11 attacks, was not directly involved. He told the Germans that he helped Binalshibh, Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi und Ziad Jarrah get to Afghanistan. He said that at first he only knew Atta, a young, hard-faced Egyptian, who he had met in 1996 at Hamburg's Al-Quds mosque. Atta then introduced him to Binalshibh. But according to Zammar, it was Shehhi, who he didn't meet until 1998 and who was "not as determined" as Atta, with whom he had had the most contact.
Zammar constantly raved about Afghanistan, about his brothers in jihad and the training camps where, as he would have it, life was like something out of a classic Western. Zammar told the German investigators that it was Shehhi who, in the fall 1999, first began talking about going to the Hindukush.
But after that the group of later terrorists apparently lost faith in Zammar and stopped talking to him about their plans. When he met Moroccan Zakariya Essabar, who is still at large today, in a camp known as Kargar in Afghanistan in early 2000, Essabar spoke in only the broadest terms about the basic training he had just completed. But, at least according to Zammar, he said nothing about the monstrous plot the Sept. 11 terrorists must have already hatched by then. Zammar returned to Germany, but probably without knowing anything about the details of his friends' meticulously crafted plan.
Eight days before the attacks in the United States, there was a farewell of sorts at Hamburg Airport. Said Bahaji was leaving Germany, and Zammar and a few friends accompanied him to the gate. According to Zammar, the group included Motassadeq and Abdelghani Mzoudi. Investigators would later learn that Bahaji flew to Pakistan that day. He was apparently partly responsible for the logistics of the attacks, and he knew that it was time to get out of Germany. By chance Zammar encountered another Islamist from Hamburg's Al-Quds mosque at the airport, a Tunisian named Fatih, who was also flying to Afghanistan. If Zammar is to be believed, it must have been a friendly farewell among mujahedeen, future terrorists who planned to see each other again, in this world or the next, Inshallah -- God willing.
The German officials had brought along a folder of photographs of German mujahedeen, and they showed the pictures to Zammar, almost as if the prisoner were some sort of an official expert. One photo showed a man wearing a sand-colored woolen cap and carrying a Kalashnikov, standing in a barren, hilly landscape, supposedly near Kabul.
They asked Zammar who the man was.
Without hesitating, Zammar said that it must be Mamoun Darkazanli, a German-Syrian businessman from Hamburg who investigators have long suspected of supporting the bin Laden network and who is under investigation in several countries. "I didn't know," said an astonished Zammar, "that Darkazanli was also in Afghanistan!" But he did recognize the Kalashnikov. It was the same model with which he himself had been trained. To this day Darkazanli denies ever having been in Afghanistan.
The prisoner also revealed a little secret: He said that he was the one who sent the "Bremen Taliban," Murat Kurnaz, to Afghanistan after Sept. 11. Zammar and Kurnaz had first met at a party in Bremen. Zammar later met with Kurnaz and a friend at the Nur mosque in Hamburg, where Zammar lectured the two young Turks from Bremen about jihad and recommended that they contact the Taliban's official office. Kurnaz, who followed Zammar's advice, has been held by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay since 2002.
The German investigators spent three days questioning Zammar in Damascus. When their work was done, Shaukat invited his German guests to dinner, as a sign of German-Syrian unity. The details of Zammar's interrogation remain sealed to this day. They have not been used in any investigative proceedings against Islamists, despite the fact that the BKA is the agency in charge of the investigations. The six officials and their agencies know full well that no court operating under the rule of law would ever accept an interrogation conducted in a Damascus prison notorious for its torture practices.
Far-Filastin is truly a hotbed of horror. It's said that it is much easier to die there than to survive. According to former inmates, the cells there are hardly bigger than closets -- about 1.85 meters (6 feet) long, 85 centimeters (2.8 feet) wide and barely 2 meters (6.5 feet) tall. The prisoners call them "graves." They sleep on sheets on the bare floor and use a plastic bottle as a toilet during the day. Water condenses on the concrete walls in the summer, and it's sometimes so cold in the winter that cockroaches freeze to death on the stone floors. Rats, some as big as cats, roam the corridors, squeezing themselves under cell doors in search of food. The prisoners get three meals a day, yoghurt and tea in the morning, for example, bulgur wheat for lunch and lentil soup in the evening. The food is usually so spoiled that Zammar, like most prisoners at Far-Filastin, soon suffered from permanent diarrhea, as Abdullah al-Malki recalls.
The Syrians have held Malki, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was arrested in Damascus with the full knowledge of Canadian authorities, for almost a year and a half in Far-Filastin. Malki is held in cell 3, diagonally across the corridor from Zammar.
Malki says that one night, in the winter of 2003, guards arrived with wrapped electric cables to punish a group of inmates who had been communicating by calling out to each other from cell door to cell door. Zammar was one of those rebellious inmates. The guards beat him, but this time Zammar defended himself. "God gave me a tongue, and I will use it," he yelled, his voice echoing so loudly through the catacombs that every prisoner could hear what he had to say. "I'm not just a piece of wood that you can throw into the grave!" he raved.
According to the human rights organization Amnesty International, torture is part of daily life at Far-Filastin. Prisoners who have been released have reported practices ranging from cable beatings on the soles of naked feet to electroshocks. Amnesty International has documented 38 different torture methods at Far-Filastin. An especially feared method involves forcing a prisoner into a car tire. The tire is suspended from the ceiling and the prisoner is then abused with sticks. The guards call the tool a "dulab." Malki says he has also experienced this form of torture.
Once, when Malki and Zammar were being taken to interrogations at the same time, Malki's interrogator pointed to Zammar, who was wearing a brown suit, and bragged: "That guy wouldn't talk, so we really taught him a lesson."
Critical questions for German officials
Should a criminal prosecution agency like the BKA, which is bound to uphold German law, be allowed to conduct an interrogation in Damascus when the prisoner is denied any support whatsoever by the German embassy? Doesn't the state have an obligation to provide assistance to a German citizen like Zammar, even if this citizen is an Islamic extremist?
The state believes that it sufficiently met its obligation to assist Zammar by filing his case under file number RK 531 E and classifying it as a consular case. The German embassy in Damascus, an unadorned, three-story building in the city's affluent Malki neighborhood that once housed the East German embassy, has tried using diplomatic methods to deal with the case, but it's a case that has nothing to do with diplomacy.
The German ambassador has given the Syrians eight verbal and written reminders since June 2002. Most recently, on May 25, 2005, he asked the Syrians to "specify the reasons for [Zammar's] arrest" and to allow him to meet with an attorney. The Syrians haven't responded to any of the messages. For them, the case was closed following their negotiations with the Federal Chancellery. To this day, German diplomats in Damascus don't even know that a German delegation met with Zammar.
The Syrians have also ignored a request for legal assistance from the German Justice Ministry, which was drafted by Federal Public Prosecutor Kay Nehm. According to the request, a superior court in Hamburg wanted an answer to the following question: Did Zammar support Mohammed Atta and his fellow Sept. 11 terrorists? No one, it seemed, thought of inquiring with the Federal Chancellery or the Interior Ministry, both agencies that knew everything there was to know about Zammar. "Zammar was forbidden fruit for the authorities," says Hamburg attorney Gül Pinar, "and the federal government couldn't resist tasting that fruit."
Pinar has become something of a hero in the Islamist community ever since she managed to get Moroccan suspected terrorist Abdelghani Mzoudi acquitted. She now represents Zammar's family. In Mzoudi's case, Pinar discovered how difficult it is for a court in a constitutional state to hand down a conviction when the evidence is so thin. But in Zammar's case she is discovering what happens when countries cross a red line.
The attorney wrote to Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer asking for his assistance for Zammar, the forgotten prisoner. A senior diplomatic official wrote back to inform Pinar that, unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry had "no new information on the current situation of Mr. Zammar." Pinar is now considering filing criminal charges against the German government and its officials.
The officials from the BKA, the BND and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution had actually planned to return to Syria; it was part of their arrangement with the Syrians when they left Damascus in late November 2002. Although a second visit was already in the works, it never materialized because the Syrians didn't deliver on their end of the deal. Indeed, far from cutting back on their spy network, their espionage program is considered one of the world's most aggressive.
"The project was an attempt," says a German government official, "but we now know that it was a mistake."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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