From Germany to Guantanamo The Career of Prisoner No. 760

By SPIEGEL Staff

Part 2: Slahi Denies Prior Knowledge of Sept. 11 Plans


The Slahis live in Boudiane, a town outside Nouakchott with streets out of sand and power-lines forming wild patterns above houses out of clay. Children are playing football with bare feet, piled-up bricks are serving as goals. The Slahi's dwelling bears the number A 158. A tent covers the courtyard, and goats walk around freely. Mohamedou Ould Slahi lived in a bare room with two windows facing the courtyard and mattresses leaning against the wall.

Mohamedou's father, a camel dealer, taught his son to read the Koran. "He was the only one who knew the Koran by heart at an early age," his mother says. As a youth, soccer was Slahi's passion, and he gave the boys in the neighborhood the names of German national team players, like Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Pierre Littbarski. Hans-Peter Briegel was his favorite. "We have always rooted for the Germans during international matches," his brother Jahdih says.

After completing his high-school education with an emphasis on mathematics, Slahi applied for a scholarship with the Carl Duisberg Society in Germany. He was one of four candidates accepted out of a total of 40 applicants.

Slahi boarded a plane for Germany on a Friday in the late summer of 1988. He was the first family member to attend a university -- abroad, no less -- and the first to travel on an airplane. Distraught by the departure of her favorite son, his mother's goodbye was so tearful that Mohamedou briefly hesitated before getting on his flight. In the end, the others convinced him to go. "He was supposed to save us financially," his brother Jahdih says today. Soccer, he explains, was an important reason Slahi decided to go to Germany -- first to Essen and later to nearby Duisburg.

Slahi was an eager student. He completed a language course and preparatory courses for university study. He enrolled in Duisburg's Mercator University for the 1990-91 winter semester. When he returned home for a visit in the summer of 1991, he brought his younger brothers and nephews remote-controlled toy cars, cameras and soccer balls. Suddenly he was the rich uncle from the West. Everyone admired him.

He was then 21, and that summer he married 17-year-old Wafa Bent-Sief. She lives in Nouakchott today, with her second husband, and still speaks German fluently. She says she and Slahi met when he approached her on the street. A few weeks after the wedding, Slahi returned to Germany. In 1995, the year he completed his final examinations, she moved to Germany to join him. The couple visited Duisburg's Taqwa Mosque regularly, says Wafa, "but he was there much more often than I was."

Slahi must have been well into living a double life by then. But his former wife says that he never told her anything about his other life, nor did she notice anything peculiar.

From his early days as a student, Slahi was known in the mosques in Duisburg and Krefeld. Karim Mehdi, a Moroccan, told interrogators that Slahi recruited people for the war against the infidels. Mehdi, 41, studied chemistry and was part of the Duisburg group associated with Slahi.

Mehdi has been in prison since 2003 in France, where he was sentenced to nine years for planning an attack on a vacation complex on the island of La Réunion. The first witness to incriminate Slahi, Mehdi told investigators that Mohamedou recruited him for the jihad and encouraged him to travel to Afghanistan. He says that he saw Slahi in the training camps there twice, in 1990 and 1992. After the second time, the two men returned to Germany together.

Mehdi is not the only terrorist to have mentioned Slahi's name during questioning. No one's testimony has been more damaging to him than that of Ramzi Binalshibh. A Yemenite, Binalshibh lived in the infamous Marienstrasse apartment with Mohammed Atta and was one of the students who, while in the West, learned to fundamentally hate the West. He would have liked to be among the 19 terrorists who hijacked the jets in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001. He applied for a US visa at the American Embassy in Berlin three times, and each time his application was denied. Instead, he was left to play the role of intermediary between the Sept. 11 terrorists and the al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan.

Binalshibh was arrested in Karachi in September 2002. He is currently involved in pre-trial hearings before the military judges at Guantanamo and, if convicted at trial, he could face the death penalty.

If what Binalshibh told his interrogators is true, the Twin Towers may not have come down without Slahi, and 2,973 people may not have been murdered on that day.

According to Binalshibh, Mohammed Atta and the other suicide attackers from Germany had originally planned to travel to Chechnya to join the Muslims there in their struggle against the Russian army. Instead, Slahi invited them to travel to Afghanistan during a meeting in Duisburg with two of the later suicide pilots, Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi.

Why would Binalshibh have fabricated the story? On the other hand, don't people like him say all kinds of things, when tortured, to trick their interrogators?

The German investigators familiar with the history leading up to the 9/11 attacks are more cautious in their assessment of Slahi's position within al-Qaida. They say that Binalshibh's statements about Slahi recruiting the attackers has "legend status," and that none of their information supports his assertions.

Slahi himself vehemently denies having known about Sept. 11 ahead of time.

Responding to a tip from their American counterparts, the German intelligence agencies began observing Slahi and his Duisburg associates back in 1998. While following an al-Qaida member in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the Americans became aware of money transfers that were processed through a Düsseldorf branch of Citibank, and they conjectured that the funds could be "al-Qaida related."

The account at Citibank belonged to Slahi, who by then had established a company with 50,000 deutsche marks in seed capital. The company, Ould Slahi GmbH, an "importer of textiles and non-precious metals," was registered with the Essen Municipal Court on April 2, 1998. According to the entry in the German commercial register, Slahi's new firm was involved in the "export of all manner of electronic devices."

The al-Qaida man in Khartoum was Abu Hafs al-Mauretani, a cousin of Slahi's who was believed to have headed al-Qaida's religious committee.

At the end of 1998, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, began monitoring Slahi's accounts under a program code-named "cashier." But the effort yielded little valuable information. Slahi later said that his cousin had asked him for money, and that he had helped him twice, including a transfer of 8,000 deutsche marks in December 1998, but had refused to send any more money after that.

On Nov. 26, 1999, just as the Hamburg group was en route to Afghanistan to be initiated as future pilots in the attack on the United States, Slahi left Germany. He traveled to Canada, officially to attend courses in Montreal. He told his wife that he was going to search for a job and an apartment for the two of them. But Slahi had a different explanation for the trip when he was later questioned. He said that he had felt observed in Germany and Mauritania, and that this had made him want to move to a free country.

But Canadian intelligence agents also kept Slahi under surveillance. They suspected him of trying to establish contact with an Algerian terrorist organization known as the Armed Islamic Group. Ahmed Ressam, arrested at a US-Canadian border crossing on Dec. 14, 1999, was believed to have been a member of the group. More than 50 kilograms of bomb-making components, intended for an attack on the Los Angeles airport, were found in the trunk of his car.

Ressam became a key witness. In court, he testified he had received his marching orders for the planned attack from a Mauritanian man: Slahi.

Regardless whether it was Karim Mehdi, Ramzi Binalshibh, Abu Hafs or Ressam, Shahi seemed to know them all.

But was he really involved in the "millennium conspiracy," as Ressam claims?

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