Interview with Suspected 9/11 Recruiter 'I Didn't Know Anything, With God As My Witness.'

German national Mohammed Haydar Zammar has known them all: Osama bin Laden, the Hamburg terror cell that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and members of Islamic State. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, he speaks for the first time with journalists inside a Kurdish prison.

Syara Kareb/ DER SPIEGEL

Interview Conducted by Syara Kareb, , and


The icon of global jihad walks slowly, taking careful steps down the narrow corridor. A masked guard leads him in. His name is Mohammed Haydar Zammar, 57, a native Syrian and longtime Hamburg resident. He joined the mujahedeen in Bosnia and worked with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the Hamburg cell of the 9/11 attackers and, later, fighters of the Islamic State (IS). Now he sits in a jail operated by the Kurdish intelligence service somewhere in northeastern Syria. The former giant, who was once 1.93 meters (6 foot 4 inches) tall and weighed 145 kilograms (320 pounds), has grown thinner. His once fulsome beard has been trimmed.

Zammar is a veteran of over two decades of religious war. He is a perpetrator, victim and witness. During a trip to Morocco, he was kidnapped by the CIA, who brought him to the country of his birth, Syria, where he disappeared into the Assad regime's torture prisons for years. As of 2013, he was with IS. The role of the German authorities in the case caused a scandal and prompted a parliamentary enquiry in Berlin.

Zammar has not spoken publicly since 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks. Now, a team of reporters with DER SPIEGEL and SPIEGEL TV has managed to meet with him. The negotiations with the leadership of the YPG, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that claims to have captured Zammar last winter, lasted six months. They recently communicated that Zammar was permitted to talk if he was willing.

Zammar sits down, politely greets everyone present. He hasn't spoken German in a long time. He will repeatedly search for the right words during our 77-minute interview. He will admit his membership in IS but deny any complicity in the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Zammar, how are you?

Zammar: Alhamdulillah, I am doing well. Of course, jails in Arab countries are different from Germany. There are 28 people here in a small cell, and we can only sleep on our sides at night. We have said this to the guards, but this is the situation: They don't have enough prisons, but they have a lot of prisoners from the Islamic State and other groups.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you give yourself up? Or how did you wind up here?

Zammar: I was with my wife and children in Darnij, a village on the eastern side of the Euphrates River near the city of Deir el-Zour. We were stuck. The Kurds were everywhere. We had no car, no motorcycle, no money and my health isn't what it used to be. I saw no other option than to give myself up. I didn't want to go back to jail, but what was I supposed to do? I was arrested, my wife was taken away and I have not heard from her since.

DER SPIEGEL: But your wife is in Germany, isn't she?

Zammar: Not her. I married this one here a year before my arrest. She already had three children from her previous husband and was pregnant again. I asked my interrogators and they said she had returned to her parents. I don't know if she arrived, if she is alive, if she has enough to eat.

DER SPIEGEL: After spending more than 10 years in Syrian prisons, you were released in 2013. Why did you then choose to join the Islamic State -- and not simply go back home, back to Hamburg?

Zammar: In prison, I asked God to tell me where I should go. He heard me, and let me know that I could remain in Syria without fear. It was terrible in prison. We were starving. Fortunately, we had dried some bread and hung it next to the window as a reserve, but some people still died. I always wanted to wage jihad against the injustices committed against Muslims! I first came to Germany in 1971. What was it that led me to give up the good life and the good food there? Injustice! Do you remember Srebrenica, Bosnia? I saw it on German TV and left for Bosnia immediately.

DER SPIEGEL: Can we stick with your time in Syria for now?

Zammar: Of course. Just ask!

DER SPIEGEL: You spent more than 10 years in Syrian prisons after Sept. 11, 2001. How did you manage to get out?

Zammar: The prison was besieged in 2013 by the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, and an old friend of mine who I knew from Afghanistan was with them. He made sure that I and five others were exchanged for two generals from Assad's army. The Red Crescent organized it. A former fellow prisoner welcomed and hosted us. There was a dinner with grilled chicken, potatoes and Coca-Cola. I shouldn't have eaten so much given that we had been starving beforehand. I couldn't get up for a week; blood was coming out of me.

Zammar's minders have seated him in an office chair. The wall behind him is emblazoned with the logo of the Kurdish secret service. There's a pink box of Kleenex on the table. Zammar wears brown trousers, a collared shirt and a sweater.

He comes across more like a pensioner than a radical Islamist. When he talks, he keeps his hands on his thighs, lifting them occasionally. He tells his story almost devoid of emotion, as a sequence of events, with little by way of dramatic flourish.

Zammar: Once I was well again, one of my brothers from prison, who had now become the governor of the Islamic State for Aleppo, asked me: "Haydar, Abu Adil, do you want to join us?" Of course I want to wage jihad against injustice, I told him. So I pledged my allegiance.

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DER SPIEGEL: As you once did when you met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan?

Zammar: No. I was in Afghanistan several times, and for me bin Laden was a very likeable, good person. But I didn't pledge my allegiance to al-Qaida, though people always claim that.

DER SPIEGEL: After years of being tortured in various prisons yourself, you join IS of all things, which tortures and executes people?

Zammar: Yes, but according to Islamic law. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth -- I believe this is also written in the Bible and the Torah.

DER SPIEGEL: The Islamic State murdered your friend from Afghanistan who got you out of prison, Abu Khalid al-Suri. As an emissary for al-Qaida, he had warned against the Islamic State. He called them "false jihadis" who know "no brotherhood, only submission, lies and murder." He warned that "the real jihadis will be betrayed."

Zammar: Hmm. Of course, not everything that IS has done is correct. Where people are, mistakes are bound to be made. I had a friend who was held prisoner by IS' security service. They said he had killed a prisoner and locked him up. They handcuffed him very tightly and then hung him by his handcuffs. It tore the flesh off his wrists.

DER SPIEGEL: And what did you think about it?

Zammar: I thought it was unjust because he hadn't done anything. But I find torture unjust in general. Even the other Islamic states don't do everything right. Germany, for example, is much more just than most of them.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you still believe that the Islamic State offers a more just model for a country than Germany?

Zammar: Well, it's possible that Germany is better. In some things, but not others. When a man is convicted of terrorism, for instance, even though he didn't kill anyone. Take my friend Mounir el Motassadeq ...

DER SPIEGEL: ... who was convicted on charges of transferring money to Mohammed Atta's terrorist cell in the United States at a point when they were already taking flying lessons in preparation for the 9/11 attacks.

Zammar: But he didn't kill anyone himself! And yet he had to spend 15 years in prison. That I find unjust.

DER SPIEGEL: You say that Motassadeq was your friend, as were the pilots in the deadly 9/11 attacks -- Marwan al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah and Mohamed Atta -- whom you met in 1996.

Zammar: They were my best friends. Whenever German television reported on the Hamburg cell, they always spoke is if we had gone underground. But we weren't hiding. We didn't want to lose ourselves in this society where anything is allowed -- sexuality, dressing indecently. We wanted to help ourselves as a group to stay close to God and read the Koran. It's true that I reproduced the brochure with bin Laden's call for jihad against America. I also handed out copies in front of the mosque, out in the open. I'm not ashamed of that.

DER SPIEGEL: So, you were the person who brought these men together in the first place?

Zammar: Yes.

DER SPIEGEL: But you knew nothing about the attacks that these men later planned and committed?

Zammar: No. They didn't tell me anything. I had hardly any contact with the three of them in the two years prior. I knew absolutely nothing. They probably kept me in the dark so as not to drag me into anything.

DER SPIEGEL: But you took Said Bahaji, one of the planners, to the Hamburg airport eight days before Sept. 11, when he left for Pakistan.

Zammar: I thought he only wanted to go to Afghanistan for jihad. Said didn't commit any attacks.

When Moroccan interrogators questioned Zammar together with the CIA at the end of 2001 at the headquarters of the intelligence service in Rabat, he initially boasted that it was his idea to use passenger jets as weapons. And that he had proposed the idea to al-Qaida's leadership.

The interrogators later suspected that Zammar wanted to make himself sound important and that he had erroneously thought himself safe in the belief that as a citizen of Germany he could only be extradited there. After two weeks, they concluded that Zammar hadn't known anything about the attacks.

German investigators were also unable to prove any involvement or complicity on his part. After years of investigating possible charges for providing support to a terrorist organization, Germany's chief federal prosecutor ultimately closed the investigation.

DER SPIEGEL: What went through your mind when you saw the first images on television of the burning towers and the airplanes flying into them -- and when you learned that your friends had just conducted the largest terrorist attack in history?

Zammar: There wasn't any mention of who had done it in the beginning. I thought it was the Japanese.

DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: The Japanese?

Zammar: Yes, as revenge for Hiroshima. The names and pictures of my friends became known a little later. But I couldn't believe it.

DER SPIEGEL: Why not?

Zammar: I didn't think they were capable of that.

DER SPIEGEL: And then the police came?

Zammar: No, I was in Reyhanli, a town on the Turkish-Syrian border. I was traveling with my wife, who wanted to visit relatives in Syria. I flew back a few days later. A cousin told me that all hell had broken loose and that there had been a police raid. I decided to lay low at my brother's place. Days later, a policeman rang there, and left a note with a subpoena. I then went to the police and they immediately detained me.

DER SPIEGEL: Which isn't very surprising given that you had brought the group of attackers together, you had praised the jihad in Hamburg and you had been to Afghanistan five times. Why shouldn't the investigators have suspected you were involved in the attacks?

Zammar: But if that were the case, I wouldn't have come back to Germany from Turkey! I would have fled to Afghanistan or somewhere else. I said that I had read the Koran together with Atta and the others, and that we had eaten and gone to the mosque together. But I didn't know anything about the attacks. With God as my witness.

DER SPIEGEL: If you had known about the plans, would you have tried to stop your friends?

Zammar: I don't know. I was so angry about American politics. Really, I don't know.

DER SPIEGEL: When you were released again in October 2001, were you advised to stay in Germany for the time being?

Zammar: On the contrary. When I got out, I told the police I wanted to visit my second wife in Morocco. They said: No problem!

DER SPIEGEL: And you went. And it was only when you wanted to fly back to Hamburg from Casablanca that your journey began to take a very different course.

Zammar: I was kidnapped at the airport. It had probably been arranged by the Americans. In prison, the Moroccans beat me and doused me with cold water until I had almost lost consciousness and was trembling all over my body. It was December and cold. It went on like this for two weeks. Even though I'm a German citizen, they brought me to Syria. I was put in the "Palestine Branch" in the basement.

DER SPIEGEL: You're talking about a department of the military intelligence service notorious for its brutality and its prison.

Zammar: We prisoners called our ward the "Tomb of the Living." I was locked up in a tiny cell there for two years and 10 months. It was very narrow and 1.8 meters long. But I'm 1.93 meters tall and I could never stretch out. There was only a tiny peep hole for light in my cell -- otherwise it was always dark. During that time, I was allowed on three different occasions to see the sky in the courtyard for a half-hour. Three times in almost three years.

DER SPIEGEL: What happened to you there?

Zammar: I wasn't beaten in the first month. But then it began: with fists, with cables, in the face, on the soles of the feet. Sometimes they'd squeeze me into a car tire and hang me up and then beat me. One time they broke my jaw. Another time, they beat my feet so hard they turned black and stayed that way for a long time.

The German government bears at least some of the responsibility, if only indirectly, for Zammar's torture. Even though there was a lack of evidence to keep Zammar detained in Germany, this didn't stop the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), which had Zammar wiretapped and under observation, from sharing detailed information on at least two occasions with the American FBI about his trip to Morocco.

This meant the CIA was also aware that Zammar was booked on a KLM flight from Casablanca on Dec. 8, 2001, at 6:45 a.m., and "according to the information available, that he intended to take the planned return flight."

But a Moroccan SWAT team arrested him. He was interrogated for two weeks before the Americans transferred him to Syria.

Instead of campaigning for Zammar's release, the German government agreed on a deal with the head of Syria's military intelligence. In exchange for access to Zammar in prison in Syria, the Germans dropped an espionage investigation against two Syrian nationals in Germany.

With the knowledge of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the chief of staff at the Chancellery at the time, August Hanning, the then-head of Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, and Ernst Uhrlau, the intelligence coordinator at the Chancellery, decided to send five officials to Damascus: two men from the BND, two from the Office of the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which monitors extremism in Germany, and one from the BKA.

When they arrived in Damascus on Nov. 20, 2002, the five German officials were introduced to Zammar in sweatpants. He complained to them about being beaten. Zammar had lost a lot of weight, but he didn't seem underfed.

They spent three days talking to Zammar. He proved to be cooperative, and the officials were pleased afterward that he had helped them to identify photos of suspected fellow combatants. Notes on the meeting protocol of the agencies involved indicated the results had been "good to very good." They were hoping they would be able to speak with Zammar frequently.

But that didn't happen. A BKA official noted in 2003 that the BfV had "considerable reservations." They feared Zammar may have said things that could put him at risk of getting sentenced to death in Syria.

DER SPIEGEL: How did the three days of questioning by the German investigators at the end of 2002 go?

Zammar: Was it three days? Or two? I can't remember exactly. Two of them asked questions and one took notes on his laptop. They weren't friendly. They weren't brutal either -- just frosty. I told them what was happening here and asked them to help me get back to Germany. One of them just said: Dream on!

DER SPIEGEL: Did you go straight to prison in Aleppo after spending nearly three years in the basement of the "Palestine Section?"

Zammar: Oh, no. I was transferred to Saydnaya, the huge prison north of Damascus. I experienced three prisoner revolts there in 2008. The warden climbed a fire ladder and shot people randomly from above. Injured people were beaten to death. Afterward, I returned to the "Palestine Department," then again to Saydnaya, later to another prison and then to Aleppo.

DER SPIEGEL: What exactly did you do for the Islamic State?

Zammar: At first, the Islamic State wasn't quite a state yet in Aleppo. More like a group, like the other 30 or 40 groups that were there. Then, in early 2014, there was a sneak attack by the Free Syrian Army and I had to flee the city with my wife.

DER SPIEGEL: The woman with whom you were arrested last winter?

Zammar: No, this was yet another one. What am I supposed to do? My wife in Hamburg couldn't come to me and I couldn't go to Germany. But I need a woman who takes care of me. And who I take care of and who gives me children. We went to al-Bab, a town further east, and stayed there for three years. I took care of the mujahedeen's guest houses. I made sure there was no laundry, food or garbage lying around. I did that for a while, and then worked in the General Relations Department as a mediator for arguing tribes or married couples that didn't get along anymore. Then I was dispatched as a supervisor to the workers' groups. In the end, I was supposed to go to the media department, but by then everything was already falling apart.

The interview draws to a close. Zammar's minders are getting impatient. But Zammar still wants to get something off his chest. He says that if IS tortured "unjustly," then that would be forbidden. He didn't join IS to spread terror, he says, adding that he wants human rights but not democracy. Democracy is idolatry.

Such is the reality of a man set in his ways. At the same time, Zammar's case shows just how difficult it can be legally to hold an intellectual proponent of terrorism accountable; he was always present, but never involved. What is clear is that he traveled to Afghanistan five times. That he was the first person to bring the 9/11 attackers together and that he urged ditherers like future suicide pilot Marwan al-Shehhi to not waver in their faith. And that the 9/11 attackers left him in the dark while they planned the biggest terrorist attack in history. And that he ended up with the Islamic State.

In the past, everyone wanted to talk to him, whether the CIA or German intelligence officials. Today, he could be tried in court in Germany due to his IS membership. Germany's chief federal prosecutor has issued an arrest warrant against him.

But it's possible Germany doesn't want him anymore. No country wants to take back IS fighters who only pose a danger back home.

When approached for comment, the Foreign Ministry in Berlin tersely stated that consular assistance in the Kurdish region of northern Syria is unfortunately not possible.

DER SPIEGEL: So, what now?

Zammar: I hope that the Germans responsible for my case will talk to me. I was a good neighbor in Germany. Ask around in my neighborhood. Ask my teachers. I'm not a bad person.

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