On the Trail of Said Bahaji 9/11 Conspirator Reported to Be Living in Pakistan
Ten years after 9/11, the Moroccan-German Said Bahaji is one of the last remaining members of al-Qaida's Hamburg cell who is still at large. Now, German jihadists have told investigators that Bahaji is living in Pakistan's Waziristan region, where he works for al-Qaida's propaganda wing.
One day in May 2010, one of the world's most wanted criminals turned up in Mir Ali, a town in the heart of Pakistan's lawless Waziristan region. He was limping heavily and accompanied by his wife and children. Together they were looking for a house where a few men from Germany had been living for some time. The men had come from Hamburg to join the jihad and fight. Word had spread throughout Mir Ali that they were here, in this melting pot of militant Islamists near the border with Afghanistan.
When the limping visitor called on the house of the German jihadists, they quickly struck up a conversation. The visitor was also from Hamburg. His name was Said Bahaji, and he is one of the co-conspirators in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. His wanted picture is on display in airports and railway stations and on the website of Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA). The image reveals a serious-looking, pale young man with curved lips, a carefully trimmed beard and black, combed-back hair.
In Mir Ali, the Germans started chatting cozily as if they were sitting around a campfire, with much revolutionary romanticism. Bahaji recounted that he had been traveling without any documents after he had to abandon his German identification papers when the Americans launched an air strike, forcing the fighters on the ground to flee. Indeed, Pakistani troops found his passport in 2009, in an abandoned mud hut in a village in Waziristan.
Bahaji stayed in Mir Ali for a long time on this particular day. It seemed as if he were homesick for the company of people who, like himself, were from Germany. It wasn't until that evening that he set off together with his wife and children -- and disappeared without trace once again in the no-man's-land on the Pakistani-Afghan border.
One of the Last Fugitives
Said Bahaji, 36, is one of the last remaining fugitives from the Hamburg al-Qaida cell, which unleashed a wave of terror on the world. He left Germany eight days before "Operation Holy Tuesday," as the 9/11 attacks are known among al-Qaida operatives. His friends, the suicide pilots led by Mohammed Atta, are dead -- as is al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden. The chief planners of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his aide Ramzi Binalshibh, are behind bars in Guantanamo, and al-Qaida recruiter Mohammed Zammar is in prison in Damascus.
Bahaji is a fascinating phenomenon. He has managed to subsist and survive in the mountains of Waziristan for 10 years now, in one of the most dangerous regions in the world. He survived the battle for Afghanistan, where he fought the Americans on the side of bin Laden. He has eluded drone attacks, the CIA's special forces and the BKA's investigators, who have tracked him all these years -- and who were electrified when they heard about the encounter in Mir Ali.
The eyewitness account comes from Rami Makanesi, a German of Syrian extraction from Hamburg who was arrested in June 2010 in Pakistan and is now serving a prison sentence of four years and nine months in the central German town of Weiterstadt. After his arrest, Makanesi became a key witness. He provided information on al-Qaida structures on the ground -- and also on Bahaji and his family. His statements have been supplemented by Ahmad Sidiqi, another Islamist who was later arrested, who had been in Waziristan at the time and had met Bahaji on two occasions. The information provided by Makanesi and Sidiqi is the latest addition to investigative file 2 BJs 67/01-5, which the BKA keeps on Bahaji.
Bahaji, who was born in 1975, grew up in two cultures, in Germany and Morocco. He spent most of his childhood in the small town of Haselünne in the northern German state of Lower Saxony. His mother Anneliese, who married a Moroccan in 1974, affectionately called him Saidchen (German for "little Said"). His father owned a nightclub near Cloppenburg and served beer himself at the bar, but the business didn't do well. When Bahaji was nine years old, the whole family, including the pet German shepherd, moved to the Moroccan town of Meknes. It wasn't until 1995, after graduating from high school, that he returned to northern Germany and enrolled at the Technical University in Hamburg-Harburg as an electrical engineering student, focusing on computer science. He met Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohammed Atta, the men who would later become the ringleaders of the Hamburg cell.
Roommates in Jihad
The inner workings of the German al-Qaida group have now been largely established. Atta, who they called Amir, meaning "leader," was the head, while Binalshibh, who was unable to obtain a visa for the US, served as the link to the al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan. Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi were selected as pilots.
As for Bahaji, the media and investigators dubbed him the "terror logistician." He was the bookkeeper at Marienstrasse 54 in Hamburg, the building that housed the shared apartment where Atta had gathered his most loyal followers. Bahaji lived there for nearly a year, until July 1999. He negotiated with the landlord, made sure that everything was in order with the rental arrangements, so that they wouldn't attract unwanted attention, and set up folders for his roommates to use on his computer.
There were a number of moments in the genesis of September 11 that were decisive for the success or failure of Operation Holy Tuesday. One of these came on a Wednesday in February 1999, nine months before the suicide pilots headed for a training camp in Afghanistan. This was the day when agents working for the Office of the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, first became aware of the Marienstrasse apartment and heard about Bahaji, Atta and Binalshibh.
At 8:48 pm there was a phone call between the wife and father of Mohammed Zammar, a Syrian-born German citizen residing in Hamburg who investigators were keeping under surveillance because he was a known recruiter of jihad volunteers. German authorities had tapped his phone.
Zammar wasn't home, the father told his daughter-in-law, adding that he was in Marienstrasse, in the apartment of "these people," "one named Said , another named Mohammed Amir." He said Zammar was reachable at the Hamburg phone number 76 75 18 30 -- a number listed under Bahaji's name.
Investigators were thus presented with the core of what was to become the Hamburg cell. They heard the names "Said," "Marwan" and "Amir" -- but they meant nothing to them.
- Part 1: 9/11 Conspirator Reported to Be Living in Pakistan
- Part 2: Boycotting the Products of Satan