Christian Ganczarski is sitting in the front left-hand corner of a glass box with rectangular ventilation slits. Five armed gendarmes are standing behind him. The 42-year-old is wearing a gray suit jacket with a light green shirt, long sideburns and a neatly trimmed beard. He has made himself comfortable in this aquarium in the middle of the courtroom.
Ganczarski sits on a wooden bench, with an assortment of materials he is using during his trial lined up next to him. They include a Koran in German translation, documents from the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation's (BKA's) investigation of him, files in a plastic shopping bag from a supermarket chain and a bottle of water.
He's a combative defendant. He corrects the translators and holds up his original testimony in German, quotes from the Koran and accuses the judge of bias. A suspected confidant of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, he waves cheerfully to his former BKA interrogators. He has learned a few words of French, including "merci," "exactement" and "bonjour." But when he speaks German, Ganczarski still sounds like a soccer player from Germany's industrial Ruhr region.
Less than seven years after the April 11, 2002 attack on the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, in which 21 people, including 14 Germans, were burned to death, Muslim convert Ganczarski is on trial in Paris. He stands accused of being one of the masterminds of the attack, of involvement in many murders and attempted murders, and of membership in the al-Qaida terrorist organization.
The other defendants are the brother of the suicide bomber, who is believed to have helped prepare the attack, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The sheikh, who is suspected of having provided financial support for the Djerba attack and had several telephone conversations with the suicide bomber before the incident, is being tried in absentia. He is being held at Guantanamo.
With Ganczarksi, a man alleged to have been an early member of al-Qaida, is standing trial. He is believed to have recruited fighters in the western German cities of Krefeld and Essen as long ago as 1991. For German criminal prosecutors, his career represents a string of failures that highlight how difficult it is to sentence someone like him.
Born in the Polish city of Gliwice to strict Catholic parents, Ganczarski began his path to jihad in Mülheim an der Ruhr, a city in western Germany, in the early 1990s. His family had moved to Germany in 1976. Ten years later, Ganczarski converted to Islam and was married in a mosque in nearby Dortmund. In 1992, he received a scholarship for religious studies in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
In mid-August 1999, Ganczarski traveled to a training camp in Afghanistan for the first time. He returned to Afghanistan five more times by the end of 2001, even going there a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. British witness Jack Roche, 55, a former al-Qaida activist, who testified by video conference in Paris, said that Ganczarski was permitted to sit next to Osama bin Laden and conversed with him for a long time in a dining room containing 200 people. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed also knew Ganczarski, who is believed to have taken messages to bin Laden for him.
During the Paris trial, Ganczarski has repeatedly dismissed the charges as nonsense. In his closing arguments in the case on Thursday, Ganczarski told the Paris court that he "never had knowledge of an attack" and that his trips to Afghanistan had nothing to do with any such planning. He said he neither supported the Djerba attack nor any similar ones.
When asked in earlier testimony about a propaganda video that shows him on Jan. 8, 2001 sitting in the first row, together with about 100 armed fighters at al-Qaida's Tarnak Farm training camp, where bin Laden was speaking, he responded: "It was not a terrorist meeting, but an open-air prayer session. Don't you see the shoes people have removed and placed next to the prayer rugs?" When the judge asked him what he had to say about the fact that Mohammed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 pilots, could be seen sitting a few rows behind him, Ganczarski replied: "When you go to the theater, do you know everyone in the audience? I can't help it if I know people you don't like."
But there is more evidence of Ganczarski's position in the al-Qaida hierarchy. One is a document found in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2002 that identifies him, under his combat name, Abu Mohammed al-Alamani, as a contact for the recruitment of new terrorists. Another is a set of laminated cards American soldiers found on the bodies of dead al-Qaida fighters. The radio codes of high-ranking al-Qaida members are listed on the cards, including that of Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Mohammed al-Alamani, a.k.a. Ganczarski. His radio code was CG 135.
The Paris prosecutors will find it more difficult to prove Ganczarski's complicity in the Djerba bombing than his membership in al-Qaida. That's because there is only one piece of evidence tying him to the attack. Suicide bomber Nizar Nawar called Ganczarski in Duisburg at 6:18 a.m. on the morning of the terrorist strike. The two men knew each other from Afghanistan, where they had spent time together. Nawar asked his German friend for his dawaa, or blessing. A short time later, he ignited 5,000 liters of liquid gas at the synagogue on Djerba.
Because Ganczarski was at the time already under observation by German authorities, the conversation was recorded. Two French experts say that the evidence was clear. A Muslim would not have asked for Allah's blessing without good reason. Ganczarski, say the French experts, must have known about the attack.
In Germany, however, the call was not even seen as sufficient evidence to justify taking Ganczarski into custody. He was arrested in Mülheim shortly after Djerba, but was released a few days later. "Does this mean that the defendant was able to move around freely, and that he could even have destroyed incriminating documents during this time?" the incredulous Paris judge asked a BKA official who had been summoned to testify. "Yes, that is correct," the man said, lowering his head -- as if he could have changed things.
In November 2002, Ganczarski and his family absconded to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrims' visa. Officials there, though lacking any al-Qaida-related information about Ganczarski, tried to get rid of him, as a government delegation told the German ambassador in the capital Riyadh in the spring of 2003. By then Ganczarski's pilgrim's visa had long expired.
The German government felt that it was under more pressure in this matter than in almost any other case. Agents working for the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had complained, on several occasions, that Berlin was not doing enough to fight terrorism. Then Interior Minister Otto Schily wanted to put the suspect behind bars, but failed when Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm argued that there was insufficient evidence.
As a result, a completely different deal materialized. In coordination with the CIA, the French and the Saudis, the German suspect was placed on an Air France flight to Frankfurt, via Paris. But when he arrived in Paris, on the morning of June 6, 2003, six officials with the French domestic intelligence agency fished him out of the crowd. Jean-Louis Brugière, the investigating judge in the case, had issued the arrest warrant -- without so much as a second's delay.
"A very nice operation," says Ganczarski's lawyer, Sébastien Bono, "but one could also call it kidnapping." Since then Ganczarski, a German citizen, has been in French detention awaiting trial -- for the past five-and-a-half years. "It borders on a human rights violation," says Bono.
The court is expected to pronounce its verdict by the end of the week. Prosecutors are asking the judges to impose a sentence of 30 years if Ganczarski is convicted. Ganczarski could be sentenced to 10 years in prison for the lesser charge of al-Qaida membership. But if prosecutors can prove he was involved in Djerba, he could be put away for at least 20 years.
Back in Germany, a conviction could provide delayed gratification for both prosecutors and the surviving victims, many of whom were seriously injured in the attack.