In their eagerness to capture a supposed terrorist, Khaled al-Masri's abductors broke the law, took him to Afghanistan and allegedly mistreated him for months at a secret camp there. In the end, they simply dropped the 42-year-old off on a roadside in the Albanian mountains.
When al-Masri later tried to enter the country of his tormentors, American investigators detained him once again. But this time the Americans were anxious to get rid of the German citizen as quickly as possible.
After Delta Airlines flight Dl-117 from Stuttgart landed in Atlanta shortly after 4 p.m. on Nov. 28, the two passengers from seats 30F and 30G in Economy Class didn't even make it to the passport checkpoint. As soon as al-Masri and his attorney, Manfred Gnjidic, reached the end of the jetway, two officials took them aside and told them that they wanted to ask them a few questions. When the lawyer reached for his mobile phone, a third US official snapped: "It looks like you're reaching for a gun. Put it back, or I'll shoot."
After an interrogation lasting more than an hour, the officials said that Gnjidic was welcome to enter the United States, "but not Mr. al-Masri," who was deported immediately. Unable to get a direct flight back to Germany, and seeking to avoid a night in US detention -- "It reminded of the first time I was kidnapped," says al-Masri -- the man finally boarded a flight to Stuttgart via Paris.
Now he's back home in the town of Senden an der Iller, about 10 kilometers from the southern German city of Neu-Ulm. Senden is about as far away from jihad as a typical German prison is from the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. It's a model community, a town of clean sidewalks surrounded by the flat Swabian countryside, a place where city dwellers come to relax. It's also a town of 23,000 sufficiently inquisitive neighbors who live up to the cliché of Germans being thorough -- at least when it comes to making sure nothing is out of place in their community.
But the Americans were mistaken if they thought that they would be getting rid of al-Masri by sending him back to the German countryside. Last Tuesday, the Lebanese-German was beamed in via satellite to join a press conference given by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington. When the pony-tailed al-Masri appeared on the screen at 9:39 p.m. wearing a suit jacket, his shirt open at the collar, the major US television networks were on hand with their cameras rolling. When the devout Muslim described his brutal treatment at the hands of CIA agents, it was immediately clear that the press conference would be a PR disaster for the US government.
Even some Bush supporters are beginning to feel that their country's war on terror has gotten out of hand . Despite its complexities and the fact that some of the details remain unresolved, the al-Masri case has exposed one important reality: The CIA, America's overseas intelligence agency, has behaved just as ruthlessly on the sovereign territory of its allies as anywhere else. Germany, for one, isn't just a cooperative partner for the CIA. Germany is also an operations region, sometimes with and sometimes without the knowledge of German authorities -- even when this violates German law.
Quiet German tolerance
German intelligence officials estimate that more than 100 CIA officials are currently working in Germany, although only the Americans know the exact number. They work at the US Embassy in Berlin, but also in Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg and, together with German intelligence agencies, at the German counterterrorism center in Berlin. Some of their work is as mundane as writing reports and discussing analyses, but they also recruit sources and observe suspects. And whenever the US agents, operating in Germany under the title "Joint Intelligence Services," become too conspicuous, German officials don't seem to have any qualms about looking the other way. "When these kinds of problematic cases land on our desks," says an interior minister of one of Germany's states, "we keep one eye tightly shut, so that we don't end up having to do something that would be very embarrassing."
Because of this unwritten policy, the normal diplomatic procedure of deporting anyone who is discovered to be an agent -- a fate that befell the Russian consul in Hamburg late last year -- only rarely applies to the Americans. On the contrary, US agents have benefited tremendously from the Germans' special relationship with their erstwhile liberators from abroad.
Thanks to the Cold War, the CIA managed to gain a stronger foothold in Germany than in any other European country. In no other country were so many active US agents, and in no other country were they as appreciated as in the former West Germany.
To this day, the CIA is a natural partner for German intelligence agencies when it comes to counter-intelligence. For example, when Germany military counter-intelligence discovered in the summer of 2004 that Russian consul Alexander Kusmin was trying to extract information from a German army employee, the Cologne-based agency turned to the CIA for assistance. Together, the Germans and the Americans observed the Russian diplomat during several suspicious meetings, and ultimately tried to bring him over to their side. If Kusmin had been willing to switch sides, the CIA would have provided him with a new identity.
But in many cases the Germans are kept completely in the dark when it comes to the CIA operations in Germany. The Americans' aggressive approach is also controversial among German security agencies. According to one agent, many Germans resent their American big brothers, "who are always taking and are only willing to give when it serves their interests." And, as to be expected of people operating in the spy game, the typical American agent trusts only one person -- himself.
Targeted in Neu-Ulm?
The idea of not keeping an ally in the loop, even when one of its own citizens is at issue, apparently applied to al-Masri, whose name was on a CIA blacklist. According to the official version, it was a case of mistaken identity. One of the key al-Qaida figures behind the September 11 attacks, a Yemeni living in Hamburg named Ramzi Binalshibh, allegedly mentioned the name of "Khalid al-Masri" as someone who worshipped terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and provided the Hamburg terrorists who committed the Sept. 11 attacks with tips during a chance meeting. This, at least, is the version documented by the US commission investigating the attacks. According to the report, the German Muslim from Neu-Ulm became the target of an illegal abduction because agents confused him with the man Binalshibh had mentioned, who remains at large to this day.
All of this fits the picture of al-Masri that has existed in Neu-Ulm until now. In 1985, al-Masri, the son of Lebanese parents, emigrated to Germany from his war-torn homeland. He first worked as a carpenter and, in 1995, became a German citizen. Al-Masri is a soft-spoken man with green eyes who speaks German with a Swabian dialect. After completing his carpentry apprenticeship, he worked as a truck driver for some time and eventually drifted into the used car business. He is married, has five young sons and is considered a well-integrated immigrant.
The affair began on a very private level, with an ordinary marital spat. According to al-Masri, the quarrel was so severe that he felt the need to spend a week alone, to have some time to sort out his thoughts. With the objective of embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, says al-Masri, he simply took a look at a map and picked out the Macedonian capital, Skopje, which is near the country's border with Kosovo.
Just why al-Masri was so attracted to this volatile region, of all places, is one of the unanswered questions in what one German government official calls a "case rife with comic twists and contradictions." Al-Masri's explanation is simple and to the point: He says that he remembered that friends had once said that Skopje was a good place for a cheap vacation. But he never arrived in Skopje, at least not officially. He was last seen on Dec. 31, 2003 at Kumanovo, a border crossing between Serbia and Macedonia.
A second, considerably more disturbing version of the story suggests that the abduction might be more than just a simple mistake, but rather part of a secret CIA plan that was first hatched in the southern German countryside.
Was al-Masri's abduction planned? Continue reading on page 2.
In December 1998, several intelligence agencies reported that the commander of the Mujahedeen brigade in Bosnia was planning to smuggle explosives into southern Germany. Three German agencies, the BKA Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, the country's domestic intelligence agency (Verfassungsschutz) and the BND foreign intelligence agency were alarmed. So was the CIA, and it urged the Germans to act quickly. On Jan. 8, 1999, border officials searched a tour bus and detained a courier who was carrying ten detonators destined for an Algerian in the southwestern German city of Freiburg.
The only problem was that the hasty arrest forced German prosecutors to produce evidence. This prompted the CIA to take a closer look at extremist circles in Freiburg, acting almost as if it were a German domestic intelligence agency. And because French agents and a fourth intelligence agency were also active in a region where Germany, France and Switzerland come together, Freiburg turned into a hornet's nest of intelligence agents around the year 2000.
All of these agents soon realized that the jihadists were gradually moving northeastward, toward Neu-Ulm. And when Egyptian-born German Reda Seyam, who had been in prison in Indonesia for some time and was viewed throughout Europe as one of the most influential proponents of holy war, arrived in Neu-Ulm it immediately set off alarm bells in Langley.
The CIA had wanted to arrest Seyam in Indonesia, and if he hadn't been escorted by German agents when he was released in July 2003, he could very well have ended up in one of the American secret prisons. Instead, the CIA was forced to make do with analyzing Seyam's computer. The bearded fundamentalist moved to Neu-Ulm, where he met al-Masri. The two men soon became such good friends that they decided to share an apartment. The third man in the group was a radical Egyptian imam named Yehaia Y., who worked for the local Verfassungsschutz office in the state of Baden-Württemberg.
According to German intelligence sources, the Americans scoured Neu-Ulm and began carefully watching a multicultural center frequented by Seyam, al-Masri and Yehaia Y. Indeed, it was then that they may have already decided that al-Masri was a worthwhile target.
This theory is supported by the fact that al-Masri was repeatedly questioned about the multicultural center when he was being interrogated in Afghanistan. At the Serbian-Macedonian border, three men speaking broken English had apparently asked him whether he had any contact with Islamist organizations. According to al-Masri, he was questioned for four hours and was then put in a civilian car with no license plate and told that he was being taken to his hotel.
Held in Macedonia
While the Macedonians on the streets of Skopje were busy celebrating New Year's, al-Masri, as he claims, was sitting in a room on the top floor of the Skopskimerak Hotel next to three sinister-looking, trigger-happy guards carrying automatic weapons. The men spoke only broken English, but when al-Masri asked for an interpreter his request was denied. When he demanded to speak with someone at the German embassy, or at least an attorney or his wife, he was told that it would be impossible. Instead, one of the guards said: "You can sleep now, but we stay here."
The makeshift prison cell where al-Masri says he spent the next 23 days, complete with a double bed, a minibar and a whirlpool tub, was comfortable enough, but the guards kept the curtains drawn day and night. The 24-hour Macedonian security detail consisted of three teams of three men each. When al-Masri tried to get up and leave the room on the third day, he says, they drew their weapons and pointed them at his head.
According to al-Masri, he was taken to the airport on Jan. 23 and turned over to a team of Americans wearing black clothing and masks. Al-Masri claims that the Americans forcibly removed his clothes, photographed and tortured him until, blindfolded and with earplugs in his ears, he was finally taken to a jet.
According to the research al-Masri's attorneys conducted later on, a suspicious plane did indeed land at the Skopje airport on that evening. At exactly 8:51 p.m., a Boeing 737-7ET executive jet came to a stop on the runway. The plane had come from the Spanish island of Mallorca and, as Spanish investigators later learned, there were 13 US citizens holding diplomatic passports on board. The call letters on the private aircraft were N313P, and it was registered to a Dedham, Massachusetts-based company called "Premier Executive Transport Services Inc.," allegedly a CIA cover business against which al-Masri's attorney filed a lawsuit last week. The plane took off again around midnight and, after a brief stop in Baghdad, continued on to Kabul, Afghanistan.
When al-Masri woke up from the anesthesia that had been used to keep him under control for the flight, he was in a cold, dirty concrete cell, its walls covered in graffiti in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi. A military blanket on the bare floor served as a bed and a sack filled with old clothing as a pillow. There was no fresh drinking water, only a bottle filled with a brackish liquid that al-Masri says "smelled like an aquarium that hasn't cleaned in weeks."
Taken to the "Salt Pit"
His attorney is convinced that al-Masri ended up in the "Salt Pit," an abandoned brick factory in northern Kabul that the CIA used as a prison for terrorism suspects. Although it would be next to impossible to determine exactly what happened in Afghanistan, every passage in al-Masri's report that Munich investigators have managed to verify has so far proven to be accurate.
Al-Masri says that he was repeatedly interrogated in the "Salt Pit," mostly at night, guarded by commandos wearing black masks and monitored by a masked American doctor who tersely explained to al-Masri that the Afghans were responsible for the conditions at the prison. The interrogator, who apparently spoke Arabic with a southern Lebanese accent, told him that he was "in a country where there are no longer any laws." When he failed to confess any ties to terrorists, he was told: "If you aren't cooperative, we'll just leave you in your cell and forget about you."
Al-Masri began a hunger strike, until two unmasked Americans appeared, whom he called the "prison warden" and "boss." According to al-Masri, the men ordered him to be force-fed, and later made sure that he received better food and pain medication.
Al-Masri says he was again taken to the interrogation room in early May, where an American who introduced himself as a "psychologist" told him that he was from Washington and just wanted to ask him a few questions. "What do you plan to do when you get out?" the man asked. "I think you'll be released soon."
The one aspect of al-Masri's story that German intelligence agents find most intriguing is his claim that the interrogators repeatedly asked him about the group of Islamic extremists in Neu-Ulm and about Egyptian-born German Reda Seyam -- assuming that al-Masri described the conversations accurately. If this is true, the abduction might not just have been the result of a case of mistaken identity at the Macedonian border, but instead possibly a part of a CIA operation that had apparently already produced results in Neu-Ulm -- except that they had been misinterpreted. The officials from the Verfassungsschutz, who had received information about al-Masri from Yehaia Y., had classified al-Masri as an insignificant player, a conclusion that the Americans only reached after months of torture.
If it turns out, now that the CIA's story is coming to light, that the Americans targeted al-Masri while he was still in Neu-Ulm, thereby endangering the life of a German citizen, the CIA's overall role in Germany could come under intense scrutiny.
Increased cooperation with Germany
After Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA embarked on a period of close cooperation with German security officials, exchanging information to an unprecedented extent. Nevertheless, the interior minister of one German state is correct in saying today that "the Americans do as they wish" -- especially when they believe that certain incidents reach beyond the confines of a small German town and potentially touch on larger issues, as was the case in late 2001, only a few months following the attacks on America.
A Middle Eastern intelligence agency had intercepted a telephone conversation between Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and a supporter in Germany, in which the two men discussed an attack in Germany. The call offered the hottest lead to the Jordanian, who now heads al-Qaida operations in Iraq and -- next to Osama bin Laden -- is the world's most-wanted man. The intercepted phone conversation resulted in one of the biggest investigations in many years, leading agents to a Jordanian in Wiesbaden named Shadi Abdallah who, according to his employment papers, was working in a store called "Autowelt."
German agents watched the shop for days, keeping track of the vehicles of "Autowelt" customers and those of local residents. They soon figured out that a dark-colored BMW with a US license plate from nearby Mainz that showed up every morning and parked a few spaces down the street, also apparently to watch the store, belonged to neither a customer nor a resident. When they checked out the license plate, they discovered that the car was registered to an American unit specializing in surveillance. It was obvious that the CIA had sent agents to observe the Zarqawi cell without notifying the Germans. When the German investigators later questioned the Americans, officials at US headquarters coolly deflected an official inquiry, claiming that the men in the BMW were merely US soldiers waiting for a friend.
The CIA's robust attitude toward conducting surveillance and obtaining information was also evident in a case involving the al-Nur mosque in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood. German authorities saw the mosque, where a Saudi diplomat had been observed meeting frequently with radical Islamists, as a potentially valuable source of information, and it was under constant surveillance.
It therefore came as a surprise to officials at Verfassungsschutz when the CIA offered them an operation: the joint management of a source with whom the Americans had apparently been in contact for some time and now appeared to be willing to share. Verfassungsschutz wasn't comfortable with the plan and rejected the offer. But the Berlin police, to whom the Americans had also offered their source, accepted.
In March 2003, information provided by the informant led to the arrest of Tunisian Ihsan Garnaoui, an Afghanistan returnee who had been found near the al-Nur mosque with forged documents and a pistol in his luggage. The informant's contact at the Berlin police later testified against Garnaoui and read the informant's incriminatory statements to the court. Garnaoui was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. The CIA's role in the affair, which would have been highly suspect from a legal standpoint, was never mentioned in court.
Visited by a German?
The Munich public prosecutor's office pursued al-Masri's suspicion that his case could also have involved a similarly unconventional liaison between trans-Atlantic partners, as was the case in Berlin. Al-Masri spoke at length to the investigators about a German whom he claimed interrogated him prior to his release. The man, al-Masri says, was in his early forties, had brown hair, spoke with a northern German accent, and introduced himself as "Sam" and offered al-Masri tea and cookies. When al-Masri asked him whether he was with the German authorities, "Sam" said that he couldn't answer the question. "Give me two days and I'll check with Germany," the man apparently said, and told al-Masri that he would be released within a week. Al-Masri also claims that the German told him that his return trip would take him through several detours, so that no one could tie the incident to the Americans. On the morning of May 28, 2004, according to al-Masri, he was taken to the Kabul airport, where his luggage was returned to him and he was blindfolded and placed onto a smaller aircraft. There were several Americans on board, says al-Masri, as well as "Sam," who told him that "we have a new president in Germany."
Martin Hofman, the Munich prosecutor in charge of the case, took al-Masri's testimony so seriously that he requested passenger lists from the German army, which provides transport between Germany and Kabul -- but the results were inconclusive. The German government and intelligence agencies have vehemently denied having had any early knowledge about the abduction, claiming that sole responsibility rests with the CIA which, after all, had already demonstrated in the past that it was only willing to enlighten the Germans when it became unavoidable -- as in the case of the arrest of a high-ranking al-Qaida official in Munich.
On Sept. 16, 1998, when a German police special unit overpowered al-Qaida's presumed finance chief, Mahmoud Salim, on a used car lot near Munich, the masterminds of the operation were CIA agents. The Germans hadn't even noticed that the man who allegedly provided the financing for the bomb attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Daressalam had entered the country. But the Americans knew exactly what Salim was up to, and then chose to confide in their German counterparts at the last minute. The Bavarian Interior Ministry was only made aware of the existence of an arrest warrant issued by the New York Federal Court five hours before the requested arrest.
The Salim investigation led both German agencies and the CIA to two Hamburg Islamists, both Germans of Syrian extraction, Mamoun Darkazanli and Mohammed Zammar. The two men proved to be so on the move that CIA took matters into its own hands when legal obstacles prevented the German authorities from arresting the duo.
Concerns about US operatives
Thomas V., whose engraved business card identifies him as "Consul of the United States of America" at the General Consulate in Hamburg, took over the Darkazanli case. The German agents quickly became annoyed with the aggressive American and his insistent demands that they "work over" Darkazanli, a businessman -- in other words, convince him to cooperate. The Germans had no intention of complying with the CIA agent's wishes, which led to increasingly heated debates behind closed doors. When the Hamburg agents discovered that Thomas V. had decided to take matters into his own hands, there was a blowup. The consul was summoned to the Chancellery and threatened with arrest if he was found to be involved in espionage activities.
Years later, Mohammed Zammar discovered just how dogged the CIA can be. In late 2001, the Americans had him detained in Morocco and flown to Damascus, Syria, where he has been held in a dungeon-like cell ever since (SPIEGEL 47/2005).
Zammar was one of the first human spoils of war in a system that involves the secret transport of prisoners. The US airbase at Ramstein, Germany, serves as a central hub for US troops in Europe, and the CIA team in charge of the "extraordinary renditions" program probably took some of its prisoners to Ramstein before sending them on to Guantanamo, Kabul, Egypt and Jordan.
Germany has always played a critical role as a logistical base for US authorities. In the year 2000 alone, for example, when the Bush doctrine of secret transports hadn't yet been created, German air traffic control recorded 53 flight movements by two aircraft used by the CIA. But then, after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the number of CIA flights increased dramatically. The CIA used German air space 137 times in 2002 and 146 times in 2003. In at least one case, a prisoner was secretly transported through Germany: Egyptian national Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a.k.a. Abu Omar.
The CIA abducted the 40-year-old radical imam in downtown Milan at noon on Feb. 17, 2003 and took him to Aviano, a US airbase in northern Italy, and then to Ramstein. A CIA Learjet touched down in Ramstein at 8:30 p.m. local time on Feb. 17, 2003. According to an investigation by the German public prosecutor's office in nearby Zweibrücken, the CIA agents promptly transferred Abu Omar to a Gulfstream jet. Propelled by its twin BMW-Rolls Royce engines, the 19-seat, $50-million jet travels at a cruising speed of 930 kilometers per hour (578 mph). And at a cruising altitude of up to 15,500 meters (50,853 feet), the Gulfstream can travel unnoticed high above ordinary passenger aircraft.
It took the agents one hour to transfer the imam to the Gulfstream, almost as if he had been little more than a bulky piece of luggage. Then the Americans flew him to Cairo, where he disappeared into an Egyptian prison, where he likely remains imprisoned today.
One reason the abduction via Ramstein is such a delicate issue is that the German government has consistently claimed that although it was aware of flights operated by American aircraft, it had no knowledge as to whether these flights involved secret prisoner transports.
Although international flights are required to provide German air traffic control with their flight plans, the Germans are only interested in the aircraft model and its cruising speed. After all, their job is merely to control the movements of jets flying according to instrument-based flight rules. And when aircraft are bound for the US Air Force bases at Ramstein and Spangdahlem, German authorities are left completely in the dark, because these airbases and the surrounding air space are controlled by the US military.
But these information gaps no longer exist, at least in the case of the Egyptian imam. Italian authorities have launched an investigation, and the public prosecutor's office in Zweibrücken is also investigating parties unknown. The Germans are also attempting to identify the CIA agents who transferred Abu Omar at Ramstein, which would mean that they did so on German soil. An abduction via German territory is one of the issues that the German government has now been asked to explain to the Council of Europe. Berlin has been given a deadline of Feb. 21, 2006.
DOMINIK CZIESCHE, PER HINRICHS, GEORG MASCOLO, SVEN RÖBEL, HEINER SCHIMMÖLLER, HOLGER STARK, ANDREAS ULRICH, ANDREAS WASSERMANN
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan