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.
Boycotting the Products of Satan
Investigators also missed an important wedding on Oct. 9, 1999, when the German arm of al-Qaida convened at the Al-Quds mosque in Hamburg.
The men gathered in the main hall of the mosque, the women in an adjoining room. They were celebrating Bahaji's marriage to his fiancée. There is a photo of the wedding party -- naturally only showing the men -- with everyone arranged in three rows like a school class photo. This group picture includes Atta and Binalshibh.
There was a cheerful mood in the Al-Quds mosque. Binalshibh called out to the group that Jerusalem had to be liberated from the Jews. He started singing jihadist songs, and Marwan al-Shehhi joined in. Investigators saw all of this later, when it was too late, when they found a video of the wedding.
Bahaji had changed since he returned from Morocco to Germany. His interpretation of Islam was now so radical that his sister asked one of his teachers to exert a moderating influence on Bahaji. Said had transformed into a religious zealot who exhorted his family not to drink Coca-Cola and not to smoke Marlboro cigarettes because he contended that they were the products of Satan.
His future wife's family also took note of his religious dogmatism. "Shave off your beard, you look like an old man," his father-in-law said. Bahaji ignored the request. When he preached to his mother's cousin that nail polish and alcohol were not for women, she threw him out of her home. Bahaji merely smiled, stood up and left.
He asked the university administration for a room "modeled after our Protestant classmates," as he wrote. He said that having an Islamic study group would be "a sign of tolerance." When the new first-year students met for a plenary session, he told them about the Islamic study group which he had established along with Atta and Binalshibh. One student asked: "What's this all about? Fundamentalism?" "Of course," Bahaji responded with a smile, "but feel free to drop by, we're not just building bombs here."
'We Never Planned an Attack'
According to early BKA reports, Bahaji "has been identified as the logistics expert of the assailants," but he has repeatedly denied being privy to the plans for "Holy Tuesday." He "really had no knowledge of 9/11," as he wrote to his then-wife after he went into hiding. On April 26, 2002, he sent a letter to his mother Anneliese, in which he offered the following explanation: "We had some good times at Marienstrasse 54, but we never planned an attack." Due to the "allegations by the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation" he wrote that he had to "quietly go into hiding."
Investigators view this as an attempt to whitewash his role in the conspiracy. When Bahaji fled to Pakistan on Sept. 3, 2001 -- supposedly to begin an internship at a software company in Karachi -- the attacks had not taken place and he was not a wanted man. Yet young al-Qaida supporters have testified to seeing Bahaji in al-Qaida camps in Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan during the days following September 11.
Once he reached the region, Bahaji deeply immersed himself in the world of the Islamists. When the Americans attacked the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan in October 2001, Bahaji fought on the side of bin Laden.
On the plane from Hamburg to Karachi, he had shed his old identity. He now no longer called himself Said Bahaji, but Abu Zuhair. An Islamist who later returned to Germany spoke of a leg injury that Bahaji had suffered in battle and cured with honey, a remedy that he also recommended to his wife in Hamburg. "I have experienced the miracle of honey on my own body," he wrote in March 2004 in an e-mail. "The healing process may take a little longer, but it occurs very naturally."
Apparently, the healing process wasn't complete: Following his arrest in the summer of 2010, Ahmad Sidiqi told investigators that Bahaji was dragging one leg and limping heavily, presumably as a result of the wound that had never fully healed.
Marriage Ended in Divorce
The relationship between the terrorist in Afghanistan and his wife in Germany led to a marital crisis that unfolded before the eyes of investigators. His wife, who occasionally wore a black veil when she walked around Hamburg, complained about how she and her child were looked at. She spoke of "Masonic, Satanic influences" among the "kuffar" ("infidels"). "I know that life among the kuffar is horrendous!" was the response from Abu Zuhair, as her husband now called himself. "That's why I've set off to find a better home! And all I can say is that I've found the perfect place, and you should forget everything that you've heard in the media. "
He issued gentle threats, warning that she should not allow any music into the apartment because decadent Western influences could harm his son. He called the Germans "monkeys", and the police "the monkeys of the monkeys." He wanted his wife and their child to come join him; the plan was for them to travel to Pakistan via Turkey. It was an agonizing correspondence for the married couple, who were separated by 5,000 km (3,100 miles) and a war -- and it was agonizing for investigators who were chasing Bahaji, but never managed to localize him in time.
In March 2006, the marriage ended in divorce. "Bring us to you," his wife had urged him, while she presented him with the alternative: "Say these three words: I divorce you."
According to Rami Makanesi, Said Bahaji turned up in Waziristan during the summer of 2010 accompanied by a Spanish woman who was apparently his new wife, and with whom he had a number of children. It looks as if Bahaji has not only put Germany behind him, but also ended his relationship with the mother of his first child. Nonetheless, he misses his son, as he told Sidiqi. The two men have known each other since the days back in Hamburg.
A 'Respected' Individual
When German police interviewed Makanesi in October 2010 in the Weiterstadt prison, investigators had a collection of photos of al-Qaida suspects. Picture number 24 was a shot of Bahaji.
"He now looks completely different," said Makanesi. "He has a long beard and longer hair." Bahaji couldn't be described "as a sheikh," says Makanesi, because he's not one of the leaders on the ground. He says he is "simply a person who is respected because he has been involved for so long" and because he had experienced the American occupation at first hand.
Makanesi and Sidiqi also have other news: Bahaji has now become the voice of jihad. He is working as a speaker for al-Sahab, al-Qaida's media production company, which creates propaganda films. "He reads the texts out loud in Arabic," says Makanesi. Sidiqi adds that Abu Zuhair is also responsible for the technical infrastructure of al-Sahab.
It looks as if Bahaji intends to continue to dedicate his life to al-Qaida, for as long as he can elude his pursuers. The only difference is that the boy from Haselünne, Germany appears to be no longer fighting with weapons, but with words.