By Liz Sly | Washington Submit
QAMISHLI, Syria – There was nothing concerning the hungry, bedraggled man who surrendered at a distant desert checkpoint belonging to america’ Kurdish allies this yr to recommend he had as soon as performed an element in one of many largest occasions in American historical past. He was limping from accidents to each knees, his beard was matted and teeming with lice, and he was fleeing from the Islamic State.
After he recognized himself and checks have been run, the affirmation got here again. This was Mohammed Haydar Zammar, the person who recruited the hijackers who carried out the assaults on Sept. 11, 2001, killing over 2,900 individuals and propelling the USA into endless battle.
In his first interview with a U.S. information group since 2001, carried out in the presence of the Kurdish guards who are holding him at a jail on the outskirts of the Syrian metropolis of Qamishli, Zammar recounted his extraordinary journey. It was one which took him from the earliest days of the al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan to the battlefields of the Islamic State in Syria, by way of a rendition suspected to have been ordered by the CIA.
By his personal account, he performed solely a peripheral position in the occasions that unfolded alongside the best way, a walk-on half in the historical past of the Islamist militant motion. But he was current for a lot of of its milestones, displaying up at key moments and assembly lots of its key gamers.
His story demonstrates the extent to which the ever-evolving terrorist menace that continues to grip the USA has, to a big diploma, been sustained by a core of now-aging Islamist militants who got here of age in the orbit of Osama bin Laden.
Now age 57, Zammar, who holds twin Syrian and German citizenship, is a shrunken shadow of the hulking, closely bearded man who as soon as lectured younger Muslims at al-Quds mosque in Hamburg on their obligation to wage jihad. His captors don’t permit prisoners to develop beards, and his needed to be shaved off due to the lice, he stated through the interview, carried out in the presence of two of his guards.
However one factor has not modified. Investigators of the 9/11 assaults keep in mind him as talkative – maybe too talkative to have been trusted with particulars of the plot.
He nonetheless likes to speak, at size, about himself, about his half in persuading the 9/11 hijackers to journey to Afghanistan for army coaching and concerning the litany of injustices he says america has dedicated towards Muslims.
The al-Quds mosque in Hamburg
Zammar’s household moved to Germany when he was 10, and he first tried to take part in armed battle in 1982, far sooner than has beforehand been reported. He traveled to Jordan in an try and enter Syria to hitch the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Preventing Vanguard, which was engaged in an earlier rebellion towards the ruling Assad household.
He was turned again by the Jordanian authorities, however on the journey he met a person who would play an enormous position in his future: Mohammed al-Bahaiya, generally known as Abu Khaled al-Suri, who would later develop into a key determine in the present Syrian warfare.
At Bahaiya’s invitation, he made his first go to to Afghanistan in 1991, to obtain army coaching at one of many militant camps being run by Bahaiya. Over the subsequent decade, Zammar moved via the militant-Islamist circuit, touring commonly to Afghanistan, volunteering for a stint with al-Qaida-affiliated militants in the warfare in Bosnia and visiting London, the place he befriended the Jordanian Palestinian preacher Abu Qatada, a outstanding determine lengthy suspected by the USA of getting hyperlinks to al-Qaida.
In the meantime, Zammar was creating a circle of followers at Hamburg’s al-Quds mosque, which had turn out to be a magnet for younger Muslims in the town. Zammar says he did not qualify as an imam or preacher on the mosque as a result of he was unable to memorize the Koran, however he held common gatherings with small teams of the lads who went there to wish, in search of to persuade them that that they had an obligation to wage jihad on behalf of Muslims worldwide and to journey to Afghanistan for army coaching.
The primary member of the Hamburg cell he remembers assembly was Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni citizen now being held in Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of involvement in the 9/11 plot. Subsequent he met Mohamed Atta, the hijackers’ ringleader, who piloted the primary of the 2 planes that struck the World Commerce Middle towers. Zammar recollects Atta as a “good guy” with “high moral standards.” Then got here the others: Marwan al-Shehhi, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates who steered the aircraft that struck the second tower; Ziad Samir Jarrah, the Lebanese who piloted the aircraft that crashed in a Pennsylvania area after passengers overpowered the hijackers; and 4 others from the group whom Zammar additionally persuaded to journey to Afghanistan.
“It was not easy. It took time. They were studying at the university,” he stated. “I was telling them, for example, someone is going to attack you, your honor, your property, while you cannot even use a pistol. There is no country in the world that does not have an army to defend itself, while we Muslims do not.”
‘They did not tell me anything’
Zammar’s travels and contacts stirred the suspicions of the German authorities, who alerted the CIA and commenced monitoring his actions and phone calls.
However he continued to journey extensively. Towards the top of 1999, Zammar made one other go to to Afghanistan, overlapping with Atta and different members of the Hamburg cell making their first go to to the nation – and carrying with them their proposal to crash planes into American buildings, based on investigators.
Zammar says the timing of his go to so near theirs was a coincidence. He arrived shortly after they did, had no contact with them and doesn’t know the place or how they spent their time, he stated.
It was on this journey, he says, that he had his solely encounter with al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, whom he recollects with reverence. He speculates that bin Laden summoned him to satisfy due to his affiliation with the lads who have been being groomed for the 9/11 assaults and needed to verify him out.
He claims he had no additional contact with bin Laden, Atta or the others and says he was as stunned as anybody when the assaults occurred.
Zammar continues to disclaim any foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot. “God knows, and in all honesty, I did not know anything about the 9/11 strike. They did not tell me anything,” he stated.
That was the conclusion reached on the time by German authorities, in response to Guido Steinberg, who investigated Zammar’s involvement in the assaults on behalf of the German authorities and is now a senior affiliate on the German Institute for Worldwide and Safety Affairs.
The German investigation discovered that the members of the Hamburg cell had been suspicious of Zammar, in half as a result of he was “very chatty,” Steinberg stated.
“We discovered that his passport was full of Syrian stamps. The members of the Hamburg cell did not trust him. There was chatter that he might work for the Syrians,” he stated.
U.S. investigators by no means reached a agency conclusion about Zammar’s potential involvement but in addition suspect that he might have proved too talkative to be trusted with information of the 9/11 plan, based on Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who now runs the Soufan Middle, which focuses on counterterrorism.
“These people who run their mouths usually don’t get information in advance, and there’s a possibility he did not know about the attacks,” Soufan stated. The U.S. authorities appears to have proven little curiosity in gaining custody of Zammar, Soufan stated. “Maybe there was a lot of noise but no meat on the case against him,” he stated.
Zammar acknowledged that he was an unlikely candidate for inclusion in a classy plot.
“It would be really idiotic for someone who is planning on bombing America to come to me, or someone like me, and tell them about it,” he stated. “Total stupidity.”
The CIA, the FBI, the U.S. army and the Division of Justice declined to touch upon his case.
Arrested in Morocco
The 9/11 assaults thrust Zammar briefly into the highlight. German police questioned him, and he was sought by journalists for interviews.
Three months after the assaults, he dropped out of sight. Whereas on a go to to Morocco, he was arrested by Moroccan police and deported to Syria. The CIA was reported on the time to have performed an element in his seizure and switch, however Zammar says he doesn’t recall assembly People in the course of the course of.
For the subsequent 12 years, he was held in Syria’s infamous Sednaya jail outdoors Damascus, the place he says he was tortured and stored in solitary confinement for months on finish. In 2008, he was sentenced to 12 years in jail, not for his affiliation with al-Qaida however for membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, courting again to his try to hitch the armed riot in 1982.
In 2013, he was freed together with six different Islamists in a prisoner swap for Syrian military officers negotiated by his previous pal Bahaiya – Abu Khaled al-Suri – who had moved to Syria to develop into a number one determine in the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham opposition group and was killed in a bombing a yr later that was suspected to have been carried out by the Islamic State.
As soon as launched, Zammar selected to hitch the newly shaped Islamic State. In jail, he had met a number of of the leaders of the group, who had been freed by the Assad authorities in earlier prisoner swaps. These associates helped him safe a succession of comparatively minor jobs in Islamic State departments, offering meals for gatherings, mediating home disputes and supervising the cleansing of amenities.
However his well being was poor from the years he spent in jail, he says, and he injured his knees in a automotive accident. He denies that he performed any outstanding position in the group, and there’s no obtainable proof that he did.
Because the Islamic State was steadily pushed out of the huge areas it as soon as managed in Syria and Iraq, Zammar moved with the fighters in their retreat, dodging American airstrikes alongside the best way. He met and married two ladies, and he was with a type of wives outdoors the village of Darnij in the province of Deir al-Zour when he determined to give up to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Becoming a member of different households additionally in search of to run away, they sneaked throughout Islamic State strains to succeed in the SDF.
“I’m very sick. I didn’t have a car. My wife was pregnant, so what could I do?” he stated. “I didn’t have any other option.”
Now he languishes in one other jail cell, alongside about 30 different Islamic State prisoners being held by the Kurds. The Kurds say they want to be rid of him and all of the Islamic State captives they maintain. Zammar says he want to return to Germany, to reunite together with his first spouse, whom he stated he hasn’t seen since 2001.
However the German authorities has proven no curiosity in repatriating him or any of the opposite Germans who got down to struggle for the Islamic State and are now in Kurdish custody.
Because the interview ended and Zammar was led away, he was nonetheless speaking, railing towards the injustices of the world and saying he has a message for President Trump, the leaders of Europe and anybody else with a task.
“You must fear God. You must fear your creator. I swear they will be judged by God,” he stated, as he limped again to his cell.