CIA Stalked Al Qaeda in Hamburg
Seeking informant, agency tried in 1999 to recruit associate of 9/11 hijackers in Germany
by John Crewdson
The Chicago Tribune
November 17, 2002
HAMBURG, Germany -- Nearly two years before the Sept. 11 hijackings, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency began persistent efforts to recruit as an informer a Syrian-born Hamburg businessman with links to Al Qaeda and the key hijackers, the Tribune has learned.
The CIA's attempts to enlist Mamoun Darkazanli were initiated in late 1999, at a time when three of the four Hamburg students who would later pilot the hijacked planes were first learning of the hijacking plot at a training camp of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Darkazanli, 44, has acknowledged knowing the three pilots, Mohamed Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, with whom he attended the same radical Hamburg mosque, Al Quds, and shared several friends in this city's sizable but insular Muslim community.
No evidence has ever emerged that American intelligence was aware before Sept. 11, 2001, of Al Qaeda's plot to hijack U.S. commercial jetliners and crash them into buildings, despite what congressional investigators have described as several potential missed opportunities.
But the disclosure that the CIA was seeking to turn Darkazanli into a spy during the time the initial hijacking plans were being laid represents the earliest and deepest set of U.S. intelligence footprints outside the hijackers' window.
In December 1999 the CIA representative in Hamburg, posing as an American diplomat attached to the U.S. Consulate, appeared at the headquarters of the Hamburg state domestic intelligence agency, the LFV, that is responsible for tracking terrorists and domestic extremists.
According to a source with firsthand knowledge of the events, the CIA representative told his local counterparts that his agency believed Darkazanli had knowledge of an unspecified terrorist plot and could be "turned" against his Al Qaeda comrades.
"He said, `Darkazanli knows a lot,'" the source recalled.
Darkazanli's name had first surfaced the year before in the U.S. investigation of Al Qaeda's 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and injured thousands.
One of those later convicted of conspiracy in that case was Osama bin Laden's former personal secretary, a naturalized U.S. citizen named Wadih El-Hage, whom prosecutors accused of personally delivering bin Laden's order for the embassy bombings to Al Qaeda operatives in Kenya.
As part of his duties for bin Laden, El-Hage helped fashion a skein of fictitious Sudanese companies that Al Qaeda allegedly used as fronts for its terrorist activities. One such company was Anhar Trading, of which El-Hage was managing director, and whose business cards bore the address of the Hamburg flat Darkazanli shares with his German-born wife.
Around the same time, Darkazanli's name had popped up in connection with another alleged Al Qaeda figure, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a 44-year-old Sudanese who is in jail in New York awaiting trial in the embassy bombing case.
Salim, also accused by federal prosecutors of attempting to help bin Laden obtain enriched uranium for use in a nuclear weapon, was arrested in Munich in September 1998 at the request of the United States.
Investigators learned that Salim, a resident of the United Arab Emirates, held an account at a Hamburg bank. The co-signatory on the account was Mamoun Darkazanli, whose home number had been programmed into Salim's cell phone.
Germans resist request
The Americans began pressing the Germans to arrest Darkazanli, a naturalized German citizen who moved to Hamburg from Syria in 1982, and extradite him to the U.S. The Germans countered that they had no evidence to warrant an arrest.
"Nobody could prove terrorism," one German investigator said. "In general, the American colleagues feel more persons should be arrested. Hundreds! But the problem is you have to prove this is intentional planning of criminal activities."
At the insistence of the U.S., the Germans opened an investigation of Darkazanli that included occasional surveillance. One of those involved described how Darkazanli, certain he was being followed, walked down the street while looking backward over his shoulder.
But the investigation did not include more costly and time-consuming electronic surveillance, and a German investigator conceded that, before Sept. 11, his agency considered Al Qaeda a lower priority target than Hamburg's radical Turks and neo-Nazis.
By the end of 1999 the Darkazanli investigation had produced little of value. The Americans were saying that if the Germans couldn't put Darkazanli behind bars, they wanted to turn him into their informer.
The LFV representatives explained to the CIA man, who had been in his post less than six months, that German law forbids foreign intelligence services, including those deemed to be "friendly," from conducting operations or recruiting informers inside German borders.
Any attempt to recruit Darkazanli on behalf of the CIA would have to be made by operatives of the LFV. In early 2000, around the time the hijacking pilots were returning to Hamburg from Afghanistan, an LFV agent casually approached Darkazanli to ask whether he was interested in becoming a spy.
Darkazanli replied that he was just a businessman who knew nothing about Al Qaeda or terrorism. When the Germans informed the CIA representative that the approach had failed, the man refused to accept their verdict that Darkazanli was not recruitable.
"He was not happy," one source said. "He kept saying, `It must be possible.'"
When the LFV asked for information it could use to counter Darkazanli's claims that he knew nothing about terrorism or Al Qaeda, the CIA demurred. What the LFV got instead was a CIA textbook lecture on the recruiting of agents.
As it happened, at the end of January 2000, Darkazanli had met in Madrid with Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the accused Al Qaeda leader in Spain, who is from Darkazanli's hometown of Aleppo, Syria.
The meeting, monitored by Spanish police who were watching Yarkas, included some suspected Al Qaeda figures. But if the CIA was aware of the Madrid meeting, it hadn't told the LFV, whose second attempt to recruit Darkazanli fared no better than the first.
By the late summer of 2000, Atta, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah had departed Hamburg for Florida, where they were learning to fly single-engine airplanes.
Left behind in Hamburg, allegedly to handle logistical and administrative chores for the hijacking operation, were Atta's roommates, Said Bahaji, Ramzi Binalshibh and Zakariya Essabar. All have since been charged with conspiracy in the events of Sept. 11.
Darkazanli knew Bahaji, whose wedding he had attended at Al Quds mosque. A videotape made at the wedding, confiscated by police in a post-Sept. 11 search of Bahaji's apartment, includes a harangue by Binalshibh on the holy war against the "enemies of Islam."
Intensifying its efforts to turn Darkazanli into an informer, a frustrated CIA abandoned the Hamburg LFV and took its case directly to federal German intelligence officials in Berlin.
"Another attempt by the Americans to get somebody to recruit Darkazanli," one source said.
Whether yet another approach was made to Darkazanli by the federal domestic intelligence service, the BFV, could not be determined. Darkazanli did not respond to a registered letter from the Tribune requesting an interview.
Immediately after Sept. 11, however, American intelligence operatives and FBI agents descended on Hamburg in force. According to a senior German intelligence official, the FBI undertook its own surveillance of Darkazanli.
Turning blind eye
That surveillance would have been illegal under German law. But with the horror of more than 3,000 deaths at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field dominating the world news, the Germans looked the other way.
"I don't judge it," the senior official said.
Darkazanli's name first surfaced publicly two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the "Mamoun Darkazanli Import-Export Company" appeared on the Bush administration's initial list of individuals and organizations suspected of involvement in terrorism.
The company is evidently defunct. No incorporation records for the company are on file at the Hamburg courthouse, and sources said it had not done enough business over the years to support Darkazanli and his wife.
When the German federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, announced an investigation into possible money laundering by Darkazanli and his company on behalf of Al Qaeda, the news that Darkazanli was in trouble spread quickly through Al Qaeda's network.
In Madrid, Spanish police listening in on Imad Yarkas' cell phone overheard a conversation in which Abu Nabil, the leader of a Syrian extremist organization known as the Fighting Vanguard, warned Yarkas that Darkazanli had caught the "flu" that was going around.
To the reporters who flocked to his apartment in a well-kept Hamburg neighborhood, Darkazanli admitted having known Atta, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah as fellow worshipers at the downtown Al Quds mosque. But Darkazanli declared that he knew nothing about terrorism or the Sept. 11 plot.
The bank account he shared with Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, Darkazanli told the Los Angeles Times, had been opened in March 1995 to facilitate Salim's attempted purchase of a commercial radio transmitter. Darkazanli said he hadn't seen Salim since the transmitter deal fell through a few months later.
Two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Darkazanli had been brought in for questioning by the German federal police, and his apartment thoroughly searched. The police, Darkazanli said, had found nothing. His inclusion on the Bush administration's list of designated terrorist entities was just "a big misunderstanding."
A few days after Darkazanli's police interview, detectives questioned Mohamed Haydar Zammar, another Syrian-born Hamburg resident who has since acknowledged encouraging Atta, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah to make their fateful visit to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Asked whether he knew Darkazanli, Zammar replied: "Yes, I know him well. He is a friend who I have known for a long time."
Police later learned that it was one of Zammar's brothers, Abdulfattah, who had driven Darkazanli to the Madrid meeting with Spanish Al Qaeda leader Yarkas in January 2000.
The absence of documents in Darkazanli's flat was partly explained on Oct. 31, 2001, when a young Serbian immigrant with a record of convictions for burglary walked into the fortress-like headquarters of the Hamburg police.
The man presented astonished detectives with a bag full of documents that appeared to have been taken from Darkazanli's files. After accepting the purloined documents, the police arrested the man for burglary.
According to the burglar's story, he had discovered the documents stashed in a small summer house outside Hamburg that he had broken into.
He had first gone with the documents to the U.S. Consulate in Hamburg, where it had been suggested that he take them to the police.
But when police asked the burglar to show them the house where he had found the documents, he couldn't locate it.
"We all thought, `CIA,'" one German investigator said.
The CIA representative in Hamburg, who was recalled to Washington in July, declined to comment last week. Since the arrival of his successor, relations with the CIA are described by German intelligence agents as "more collegial."
Darkazanli's lawyer, Andreas Beurskens, said he had advised his client not to speak with the media until the police investigation is complete.
But as the Sept. 11 investigations on both sides of the Atlantic have progressed, more links have emerged between Darkazanli and Al Qaeda.
One is the disclosure that Darkazanli received at least $16,000 from Mohamed Kaleb Kalaje Zouaydi, a wealthy Spanish-Syrian arrested in Madrid in April and accused of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic organizations.
Another is the discovery by German investigators that Darkazanli was previously employed by Abdul-Matin Tatari, an Aleppo-born textile exporter in Hamburg whose links to the Sept. 11 hijackers are under investigation by German police.
Police sources say they have expanded the Darkazanli investigation to include his business transactions over the years.
In view of what the expanded investigation was producing, one source said, "the situation for Darkazanli might become more complicated."
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune
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