Hamburg: See No Terror

“Hamburg is always being mentioned in connection with September 11, 2001, and for this reason we feel we have a special responsibility to support the U.S.A. in this case.” This is what Kristin Breuer, a spokesperson for the Hamburg municipal government, told Germany’s ARD public television after it was announced that two Guantánamo detainees who had been slated for transfer would be coming to live in Germany -- one of them in Hamburg. According to German news reports, it is the Obama administration that took the initiative in asking Germany to accept detainees.

Note Breuer’s exact words: it is because “Hamburg is always being mentioned in connection with September 11, 2001,” that the municipal government felt it had to “support” the U.S. The formulation gives off more than just a faint whiff of denial. What, after all, would one say of a German official who commented that Germany should take some given measure because Germany is merely “always being mentioned in connection with” the Holocaust?

It is as if there were perhaps not any legitimate reason for mentioning Hamburg in connection with the 9/11 attacks. As if Mohamed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, Marwan al-Shehhi, and the other members of the eponymous Hamburg cell did not precisely hatch the 9/11 plot in Hamburg. As if Hamburg resident Ramzi Binalshibh did not continue to facilitate the plot from Germany after the three suicide pilots from Hamburg had already arrived in the United States. As if other key al-Qaeda operatives have not also made their homes in Hamburg.

These include Mohammed Haydar Zammar, the al-Qaeda recruiter who is reputed to have assembled the Hamburg cell, and Mamoun Darkazanli, the al-Qaeda financier whom a 2003 Spanish indictment has identified as “the permanent interlocutor and assistant of Osama bin Laden in Germany” (Spanish al-Qaeda indictment, p. 48). Germany has refused to extradite Darkazanli. He remains a free man, and he continues to live in Hamburg today.

Although Germany has prosecuted some minor or marginal figures in the al-Qaeda network, Darkazanli is by no means the only reputed al-Qaeda linchpin to have been treated with remarkable indulgence by German authorities. Reda Seyam, the reputed financier of the 2002 Bali bombings, also remains a free man in Germany. He lives in Berlin. (On Seyam, see my article in Policy Review magazine here.)

The only thing that connected Atta, Jarrah, al-Shehhi, and Binalshibh to Afghanistan was an approximately two-to-three month stay at an al-Qaeda camp near Kandahar in late 1999/early 2000. Atta had lived in Germany for some eight years before he departed for the United States to organize and carry out the 9/11 attacks. Jarrah, al-Shehhi, and Binalshibh had all lived in Germany for several years as well. The fugitive Hamburg cell member and presumed 9/11 facilitator Said Bahaji was born in Germany.

Ohmed Ahmed Mahamoud Al-Shurfa, one of the two Gitmo detainees slated for release in Germany, is also known to have received training at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, by the way. (For the details, see my Weekly Standard article “From Gitmo to Hamburg?”.) Nonetheless -- with rare exceptions like the popular tabloid Bild -- the German media typically suggest that the men were somehow “wrongfully” detained by U.S. forces. There is more than a hint of denial in this spin as well: denial, namely, of the very war that al-Qaeda has declared on the United States.

As Germany’s paper of record, Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, revealed in a series of reports in early 2003, the Hamburg-based al-Qaeda recruiter Mohammed Haydar Zammar had been the target of an extensive surveillance operation on the part of German law enforcement authorities in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks. The operation focusing on Zammar was launched by the German domestic intelligence service, the BfV, in 1997. An article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on February 2 2003, (“Unser Mann in der Moschee”) notes that the BfV’s surveillance of Zammar:

…had to have brought [it] onto the trail of the suicide pilots. For Mohamed Atta’s full name, Mohamed Atta Al-Amir, was mentioned twice during the conversations to which the BfV was listening. ... The BfV even registered the telephone number of the second suicide pilot from Hamburg, Marwan Al-Shehhi. Al-Shehhi had two telephone conversations with Zammar, both in 1999, as the planning of the [9/11] attacks had entered the active phase.

An article published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on January 12, 2003, (“Im Visier der besonnenen Fahnder”) states unequivocally that “according to information available to this paper” the BfV “had its sights on all the members of the Hamburg cell, including … Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, already in 1999.”

There is also evidence that German law enforcement had Ramzi Binalshibh under surveillance before the 9/11 attacks. In July 2001, Ramzi Binalshibh met with Mohamed Atta in Tarragona, Spain, to make final preparations for the 9/11 attacks. The meeting is discussed in the 2003 Spanish al-Qaeda indictment. On page 322 of the indictment, we read, “It is the German agencies that alerted [Spanish agencies] of Binalshibh’s arrival at Reus [airport].”

In short, Germany and Hamburg have much to deny as concerns the 9/11 attacks and both the country’s and the city’s connections to Islamist terror more generally. It would appear indeed that such denial has even become a matter of national interest, as far as German authorities are concerned.

The new film Soul Kitchen by the Hamburg-born director Fatih Akin even goes so far as to mock Hamburg’s connections to terror. The film -- supposedly a comedy -- has received rave reviews in Germany as a celebration of “multicultural Hamburg.” The German daily Die Welt describes it as Akin’s “declaration of love” to his native city. The main character is a hip, young restaurant owner of Greek ancestry by the name of Zinos. Zinos’s signature garb is a t-shirt with the words “TERROR WORLDWIDE” emblazoned on the front. When his brother Illias takes over the restaurant at the end of the film, he too wears the t-shirt. Illias is played by Moritz Bleibtreu, one of the biggest stars of contemporary German cinema.

Adam Bousdoukos as “Zinos” in Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen

Of course, one might say that the t-shirt and its message are just a matter of poor taste on the part of the director Akin. Except for the fact that Akin’s “declaration of love” for Hamburg was made with public subsidies from both the German federal government’s German Film Fund (DFFF) and the regional Film Fund of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein. The Film Fund of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein contributed some €800,000 to the making of the film, plus another €200,000 to subsidize its distribution. It had already contributed €60,000 to the development of the project. (See here for the relevant funding decisions.) The German federal government chipped in another €780,160 to the making of the film. (See the DFFF spreadsheet here.) It also subsidized the making of ten copies of the film to be distributed to cinemas. (See the announcement here.)

(On the topic of German public film subsidies, see my PJM report “Berlinollywood?” plus the follow-up discussion here.)

But it is not only German authorities and trendy film directors in the pay of the latter who appear anxious to obscure or trivialize Germany’s and Hamburg’s connections to terror. The most brazen act of denial in this regard is constituted by the very decision of the Obama administration to allow a Gitmo detainee to be released in Germany of all places and, of all places in Germany, precisely in Hamburg. It obviously makes no sense for American authorities to release anyone with even the most ephemeral connection to al-Qaeda in the very city from which al-Qaeda was able to mount its attack against the American homeland. Unless, of course, Hamburg is not such a city.