What 60 Minutes Didn't Tell You About Murat Kurnaz

“At the age of 19, Murat Kurnaz vanished into America's shadow prison system in the war on terror. He was from Germany, traveling in Pakistan, and was picked up three months after 9/11. But there seemed to be ample evidence that Kurnaz was an innocent man with no connection to terrorism. The FBI thought so, U.S. intelligence thought so, and German intelligence agreed.” Thus intoned CBS correspondent Scott Pelley on Sunday night in introducing the 60 Minutes report on former Guantánamo inmate and book author Murat Kurnaz. Now, it is already something of a logical feat to assemble “ample evidence” for a purely negative proposition. But leaving this peculiarity aside, the principal problem with CBS’s claim is that there is, on the contrary, ample evidence that Kurnaz was indeed connected to terrorist circles and had left Germany to fight with the Taliban, just as US authorities have maintained.

Whatever doubts individual US investigators may or may not have expressed -- and the CBS claims in this connection are not verifiable since they are based on a supposedly “secret file” cited by Kurnaz’s lawyers -- we know from Kurnaz’s declassified Combatant Status Review file that US authorities have in fact upheld his original classification as an illegal enemy combatant. More to the point, far from “agreeing” that Kurnaz had no connection to terror, starting in 2002, Germany’s Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BKA) -- the German equivalent of the FBI -- itself classified Kurnaz as a “security risk.” This classification was based on a number of pieces of information linking Kurnaz to Islamic extremist circles in Germany, including to the milieu of the “Hamburg cell” that planned the 9/11 attacks.

It was precisely on account of this evidence and the resulting classification of Kurnaz as a “security risk” that the “red-green” German government of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was reluctant to have Kurnaz returned to Germany. Despite his having been born in Bremen, moreover, Kurnaz is not a German citizen. This fact undoubtedly contributed to Germany's indifference to his fate. Kurnaz is a Turkish citizen, and the Schröder government appears to have considered him to be Turkey’s problem.

In March of last year, Bernhard Falk, the Deputy Director of the BKA, testified before a German parliamentary committee on the contents of the German police file on Murat Kurnaz. The full contents of the file have not been made public. But committee member Thomas Oppermann published a summary of the evidence [German link] supporting Kurnaz’s classification as a “security risk.” The Oppermann summary of the BKA file provides a highly instructive counterpoint to the CBS report.

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60 Minutes:

The 60 Minutes report unquestioningly repeats Kurnaz’s assertion that he left Germany for Pakistan on October 3, 2001, just three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, in order to “study Islam” -- i.e. not in order to join in the Taliban defense against the impending American invasion of Afghanistan. Pelley notes blandly that in Bremen Kurnaz “met Islamic missionaries who urged him to go to Pakistan for study.” We are not told anything more about just who these “Islamic missionaries” might have been.

The German BKA File:

According to the BKA, Kurnaz was, more specifically, attending the sermons of one Ali Miri at the Abu-Bakr Mosque in Bremen. Employing common German police nomenclature for Islamic extremist imams, the Oppermann summary describes Miri as a “preacher of hate” [Hassprediger]. Oppermann notes, moreover, that according to statements made by Kurnaz’s mother, Rabiye, to the Bremen police, Kurnaz had been “brainwashed” by Miri. It should be noted here -- as it is not in the CBS report -- that Kurnaz left for Pakistan without informing his family. On October 5, Rabiye Kurnaz reported his disappearance to the Bremen police. In her statement to the police, she clearly expressed her suspicion that her son had gone to fight with the Taliban, having been encouraged by Ali Miri to do so. In excerpts from Rabiye Kurnaz’s October 5, 2001 deposition to the Bremen police published in the German tabloid Bild, she describes confronting Miri about her son’s disappearance: “I told him that he wanted to help the Taliban after all, that he had completely brainwashed Murat.”

60 Minutes:

Concerning Kurnaz’s reactions to the 9/11 attacks, Pelley notes, “He told 60 Minutes he was horrified by the attacks, and had never heard of Al-Qaeda.”

The German BKA File:

In the Oppermann summary of the BKA file, we read: “Independently of one another, two direct witnesses have declared to the Bremen police that Kurnaz approved of the September 11 terrorist attacks, describing them as ‘God's will.’”

60 Minutes:

CBS cites Kurnaz’s American lawyer, Baher Azmy, to the effect that “the military seemed to have invented some of the charges [against Kurnaz]”: “Military prosecutors said one of Kurnaz’s friends was a suicide bomber, but the friend turned up alive and well in Germany.” As we hear this, we see a declassified US government document appear briefly on the screen. Although CBS does not deign to inform its viewers, the document is the 2004 Combatant Status Review Tribunal decision that upheld Kurnaz’s classification as an illegal enemy combatant. (The decision can be consulted in full here.) As the CBS camera zooms in, the name of the “friend” in question can be seen on the page: Selcuk Bilgin. The CBS report tells us nothing further about Selcuk Bilgin.

The German BKA File:

As so happens, when Murat Kurnaz left Germany for Pakistan on October 3, 2001, he was supposed to be accompanied by Selcuk Bilgin. German police, however, arrested Bilgin at the airport before he could board his flight. Here is what the Oppermann summary of the BKA file has to say on the subject of Selcuk Bilgin:

On October 3, 2001, the brother of Selcuk Bilgin notified the Federal Police [responsible for border security in Germany] that Selcuk “is following a friend to Afghanistan, in order to fight.” His later attempts to relativize this declaration have been dismissed as not credible by the police. The wife of Bilgin, moreover, has confirmed to Kurnaz’s mother that Bilgin and Kurnaz wanted to go to Afghanistan.

Bilgin was arrested at the airport and thus prevented from embarking on his voyage with Kurnaz. Later, in 2003, the police determined that he was continuing to try to recruit young, inexperienced Muslims for Jihad at the Abu-Bakr Mosque. Thus Ali T., who on April 25, 2003 hijacked a bus in Bremen, stated to the police that Bilgin had awakened in him the desire to become a Mujahideen through conversations and prayers and by showing him propaganda videos. According to Ali T., Bilgin promised that he would have him trained as a fighter in Pakistan or Afghanistan, just as he had done in the past with Murat Kurnaz. The training, Bilgin is reported to have said, would be financed by Al-Qaeda.

American military investigators appear indeed to have mistakenly identified Selcuk Bilgin as the perpetrator of a suicide attack that was carried out in Turkey -- a point that hardly inspires confidence in their abilities. And Selcuk Bilgin is indeed alive and well in Germany. But that Kurnaz was leaving Germany in the company of Bilgin remains the single most compelling piece of evidence indicating that Kurnaz was leaving to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan -- and not to “study Islam” in Pakistan.

60 Minutes:

Citing Kurnaz’s German lawyer, Bernhard Docke, the 60 Minutes report suggests that German police suspicions about Kurnaz were merely a product of post-9/11 hysteria. “It was just guessing, just fear, no more. But the fear turns into a fact,” Docke says. And he continues: “And so close after 9/11, and close after Germany realized that 9/11 started with the Hamburg cell in Germany, everybody in the secret services got crazy.”

The German BKA File:

In fact, the most explosive revelation of the BKA file is that Murat Kurnaz had direct contact to the milieu of the Hamburg cell. Astonishingly, Pelley -- unlike Docke -- appears to downplay the significance of the Hamburg cell, saying merely that “some of the [9/11] hijackers had been living in Hamburg.” In fact, the Hamburg cell was largely responsible for the conception and implementation of the 9/11 plot. It included not only three of the four hijacking team leaders -- Mohammad Atta, Ziad Jarrah, and Marwan Al-Shehhi -- but also Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh. Slotted to lead the fourth hijacking team, but refused entry to the United States, Bin Al-Shibh would continue to provide logistical support for the attacks from Germany. Murat Kurnaz’s and Selcuk Bilgin’s plane tickets to Pakistan were paid for by one Sofyen Ben Amor, who in conversation with Ali Miri is supposed to have identified himself as a “Taliban.” Here is what the Oppermann summary of the BKA file has to say further on the subject of Sofyen Ben Amor:

According to police investigations, there are numerous links between the Taliban Sofyen Ben Amor, who purchased Kurnaz’s plane tickets, and the “Hamburg cell.” Thus, for example, Ben Amor’s telephone number was found in an address book that was seized during a Hamburg raid carried out as part of the Federal District Attorney’s investigation of, among others, Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh in connection with the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The police have determined, moreover, that up until September 11, 2001, Sofyen Ben Amor frequently withdrew money in the vicinity of the Al-Quds Mosque in Hamburg. It was at this mosque that the “Hamburg cell” formed around Mohammad Atta.

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Tantalizingly, the Oppermann summary concludes with the following observation: “Finally, there are also numerous pieces of evidence in the file that indicate that Ben Amor, Bilgin, and Kurnaz have links to Mohammad Haydar Zammar, one of the most important recruiters of the ‘Hamburg cell.’”

It would obviously help to defuse much of the pathos provoked by tendentious and misleading reporting on the Kurnaz case -- of which the 60 Minutes report is a prime example -- if the German government would release this evidence, as well as all the BKA evidence linking Kurnaz to the Hamburg cell and pro-Taliban circles in Germany.

(A full translation of Thomas Oppermann’s summary of the BKA file on Murat Kurnaz is available here on World Politics Review.)

John Rosenthal is Translations Editor and a contributing editor for World Politics Review.