Zammar has reportedly boasted that he was the one who recruited Atta and other hijackers into al-Qaida.
Zammar was living in Boston with his wife and daughter at the time of the September 11th attacks. He flew out of Boston Logan airport on Swiss Air a week later, along with several other men with which he was acquainted.
On October 27, 2001, Zammar traveled to Morocco. Not long afterwards, he was arrested by Moroccan police with the assistance of the U.S. Instead of being deported to the U.S. or Germany, Zammar was secretly handed over to the custody of the Syrians, he was detained indefinitely in the Far'Falastin detention center in Damascus.
For six months, German investigators wondered how they had managed to lose track of a 300-lb. terror suspect. Mohammed Heidar Zammar, a Syrian-born German citizen, had been questioned and put under surveillance after 9/11 because of his close ties to Mohamed Atta and other hijackers. But the Germans didn't have enough evidence to arrest him, and when he arranged to travel to Morocco, officials gave him a temporary passport and let him go. Zammar left on Oct. 27--and vanished. The Germans had no idea where he was until last week, when they learned that Moroccan officials had arrested him and deported him to Syria. "I heard about it first by reading the newspaper," says an irked German official.
Some in the German government are accusing the U.S. of having one of their citizens taken for interrogation to a country where human rights don't count for much. In the war on terrorism, Syria--a notorious haven for terrorists--is the U.S.'s latest ally of convenience.
Thanks to Syrian interrogators, American intelligence officials are learning more about al-Qaeda from Zammar. "He's like Abu Zubaydah," says a U.S. intelligence source. "He's kind of cooperating. Or he's cooperating without realizing that he's doing it." Zammar may also be revealing how Atta and his fellow Hamburg students were recruited. Zammar, who moved to Germany in 1971 at age 10, was well known in several Hamburg mosques where he advocated jihad. He claimed to have fought in Bosnia. Beginning in 1997, neighbors of Atta's would often see Zammar carrying boxes up to the Egyptian student's second-story walk-up. U.S. investigators believe he may have persuaded Atta's Islamic study group to offer its services to al-Qaeda around 1998.
U.S. officials tell TIME that no Americans are in the room with the Syrians who interrogate Zammar. U.S. officials in Damascus submit written questions to the Syrians, who relay Zammar's answers back. State Department officials like the arrangement because it insulates the U.S. government from any torture the Syrians may be applying to Zammar. And some State Department officials suspect that Zammar is being tortured.
That makes the Germans angry. "We are supposed to be sharing information with the Americans," says the German official. "Do they want to cooperate or not?" But American counterparts were angry at Germany for allowing several al-Qaeda suspects to flee in the weeks after 9/11. And some German officials concede they should have arrested Zammar last October.
Americans are still waiting for the arrest of Mamoun Darkazanli, another Syrian-born German and a friend of Zammar's, who has had financial connections to al-Qaeda. The U.S. has frozen his assets, and German investigators have him under surveillance. "You can imagine what my life is like," Darkazanli told TIME last month. "My name is known in the whole world. Every businessman is afraid to deal with me." Darkazanli should at least be grateful he isn't with his friend, in the hands of America's unlikely new ally.
Mohamed Heidar Zammar, the German citizen now held in Syria, for instance, first came to the attention of American and German authorities in late 1998 during the investigation of Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, who is considered a founder of Al Qaeda and suspected of being the financial chief for Osama bin Laden.
Mr. Salim was arrested in Munich in September 1998 on suspicion of helping plan the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa that August. He awaits trial in New York on terrorism charges.
Reconstructing Mr. Salim's activities, investigators found that Mahmoud Darkazanli, another Syrian living in Germany, had power of attorney over Mr. Salim's Hamburg bank account and that Mr. Darkazanli's telephone number was programmed into Mr. Salim's cellphone. In an interview last month, Mr. Darkazanli, 44, a businessman who remains in Germany, denied all ties to terrorism.
The F.B.I. pressed for Mr. Darkazanli's arrest, but the Germans said there was not enough evidence. They did, however, put him under surveillance.
The monitoring led to the Al Quds mosque, a gathering place for militants in Hamburg. Along with Mr. Darkazanli, the police discovered that his friend Mr. Zammar was a frequent visitor at the modest mosque, German officials said.
American investigators say they view Mr. Zammar, 41, as a central figure in the Sept. 11 plot, and they were frustrated by Germany's contention that there was not enough evidence to arrest either him or Mr. Darkazanli.
Darkazanli and Zammar were the recruiters working out of that mosque and bringing people into the Islamic extremist cell, said an American official involved in the inquiry.
German intelligence officials said today that they first noticed Mr. Zammar as early as 1997, when they received reports that he had once fought in Afghanistan and that he had ties to Mr. bin Laden. He became of more interest to us then, but there was no clear evidence of wrongdoing and we only kept watch on him, said a senior intelligence official in Hamburg.
In 1999 and early 2000, the police also kept watch on a nondescript apartment in Hamburg where Mr. Atta and his roommates are believed to have carried out much of the planning for the suicide hijackings.
Germans admit tracking hijackers, Agency: Bin Laden alerted operatives day before attacks: January 25, 2003
HAMBURG, Germany — More potential missed opportunities to disrupt the Sept. 11 plot emerged Friday with the first acknowledgment that German authorities began receiving intelligence on the hijackers and their associates more than three years before the hijackings occurred.
The acknowledgment came during testimony at the 3-month-old trial of Mounir El Motassadeq, a former engineering student here who is charged as an accessory to 3,045 murders, the number of people believed to have died on Sept. 11, 2001.
The court also heard testimony that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who has claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 plot, issued a "worldwide appeal" for all Al Qaeda operatives to return urgently to Afghanistan before Sept. 10, 2001.
Motassadeq's lawyers argue that because their client remained in Hamburg after Sept. 11 rather than fleeing Germany with three other alleged conspirators, he could not have belonged to Al Qaeda or had advance knowledge of the hijackings. It was unclear what form the bin Laden appeal is supposed to have taken.
A lawyer for the German secret service testified that her agency had not known of the Sept. 10 alert at the time it was issued and later learned of it from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. However, a U.S. intelligence official said the CIA never had evidence of any last-minute alert from bin Laden.
"It's just not the case," said the official, who declined to be identified.
The BND could not immediately be reached for comment.
Syrian's phone tapped
A senior official of Germany's federal police also told the Higher Regional Court of Hamburg that Germany's domestic intelligence agency, known as the BFV, had tapped the telephone of a close associate of several members of the Hamburg Al Qaeda cell.
The subject of that wiretap, a Syrian immigrant named Mohammed Haydar Zammar, now jailed in Syria, has admitted to Syrian authorities encouraging Mohamed Atta, the leader of the hijacking plot, and several of Atta's associates to make a fateful visit to an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in the fall of 1999.
Previous testimony revealed that while Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah and Ramzi Binalshibh traveled to Afghanistan in hopes of later joining Muslim fighters in Chechnya, they were instead presented by Al Qaeda higher-ups with the outlines of another plan that evolved into the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Sources said Zammar, 43, first came to the attention of the BFV in 1995 after a tip from another European intelligence service that Zammar had made more than 40 visits to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, where he later said he fought alongside the mujahedeen, as Islamic warriors are known. The BFV, curious about Zammar's activities, opened an investigation.
One senior German official said the investigation, which lasted until 1999, had not been opened because of any suspected ties between Zammar and Al Qaeda, which was not yet perceived as a major threat, but as part of a joint effort with the other intelligence agency "to learn more about the mujahedeen."
Beginning in August of 1998, some of the conversations overheard included sporadic mentions of men who later proved to be Atta, al-Shehhi and several fellow Hamburg students who shared their radical Islamic views--including, according to Friday's testimony, someone named "Mounir," whom prosecutors contend is the defendant Motassadeq.
U.S. intelligence officers have been quoted as criticizing their German counterparts for not moving more aggressively to identify and track Zammar's associates, with the implication that the Germans might have been able to abort the hijacking plot. But one German source familiar with the investigation noted that the conversations had contained only the first names of Zammar's friends, leaving the BFV with nothing concrete to go on until Feb. 17, 1999.
That day, a caller to the third-floor walkup in a middle-class section of Hamburg where Zammar was then living with his wife and six children was told Zammar wasn't available "because he's meeting Mohamed, Ramzi and Said."
"Mohamed" referred to Mohamed Atta, "Ramzi" to Ramzi Binalshibh, the self-proclaimed organizer of the hijacking plot captured last year in Pakistan, and "Said" to Said Bahaji, who along with Binalshibh fled Hamburg in the days before Sept. 11.
The caller was given the number of the Hamburg apartment where the meeting was taking place, offering investigators what they say was the first clue to the identity of Zammar's young associates.
Because of the low priority given the Zammar investigation, the recorded conversation wasn't translated from Arabic for several months. Under German law at the time, before an intercepted conversation could be translated it was necessary for a judge to decide whether it was relevant.
Once the translation had been approved, the BFV determined that the telephone number given Zammar's caller was found in an apartment at 54 Marienstrasse then occupied by Atta, Binalshibh and Bahaji. Both the apartment's lease and the telephone were in the name of Bahaji, a computer science student at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg where Atta and Al-Shehhi also studied.
Link made too late
A senior BFV source said that Bahaji and the others appeared to be serious students who happened to frequent a radical mosque in downtown Hamburg. The names of those registered as living at 54 Marienstrasse were noted as associates of Zammar, but no independent investigation was opened on the hijackers.
Not until Sept. 11, when the Germans learned from the Americans that Atta and Al-Shehhi had flown the two jets that struck the World Trade Center, were German authorities able to link Zammar with the plotters. Interviewed by police six days after the hijackings, Zammar was asked whether he knew Motassadeq.
"Yes, I also know him from the mosques," Zammar replied, according to a transcript of his police interview obtained by the Tribune. "Sometimes we visit one another at home."
Motassadeq is one of two former Hamburg students accused by German prosecutors since Sept. 11 of aiding the hijackers in their preparations. According to the chief federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, Motassadeq "was just as involved in preparing the attacks up until the end as the others who remained in Hamburg."
Motassadeq denies any foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. But he has admitted that he signed Mohamed Atta's Islamic will, shared Marwan Al-Shehhi's apartment, had signature authority over Al-Shehhi's bank account and traveled with three other alleged conspirators to an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
According to testimony at the trial, Motassadeq also shared the hijackers' hatred of the U.S. and Israel, even to the point of proclaiming, according to a fellow student's testimony, that "what Hitler did [with the Jews] wasn't that bad."
The chief judge in the Motassadeq case, Albrecht Mentz, said Friday that he expected to hear closing arguments from both sides next week, and that the five-judge court would probably deliver its verdict by Feb. 20. There is no jury.
Mohammed Zammar, the al Qaeda operative responsible for recruiting the suicide-hijack pilots for the 9/11 attacks, has reportedly been freed inside Syria. Zammar's freedom was reported by Zaid Benjamin, the Washington correspondent for Radio Sawa, on his Twitter feed on Mar. 2. Writing for Al-Monitor, John Rosenthal cited multiple sources confirming Zammar's freedom in an account published on Mar. 10.