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Germany's Taliban Trail: From Murat Kurnaz to Cüneyt Ciftci

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

When it emerged in mid-March that the perpetrator of a deadly suicide attack on American troops in Afghanistan had come from Germany, the American media showed remarkably little interest. On March 3, 28-year-old Cüneyt Ciftci from Ansbach in Bavaria drove a pick-up loaded with several tons of explosives into a guard post in Khost province in southeastern Afghanistan and then detonated his payload while still inside the truck. According to U.S. Army and Afghan sources, two American soldiers and two Afghans were killed in the attack and another seven persons, including four soldiers, were wounded. The Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), the Taliban-affiliated Jihadist group that took responsibility for the attack, claimed a more massive death toll: some 60 dead in both the explosion itself and a follow-on attack by Taliban forces. In a Turkish-language statement posted in the internet, the IJU also identified the bomber: "This operation was successfully carried out by the brave Cüneyt Ciftci from Germany, who has traded in his life of luxury for paradise" (source: Focus). The text was accompanied by photos of a smiling Ciftci brandishing a pistol and sitting behind the wheel of vehicle.

And what did the American public learn about all this from American news organizations? A Factiva database search turns up a single sparse 280 word AP dispatch tentatively noting that German authorities were "checking" whether the German-born Ciftci might possibly be "linked" to the bombing. Instead, Americans were left to glean whatever more substantial information they could from the English-language website of the German weekly Der Spiegel. While Der Spiegel's March 15 article likewise studiously avoided treating Ciftci's responsibility for the attack as given, it nonetheless conceded that it was "likely": thus prompting the authors to pronounce Ciftci -- in all probability -- "the first suicide bomber from Germany." In light of the fact that Mohammad Atta and two of the three other pilots in the 9/11 attacks also lived in Germany, and indeed plotted the attacks there, the formula gives serious cause to pause. Der Spiegel dramatically described Ciftci's presumptive involvement as "Berlin's Worst Nightmare": as if the Hamburg Cell's leading role in the 9/11 attacks had not already been an even worse one or as if "Berlin" was suffering from collective amnesia and no longer remembered -- or wanted to remember -- the major German connection to 9/11.

A few days later a "martyrdom video" of Cüneyt Ciftci emerged. The video depicts Ciftci's preparations for the attack in meticulous detail and shows him pleasantly waving to the camera before climbing into the explosives-laden pickup. It also includes chilling footage of the attack itself: shot from multiple angles and complete with the cameramen's ecstatic cries of "Allahu Akbar" at the moment of detonation. (The video can be viewed here, where Ciftci is identified by his nom de guerre Sa'ad Abu Furqan.)

Cüneyt Ciftci

Following the emergence of the video, Der Spiegel and the rest of the German media largely abandoned their hopeful expressions of doubt about Ciftci's responsibility. "The first perpetrator of a suicide attack from Germany," the weekly Stern now called Ciftci -- displaying the same startling obliviousness to the German role in the 9/11 attacks as Der Spiegel had previously. But when interviewed by ZDF television, Jörg Ziercke, chief of Germany's Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BKA), continued to insist that he could not confirm that Ciftci had been the bomber. "We don't have the corpse," Ziercke said, "We have to undertake an identification of the corpse." As anyone who watches the massive explosion documented in the video will be able to appreciate, there is not likely to be much of Ciftci left to facilitate this identification.

In the meanwhile, two new propaganda videos have emerged that depict yet another apparent recruit for the Taliban cause from Germany: the German convert Eric Breininger -- or "Abdulgaffar El Almani," according to his nom de guerre. The videos were posted on the same Turkish website that the IJU earlier used to post the Ciftci video and they bear the same "brand name" logo -- "Badr at-Tawheed" -- as the Ciftci clip. They were presumably shot in the tribal regions of Pakistan where the IJU is known to have its training camps. In one of the clips, "El Almani" -- "the German" -- can be heard calling on his "brothers" in Germany to come join him in jihad.

Next Page: The 'Sauerland Terror Cell' . . .

It should be noted that not only Breininger, but also his masked "interviewer" speak in German in the video clip. The BKA suspects that a third recruit from Germany, the Lebanese-born Houssein al-Malla, is accompanying Breininger. Like Ciftci, both Breininger and al-Malla are known to have connections to the so-called "Sauerland Terror Cell," which was broken up last year while allegedly planning an attack on U.S. military installations in Germany. Adem Yilmaz of the Sauerland Cell is reported to have organized the trips of numerous German recruits to IJU camps in Pakistan.

Citing BKA sources and displaying the same pattern of denial that characterized its initial reporting on the Ciftci episode, the German media has by and large spun the presence of the two men in the region as somehow a threat to German troops well to the North -- or even to the German homeland itself -- but apparently not to anyone else. This supposition is, however, obviously contradicted by Breininger's message in the propaganda clip. Before making his appeal for new recruits, he can likewise be heard not only praising the example set by Cüneyt Ciftci, but praising Ciftci specifically for killing Americans. Perhaps not coincidentally, this last detail has gone virtually entirely unmentioned in the German media coverage.

In the meanwhile too, more details have emerged about Cüneyt Ciftci's biography. What is perhaps most remarkable is how much Ciftci's personal itinerary resembles that of none other than Murat Kurnaz: the former Guantánamo inmate whose alleged trials and tribulations in American captivity have made him into a kind of poster child for the campaign against the American prison camp.

Both men were born in Germany of Turkish immigrant parents. Despite the fact that Germany was their birthplace - and reflecting a certain archaism in German citizenship law - neither obtained German citizenship. (Kurnaz has alluded to the legally precarious situation of children of Turkish immigrants as one reason for his turn to Islam; Ciftci is known to have sought to obtain German citizenship for three years without success.) Both men were attracted to fundamentalist currents in Islam as young adults, experiencing a kind of personal "awakening" that would put them on a path to increasing radicalization. In April 2007, not long after this personal transformation, Ciftci would leave Ansbach for the tribal zones of Pakistan. There he would get military training in an IJU camp, before crossing into Afghanistan's Khost province for his ultimate mission last March.

In October 2001, not long after his own embrace of a rigorist form of Islam, Kurnaz would likewise leave Germany for the tribal zones of Pakistan. Some weeks later, he would be arrested by Pakistani security forces in the vicinity of Peshawar, not far from the North Waziristan tribal area where the IJU is known to have its base of operations. Eric Breininger and Houssein al-Malla are also reported to have traveled to Peshawar. Kurnaz would later claim that he went to Pakistan to study the Quran. Despite the virtually universal depiction of him as an "innocent man" in both the German and American media, however, all the available evidence suggests that he was in fact going to obtain military training and to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. (For a summary of the relevant evidence, see here; and for discussions of the treatment of the Kurnaz case in the German and American media respectively, see here and here.)

It is indeed perhaps these parallels that explain the American news media's disinterest in the Ciftci case. The fact that a German-born Islamic fundamentalist of Turkish origins has committed a suicide attack in Afghanistan, killing and wounding Americans in the process, might give one occasion to wonder, after all, if American authorities did not do the right thing in holding Kurnaz prisoner. In an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Peter Carstens notes that in the meanwhile "more than a dozen" Jihadist recruits have set off from Germany on essentially the same voyage as Murat Kurnaz. The weekly Focus suggests that the number of persons recruited by the Sauerland Cell for the IJU may be as high as "30 or 40."

Despite the obvious reticence of much of the German media, not all Germans, incidentally, appear to be in denial about the extent of the danger emanating from their country. Thus, for example, after Ciftci's responsibility for the Khost bombing came to light, the daily Die Welt published an online poll asking its readers "Is Germany a hotbed of radical Islamists?" As of this writing, fully 74 percent of respondents have chosen the answer "Yes. The perpetrators of the 9/11 suicide attacks were trained here, after all." Only 15 percent have chosen the answer "No. The Islamist scene is no more pronounced here than elsewhere too."

John Rosenthal, World Politics Review's translations editor, writes on European politics and transatlantic relations.