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The CIA Rendition Controversy: Is Khaled Al-Masri Lying?

Friday, Nov. 17, 2006

Rumor has it that Democrats are eager to use their newly acquired power in Congress to "investigate" a variety of "uninvestigated scandals" linked to the Bush Administration: among them, the use of "CIA secret prisons" in the war on Islamic terror organizations. If an inquiry is opened into this latter question, one can expect a Democrat-led congressional panel to follow the pattern of investigations that have already been undertaken by the Council of Europe and the EU Parliament. It is indeed the latter investigations that are largely responsible for having converted a practice of detaining enemy operatives that might otherwise seem banal in a time of war into the "scandal" that it has become -- for the European public, at any rate. As has occurred in European investigations, one can likewise expect the case of Khaled Al-Masri to take center stage.

As a result of broad -- though, as we shall see, remarkably superficial -- media coverage, the story of Khaled Al-Masri is well known. A German citizen of Lebanese origins, Masri claims to have been "kidnapped" by the CIA while on a trip to Macedonia and then "rendered" to Afghanistan. There he is supposed to have been subjected to five months of depravations and torture in a secret CIA prison. Whatever consequences a congressional investigation of the Masri case might eventually have for the pursuit of American counter-terrorism operations, Masri's saga is already undermining -- or, more exactly, being vigorously exploited to undermine -- America's claim to cooperation from its nominal allies. In early October, for example, the Munich District Attorney's Office transferred the names of Americans allegedly involved in the Masri "kidnapping" to Germany's Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BKA). The move, a Bavarian official explained to the German television magazine Panorama, was being taken in the name of "averting the danger" [Gefahrenabwehr] that the Americans might represent: namely, to Germany and its citizens.

But what of averting the danger that Khaled Al-Masri might represent to America and Americans? The poster boy status that Masri has obtained in so much of the media coverage of the "secret prisons"/renditions controversy is largely dependent upon the assumption of his "innocence." In the given context, this assumption should presumably mean that Masri has had no connection to the Islamic extremist movements that the contested American measures are designed to combat. Only weeks before the move against the alleged American agents, however, two German news organizations, citing a confidential BKA memo, revealed that Khaled Al-Masri had been classified by German police as "a proponent of military jihad" since at the latest October 2003 (Financial Times Deutschland, Sept. 20; Stern, Sept. 21). October 2003 was three months before Masri allegedly went missing on the Serbian-Macedonian border.

In the meanwhile, the German weekly der Spiegel has reported that Masri's name had already come up in German investigations of the 9/11 plot. According to the Oct. 28 Spiegel article, an informant reporting to investigators in Baden-Württemberg had identified Masri as "a follower of Bin Laden" as early as Sept. 26, 2001. Citing the BKA files on the 9/11 plot, the Spiegel continues:

Masri is supposed already before September 11 to have whispered that one "is going to hear something soon" and in conversation said that one "must inflict as much pain on the Americans as they would inflict on people of the Islamic faith."

It should be noted in this connection that der Spiegel itself has likely done more than any other German news organization to create and reinforce the supposition of Masri's "innocence": including propagating this supposition in English via its English-language Web site. In keeping with this point of departure, der Spiegel vigorously spins the content of its report such that the pertinent "news" becomes not the information about Masri contained in the BKA files, but rather the hypothetical possibility that this information might have been shared with American authorities -- thus rendering German police "complicit" in what are assumed to be American misdeeds. This "spin" is clearly reflected in the Spiegel headline: "German Authorities Suspected of Providing Information in the Masri Case."

These latest reports have been almost entirely ignored by the established English-language media. (One exception is UPI, which picked up the Spiegel report but at the same time adopted, almost word for word, the Spiegel spin.) Nonetheless, as I have discussed in an earlier piece on the Masri affair, numerous publicly known details of Masri's biography already strongly suggested the involvement in Islamist milieus that the confidential police records appear to confirm. This public evidence has likewise gone largely ignored by the established English-language media, and when it has been acknowledged, it has as a rule been so only tangentially and in such a way as to diminish its significance. Thus, for example, a Sept. 21 Reuters report on the Masri affair notes that an Islamic cultural center in the small Bavarian town of Neu-Ulm that Masri was known to frequent "was shut down by Bavarian authorities last year for allegedly promoting hatred of Jews and Christians and supporting suicide attacks in Iraq."

Allegedly? The center, known as the "Multi-Kultur-Haus" (MKH), was shut down by the Bavarian Interior Ministry for inciting hatred of Jews and Christians and promoting suicide attacks -- among other methods of jihad. The Interior Ministry has made public some of the seized evidence that led it to form this assessment of MKH activities. Thus a Dec. 28, 2005, press release includes the following details:

The audiocassettes "No to the Jews / The Thousand-Appeals of the Khalidin" and "El Rawabi El Jihadi", seized on 23 August 2005 in the MKH library, openly call for the killing of Jews. A citation: "Oh, Most Worthy One, . . . send us bombs to kill the Jews. No to the Jews! No to the Jews!" . . . The CD "Iraq", which was seized in the kitchenette of the MKH on 23 August 2005, contains, for instance, the following: "To triumph does not only mean killing the unbelievers, but also killing oneself in order to strike back at the unbelievers! . . . Whoever fights against the Christians, the Jews, and their allies is a martyr . . ."

Several Islamist notables are known to have passed through the MKH: among them Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, an alleged al-Qaida finance chief -- and reputed "best friend" of Osama bin Laden -- currently in American custody. According to reports in the American press in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Egyptian doctor who hosted Salim in Neu-Ulm, Aldy El-Attar, is supposed also to have met with 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed Atta. (See, for instance, Washington Post, Oct. 10, 2001.) Just last month (Oct. 16), the German television magazine Report Mainz broadcast an interview with a Neu-Ulm taxi driver who claims to have recognized Atta and his fugitive co-conspirator Said Bahaji as clients whom he deposited at the home of one "Dr. El-A." in summer 2001.

But perhaps the most significant clue connecting Masri to Islamic extremist milieus in Germany is his mutually attested "friendship" with Reda Seyam. Seyam, an avowed Islamist and proponent of jihad, is suspected of having organized the financing for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people. In July 2003, upon being released from an Indonesian jail, Seyam was whisked away to Germany by a five member team from Germany's Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BKA). But Seyam was released in Germany and no charges have ever been brought against him by German authorities. Indeed, according to a December 2005 report in the German weekly Die Zeit, the purpose of the BKA mission was not to take Seyam into custody, but rather to "save" him from being seized by American agents. (For more on this episode and other details of Seyam's "career," see my earlier report on Masri's Islamist connections here.)

Asked about his relationship to Masri by Report Mainz last month, Seyam said, "He really helped me a lot, and so he developed a good relationship to us as a friend."

It is just one measure of the startling inadequacies in the coverage of the Masri affair in the established English language media that the New York Times has never mentioned Masri and Seyam together in the same article. It was, nonetheless, the Times -- a paper not known, incidentally, for German scoops -- that "broke" the Masri story worldwide in January 2005 and it ran a "profile" of Reda Seyam barely one month before (Nov. 27, 2004). The same German-speaking stringer, Souad Mekhennet, contributed to both articles. This curious chronology, as well as evidence of Seyam having "promoted" the Masri story among German media, leads one to wonder whether it might not indeed have been Seyam who tipped off the Times to Masri and his saga.

Even before the evidence of his connections to extremist milieus came to light, one central detail of Masri's story ought to have sent up red flags, but instead passed virtually entirely unremarked. The original Jan. 9, 2005, New York Times report on Masri begins as follows: "On the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2003, Khaled el-Masri was traveling on a tourist bus headed for the Macedonian capital, Skopje, where he was hoping to escape the 'holiday pressures' of home life during a weeklong vacation." It was upon reaching the Serbian-Macedonian border that Masri was taken into custody by Macedonian authorities, who, on his account, would subsequently turn him over to the CIA. In later versions of the story, what the New York Times describes in reassuringly familiar terms as the "holiday pressures of home life" becomes, more concretely, an argument with Masri's wife. Somewhat less reassuringly, as has been widely noted in the German media, Masri's wife failed to report her husband missing and returned to her native Lebanon with their four children. A German parliamentary committee likewise investigating the Masri affair was scheduled to question Masri's wife in September. The appearance was cancelled, ostensibly because the witness was again pregnant.

Why Skopje? A December 2005 article from der Spiegel's English-language service cites Masri as claiming that he "simply took a look at a map and picked out the Macedonian capital" -- "with the objective of embarking on a voyage of self-discovery." In Winter 2003-2004, Macedonia was still recovering from a bloody conflict that had pitted Albanian nationalist forces, claiming to represent the country's Albanian-speaking minority, against the central government. Although the conflict would officially be brought to a close through international mediation in August 2001, sporadic outbreaks of violence continued to plague Macedonia through much of 2003. As so happens, the Kumanovo region where Masri would be taken into custody remained one of the most volatile areas. The conflict, moreover, bore a marked confessional aspect, with the overwhelming majority of the Albanian-speaking population being Muslims and the overwhelming majority of the rest, Eastern Orthodox Christians.

In light of the foregoing, the notion of a Muslim choosing to spend New Years in Skopje in order to avoid the "holiday pressures of home life" stretches the bounds of credibility to the breaking point. A June 21, 2006, article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reveals that Bavarian authorities -- presumably aware of the classification of Masri as a "proponent of military jihad" -- "took note" of Masri's disappearance in early 2004: "assuming that he had possibly left for a crisis region . . ." As a matter of fact, he had -- and, according to some reports (Tageszeitung, June 24, 2006), with over 3000 euros in cash to boot.

In light of his friendship with Reda Seyam, moreover, it is equally implausible that Masri could have been as clueless about the tensions in Macedonia as his claim to have "picked out the Macedonian capital on a map" would suggest. Seyam is a veteran of jihadist activism in the Balkans who spent much of the 1990s in the region. He is known to have "worked" in Bosnia during the Bosnian Civil War as an agent for an Islamic "charity" and to have produced propaganda videos for the Bosnian-Muslim cause. The most notorious of these videos includes a scene depicting the executions of three Bosnian Serb prisoners, one by decapitation. According to a Nov. 31, 2004, article in the Chicago Tribune, Seyam remained in Bosnia after the war as manager of a subsidiary of the Saudian firm Twaik. A second Balkan subsidiary of Twaik in Albania was managed by Mamoun Darkazanli: a German citizen who is suspected by American authorities of being an al-Qaida agent and who has been identified as such in a Spanish indictment. Germany has refused a Spanish extradition request for Darkazanli. As so happens, Reda Seyam's second wife -- whom he married while living in Bosnia and before having divorced from his first, German, wife -- is Albanian.

The evidence of the centrality of the Balkans to global jihadist networks is by now too massive to be denied. The career of Reda Seyam is itself a case in point and the nearly 700 page Spanish al-Qaida indictment from September 2003 provides numerous others. Seyam has said that Khaled Al-Masri "really helped me a lot." What was Khaled Al-Masri doing when he set off to Macedonia in late December 2003? Could he have been "helping" Reda Seyam?

If the new Congress does indeed open an inquiry into CIA "secret prisons," it might want to look for answers to these questions. One would hope in this connection that America's elected representatives will neither forget that the 9/11 plot was hatched in Germany, nor ignore the remarkable indulgence that Germany continues to show toward the likes of Seyam and Darkazanli. It could well turn out that the real "scandal" is not that the United States detained Khaled Al-Masri -- but that Germany has not.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. His work has appeared in English, French and German in publications such as Policy Review, The Claremont Review of Books, The New York Sun, Les Temps Modernes, Le Figaro and Merkur.