Guantanamo Tales: Murat Kurnaz in the German Media

Guantanamo Tales: Murat Kurnaz in the German Media

Germany has a new superstar. With the publication of his new book "Five Years of My Life: a Report from Guantanamo" ["Fünf Jahre Meines Lebens: ein Bericht aus Guantanamo"], the former Guantanamo inmate Murat Kurnaz has been all over the German media. Even before the book's official release on April 23, there had already been a feature spread on the Web site of the popular weekly Stern, an empathetic review on the rival Spiegel-Online, and reports featuring the star author himself on both of Germany's public television networks ARD and ZDF. Typically glowing reviews in all of Germany's major papers quickly followed. In light of such a media barrage, it is little wonder that just two weeks after the release date, Kurnaz's book, co-authored by the German journalist and sometime novelist Helmut Kuhn, had rocketed to 14th place on the Spiegel's hardcover bestseller list for non-fiction.
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But is it non-fiction? Some basic facts of Kurnaz's itinerary are undisputed. Just three weeks after the September 11 attacks, on Oct. 3, 2001, the then-19-year-old native of Bremen flew from Frankfurt to Karachi, Pakistan. Kurnaz, who had fallen under the influence of the fundamentalist Tablighi Jamaat movement, has claimed that the purpose of his trip to Pakistan was merely to study the Quran. As for the prima facie suspicious timing, Kurnaz has stressed that at the time of his departure the war in neighboring Afghanistan had not yet begun. The latter point is widely repeated without comment in the German media, even though a cursory look at contemporary press reports reminds us that by late September Taliban sympathizers in Pakistan were already calling for jihad in anticipation of an impending American-led intervention. (See, for example, this report from the Telegraph on a mass rally in Peshawar, an Islamist stronghold not far from the Afghan border, which Kurnaz is known to have visited.)

On Oct. 7, American and British forces initiated air strikes against targets in Afghanistan. Sometime around mid-November, Pakistani security forces arrested Kurnaz following a security check of passengers traveling on a bus in the vicinity of Peshawar. The Pakistanis turn Kurnaz over to American military authorities, who continued to hold him as a suspected al-Qaida or Qaida-affiliated fighter. In January 2002, Kurnaz was transferred from an American military base in Afghanistan to the newly established Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.

Initially, and indeed for several years after his seizure, Kurnaz's fate sparked little interest from German authorities. The indifference displayed by the then "red-green" coalition government is now the subject of controversy in Germany, though it is in fact unremarkable in light of certain continuing archaisms of German citizenship law. Like tens of thousands of other persons of Turkish descent who were born and live in Germany, Murat Kurnaz does not hold German citizenship. Inasmuch as he was a Turkish citizen, German authorities appear to have concluded that he was Turkey's problem. They had, moreover, an additional motivation for adopting this attitude: In light of a series of findings linking Kurnaz to the Islamic extremist scene in Germany, Germany's own Federal Office of Criminal Investigations (BKA) had classified Kurnaz as a security risk. (See the accompanying blog post "The German BKA Dossier on Murat Kurnaz.")

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