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Still at Large Ten Years After 9/11: Said Bahaji, Mohammed Atta's Right Hand Man

Publisher Jamestown Foundation
Publication Date 2 September 2011
Citation / Document Symbol Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 8
Cite as Jamestown Foundation, Still at Large Ten Years After 9/11: Said Bahaji, Mohammed Atta's Right Hand Man, 2 September 2011, Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 8, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e65d8432.html [accessed 22 August 2014]
Comments Derek Henry Flood
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Background

 

On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Said Bahaji, one of two known members of the Hamburg cell, remains at large. [1] Said Bahaji was born in Lower Saxony, Germany to a Moroccan father and a German mother in 1975. He was raised in both Germany and Morocco. He was married to a young woman from Germany's Turkish diaspora at the infamous al-Quds mosque (later renamed the Taba mosque) on the seedy Steindamm strip in Hamburg's St Georg district.

 

In the late 1990s, Bahaji lived quietly with Mohammed Atta and Ramzi bin al-Shibh in a modest first-floor flat at 54 Marienstraße in Hamburg's Harburg district just south of the Elbe river (Deutscher Auslands-Depeschendienst, August 22). Bahaji's videotaped wedding on October 9, 1999 at the al-Quds mosque was a veritable who's who of al-Qaeda's European operatives at the time including Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mounir el-Motassadeq, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, Abdelghani Mzoudi, Mahmoun Darkazanli, [2] and hijackers Marwan Alshehhi and Ziad Jarrah. In reconstructing the critical years building up to 9/11, Bahaji's wedding may have been well more than a meeting of like-minded expatriate jihadis for a social occasion. Several Western intelligence services believe the wedding may have been an important meeting before the al-Qaeda summit that took place in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia during January 5-8, 2000. The 9/11 plot was already in high gear by the time Said Bahaji held his nuptials in Hamburg. In the wedding video confiscated by German police, Ramzi bin al-Shibh can be seen extolling an anti-Western rant "against the enemies of Islam" for Bahaji's coterie of jihadi guests (El Pais, October 15, 2002). Bahaji had been sighted in al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan before 9/11 and was a known player in the European transnational jihadi milieu (Der Spiegel, January 21, 2002).

 

Said Bahaji has some military training after serving in Germany's 72nd Armored Infantry Battalion from January to May 1999 before he was discharged for unspecified medical reasons (Frankfurter Rundschau September 20, 2001). While studying at Hamburg-Harburg Technical University, he, like many of his Saudi counterparts in the 9/11 plot, became greatly interested in the second Russo-Chechen conflict. His email address was listed on a now defunct pro-Chechen rebel website called qoqaz.de. [3] Unlike the other members of the Hamburg cell, Bahaji was torn by an internalized identity crisis in that he was half European and raised in a liberal, secular environment during the German phase of his upbringing. His evolution from product of an inter-religious marriage to hardcore Salafi-jihadi is thought to have been a rapid one. He moved into 54 Marienstraße with Mihammed Atta and bin al-Shibh in November 1998. The three dubbed their flat, "Beit al-Ansar" ("House of the Followers [of Islam]") while holding to a rigid Islamic lifestyle. They repeatedly viewed Salafi-jihadi videos produced in the Persian Gulf and praised feats of jihadi martyrdom. [4] Bahaji, savvy in the ways of German society unlike his co-conspirators, was instrumental in helping to found the Hamburg cell's radical study group Islam Aktiengesellschaft (AG)—which would be led by Atta - on the campus of Hamburg-Harburg Technical University (Der Spiegel, November 23, 2006). Islam AG was inspired by the writings of the late Palestinian radical Abdullah Azzam who had been assassinated in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1989 at the conclusion of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Azzam was a Salafi-jihadi thinker who the Hamburg cell sought to emulate a decade after his unsolved murder. Azzam was an early promoter of the idea of a borderless, transnational jihadi culture that perfectly suited the Hamburg cell as they organized in Europe, trained in Afghanistan and sought to attack the United States.

 

 

A Cold Trail

 

Said Bahaji left Hamburg for Karachi, Pakistan via Turkey, arriving in Karachi on September 4, 2001. His movements have not been traceable by Western authorities since. Bahaji's last definitively confirmed whereabouts come from the guest registry at the Embassy Inn on Sharah-e-Faisal road in central Karachi. Bahaji, along with two other operatives checked out of the Embassy Inn the following morning. It is most commonly believed that Bahaji flew to Quetta on a Pakistan International Airlines flight and then quietly crossed the Chaman-Spin Boldak, crossing into Afghanistan's Kandahar Province just days before 9/11. An alternate theory suggests he may have flown to Bahrain on a fraudulent passport after Pakistani authorities checked records from local internet service provider Pakcom, discovering an email sent from Quaid-e-Azam International Airport to Hamburg on September 5, which they suspected may have been from Bahaji to his mother while traveling under an alias (Dawn, October 29, 2009).

 

Bahaji, 36, is today believed to be not only alive, but still actively involved with al-Qaeda's core. Following the capture by American forces in Kabul of a German national of Afghan origin called Ahmad Siddiqui, Siddiqui's subsequent interrogation at Bagram airbase revealed that he had met Bahaji in 2010 in Mir Ali, North Waziristan in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) (Der Spiegel, October 2, 2010). Though some Western officials have thought Bahaji to be on the Afghan side of the Durand Line for many years, Siddiqui revealed that Bahaji, like the late Osama bin Laden, has allegedly been hiding out on Pakistani soil (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, October 11, 2010). It is likely that Bahaji has spent most of his time after 9/11 in Pakistan judging by his once regular email correspondence with his wife. Most of Afghanistan was without internet connectivity for much of the post-9/11 period.

 

Bahaji, portrayed as a calculating al-Qaeda planner who was trained in engineering, longed for his young son called Omar whom he abandoned in Hamburg in advance of the attacks on New York and Washington. In an email intercepted on July 20, 2004, Bahaji wrote to Nese: "I am rather worried about how I can get you and Omar out of Germany" (Der Spiegel, August 9, 2004). Bahaji's recorded exchanges with his family in Germany left him off the two-dimensional wanted posters on which he was once featured alongside Ramzi bin al-Shibh to paint a three-dimensional image of a complex man with conflicting emotions. Bahaji told his wife he would like to return to the West but he is confident he would be arrested and unfairly tried.

 

The last confirmed proof of life that German authorities received in regard to Bahaji was an email to his wife Nese still residing in Hamburg in 2006. Prior to this email correspondence, the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigations traced two brief phone calls originating in Pakistan following the October 8, 2005 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck the territory of Azad Jammu & Kashmir which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. Bahaji called his wife, stating: "Don't worry. I'm well" as well as calling his mother Annelise in Georgsmarienhütte, Lower Saxony, reassuring her that he was unharmed by the seismic catastrophe (Focus [Munich], February 21, 2006).

 

A Madrid Link

 

The March 11, 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid (often referred simply as ‘3/11' or ‘11-M' in Europe) killed nearly 200 people, caused the government of José María Aznar and his Partido Popular to be defeated in the Spanish general elections, and led to the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Najaf, Iraq as a result. In mid-July 2001, an al-Qaeda summit—presumably chaired by Mohammed Atta - took place in and around the city of Tarragona in northeastern Spain's autonomous Catalunya region. Atta rendezvoused with Ramzi bin al-Shibh at Catalunya's Reus airport because bin al-Shibh could neither get a visa for the United States nor a flight to Madrid. The two men shuffled between four hotels south of Barcelona in the towns of Tarragona, Cambrils and Salou. Spanish and American investigators have yet been unable to definitively answer precisely who Atta and bin al-Shibh met during their stay in Catalunya. It is thought they met with Madrid-based or Catalunya-based al-Qaeda members to discuss the final preparations for 9/11. The FBI and Spanish police believe that the two 9/11 plotters met with a deputy of the prominent Syrian jihadi theoretician Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (a.k.a. Abu Musab al-Suri).

 

This al-Qaeda "envoy" of al-Suri's, whose identity is unclear in open source documents, is thought to be the link between 9/11 and 3/11 in Spain (ABC [Madrid], November 28, 2004). Atta, bin al-Shibh, and this unknown third individual were supposedly aided by an operative called Mohammed Belfatmi. Belfatmi is an Algerian who resided in Vila-seca, a town wedged in between Tarragona and Salou. Belfatmi is linked to the now imprisoned Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas (a.k.a. Abu Dahdah). Abu Dahdah was considered to be the head of al-Qaeda's operations in Madrid before his arrest in November 2001 (see Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2005). While on trial in Madrid, Abu Dahdah testified that he had no relation to Belfatmi or anyone involved in 9/11 (AFP, April 26, 2005).

 

From the description given by a receptionist who dealt with Ramzi bin al-Shibh at the Hotel Monica in Cambrils, it was plausible that Bahaji was traveling with bin al-Shibh, his Hamburg flat mate (El Pais, June 30, 2002). If so, then perhaps Bahaji was al-Suri's clandestine envoy in Catalunya, though there is no definitive link between al-Suri and Bahaji. Emirati hijacker Marwan al-Shehi may also have been present (Reuters, June 30, 2002).

 

Following the July 2001 al-Qaeda meeting in Catalunya, Belfatmi accompanied Bahaji to Karachi. Departing from Brussels and Hamburg respectively, Belfatmi and Bahaji met on a connecting Turkish Airways flight on the tarmac at Ataturk International Airport, which ferried them to Karachi (El Pais, March 16, 2004). After landing on Pakistani soil, Bahaji would never be seen again.

 

A Bitter Spouse

 

The German Federal Prosecutor General's office in Karlsruhe considers Bahaji the single most important aide to Atta still at large (Focus [Munich], January 11). A tenuous link between Bahaji and the August 2006 Transatlantic liquid bomb plot was put forth in several press accounts when it was reported that a British national linked to the plot emailed Nese Bahaji before British authorities disrupted it (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, August 16, 2006). The content of the emails nor the reasoning behind them was never specified. Nese has been described as an intensely conflicted woman, raised in a secular, liberal postwar Germany who came to loathe Western society, entering a cloistered world of Islamism after her husband's disappearance the week before 9/11. In a 2005 interview, she stated that she sincerely believed 9/11—in which her estranged husband is thought by the international community to be a key logistician—was perhaps an elaborate American or Jewish conspiracy aimed at discrediting the agenda of genuine Islamists (Der Spiegel, May 9, 2005).

 

When the Pakistani army discovered Bahaji's passport during an operation in the village of Sherwangi, South Waziristan, a stronghold of the Mehsud tribe that makes up the backbone of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, they also found a passport belonging to a Spanish national called Raquel Garcia Burgos. Burgos is or was the wife of Amer Azizi, a Moroccan alleged to have been involved in 3/11. An unconfirmed report suggested that Azizi (a.k.a. Othman al-Andalusi) may have been killed in Afghanistan in 2005 (ABC [Madrid], November 1, 2009). El Pais reported that Azizi was in fact killed in a drone missile strike in North Waziristan on December 1, 2005. Five years after the reported drone attack, Azizi was eulogized on an al-Qaeda website (El Pais, May 8, 2010). Following the interrogations of Rami Makanesi, a German national of Syrian origin who was captured in Pakistan in 2009 and Ahmad Sidiqui, it is possible that Bahaji married Burgos after the killing of Azizi. Makanesi and Sidiqui stated that Bahaji was moving freely about in the FATA with a Spanish wife and children after having divorced Nese Bahaji in 2006 (Bild, August 29, 2011).

 

Conclusion

 

While the United States and allied nations have made great strides in killing or capturing many key members of al-Qaeda's core like Osama bin Laden in 2011 and Ramzi bin al-Shibh in 2002, Said Bahaji is still on the run in the Pakistan-Afghanistan theater, most likely either protected in FATA or in one of Pakistan's sprawling urban centers. According to a recent report, the multilingual Bahaji is deeply involved in al-Qaeda's as-Sahab media wing.

 

Said Bahaji is a highly adept operator who has managed to outlast many of his co-conspirators while outliving much of al-Qaeda's original leadership. He has thus far managed to evade the drone attacks that have been regularly pounding the FATA region.

 

In statements released by German federal investigators following the interrogation of Ahmad Sidiqui, Sidiqui described Bahaji as having a lot of credibility among al-Qaeda's current generation for having been so dedicated to the organization for so many years. Sidiqui claimed that Bahaji walked with a limp after suffering a leg wound when fighting in Afghanistan in late 2001 (Der Spiegel, August 28, 2011).

 

Ten years on from 9/11, Bahaji is still listed as wanted by Interpol via the high courts of both Germany and Spain. [5] He is also listed in the UN Security Council's amended Resolution 1267 and Resolution 1989, commonly referred to as "The Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee". [6] Having grown up both in the heart of the West and North Africa, Bahaji's transformation from a young man with perhaps confused cultural affinities into a dedicated Salafi-jihadi may never be fully understood. Said Bahaji metamorphosed from a quiet student interested in computing and fast cars to one of the most elusive survivors in al-Qaeda's global insurgency.

 

Notes

1. The other member of the Hamburg cell still at large is Zakariya Essabar, a Moroccan national who is believed to have delivered the specific date of the 9/11 plot to al-Qaeda's central leadership in Pakistan.

2. For a profile of Mahmoun Darkazanli, see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 2010.

3. Qoqaz is the transliteration of the Arabic term denoting the Caucasus region. In the late 1990s, the term became popularized amongst Salafi-jihadis seeking to fight in Chechnya against Russian federal forces.

4. Assaf Moghadam, The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press 2008), p.91.

5. To view Said Bahaji's Interpol listing, see: www.interpol.int/public/data/wanted/notices/data/2001/09/2001_41909.asp.

6. To view Said Bahaji's al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee listing, see: http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/NSQI8002E.shtml.

Copyright notice: © 2010 The Jamestown Foundation

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