The Blog

From Gitmo to Hamburg?

Three terror detainees may soon be sent to the city that gave us Mohamed Atta.

12:27 PM, May 8, 2010 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On first glance, the report in the popular German tabloid Bild could have seemed like a bad joke. “Guantánamo Detainees Slated to Go to Hamburg,” the headline ran. “Despite protests…,” the article began, “[German] Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière appears to be determined to accept three of the 183 suspected terrorists still detained at the US camp in Guantánamo.” “After their arrival in Germany,” it continued, “the detainees, who are allegedly not dangerous, are supposed to be housed at first in Hamburg, Bild has learned.” Yes, Hamburg.

From Gitmo to Hamburg?

Ohmed Ahmed Mahamoud Al-Shurfa.

Source: Bild

The report, which was the talk of the German news media in the days before Chancellor Merkel’s mid-April visit to the United States, went virtually entirely ignored by the American media. One of the few English-language news articles to touch upon it was a chatty English-language offering from the German wire service DPA, which emphasized Hamburg’s “cosmopolitan,” “multi-ethnic,” “anything-goes” character. It did not mention that it was in precisely the “cosmopolitan,” “multi-ethnic,” “anything-goes” city of Hamburg that Mohamed Atta and the other members of the eponymous Hamburg Cell planned the 9/11 attacks.

The German-language responses were similarly discreet about Hamburg’s infamous connection to Islamist terror and the worst-ever attack on the American homeland. There were criticisms and protestations. There have been indeed ever since it was first reported in the German media in May 2009 that the Obama administration had asked Germany to accept some Gitmo detainees who had been cleared for release. Those reports emerged just days after a visit to Berlin by Attorney General Eric Holder. More specifically, Daniel Fried, the State Department’s Guantánamo point man, is reported to have submitted a list of “less than ten” candidates to German authorities. The debate flared up again in late March of this year when the German weekly Der Spiegel reported that a German delegation had visited Guantánamo in order to meet with several of the candidates.

The focus of the criticisms and protests, however, has been the potential risk that the detainees could represent for Germany. Above all, politicians from Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have raised objections. The governments of several German states governed by the CDU or CSU had already made clear their unwillingness to accept released detainees before the Hamburg option was floated. “In any case, none of them are getting into Bavaria,” Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann told the Bayerischer Rundfunk radio in early April, “These are highly dangerous people.”

The mass revolt of leading members of Merkel’s own party appears indeed to be at the origin of the Hamburg option. Chancellor Merkel and Interior Minister de Maizière need the cooperation of state governments in order to be able to accept detainees. As it happens, the city-state of Hamburg is itself governed by a Christian Democratic mayor, if albeit as part of a highly original coalition consisting of Christian Democrats and Greens.

In any case, since the report of the Hamburg option emerged, one would be hard-pressed to find any German news article or commentary suggesting that there might be something peculiarly inappropriate about sending suspected al Qaeda or al Qaeda-linked militants to Hamburg of all places or even just venturing to bring up--to put it mildly--the “irony” of such a proposal. “Don’t mention the Hamburg Cell” appears to have been well and truly the order of the day.

Whereas the government’s plans to bring Gitmo detainees to Germany has drawn fire from the CDU and CSU, numerous opposition politicians from the Greens and the Social Democratic party (SPD) have embraced the idea, insisting that Germany has to do its part to “help close” Guantánamo. Interviewed by the German daily Die Welt, Green party parliamentary leader Renate Künast accused the CSU of “pure populism” for “act[ing] as if Qaida fighters were supposed to be brought to Germany.” Künast’s remark is in keeping with the general assumption in German news coverage that the decision of U.S. authorities to release a detainee from Guantánamo is tantamount to an admission that he had been “wrongfully” detained.

But, as it happens, the identity of the three candidates currently under discussion has been revealed, and much of the information relevant to their cases is declassified and readily available on the Department of Defense website. According to Der Spiegel, the three detainees are Ohmed Ahmed Mahamoud Al-Shurfa, Mahmud Salem Al-Ali and Mohammed Tahamuttan. Der Spiegel tells its readers that the three men have been slated for release “because the accusations against them have not been substantiated.” The relevant documentation suggests otherwise.

Consider the case of Ohmed Ahmed Mahamoud Al-Shurfa, the detainee who has received the most attention in the German media. Al-Shurfa is a Palestinian who was born in Saudi Arabia and has Jordanian citizenship. His Gitmo ISN (Internment Serial Number) is 331. Examination of the findings of his Administrative Review Board and Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings makes perfectly clear that Al-Shurfa was indeed an al Qaeda-trained militant and that his detention was no mistake. Al-Shurfa has admitted to receiving military training in 2001 at Al-Farouq, the most notorious of the Al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. He has said that he did so in accordance with a fatwa issued by a Saudi “sheikh.” He was arrested by Pakistani border police, apparently while fleeing the Battle of Tora Bora.

In a December 2005 Administrative Review Board hearing, Al-Shurfa made a highly subtle distinction between “preparing for jihad,” as required by the aforesaid fatwa, and actually engaging in jihad, which he insisted that he neither did nor was required to do. In light of the fact that he was training at a camp run by an organization that famously declared the killing of Americans and their allies to be “an individual duty for every Muslim,” the excuse is obviously rather lame. (See the 1998 “World Islamic Front Statement.”)  The sheik whose fatwa Al-Shurfa was following would undoubtedly find it to be such as well, especially in the aftermath of an American invasion of a Muslim country.

Kay Nehm was the Attorney General of Germany from 1994 until 2006. In August 2002, he gave an interview to the television news magazine Panorama on Germany’s ARD public television. Here is how Nehm described “graduates” of al Qaeda training camps in the interview:

Al-Qaida . . . is the basis for an international network with many, many people that have been trained in Afghanistan, who have internalized terrorism and who, of course, represent a danger potential that can emerge anytime and anywhere. We are talking about annihilation [Vernichtung] without concern about losses and without scruples [Panorama, August 29, 2002].

It would appear that the current German government no longer agrees with this assessment. 

In the same interview, incidentally, Nehm pointedly observed that it was “false” to describe the Hamburg Cell as a “sleeper” cell, since the actions and intentions of the members of the group were too obvious. A few months later, in February 2003, German's paper of record, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, would reveal that German domestic intelligence had had the Hamburg-based al Qaeda recruiter, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, under surveillance since 1997. Zammar is widely believed to have assembled the Hamburg Cell.

A spokesman for Hamburg mayor Ole von Beust has denied that the federal government has made an official requested for Hamburg to accept detainees. (The Bild report did not claim that it had.) In the meantime, according to the latest reports, the Merkel government has postponed any decision on detainees until after Sunday's regional elections in the German state of North-Rhine-Westphalia. According to Der Spiegel, Interior Minister de Maizière wants to have the matter resolved by May 27, when a conference of the interior ministers of the German states is scheduled to take place in Hamburg.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration is suffering from the same sort of amnesia concerning Germany’s role in global jihad as the German government and much of the German media appear to be. The question concerns not just Hamburg, but indeed Germany as such. Germany has been home to a veritable rogues’ gallery of terror operatives and enablers. These include not only all the various members and associates of the Hamburg Cell, but also Reda Seyam, the reputed al Qaeda financier of the 2002 Bali bombings, and Christian Ganczarski, who has been convicted by a French court for his role in the 2002 Djerba synagogue bombing. Both Seyam and the internationally-wanted al Qaeda financier Mamoun Darkazanli remain free men in Germany to this day. Germany has refused a Spanish extradition request for Darkazanli.

In February, moreover, German members of the European parliament led a revolt against the EU-U.S. SWIFT agreement, resulting in the agreement’s annulment. The agreement had permitted American terrorism investigators to examine selected data on bank transactions originating from European banks. Just weeks later, Germany’s Constitutional Court struck down an EU-mandated telecommunications data retention law, which had likewise been designed to facilitate counter-terrorism investigations. (On both developments, see my “Germany’s War on the War on Terror”.) As consequence, the potential for disrupting terror-related activities on German soil--or even just prosecuting them after the fact--has now been drastically reduced.

John Rosenthal writes regularly on European politics and transatlantic relations for various both old and new media. More of his work can be found at the Transatlantic Intelligencer blog (

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers