Man who recruited 9/11 hijackers under detention in Syria’s north
Rare interview details journey of extremist who now languishes in prison cell
There was nothing about the hungry, bedraggled man who surrendered at a remote desert checkpoint belonging to the United States’ Kurdish allies this year to suggest he had once played a part in one of the biggest events in US history.
He was limping from injuries, his beard was matted and teeming with lice, and he was fleeing from Daesh.
After he identified himself and checks were run, the confirmation came back. This was Mohammad Haidar Zammar, the man who recruited the hijackers who carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001.
In his first interview with a US news organisation since 2001, conducted in the presence of the Kurdish guards who are holding him at a prison on the outskirts of Qamishli, Zammar recounted ■ his extraordinary journey. It was one that took him from the earliest days of the Al Qaida camps in Afghanistan to the battlefields of Daesh in Syria, via a rendition suspected to have been ordered by the CIA. Zammar, 57, holds Syrian and German citizenship.
Zammar’s family moved to Germany when he was 10. He developed a circle of followers at Hamburg’s Al Quds mosque.
The first member of the Hamburg cell he remembers meeting was Ramzi Bin Al Shibh, a Yemeni citizen now being held in Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of involvement in the 9/11 plot. Next he met Mohammad Atta, the hijackers’ ringleader. “It was not easy. It took time. They were studying at the university,” he said. “I was telling them ... there is no country in the world that does not have an army to defend itself, while we Muslims do not.”
Towards the end of 1999, Zammar made another visit to Afghanistan, overlapping with 9/11 ring leader Mohammad Atta and other members of the Hamburg cell making their first visit to the country — and carrying with them their proposal to crash planes into American buildings.
Zammar continues to deny any foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot. Three months after the attacks, he dropped out of sight. While on a visit to Morocco, he was arrested and deported to Syria. For the next 12 years, he was held in Syria’s Sednaya prison, where he says he was tortured. In 2013, he was freed in a prisoner swap, and joined Daesh.
Now he languishes in another prison cell, alongside about 30 other Daesh prisoners.