October 19, 2001 Wall Street Journal

Page One Feature

Until Last Month, a Traveler From Sudan
Stumped Investigators Around the Globe


MUNICH, Germany -- Steffen Ufer didn't have to think long before agreeing to defend a Sudanese businessman against extradition to the U.S.

One of Germany's top criminal lawyers, the 60-year-old Bavarian thought the U.S. charges against Mamdouh Mahmud Salim were exaggerated, a view shared by German law-enforcement agencies. The allegation that Mr. Salim was a key figure in an international terrorist organization, al Qaeda, rang false, especially after Mr. Ufer got to know the gaunt, ascetic man from Khartoum. It was 1998 and two U.S. embassies had just been blown up in Africa, killing 224 people.

Mr. Salim seemed like a scapegoat. "I thought this was a typical example of American love of action," Mr. Ufer said. "I thought they were looking for someone to hang blame on for the bombings."

'We Didn't Recognize'

But since the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Ufer and German law-enforcement agencies have reversed their views. Investigators now believe that Mr. Salim was helping build an al Qaeda network in Germany, one directly linked to last month's attacks. His path through Germany, though, shows how hard such networks are to detect, even when investigators suspect that something is afoot. It also hints that authorities may have missed opportunities to strike earlier at al Qaeda's German network -- possibly even in time to have foiled the attacks on New York and Washington. Says a senior German intelligence official: "We saw, but we didn't recognize."

[Aftermath of Terror]

Mr. Salim's case seemed more of an isolated phenomenon when it landed in Germany's lap three years ago. In August 1998, the 40-year-old applied for a visa at the German embassy in Dubai, where he lived. Earlier that summer, U.S. authorities had placed him on a terrorist watch list, after receiving intelligence reports linking him to al Qaeda. Germany issued the visa but alerted the U.S. Mr. Salim traveled to Turkey on Sept. 7 and then to Madrid and the Spanish island of Majorca before touching down in Stuttgart on Sept. 13. Two days later, as Mr. Salim was traveling through Germany, the U.S. issued an arrest warrant, and the next day he was detained.

The warrant emphasized ties to Mr. bin Laden that Mr. Salim said were insignificant parts of his life. According to a transcript of his interrogation by German police, and court documents, he was born in 1958 in Khartoum to two Iraqi immigrants. He had Iraqi citizenship, and when he was 18 he went to Iraq to study electrical engineering. After five years of study, he was drafted into the Iraqi army, during Iraq's war with Iran. In 1983 he deserted and fled to Iran, according to the documents.

Mr. Salim moved to Pakistan in 1986, he told police, and met Mr. bin Laden. For the next six years, as Mr. bin Laden's al Qaeda network was being organized, Mr. Salim told his German captors that he worked for a bin Laden-supported organization that provided food and shelter for Arabs fighting in Afghanistan.

Mediating Between Tribes

In testimony he gave German investigators, he denied being a member of al Qaeda, but acknowledged he was a member of Mr. bin Laden's shura, or council. The shura's goal, he said, was simply to mediate between the fractious tribes fighting the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan.

In 1989, Mr. bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia and, in 1991, he moved to Sudan, obtaining Sudanese citizenship. Mr. Salim then took a job with two of Mr. bin Laden's companies, a trading firm called TABA and an agricultural-supply company known as Themar, according to his testimony to police.

"As I've said before, I knew bin Laden from Pakistan," Mr. Salim explained to his German captors, according to the interrogation transcript. "When I returned to the Sudan from Pakistan, he approached me through a middleman and made me the offer to head the two companies I mentioned."

In late July or early August of 1998, Mr. Salim moved to Dubai. A few days later, truck bombs blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and wounding 4,500. The U.S. retaliated by bombing training camps in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical factory in Mr. Salim's adopted country, Sudan.

A month later, he was in Germany. It was his fifth trip in three years. He first visited in 1995, when he met Mamoun Darkazanli, a Syrian-born trader who ran a floundering import-export business in Hamburg. His goal was to buy equipment for a Sudanese radio station and to find a German wife, according to his interrogation.

That set a pattern for subsequent trips to Germany, a puzzle that stumped German investigators. Tall and broad-shouldered with deep-set eyes and a small moustache, Mr. Salim stayed with Arab men who were well-integrated into German society but appeared to have no gainful employment. Most were married to German women, something Mr. Salim said he, too, wanted because his current wife was unattractive.

"She is 40 years old," he told Bavarian police, according to the transcript. "She has nothing in terms of femininity that could attract a man. For this reason I urgently wanted to find another woman and get married."

A Written Invitation

His host for his last trip to Germany, Walid Awaad-Borrmann of Munich, had a German wife and had written Mr. Salim a letter of invitation that he used to obtain his visa in Dubai. When Mr. Salim arrived in Stuttgart, he was met by three men sent by a prominent Egyptian doctor in the nearby town of Neu-Ulm. Adly el-Attar, too, was married to a German woman and eventually sent her to Sudan to live in 1993, said Ivan Maksimenko, a colleague in Dr. Attar's practice.

Like Mr. Darkazanli, the Syrian trader in Hamburg, Dr. Attar's medical work brought in little money, according to Dr. Maksimenko. That's because he began spending more and more time in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where he owned a home in Mr. Salim's old neighborhood, Dr. Maksimenko said.

After spending a night in Neu-Ulm, Mr. Salim traveled to Achering, a small town outside Munich, and stayed above a warehouse in a small apartment occupied by Dayaa Berbars, a 34-year-old Egyptian, his German wife, Barbara, and their four children. The couple stuck out in the small, conservative German town largely because Mrs. Berbars walked around in robes and a veil. But what neighbors say they also noticed was that Mr. Berbars said he worked for a phone company but rarely seemed to go to work.

The next day, Sept. 16, Mr. Salim went to a small car lot at an abandoned gas station in the town of Grueneck. German intelligence officers and police had been following Mr. Salim for two days and now, armed with the U.S. arrest warrant, a commando team swooped in. Mr. Salim offered no resistance.

During his interrogation, Mr. Salim first tried using several different names, according to law-enforcement officers. "He slipped from one to the other with ease," says a police officer.

After admitting his identity, he said he had wanted to buy a Mercedes 230 station wagon, although he only had $800 in his pocket. He had traveled from Dubai to this small town because prices in Germany were cheaper, he said.

'A Simple Man'

With Mr. Salim facing an extradition hearing, Dr. Attar and other friends in Neu-Ulm paid for hiring Mr. Ufer, acquaintances of the doctor said. Mr. Ufer was wary at first. "I don't like political cases where you have to share your client's convictions," he explained.

But he warmed to Mr. Salim and his case. If anyone was acting political, he thought, it was the U.S. Mr. Salim didn't seem to be doing anything wrong, a view shared by local law-enforcement officials, despite Mr. Salim's initial reluctance to reveal his identity. "My impression is that he was a simple man. His clothes were extremely simple, Western, but very basic," Mr. Ufer said.

Later, however, Mr. Salim began to admit to the Germans that he had known Mr. bin Laden and had been involved in the shura. Although he said his ties with Mr. bin Laden were harmless, the admissions were grounds enough for extradition. In December 1998, Germany sent Mr. Salim to the U.S., where he was put in jail to await trial.

Worried that a senior member of al Qaeda might have contacts in their country, German officials started a full-scale investigation of Mr. Salim.

High on their list was Mr. Darkazanli, the Syrian-born trader. Mr. Salim's cell phone, investigators discovered, had Mr. Darkazanli's telephone number programmed into it. Investigators then learned that Mr. Darkazanli had signing power over Mr. Salim's Deutsche Bank account. Reached by telephone, Mr. Darkazanli said he told German investigators back in 1998 that this was an innocent business arrangement, making it easier for him to purchase equipment while Mr. Salim was back in the Mideast.

But investigators remained unconvinced. If Mr. Salim was indeed a senior member of al Qaeda, then having signing power over his accounts would be a sign of deep trust. German intelligence put Mr. Darkazanli under surveillance, as well as his friends at the Hamburg mosque, al-Quds, where he worshipped.

Clear Patterns

They also tracked down Mr. Awaad-Borrmann, the Berbars family and Dr. Attar. The patterns were noted: unprofitable businesses, radical mosques and German wives. But at the time, investigators say, they weren't sure how al Qaeda operated. Looking for a classic terrorism operation, they focused on groups trying to procure detonators or chemicals. That paid partial dividends two years later when they followed a contact of Mr. Salim's back to Frankfurt, helping to bust a conventional Islamic terrorism cell that had planned to blow up a cathedral.

But now, sifting back over the evidence, German investigators believe they missed something more important. Mr. Salim, they now believe, was visiting members of the al Qaeda network -- some of whom had direct links to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The businesses, police say, were a cover. Mr. Darkazanli made little from his import-export business. Mr. Berbars didn't seem to have a job. Dr. Attar limited his work at his practice to a few weeks a year, the better to spend time shuttling back and forth to Sudan.

"Everything they did was very inconspicuous, except for one point: Whatever business they did was not an activity designed to make money," says Wilhelm Schmidbauer, head of the Bavarian police. "They had other goals."

One goal may have been acquiring equipment. According to U.S. investigators, Mr. Darkazanli's company wasn't procuring electronics for a Sudanese radio station, but transmitters for al Qaeda. While Mr. Darkazanli denies the allegations, investigators say they can see no other reason for someone to run a business with virtually no income or sales. One sign of how unimportant Mr. Darkazanli subsequently viewed his company: He deregistered it from the Hamburg Commercial Registry in 1998. Mr. Darkazanli declined to comment on his business, hanging up the phone when it was discussed.

Likewise, the marriages to German spouses. A German spouse gives a foreigner an unlimited residency permit, the right to work and virtually the same ease of travel as the holder of a German passport. Police now believe that some of the women are being held against their will in the Mideast.

"We don't think they married for love," says Bavaria's interior minister, Guenther Beckstein. "They used them as cover. The women were sent to Sudan or Afghanistan so they couldn't file for divorce."

Watched Mosques

In addition, Mr. Salim's contacts all frequented mosques that are under surveillance by German authorities for extremist tendencies. The links that Mr. Salim's friends had at the mosques were so crucial that they almost led investigators to the ring of suspected hijackers three years ago.

The mosque that Mr. Darkazanli visited in Hamburg, al-Quds, is now known to have been frequented by some of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Three years ago, investigators noted that Mr. Darkazanli worshipped there, and they began observing it. They noted that he spent time with one man in particular: Said Bahaji. In late 1998, around the time the investigators were observing Mr. Darkazanli, Mr. Bahaji had moved into Marienstrasse 54, home of Mohammed Atta and Marwan el-Shehhi, allegedly the two pilots who crashed into the World Trade Center.

Investigators say they didn't pay attention to either Mr. Atta or Mr. el-Shehhi because the two were so ordinary: students at the local university who happened to be religious. Now they say the two groups of men -- the established German residents with contacts to Mr. Salim and the students lying low -- were linked.

"Our suspicion is there was a broad spectrum," says Mr. Schmidbauer of the Bavarian police. "A logistical and financial base was built up and helped to spin this web of terror."

The links have become clearer in recent days. Police are investigating reports that Mr. Atta visited Mr. Salim's host in Neu-Ulm, Dr. Attar. Mr. Darkazanli, cleared three years ago, is back under investigation for links to the hijackers. Last month, the U.S. ordered banks to freeze his assets. Investigators believe Mr. Darkazanli had ties to one of Mr. Salim's co-defendants, Wadih el-Hage. And police believe that Mr. Bahaji made numerous money transfers from Hamburg to the U.S. earlier this year, helping to support the students once they arrived in the U.S.

Investigators would like to question Mr. Salim's contacts, but all except Mr. Darkazanli have left Germany. Mr. Awaad-Borrmann is believed to have left for the Mideast, the Berbars family left in 1999 for Cairo, and Dr. Attar left for Sudan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to police, neighbors and colleagues. Dr. Attar didn't return phone calls to his home in Sudan. In an interview with German television, however, he denied any links with Mr. bin Laden and said he only put up Mr. Salim as a favor to a friend, whom he didn't name.

As for Mr. Salim, he still hasn't appeared in court. He was due to stand trial earlier this year with four co-defendants on conspiracy charges related to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings. But last year, Mr. Salim is alleged to have stabbed a prison guard in the eyes with a comb sharpened into a dagger. The guard was blinded in both eyes and paralyzed on his right side.

Mr. Salim's case was separated from his four co-defendants, who were found guilty in May, and all four of whom were sentenced Thursday to life in prison. Mr. Salim was to have been first tried for attempted murder before going on trial on the terrorism charge. His trial was due to have begun in Lower Manhattan the week the World Trade Center was destroyed. It has been postponed indefinitely.

-- Mahmoud Kassem of Dow Jones Newswires and staff reporters Emily Nelson and Jerry Markon contributed to this article.

Write to Ian Johnson at ian.johnson@wsj.com and Alfred Kueppers at alfred.kueppers@wsj.com