A young Turk from Bremen wanted to explore Islam in Pakistan – and ended up in Guantánamo. Now, Germany is discussing who’s to blame for the ordeal.
Murat Kurnaz left Bremen on Oct. 3, 2001. A 19-year-old shipbuilder and son of Turkish migrant workers, Kurnaz grew up in Germany. The homeland, culture and religion of his ancestors he experienced only on vacation. A short while earlier, Murat had discovered his religion thanks to a Pakistan-based missionary organization. The young man decided to travel to Pakistan to explore Islam more deeply.
The journey didn’t progress as Murat had hoped. The Islamic school that he had traveled thousands of miles to attend didn’t want him. His lack of the local language, the light skin, the reddish hair – the school’s imam probably thought Murat from Bremen was a spy.
In fact, he could hardly have chosen a worse time to embark on his journey. On Sept. 11, members of the terror network al Qaeda killed 3,000 people in America in a series of terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda used Pakistan’s neighbor Afghanistan as a base of operations. On Oct. 7, four days after Kurnaz’ departure from Germany, NATO launched its military operations against Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban regime.
As war rages across the border, Kurnaz whiled away his time aimlessly in Pakistan. Finally, he decided to return to Germany. On his way to the airport, he was arrested by Pakistani security and handed over to U.S. forces. The GIs thought they had netted a terrorist. The war across the border was still raging, after all. The German with a Turkish passport was transferred to the U.S. detention facility in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, it had become clear that the 9/11 attacks had been planned in Germany. Investigations were also determining that al Qaeda had stationed their “sleepers” in various countries: Islamic extremists leading seemingly unremarkable lives but who could be activated at short notice to carry out terrorist attacks. And, the first reports about the Bremen native in U.S. detention said Kurnaz was connected to extremist circles at home.
After the German government learned about the fate of the man already being called the “Bremen Taliban” by the tabloids, German security experts visited Kurnaz on Oct. 8, 2002. By then, he had been transferred to the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They concluded that the then 20-year-old had gotten himself into this situation through youthful naiveté. They could find no indication that Kurnaz had an extremist background.
Consequently, the U.S. authorities offered to hand Kurnaz over to the Germans – due to insufficient evidence and as a sign of good partnership. Yet the Americans attached conditions to the release of the German Turk, namely that Kurnaz be placed under surveillance and, possibly, be himself used as an intelligence source sometime in the future.
That irritated German intelligence officers. How could this Turkish kid from Bremen help monitor sleeper cells in Germany if he didn’t have anything to do with them? Or, conversely, why would the Americans be offering to release him if they think the Guantánamo detainee is a terrorist? Furthermore, how would the German public react if it found out that the German government had allowed an alleged terrorist to enter Germany?
At the weekly security briefing in the Chancellery, the decision was made not to respond to the U.S. offer. Moreover, since the credibility of the exculpating testimony regarding Kurnaz could not be definitively confirmed, the officials decided to withdraw the Bremen native’s residence permit. Kurnaz would not be allowed to re-enter Germany because of concerns that he might yet pose a threat.
As a result, Kurnaz languished in prison at Guantánamo. The camp had since become a favorite subject of German media reports. The government also joined in the criticism of living conditions there. Still, nothing was done to free Kurnaz. Instead of risking allegations that it had let a potential terrorist into the country, the government began to fear criticism for the failure to help him.
And Turkey? For its part, Ankara had helped engineer the release of five Turkish citizens from Guantánamo since 2002 – but even though Kurnaz held a Turkish passport, the Turkish authorities didn’t feel “the German” was their responsibility.
In fact, only one person fought unceasingly on Kurnaz’ behalf – his mother Rabiye. The resolute woman in her mid-50s with blond-dyed hair involved lawyers in Germany and the United States and filed lawsuits, including with the U.S. Supreme Court. She also wrote tirelessly to politicians and diplomats. Many answers came, including one from Angela Merkel – who had decided to take up the matter personally.
At her inaugural visit to Washington in January 2006, the new German chancellor discussed Kurnaz’ case with U.S.-President Bush. Half a year later, she inquired again at a meeting in the German town of Stralsund.
By then a U.S. court had ruled that Kurnaz was innocent. On Aug. 25, he was released and flown to Ramstein air base. He was back in Germany. By then, the case of the man from Bremen had caught the media’s attention. On Oct. 16, Murat and his mother Rabiye were guests on a popular late-night talk show.
With his black jacket, Murat wore long hair and a long beard. He wanted to look “like the Prophets,” the now-25-year-old told his interviewer Reinhold Beckmann. Indeed, the young man’s appearance rather reminded one of Hell’s Angels. He said he had been abused by German soldiers in Afghanistan. The subsequent discussion revolved around how it could be that Kurnaz had to forfeit four years of his life.
That same debate is currently occupying two parliamentary committees and – still – the media on a daily basis. The criticism is zeroing in on Frank-Walter Steinmeier, chief of staff in the Chancellery at the time of Kurnaz’ detention and now foreign minister. He is being accused of having actively thwarted Kurnaz’ repatriation.
Steinmeier has made clear that he is not indifferent to the Bremen native’s fate. Yet the minister defends his conduct and that of his colleagues. One could not be sure at the time that the “Bremen Taliban” did not pose a threat, he has said. In the future, too, he would always decide in favor of German security. Steinmeier has received support from former Interior Minister Otto Schily, who has come out in support of Steinmeier’s “completely correct” conduct.
And Kurnaz? After all, he seems to have been just in the wrong place at the wrong time. When all is said and done, the 25-year-old will still have been robbed of five years of his life. His American attorney Baher Amzy sees hardly any chance of getting compensation from the U.S. government. Yet the case stands out, Amzy says, because U.S. authorities knew as early as 2002 that the Turkish kid from Germany was innocent.