Stuck in Germany Before 9/11, Suspect Hatched Marriage Plot
For the young men in what would later come to be called the Hamburg cell, Ramzi Binalshibh was a leader.
It was Binalshibh who connected the group to the broader jihadist movements then coalescing across the Arab world. It was he who brought new members into the group and eased tensions when they arose. And it was Binalshibh, a native of the same region of Yemen as Osama bin Laden’s family, who later formed a close bond with Bin Laden as the Sept. 11 plot against America progressed.
But as the other men left Hamburg for the United States or Afghanistan in the summer of 2000, and Binalshibh was frustrated in his attempt to obtain a U.S. visa, he appeared to at least one woman as little more than a lost, lonely man desperate for companionship.
Within 36 hours of a chance meeting in Berlin that July, according to transcripts of investigators’ interviews obtained by The Times, Binalshibh proposed marriage to her.
She was decidedly not like the typical wife of a radical Muslim fundamentalist. In fact, about the only thing the woman and Binalshibh seemed to have in common was that they were alone.
The transcripts offer a glimpse of an unknown side of the man, now in U.S. custody, who is accused of being a coordinator of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
The woman was a student of modern dance who had recently come to Berlin after being impressed by a performance of a touring German dance troupe. She was neither a Muslim nor an Arab. She told Binalshibh that she was Roman Catholic and, although it is unclear from the transcripts, seems to have been from Japan.
They met on a Sunday afternoon in July, in the lobby of a youth hostel where she was staying while she searched for a dance school. She was reading notices on a bulletin board for activities when she noticed Binalshibh watching her. He asked her to go swimming with him. She refused, but accepted a lunch invitation. They went by bus to a Middle Eastern restaurant in downtown Berlin.
During lunch, he suggested a movie. They saw the Russell Crowe film “Gladiator,” which they enjoyed even though it was dubbed in German, a language Binalshibh did not speak well.
After the film, she complained about the cost of her stay at the hostel, where her bed was one of 10 in the room. Binalshibh said she could come with him to the student apartment building where he was staying. She declined, in part because she had already paid for the night, but they agreed to meet the next morning.
Binalshibh showed up wearing a suit, and after she checked out of the hostel, he took her by taxi to a student apartment house where he had borrowed a room from a friend. There was no separate room for the woman, just one room with one bed. The first night, Binalshibh slept on the floor.
She awoke the next morning startled to find him kneeling on the floor, praying loudly while grasping a huge dagger, which Yemeni men wear by tradition.
They would spend the next four days together. After the first night, they slept in the same bed, the woman said, but she insisted they weren’t lovers. At the end of the first, Binalshibh proposed, saying he would take her with him back to Hamburg, where, he said, he was a university student.
He told her she would, of course, have to change -- to dress more modestly and cover herself in the manner of good Muslim women. He said he had already told friends he was going to bring a wife home.
The woman told investigators that Binalshibh had previously displayed his temper when she disagreed with him, so she didn’t tell him that she would not marry him. She merely said she had come to Germany to dance and would only move to Hamburg if he found a program.
The temper was most evident when he talked about non-Arabs. All Germans were racist, he said, and the Americans were to be condemned for supporting Israel. The Jews, he told her, were the worst.
“His great-grandparents, his grandparents, his parents hated the Jews, and if he should have children, they would hate them too,” the woman said.
She said she told him the hating would have to stop, and he grew so angry she was afraid he was about to hit her.
For the most part, however, his tantrums were not the norm, the woman told investigators. He could be warm and funny, and he told her she was the funniest person he had ever met.
Binalshibh’s diet seemed to consist almost entirely of frozen pizza with tuna, which he bought at the supermarket and reheated. During the four days, they roamed around Berlin. She window-shopped, he looked for telephone call centers and Internet cafes. He was constantly taking calls on his cellphone, then hustling to find a public phone to return the call, she said.
The woman said she looked in Binalshibh’s backpack once and found detailed drawings of public buildings. She asked him if he had taken professional drawing lessons. He said he had not and put the drawings away without further comment. (Mohamed Atta, a member of the cell and one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was an accomplished draftsman.)
They talked a lot about the movie they had seen together, and he later signed e-mails to her with “Your King, Ramzi,” a reference to the film, she said.
The e-mails continued for more than a year, she said, even beyond Sept. 11, when Binalshibh became one of the most wanted men on Earth. In the beginning, they were very romantic, and he addressed her as “my love” or “dear.” He pressed her to come to Hamburg to live with him. She resisted and told him she would leave Germany in the fall. He threatened to come back to Berlin and stop her.
At one point, Binalshibh said he would come on a certain day and time to pick her up and bring her back to Hamburg. On the day he was due to arrive, she moved out of the flat she was staying in. The woman never saw him again and returned to her home country in December.
Binalshibh has sometimes been described as a strategist of the Sept. 11 attacks, a characterization consistent with the idea that the attacks were extraordinarily sophisticated and needed an equally sophisticated organization to execute them.
That image has frayed considerably over the last two years as the hijackers and their associates have been discovered to be in many ways shockingly ordinary and prone to silly mistakes.
Binalshibh’s brief affair in Berlin seems more in keeping with the latter image.
Times staff writer McDermott reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Laabs from Berlin.