Man’s Claims May Be a Look at Dark Side of War on Terror
Khaled el-Masri says his strange and violent trip into the void began with a bus ride on New Year’s Eve 2003.
When he returned to this city five months later, his friends didn’t believe the odyssey he recounted. Masri said he was kidnapped in Macedonia, beaten by masked men, blindfolded, injected with drugs and flown to Afghanistan, where he was imprisoned and interrogated by U.S. intelligence agents. He said he was finally dumped in the mountains of Albania.
“One person told me not to tell this story because it’s so unreal, no one would listen,” said Masri, a German citizen who was born in Lebanon.
A Munich prosecutor has launched an investigation and is intent on questioning U.S. officials about the unemployed car salesman’s claim that he was wrongly targeted as an Islamic militant. Masri’s story, if true, would offer a rare firsthand look at one man’s disappearance into a hidden dimension of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. authorities have used overseas detention centers and jails to hold or interrogate suspected terrorists, such as at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many of the estimated 9,000 prisoners in U.S. military custody were captured in Iraq, but others, like Masri, were allegedly picked up in another country and delivered to U.S. authorities in Afghanistan or elsewhere for months of confinement.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on Masri’s case, but White House, Justice Department and CIA officials have long argued that U.S. laws authorize such covert operations. They say U.S. officials have been given assurances in every case that no one is tortured.
“This is not a rogue agency on these issues,” said a former senior CIA official who is familiar with the practice. “All these programs have been done under strict supervision, and have saved lives.”
The German government is investigating Masri’s allegations.
“I have no indication that Masri is not telling the truth,” Munich prosecutor Martin Hofmann said in a recent interview. Hair analysis -- which can identify malnourishment and whether someone spent time in a certain part of the world -- suggests that Masri was maltreated and could have been in Afghanistan in early 2004, said his lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic.
“I cannot bring kidnapping charges against a country,” Hofmann said. “Decisions now have to be made by higher German authorities. Bearing in mind the politically explosive nature of this case, I still believe it can be handled swiftly.”
Masri’s allegations come at a sensitive time for Washington and Berlin. President Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder met last month to help mend ties in the wake of Germany’s opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. German officials are troubled by the possible kidnapping of one of their citizens but do not want to jeopardize cooperation with Washington in the war on terrorism. There also is the question of what role, if any, German intelligence played in Masri’s disappearance.
Masri, a stout man with combed-back black hair, may have run into trouble because of his name and place of worship.
His mosque, the Multicultural House in Ulm, has been under surveillance by German authorities as a haven for radical mullahs and extremists. Some of its worshipers enlisted with militants in Chechnya, the breakaway Russian republic. Suspected Al Qaeda member Reda Seyam, who was arrested after the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia, and later released, had spent time in the Ulm mosque and once borrowed a car belonging to Masri’s wife.
In a twist that raises the possibility of mistaken identity, U.S. intelligence services have listed a Khaled el-Masri as a suspected terrorist operative with ties to Osama bin Laden. That Masri, still believed to be at large, allegedly persuaded several of the Sept. 11 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, to train in Bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan.
These factors may have converged as Masri sat on a bus that New Year’s Eve.
Masri, a father of four, said he was having family problems and decided to escape his small apartment for a short holiday in Macedonia. This account raises doubts among some German officials, but Masri is adamant that he needed time away from his wife.
The tenor of the trip changed about 3 p.m. when his passport was confiscated after the bus crossed the Serbian border into Macedonia. Three hours later, Masri said, he was waiting for his documents to be returned when “two guys in plainclothes and carrying pistols arrived and asked me if I had connections to Islamic organizations. I told them no. They questioned me until 10 p.m. and then they put me in a car.”
Masri said he was taken to a hotel in the capital, Skopje, and was guarded by Macedonian teams of three men working in shifts. He said he demanded to see an official from the German Embassy but no one came. He tried to flee, he said, but was threatened with guns.
On the seventh day of his confinement, he said, a man photographed him and took his fingerprints. Another man Masri described as the “big boss” offered him a deal.
“The big boss said too many days had passed,” he said. “He told me if I admitted to belonging to Al Qaeda, they’d deport me to Germany. I refused. They kept asking so many questions about my life. How often did I pray? Did I drink alcohol? Did I belong to the Muslim Brotherhood? Did I know extremists? They asked all their questions in English, and I only know a little English. They didn’t allow me to call my wife.”
Masri said he told his interrogators that he attended the Ulm mosque for prayers but had no connections to extremists. He said he was then accused of having a fake passport and of being an Egyptian who had spent time in Afghanistan. He was denied legal representation, he said, and began a hunger strike on his 13th day in the hotel.
Ten days later, on Jan. 23, a man with a video camera told Masri to stand against a wall and ordered him to say that he was in good physical condition and was being taken to the airport to fly to Germany, Masri said. He was then blindfolded and put in a car.
“We drove for a while and I could hear airplanes. I was led into a room. The door closed behind me and I was beaten from all sides for about one minute. They bent my arms to my back and cut off my clothes. I heard the click, click of a camera. For a moment, they took off the blindfold. I saw seven to eight men all dressed in black and wearing masks. I tried to keep on my underpants but they ripped them off. They put me in diapers and a dark blue sweatsuit with the legs and sleeves cut out.”
He said he was led to a plane with his hands tied behind his back and shackles on his feet. “They put earplugs in my ears and a sack over my head. They put me on the floor and injected me with something. I went black. At some point, I smelled the kind of alcohol they have in a hospital. I received another injection.”
Aviation documents viewed by the Los Angeles Times show that a jet registered to a U.S. company landed at the Skopje airport at 8:51 p.m., Jan. 23, 2004. The plane’s tail number was N313P and was registered to Premier Executive Transport Services Inc., a Massachusetts firm with reported connections to the CIA. No phone numbers are listed for the company or its directors.
The jet left Skopje more than three hours later, and its destination -- first disclosed by the German television program “Frontal 21" -- was Kabul, the Afghan capital, with a stopover in Baghdad.
When he was taken off the plane, Masri said, he was put into the trunk of a car and driven about 10 minutes. “I awoke in a small, dirty cell,” he said. “It was like a basement room with a tiny window. There was Arabic and Farsi writing on the wall from other prisoners. It was then I knew I was in Afghanistan.”
His cell was in a block with about five other cells, he said, adding that his fellow inmates included three Saudis, two Tanzanians, a Pakistani who had been living in the U.S. and a Yemeni.
Masri said he was not tortured while in Afghanistan but was photographed naked. A doctor who spoke English and wore jeans and a checkered shirt, and who was identified through an interpreter as an American, once drew blood from him, he said, adding, “I complained to the doctor about the dirty drinking water in my cell and he said, ‘That’s not our problem, that’s the Afghans’ problem.’ ”
Masri said one interrogator, a man with a Lebanese accent, told him: “You are in a country where there are no laws and nobody knows where you are. Do you know what this means?”
Over the next several months, Masri said, the cycle was the same. He was let out of his cell a few minutes a day. Some nights, he said, men wearing masks took him into a room where he was questioned for 30 minutes to two hours. Two of his interrogators, he said, identified themselves as Americans. He said the Americans questioned him about 10 times. He also was interrogated a few times by a German-speaking man who identified himself as Sam.
“The questions were all the same,” Masri said. “They really wanted to know about the mosque and the Islamic information center in Ulm. They asked me if I knew Mohamed Atta. But the questions were never about specific acts.... I kept asking to see German authorities. I went on a hunger strike for 37 days.
“I passed out on the 35th day. The American doctor came on the 37th day with the American head of the prison. They told me to stop the hunger strike. I was fastened to a chair and my head was pulled back and a tube was pushed into my nose and I was fed a liquid that tasted like chocolate.”
A little later, on May 28, 2004, Masri said, he was taken from his cell and blindfolded. He said he was put on a plane and flew to Tirana, the Albanian capital. Masri said that when the plane landed he was given his passport, put in a van and driven three hours through the mountains. He was dropped off and the van disappeared. “I walked 500 meters. I had long hair and a beard. I came to a checkpoint and asked where I was,” Masri said. “A guard told me I was at the Albanian-Macedonian border. Then he said I was in the country illegally because I didn’t have an entry stamp in my passport. He said, ‘You look like a terrorist.’ I told him my story. He laughed.”
The guards loaded him into a van and drove him through the mountains to the Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana. He said he was put on a plane that landed in Frankfurt, Germany. Hours later he arrived in Ulm. His apartment was empty except for unpaid bills. His wife and four children were gone; they had moved to Lebanon when he failed to return months earlier.
“No one said, ‘Sorry, we made a mistake,’ ” Masri said. “I just want to find out what happened and why it happened. I want those responsible to be punished.”
He was never charged with a crime.
Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Washington contributed to this report.