Moroccan Preacher Said to Have Met With 9/11 Plotters
A Moroccan preacher imprisoned here for inspiring deadly bombings in Casablanca and implicated in the Madrid train bombings last year also had significant contact in Hamburg with leaders of the Sept. 11 attacks, say members of a Muslim congregation in Germany.
The preacher, Mohammed Fizazi, frequently gave sermons at Hamburg’s Al Quds mosque while three of the hijack pilots were living in the city, attending Al Quds and becoming more involved in radical Islam.
Fizazi initiated several private meetings with the future pilots, says Fath Franzmathes, a member of the Al Quds congregation who later assisted German law enforcement. A second member of the congregation, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, confirmed that there had been frequent contact between the future hijackers and Fizazi.
It is not clear how much influence Fizazi had on the Sept. 11 hijackers, but he appears to be the first person linked to participants in three of the biggest terrorist assaults of recent years: the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.; the Casablanca attacks of May 2003 that killed 45 people; and the Madrid attacks in March 2004 that killed 191 people.
Fizazi traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Arab world in the years prior to 2001. He often preached to Moroccans abroad at the behest of the Moroccan government.
His travels help illuminate a world of Islamic preachers, generally not well known in the West, whose fiery words help provide a justification for religious extremism. And the case illustrates how even moderate Arab governments, like that of Morocco, can become entangled with the radicals they are trying to control.
Mohamed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh and others in a small group that formed around them in Hamburg were well known within the Al Quds mosque, Franzmathes said. Atta piloted the airplane that struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. Binalshibh sought to join the plot as a pilot, but was denied a U.S. visa and became an important logistics operative for the plot.
Their group included Marwan Al-Shehhi, the pilot of the plane that struck the World Trade Center’s south tower, and Ziad Samir Jarrah, the pilot of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania before it could reach its target -- the U.S. Capitol building. Hani Hanjour, the pilot of the plane that hit the Pentagon, was not part of the Hamburg group.
Fizazi’s presence in Hamburg was already known, but not his direct contact with the Sept. 11 hijackers, a group that stood apart from the largely working-class congregation. The hijackers were university students who were leading classes in Islam for other Al Quds members.
Franzmathes said the Moroccan preacher sought meetings with them because he was impressed with their rigorous intellectual approach to Islam.
Morocco, so close to Europe you can see it across the Strait of Gibraltar, is among the most cosmopolitan and westernized of Africa’s Muslim states. Tangier, the country’s great northern metropolis, is the most westernized city in the country. French and Spanish are spoken as commonly as Arabic; many people speak all three.
It seems an unlikely place for radical Islam to flourish. South of the city center, the richer precincts form a kind of exotic Hollywood Hills. Villas are screened from public view by elaborate hedges and gardens. Their residents are Moroccan film stars, politicians and emigres from Spain or France who have come to take advantage of cheap real estate and ocean views.
But Fizazi’s neighborhood, like many in what is emerging as the new Morocco, is home to a newly urban, dense and largely impoverished population.
By 2001, Fizazi, for more than a decade, had been identified as a preacher with radical views. For several years in the 1990s, though imam of a Saudifinanced mosque in Tangier, he had been barred from preaching by the Moroccan government. He was later allowed to resume preaching both at home and abroad.
Family members said in interviews that the government frequently paid for his travel.
Fizazi, who has two wives and 11 children, earned approximately $400 per month as an instructor of French language and literature at a small teachers college in Tangier. He went abroad nearly every break he had from his teaching duties, said Abdelhalim Fizazi, his son, and the elder Fizazi’s wife, Assia Jabari.
Fizazi visited almost three dozen countries, his family said, and could not have afforded the travel without government assistance.
Moroccan officials, speaking on the condition that they not be identified, acknowledged that their government had encouraged Fizazi’s travels and that it routinely paid local clerics to preach to Moroccans abroad. They denied, however, that the government had paid Fizazi.
Radical Muslim preachers traveled a well-established circuit throughout Europe. Many developed multinational followings, even in places they had never visited, through the distribution of video and audio cassettes. Abu Qatada, a Palestinian who lived in London, for example, was quite popular in Hamburg even though he never preached there.
Franzmathes said Fizazi was regarded within the congregation as even more incendiary than Qatada.
In one sermon he gave in Hamburg in early 2001, Fizazi said: “You have not understood the words of God or the Koran if you believe that the nonbelievers want to do good.”
He advocated killing all non-Muslims “no matter if it’s a man, a woman or a child,” he said, according to a videotape of the sermon obtained by The Times. He lamented the difficulty of doing this, not for the number of deaths, but because of the hardship it places on those who must do the killing.
Fizazi was investigated by German law enforcement after the Sept. 11 attacks. Surveillance photographs from the investigation, copies of which were obtained by The Times, show Fizazi with an associate of the attackers, but conclusions from that investigation were never publicized and no action was taken against him before he left Germany in late 2001.
German authorities declined comment about their investigation. Repeated requests to the FBI about Fizazi also produced no comment.
Moroccan authorities say they had no knowledge of Fizazi’s Hamburg connections and made no special effort to monitor his activities until after the 2003 Casablanca bombings.
He became a focus of international attention after his association with alleged planners of the Madrid train bombings was made known a year later. Spanish police said they had intercepted telephone conversations of Jamal Zougam, a man accused in the Madrid bombings, in which he said he had made a special trip to Tangier to meet with Fizazi.
Moroccan prosecutors offered no direct evidence of Fizazi’s relationship with the Casablanca bombers, according to court files. They said at Fizazi’s trial that he was a regional leader in a radical organization that not only endorsed, but helped fund the 2003 attacks, which targeted a Jewish community center and cemetery and a pair of restaurants. Twelve of the 14 bombers died in the attacks; the other two were captured, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death.
Prosecutors said the organization’s money was raised outside Morocco and sent to various banks disguised as family remittances.
Fizazi was sentenced to 30 years in prison. In comments published in Morocco after the trial, he denied having any connection with the attacks. His family says the investigators showed a striking lack of curiosity about Fizazi’s affairs.
Family members say none of them were ever interrogated, even though the son was a constant companion of the father.
Fizazi spent countless hours working at a personal computer in his apartment in a housing project in Tangier, the family said. He used the computer as his principal means of communication with people outside the city, the son said.
Jabari, Fizazi’s wife, said investigators never even came to the house or examined the computer.
Fizazi, 56, was the son of a career military man who, in his retirement, turned toward advocacy of fundamentalist Islam. Early in his adult life, Fizazi eschewed his father’s path, pursuing careers as a pop singer (at one point, he became friends with fellow singer Cat Stevens, who converted to Islam and is now known as Yusuf Islam) and a painter, then studying French literature.
His son said he was an athletic man who lifted weights regularly, played handball and swam; he’s a big soccer fan.
Fizazi began preaching in Fez, his hometown, at his father’s mosque, before moving to Tangier and, with large contributions from Saudi Arabia, building his own mosque in the Achar bin Deban neighborhood.
Brick apartment buildings, seven to 10 stories tall, their facades sloppily stuccoed over, crawl up and down the steep faces of hillsides in the neighborhood. The new apartment blocks have been thrown up in a hurry to accommodate the huge influx from the countryside.
The roads and sidewalks are thick with trash and children. Boys play soccer on concrete playing fields, and when those are unavailable, kick bundles of refuse through goals made of garbage bags.
Here, as across the developing world, country people are thronging to cities, displaced by the often ruthless efficiencies of the world market. Economies newly opened to imports have subjected local farming to foreign competition for the first time.
The result has been a flood of cheaper goods and, less fortunately, displaced people. It is a worrisome trend, said a Western diplomat in Rabat, the capital.
“Local agriculture was not competitive. People in rural areas have nothing to do, so they come to the city completely unprepared. It’s their country but it’s foreign to them,” he said.
The Moroccan government alleges it was young men like these who banded together in Casablanca to execute the 2003 bombings.
Counter-terrorism experts worry that those attacks form a sort of frightening template for the future of radical Islam.
Al Qaeda had its origins largely in the educated classes, but as it becomes a broader movement, experts fear that it might migrate into the much larger working-class and poor populations.
Those who carried out the Casablanca assaults, impoverished young men who were either unemployed or underemployed, were strikingly different from the largely middle-class, privileged men who committed the Sept. 11 attacks.
What seems to be driving fundamentalism here has little to do with the Moroccan government. In the mosques and the streets, the more pointed complaints are about the United States’ role in Iraq and the Israeli role in what people here call Palestine. Videos of beheadings in Iraq are for sale for $2 in the local markets.
“There’s a volatile mix here, but similar circumstances to hundreds of cities around the world,” said another diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Such mixes seem to be ideal breeding grounds for broad discontent, he said. The question is to what degree will Islamists be able to capitalize on that discontent.
“Fifty percent of the population here is under 25. It’s a tinderbox,” he said. “If you look at the numbers you might as well pack up and go home.”
Times special correspondent Dirk Laabs in Hamburg contributed to this report.