The US announced yesterday that Christian Ganczarski, a German jihadist who joined al Qaeda in the 1990s, has been charged with various terror-related crimes in a superseding indictment.
Ganczarski (pictured on the right*) has been imprisoned in France since 2003, when the US government and its allies orchestrated his arrest in Paris. He was subsequently convicted of assisting a suicide bomber, Nizar Nawar, who carried out the Apr. 11, 2002 attack on a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. French and American authorities found that Nawar called Ganczarski just before the attack to ask for Ganczarski’s “blessing,” according to a leaked Joint Task Force – Guantanamo threat assessment. Nawar also reportedly called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the chief planner of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as the Djerba bombing.**
US prosecutors do not focus on the Djerba attack in the newly-released indictment, as Ganczarski has already been convicted for hs involvement by a French court. Instead, they include a series of allegations tying Ganczarski to al Qaeda’s most senior leadership in 2001, as well as a separate plot in Southeast Asia.
The indictment includes a brief sketch of al Qaeda’s “command control structure,” including its “majlis al shura (or consultation council),” which “discussed and approved major undertakings, including terrorist operations.” In addition to bin Laden, jihadist bigwigs such as Abu Hafs el Masri and Saif al Adel “sat on the majlis al shura.”
There were a number of committees under the council, including the “military committee.” Abu Hafs sat at the top of this body until his death in 2001 and Saif al Adel reported directly to him. The pair oversaw al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan and identified “targets for terrorist attacks that would be carried out, or sponsored by, al Qaeda.”
US officials included this information in the indictment because Ganczarski is alleged to have conspired with both Abu Hafs el Masri and Saif al Adel.
Interestingly, Saif al Adel is still an active al Qaeda leader and serves as one of Ayman al Zawahiri’s current deputies. After the 9/11 hijackings, al Adel fled to Iran, where his status has been murky at times. It appears that he was operational in the months after 9/11, as American and Saudi officials linked him to plots overseas, but the Iranians eventually placed al Adel in some form of detention.
In 2015, al Adel was reportedly part of a hostage exchange between the Iranian government and al Qaeda. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had kidnapped an Iranian, who was then exchanged for several senior al Qaeda figures, including al Adel. However, one of al Adel’s comrades recently revealed that al Adel was still inside Iran — and operational, as al Adel has been involved in the imbroglio over the direction of the jihad in Syria. This is not altogether surprising, as the Iranians have long allowed certain al Qaeda actors to maintain a “core facilitation pipeline.” In fact, according to the Treasury Department, the head of al Qaeda’s military committee, Abu Hamzah Al Khalidi, was stationed inside Iran as of mid-2016.
In addition to Abu Hafs el Masri and Saif al Adel, the indictment places Ganczarski in a small circle of operatives who were targeting American and Israeli interests in Australia in 2001. KSM allegedly oversaw that plotting as well.
Timeline of Ganczarski’s al Qaeda career
The indictment provides a summary of Ganczarski’s al Qaeda-linked activities between the fall of 1999 and late 2001. Published reports provide other details, so the information included in the indictment is incomplete. Nevertheless, the timeline below is based on the allegations contained in the indictment.
Fall 1999 – Ganczarski “lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan for approximately six weeks,” meeting with Saif al Adel and other al Qaeda “members and associates” at this time.
Dec. 1999 to Aug. 2000 – Ganczarski again lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan (presumably after returning from abroad), meeting with a “Who’s Who” of senior al Qaeda personnel: Saif al Adel, Abu Hafs el Masri, KSM and others.
Jan. 2000 — Ganczarski “attended a speech delivered by Bin Laden at al Qaeda’s headquarters in Kandahar, Afghanistan.” The speech “was attended by at least 200 men, including significant al Qaeda leaders and terrorists,” including “at least one” of the jihadists responsible for the Aug. 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as one of the “future” 9/11 hijackers. Federal authorities allege that Saif al Adel’s son sat on Ganczarski’s “lap” during the event, which took place at al Qaeda’s Tarnak Farms.
Mar. – Apr. 2000 – Around this time, Ganczarski met with KSM and a Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) member***, who is identified as co-conspirator 1 (“CC-1”) in the indictment. They allegedly discussed “among other things, U.S. and Israeli targets for terrorist attacks.” KSM told the JI member that Ganczarski would take him to met with bin Laden in Afghanistan. KSM gave a note to the JI man to give to bin Laden, and he in turn gave the note to Ganczarski.
As KSM instructed, Ganczarski escorted the JI jihadist from Karachi to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where they went to “a large hall” inside al Qaeda’s compound. During a “luncheon” held at the time, Ganczarski “sat next to Bin Laden and spoke with” the al Qaeda founder.
After the lunch, Ganczarski took the JI operative “to a meeting with Saif al Adel and Abu Hafs el Masri.” They apparently met multiple times. The two al Qaeda bigwigs (al Adel and el Masri) discussed with the JI man the prospect of “attacking U.S. and Israeli interests in Australia.” They tasked him with conducting surveillance on the embassies in Australia and “arranged” for him “to receive weapons and explosives training” at al Qaeda’s compound.
Feb. 2001 – The indictment places Ganczarski in Germany, where he “spoke with another co-conspirator…about traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan” to meet with al Qaeda members, as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where lived “for approximately two weeks” and met with al Qaeda’s men.
Aug. 2001 – US officials say Ganczarski “lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan for approximately six weeks” and met with Saif al Adel, among others. It was during this same timeframe that he “escorted” a third co-conspirator “from Germany to Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Late 2001 — Ganczarski “lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan for approximately three months,” meeting with al Qaeda’s jihadists during that time. However, Ganczarski was in Germany on the day of the 9/11 hijackings and allegedly “stated…that he had been aware that something big was about to happen.”
A few weeks later, in early Oct. 2001, he “returned to Afghanistan and joined al Qaeda members, including Saif Al Adel and others.” Ganczarski got to work, attempting that November “to repair anti-aircraft missiles” that were not functional, but which al Qaeda wanted to use against “U.S. military aircraft flying in the area at the time.”
Throughout this entire period — from the fall of 1999 through late 2001 — Ganczarski “provided, or attempted to provide, al Qaeda members and associates with computers, radios and other communications,” as well as “electronic equipment.”
Some of the electronics were “obtained in Germany” and Ganczarski helped “al Qaeda personnel, including Saif al Adel, in using said equipment.”
Alleged ties to Mohammedou Ould Salahi
Ganczarski’s work to procure electronics equipment for al Qaeda became part of the controversial case involving Mohammedou Ould Salahi, who was held at Guantanamo from 2002 until 2016. US intelligence officials concluded that Salahi was an al Qaeda recruiter. The 9/11 Commission Report describes him as a “significant al Qaeda operative who was well known to U.S. and German intelligence” in the 1990s, adding that he “recruited 9/11 hijackers in Germany” and helped facilitate travel for some of them.
Salahi (pictured on the right) petitioned a DC district court for a writ of habeas corpus in order to secure his release. During those proceedings, Salahi and his advocates argued that his contacts with some of the 9/11 hijackers and other al Qaeda figures were incidental. Although Salahi had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 1990, they claimed, he wasn’t really a member of the organization after 1992. US intelligence officials at Guantanamo and elsewhere did not think that Salahi’s story was credible, but it gained wide currency, in part, because of the harsh treatment Salahi was subjected to in Cuba.
In granting Salahi’s habeas petition, the district court recounted some of his ties to known al Qaeda operatives after he claimed to have stopped serving the organization. Some of these contacts involved Ganczarski.
During interrogation, according to the court, “Salahi named Christian Ganczarski” as the person who assigned him (Salahi) “to assist with Internet connectivity between Pakistan and Afghanistan” in 1999. (The newly released indictment of Ganczarski alleges that he was performing electronics work for al Qaeda at this same time.)
Salahi initially told interrogators that Ganczarski gave him “passports to assist him in completing the task” after returning from Afghanistan to Germany.” Based on Salahi’s initial testimony, the court wrote: “Salahi was aware of the equipment Ganczarski had purchased to work on the project…and his computer contained a radio antenna sketch that the government unsuccessfully attempts to link to Ganczarski and this project.”
The DC district court judge found Salahi’s alleged ties to Ganczarski, as well as another al Qaeda man, to be “more troubling” than other claims made by the US government. However, the judge ultimately didn’t give much weight to Salahi’s testimony during interrogations, which were considered tainted by US officials’ rough and coercive handling of him.
“Salahi now disavows any knowledge of whether Ganczarski went to Afghanistan to set up a radio telecommunications system for al Qaeda, and denies that Ganczarski delivered any messages to him about al Qaeda projects,” the court wrote.
Nevertheless, the DC District Court also found that Salahi was in contact with Ganczarski months after the alleged electronic communications scheme. Salahi “was in contact” with Ganczarski via “emails and phone calls” until “at least…April 2001.” The court downplayed the significance of this fact, arguing that because they “were not in continuous contact” the facts supported Salahi’s claim that he was now “avoiding close relationships with al Qaeda members” while also trying to avoid al Qaeda’s ire.
The government accused Salahi of being involve in al Qaeda’s planning for cyber-attacks. The court found that while the evidence corroborated Salahi’s statements to interrogators that he “knew about and had some involvement in planning for denial of service computer attacks,” it did not demonstrate that he took part in them.
But there was another wrinkle. According to the district court, Salahi “admitted to attempting to start his web forum for” information on cyber-attacks, or “denial of service computer attacks,” but “said that he did did not do so because Ganczarski discouraged the plan.” That is, Salahi heeded the advice of a known al Qaeda operative: Ganczarski.
While the district court granted Salahi’s habeas petition, an appellate court vacated and remanded the decision back to the lower court “for further proceedings,” because the appeals court judges founded certain factual details to be lacking.
In its own decision, the appeals court also briefly referenced Salahi’s connection to Ganczarski. Salahi “considered creating an Internet discussion group about fighting jihad but dropped the plan after a German al Qaeda operative, Christian Ganczarski, suggested that the discussion group would attract attention from authorities.”
According to a leaked Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment, US analysts thought there was more to the Salahi-Ganczarski relationship. However, some of the footnotes in the assessment point to reports that may have been generated during Salahi’s coercive interrogations. JTF-GTMO’s analysts concluded that Salahi “led” al Qaeda’s “Duisburg cell in Germany,” which included Ganczarski.
Salahi “stated he first met Ganczarski at the Taqwa Mosque in Duisburg sometime in 1995,” according to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment. Salahi allegedly identified Ganczarski and another member of the Duisburg cell, Karim Mehdi, as “his best friends,” adding that they were “associated with” Gamaa Islamiya (an al Qaeda-linked group) and al Qaeda, “respectively.”
Along with Ganczarski, Mehdi was also “taken into French custody in 2003,” after he was identified as a suspect in separate plots. Mehdi allegedly told French officials that he “frequently attended meetings hosted by” Salahi “between 1997 and 1999.” The meetings were “also attended by” Ramzi Binalshibh (al Qaeda’s point man for the 9/11 plot) as well as future 9/11 hijacker Ziad Jarrah. Mehdi “identified Christian Ganczarski as a friend and fellow al Qaeda terrorist who met with” bin Laden,” according to JTF-GTMO.
JTF-GTMO’s analysts wrote: “French investigators assessed [Salahi] was the leader of al Qaeda cells in Germany, and Mehdi was possibly his deputy.” They added that Ganczarski “remains in French custody due to his connection with the” suicide attack in Djerba, as well as “the foiled Strasbourg Cathedral bombing.” The JTF-GTMO file doesn’t provide any additional details concerning Ganczarski’s putative involvement in the latter plot, which was broken up in 2000.
The newly-released American indictment doesn’t mention Ganczarski’s reported ties to other al Qaeda figures in Germany. Nor does it specifically mention his relationship with Salahi. Given the controversy surrounding Salahi’s detention, this is likely not an accident. It remains to be seen if Ganczarski’s ties to other actors not discussed in the indictment, including Salahi, are raised during his American trial — should he be extradited.
*The photo of Ganczarski was published by Le Parisien.
**NBC News reported in 2005 that US officials had also tied the Apr. 11, 2002 bombing in Djerba to Saad bin Laden, Osama’s son, who was believed to be in Iran at the time.
***The indictment notes: “Al Qaeda functioned both on its own and through some of the terrorist organizations that operated under its umbrella, including: Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and at times, the Islamic Group (also known as el Gamaa Islamia or simply Gamaa’t), as well as a number of jihad groups in other countries, including the Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, the Kashmiri region of India, and the Chechnyan region of Russia. One of the terrorist groups affiliated with al Qaeda was Jemaah Islamiyah, in Southeast Asia.” Similar language has been included in past indictments, as well as the 9/11 Commission report, indicating that al Qaeda’s global network was already substantial at the time of the 2001 attacks inside the U.S.