German openness gave cover to plotters


HAMBURG, Germany - Ruediger Bendlin, for the longest time, took a certain pride in how his country dealt with its past, with Hitler and the brutality of the Third Reich. The response by him and by many other Germans was to extend hands further, open minds wider, become more tolerant and - through law and politics - demonstrate that their country was not made up of the ghosts of monsters.

It was a noble approach that Bendlin feels contributed to the disaster of Sept. 11.

Technical University, where he worked as a professor and now is a spokesman, helped incubate - however unwittingly - three of the terrorists who died in the attacks on the United States. Other Technical students have been arrested. Others are under suspicion. It was his university that extended its hands to students, not knowing they were, or would become, terrorists.

For almost everyone in Hamburg, Muslims and non-Muslims, the attacks caused harm measured in ways other than long lines at airports or delays in securing visas. The attacks have led many here to question how to champion tolerance and disavow prejudice while knowing that acquaintances of the hijackers might still be in the city.

"They were dealing with and had access to all the friendliness and all the attributes we've used to overcome the historical burns that we carry with us as Germans," Bendlin, 40, says of the student hijackers. "And they took all of that, and they used it against us. I don't know whether they knew it or not, but they used it."

His tone, even now, is disbelieving. The hijackers - including Mohamed Atta, the presumed ringleader who was an engineering student through the latter half of the 1990s - managed to seem like any of the other 4,500 students seeking degrees in such subjects as computer engineering and city planning.

Even during the period when, according to law enforcement officials, Atta was being trained by al-Qaida in Afghanistan - in late 1999 and early 2000 - he was registered as a continuing education student, his absence unnoticed because he was not required to attend classes.

Such deception and the terror it helped create have severely damaged bonds between the Muslims and non-Muslims in the country. And nowhere has that damage been more pronounced than in Hamburg, where the population of about 1.7 million includes a Muslim community of 100,000 better integrated into the rest of society than probably anywhere else in the country.

Technical University was used by Atta, suspected of piloting a plane into one of the World Trade Center towers, and by Marwan al-Shehhi, suspected of crashing the second plane in New York. They lived, at one time or another, in a bland white house less than a mile from the campus, with Ziad Jarrahi, suspected of flying the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Mounir el-Motassadeq, another Technical student, was charged last month by German authorities with helping plan the attacks. Two other students here have been charged but not found.

Now, a group of Muslim students meets in a study area here and educators secretly phone the police to report "suspicious activity." Muslim students who once got no more attention than anybody else on campus get that extra-second look, that questioning one, which speaks more loudly than any protest chant.

'I don't fear Muslims'

"What do I make of a person who starts growing a beard or shaves his head? Should I fear him?" asks Peter Staehlin, 23, a Munich-born junior at Technical who had met Atta - and thought nothing suspicious of him. "The answer is, I don't fear Muslims."

He knows this was his answer before Sept. 11, that different cultures were to be embraced rather than feared, welcomed rather than ostracized. He says this is his answer still. But he sits uneasily in his chair in the student union talking about his reaction to Muslims on his campus now. Staehlin's remarks, like Bendlin's, come in a tone of confession, almost of shame.

"One does think," the young man concedes, looking at his hands, "when you see Muslims in a group, could they be planning something?"

Those are the thoughts that Ali Erturan, a Muslim of Turkish descent, faces daily. It does not matter that he was born in Germany. It does not matter that he says he feels betrayed, too. Is it not logical for Bendlin and Staehlin to fear he could be one of the "sleeper" terrorists the world has been warned about?

"I understand the fear," says Erturan, 29, who studies computer sciences. He says this from a room, behind a vegetable stand, which has been converted into a mosque, one which Atta had visited.

"That doesn't mean the fear is logical," Erturan continues. "Look, I cannot even bear the thought of having prayed with one of them in the same room by accident. But it's not logical for me to look for sleepers in a mosque. A religion or a community has nothing to do with terror. It's individuals. These ones called themselves Muslim."

Another student, with the single name of Sacit, has seen, and experienced, the change toward Muslims in a different way. Unlike Erturan, Sacit, 24, does not have brownish skin and dark hair but fair skin and reddish hair. He is Muslim and looks like the stereotypical German. But he is Turkish. His wife, also Muslim, is dark-skinned and wears a scarf on her head.

"When I walk around by myself, I don't feel like people notice me at all," he says in German. "When I walk around with my wife, I feel it. It doesn't matter whether it's at a bus stop or wherever. It disappoints me, most of all. After all these years, there should be trust. Now the distrust is back, it's sad and disappointing."

Germany's secret service had been aware before Sept. 11 that at least one of the Technical students, Said Bahaji, had been meeting with a man in Hamburg they had connected to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. Bahaji had shared a house near the Technical campus with Atta. But German law did not allow police to monitor the apartment.

Bahaji fled Germany in the days before the attacks. German officials have a warrant for his arrest, but his whereabouts are unknown.

'Signal of tolerance'

He was able to attend class, obtain good grades and make clear that he was a Muslim of strong faith.

In a letter provided by a university official, Bahaji wrote - almost certainly while he was intent on some form of attack - of his desire for a prayer room for Muslim students.

"As you probably know, spiritual matters play an essential role in the life of every human being, promoting their spiritual productivity," he wrote in the letter, dated June 16, 1998. "Therefore, and following the example of our evangelical fellow students, it would be of the greatest importance to us to have a room on campus assigned to us. The technical university with such an act would set a signal for tolerance, thereby supporting cultural diversity on campus. By doing so, it would add a further building stone in the construction of the international campus."

Bahaji signed his name just above Atta's.

"Can you imagine," asks Bendlin, "how our discovery of this letter made us feel?"

As with many European states, Germany's postwar record with immigrants has not been good. The country does not grant automatic citizenship to people born there unless at least one of the parents is of German descent. For generations, that has meant children or grandchildren of immigrants could be born in Germany, speak German and know the country as their only home, yet not be German citizens. Only last year was the law changed to broaden citizenship.

Of the 3 million Muslims living in Germany, the government describes about 31,000 of them as "extremists." The country is also home to the largest Afghan community in Europe, which might have helped the hijackers escape suspicion while traveling to Afghanistan for terrorist training.

After Sept. 11, the German parliament removed the constitutional protections against prosecution of faith-based organizations for hate speech and other crimes. Religious groups can now be banned if they are found to incite violence or undermine democracy.

Protection for those groups had been in place because of sweeps that took place when Hitler was in power.

Now, more than 20 groups have been banned.

"This was the cover the Nazis used to get rid of their enemies," says Hans Ullrich Paeffgen, a professor of legal history at the University of Bonn. "People can be troubled by that, but I think overall they know Germany is changed enough that that type of abuse won't happen again. At the same time, there is a symbolic significance that can't be missed."

Still, German authorities have been criticized by the United States for not moving aggressively enough against suspected co-conspirators in the attacks. German police, for example, have resisted pressure to arrest a man named Mahmoun Darkazanli, a Syrian-born Muslim who lives in Hamburg.

He is known, according to German and U.S. officials, to have had control over a bank account for one of the terrorists who killed himself in the Sept. 11 attacks. Darkazanli attended the wedding of another student suspected in the attacks, Bahaji, one of those who disappeared. Darkazanli served as best man.

Darkazanli did not return a telephone message for comment, but he has said that he is innocent of any charges, that evidence against Atta was likely manipulated by the United States in a "big American crusade against Islam."

Staehlin, the student leader, wishes it were true that the hijackers did not come from his university. But he knows it is.

He recalls a student-government meeting, probably in 1999, at which a Muslim student asked for a prayer room.

"When you meet there," he recalls a non-Muslim student asking, "will you talk about terrorism?"

The Muslim student grinned that, of course, they would discuss terrorism, and there was great laughter.

"There was no seriousness about it because nobody could imagine anything like this," Staehlin says. "Certainly, nobody would laugh again."

Erturan, the Muslim student, says Germany has been more tolerant than other countries toward Muslims since Sept. 11. Germans have educated themselves about Islam and judged that the terrorists hijacked the religion every bit as much as the airplanes. For months after the attacks, bookstores were sold out of copies of the Quran.

Still, Erturan says, one neighbor will no longer talk to him. He believes that people's eyes linger on him a bit longer than in the past. Muslim friends tell him that people go out of their way to avoid sitting next to them on the trains.

"We have always been looked at by certain people because we are conspicuous with our beards or our headdress, but, yes, it has been worse," he says. "Luckily, we have grown thick skin."

In his office at Technical, Bendlin, the university spokesman, says he knows his job has changed significantly. He has developed a code with police so they can share information on the phone with confidence that they are talking with each other and not with a terrorist or a reporter trying to find out what they know. The university has been open about sharing information about the students with authorities and with the public, he says, "because we feel we owe it to the victims." Officials there, including him, he says, have kept a closer eye on Muslim students, however painful that might be to an educator who once felt he knew better.

"I think more than anything it's the betrayal that hurts," he says. "It's like a dog bite, or a burn. And we are not supposed to be a security force. We're a university."

Not long after the news became public that Technical students were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, Bendlin walked to the steps of a church, sat down and smoked a cigarette. He was, he says, overwhelmed with grief about what had happened and what the future might hold for him as an educator at Technical.

"I had this feeling of 'I can't stand it anymore,'" he says. "I was asking myself, 'What are we responsible for in those attacks? What will we be responsible for in the future?'"

"This is how things have changed," he says. "But what choice to we have? There are Muslim students who come here, and we know they were somehow involved with Atta and the working group. Maybe they were just talking with them. Maybe it was more. How do we know?"

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad