Old Islamists Never Die: Mohammed Haydar Zammar
By J. Millard Burr and Rachel Ehrenfeld*
Monday, January 19th, 2015 @ 5:03AM
On March 2014, in an Islamic-State-sponsored prisoner swap, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, the al-Qaeda operative jailed in Syria in 2001, was freed in exchange for Syrian army officers held by the IS.
News articles that covered the prisoner exchange did not bother to explain why the IS would go to such trouble to gain his release. However, analysts familiar with the history of Islamist movements knew why.
Born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1961, Mohammed Haydar Zammar moved to Hamburg, Germany at age ten. The date of his family’s departure points to a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood involvement. Following the coup that brought the secular pan-Arab Baath Party to power in 1963, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (a-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) was under constant attack. Eventually it was driven underground, but its continued opposition led the Baath Party and its leader Hafez al-Assad to declare in 1980 that membership in the organization was a capital offense. In 1982 Homs, a city dominated by the Brotherhood was virtually destroyed in a military attack that killed tens of thousands of insurgents. That event was followed by a determined effort that effectively eliminated the movement in Syria.
From youth Zammar was known to be an extremely devout Muslim. He was a frequent visitor to mosques in Hamburg, and sometime in his late teens became friends with Mamoun Darkazanli, another Syrian exile and devout Muslim. The two joined the Muslim Brotherhood together. Shortly after, the two would take different paths: Darkazanli eventually moved to Spain and became a noted al-Qaeda financier; Zammar, who was known as “Bruder Haydar,” travelled from Germany to Afghanistan, where he received military training at a camp run by Afghan warlord and al-Qaida ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
In the next five years Zammar made some forty trips outside of Germany, and in 1995 he was reported to be fighting with other mujahideen in Bosnia. In 1996 he was seen along the Afghanistan frontier meeting with Osama bin Laden who had just arrived from the Sudan to a new place of exile. During the War of the Warlords in Afghanistan, Zammar used his Hamburg base to serve bin Laden (and thus the Afghan Taliban) as a one-man travel agency.
In the late 1990s, living on welfare of €1,400 a month, the unemployed Zammar spent much time in Germany where he was instrumental in forming al-Qaeda’s Hamburg cell and continued to serve as its travel agent. The funding was provided by his old friend Darkazanli from his base in Spain.
In retrospect, it is hard to imagine that Syrian Intelligence was not observing Darkazanli during his exile in Spain. After all, he was by then a major figure in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Exile and made little effort to disguise his activity in that country. As for Zammar, his activity was closely followed by Turkish Intelligence, which shared its information with its German counterpart.
Zammar travelled to Afghanistan on several occasions prior to 9/11, and was instrumental in assisting jihadists from Germany to visit bin Laden. In the wake of 9/11, it was discovered that Zammar’s Hamburg cell included the suicide pilots Mohamed Atta, Ziad Samir Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi. It also included Ramzi Binalshibh, who played a key role in the plot.
Following 9/11, inexplicably, Germany allowed Zammar to go free, receive a new passport and on October 27, 2001, to fly to Casablanca, Morocco. Zammar, for reasons still unclear, was arrested in Morocco and “rendered” to Syria.
Why Zammar chose Morocco, was never explained. However, the very radical Mohammed al-Fizazi, Imam of the al-Quds Mosque that the Hamburg Islamists often used, was Moroccan and may have tried to assist Zammar to escape Germany.
Equally mysterious was his “rendition” from Morocco to Syria. While the CIA has been held responsible for his transfer, there is no proof to that effect. If history was a guide, the transfer itself was a death sentence, and Zammar had too many secrets useful to the CIA to be given over to the Syrian hangman before he could be interrogated at length. If the CIA made a deal with the Syrian dictator, as some claim, there is no indication that such was the case. Unsurprisingly, Zammar, who was labeled a Muslim Brother and thus legally culpable of sedition, was sentenced to death by the Assad regime. He was incarcerated in Damascus’ notorious Far-Falastin prison, but in yet another anomaly he was not executed.
Curiously, Der Spiegel, a German magazine that commonly holds an anti-American point-of-view, was allowed to visit the prisoner in November 2005. Just prior to that, and again for reasons unexplained, Zammar had been given the privilege few prisoners obtained: He was allowed in June to send and receive mail through the Red Cross from his family. Apparently, someone wanted it known that he was still alive, but why? The detention was claimed, but unproved, to be the result of “Washington’s post-9/11 ‘extraordinary renditions’ program.”
Zammar had lost weight and showed signs of being tortured when Der Spiegel’s reporter was allowed to interview him in his prison cell. On November 21, 2005, in “The Forgotten Prisoner: A Tale of Extraordinary Renditions and Double-Standards,” Der Spiegel’s reporter Holger Stark claimed, “By placing the man with suspected ties to the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell in Syrian hands, the United States is allowing Damascus to commit torture so that it doesn’t have to.”
Despite known evidence of Zammar’s involvement with al Qaeda and within the Hamburg cell, Der Spiegel’s author demonstrated a decided sympathy for the prisoner. The reporter concluded, “The correspondence shines light on a case that epitomizes the post-9/11 world, one in which it’s difficult to tell who is and who isn’t a villain–and even if someone is, just how much of a villain he is.”
For nearly a decade Zammar was allowed to rot in prison. And despite the release of many Islamist political prisoners in early 2011, Zammar did not benefit from the amnesty. Obviously, the Assad regime must have thought that at some time he would become useful.
It turned out, Zammar, who was already a “legendary figure” in jihadist circles, was indeed a useful hostage. In March 2014, Zammar, who was serving a 12-year prison sentence in Aleppo’s central prison, was exchanged in an IS prisoner swap involving captured Syrian army officers. Almost certainly the US was unaware of negotiations, but had it known, its protest would have done little good.
Where Zammar went after leaving the prison in Syria is not known–though one can assume that given his long relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey was a likely place of exile.
Zammar himself must have remarkable recuperative powers, for some eight months later he surfaced in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where he was welcomed by senior leaders of the Sinai-based terror group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (in Arabic, Defenders of Jerusalem [ABM]). Once again, it is unknown how he got there, though he probably arrived there from Gaza.
In November 2014 Zammar was instrumental in forging an agreement that led the ABM to pledge its allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and to its “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What is fascinating to consider is that in reaching the agreement ABM apparently rejected an alliance with the Al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda branch, which is led by the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the Sinai-based group of only some 2,000 operatives, continued to function in the wake of the failure of the Morsi government in Egypt and the el-Sisi government attack on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The group’s funding reportedly came from the Brotherhood, and its weapons arrived from Libya through the Hamas tunnels in Gaza.
Prior to Zammar’s diplomatic coup it was generally thought that the ABM was quite close in spirit to al Qaeda and its Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, well in advance of Morsi’s fall there were ABM activities in the Sinai; and though they seemed to take orders from someone, it was unclear who. Their favorite target was the Arab Gas Pipeline that crossed the Sinai and moved Egyptian gas to Jordan and Israel. Their first attack was carried out in early February 2011, and occurred less than two weeks after the initial confrontation in Cairo that pitted anti-government protestors against the security forces of aging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. After the fall of Mubarak, the jihadists continued to attack the pipeline and then attacked European tourists in the Sinai resorts at Sharm el-Sheikh and Ras Muhammad.
Egyptian observers were at first convinced that the Sinai attackers were nothing more than a passel of Sinai families and Bedouin tribes who could be easily bought-off. Since then, however, ABM has expanded to include delta Egyptians and jihadists from other nations.
It is hypothesized that the group survived Morsi’s fall not thanks to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood but, rather, thanks to the funding of the Brotherhood’s Gaza branch, Hamas.
Following Morsi’s ouster, the Egyptian military stepped up its activity in the Sinai to the extent that ABM decided to disperse its leadership; one arm moved to Gaza and the other to the Islamist-infested Marsa Matrouh region in coastal Egypt west of Alexandria.
The Islamic State-al Qaeda Struggle
Just how Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to the al-Qaeda leadership, lost control over or, at least, squandered a reported partnership with ABM is unknown.
Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Morsi government chose to address Zawahiri, although the Brotherhood welcomed his brother Muhammad, also an al-Qaida activist, shortly after the inception of Egypt’s “Arab Spring.” In truth, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood wanted little to do with Zawahiri following the publication of his “last testament,” “Knights Under the Banner of Islam”. In that work he openly defied the organization and published information on the Ikhwan structure that was surely not authorized by the secretive organization.
Perhaps, as the IS movement would seem to indicate by its recent actions in the Sinai, Syria, Iraq and Libya, al Qaeda is an attenuated force in the Arab World east of the Tigris River.
It is not at all clear that the Baghdadi vs. Zawahiri contest for control of the global jihad has run its course. The rise of the Islamic State and its proclamation of a caliphate, will have its impact as long as the IS can control territory in Iraq and Syria. Until it is driven back, as most surely it will be if the United States does not lose interest, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or his successor in IS, will hold the upper hand. And as long as the “Caliphate” lives, Mohammed Haydar Zammar will most likely continue to serve as its instrument.
* J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow at the American Center for Democracy (ACD). Rachel Ehrenfeld is ACD’s President.
J. Millard Burr and Rachel Ehrenfeld*
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