By Isaac Stanley-Becker
The Washington Post
Every day, the suspected jihadist reports to the police station in Bochum, a city in the heart of the industrial Ruhr region of Germany, where he first arrived as a student in 1997. And every month, he collects about 1,200 euros, or about $1,400, in welfare payments, as Bild, Germany’s top-selling tabloid, announced breathlessly this spring. His wife and children are German citizens.
But on Monday, when he paid his daily visit to the police, he was detained, according to German media, in preparation for deportation. The Tunisian man could be mistaken for any other person whose quest for international protection has been threatened by Germany’s increasingly hard-line stance on migration, part of a backlash shaking Europe since Syria’s civil war sent millions of people fleeing for their lives. A similar dynamic is unfolding in the United States, as President Trump has demanded a border wall, separated families crossing the Southwest border and questioned the due process rights of undocumented immigrants.
Except for one crucial detail: Sami A., as he is identified in accordance with German privacy laws, stands accused of having served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, the founding leader of al-Qaeda and the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The man denies ever having served in this role, and, despite the claims of some German officials, Sami A. does not appear on lists of bin Laden’s suspected bodyguards.
The 42-year-old man was investigated more than a decade ago for extremist ties, including alleged participation in military training in Afghanistan and service in a band of bin Laden’s guards. Owing to a lack of concrete evidence, federal prosecutors dropped the investigation in 2007.
Sami A. was denied asylum, but German courts have been receptive to his claim that he would face political torture if he returned to Tunisia. The interior ministry in North Rhine-Westphalia, where Bochum is located, said it was doing everything it could to limit the movements of the man, still revered by Islamists in the region where he allegedly completed al-Qaeda training. Judges reasoned that his family ties in Germany overrode his sympathy for a radical form of Salafism, an extremist strand of Islam associated with the Islamic State.
An unrelated court ruling last month, however, has helped build a case for Sami A.’s expulsion. Judges found that a Tunisian man implicated in a 2015 attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis faced no lethal threat in his home country. Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister who has been waging a bitter campaign to tighten national borders, pointed to that judgment in calling on Germany’s Federal Migration office to make Sami A.’s case a “priority.”
“He’s been on the radar for quite a while because he was known to be associated with al-Qaeda,” Thomas Grumke, an expert on political extremism and a former official in the Interior Ministry of North Rhine-Westphalia, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The problem was a legal one. In Germany to extradite somebody is a legal process. It seems to be that now, there is a local avenue to do it.”
But Grumke also warned that detaining the man does not guarantee his successful return to his home country, which may not willingly accept him. “These places don’t like to take people back. They say, ‘you keep them; we are happy we got rid of our criminals.'”
A spokesman for the city of Bochum confirmed to AFP that the 42-year-old had been held for deportation.
“Finally, he’s going to be deported!” Bild celebrated in a headline. The revelations about his welfare payments, which stirred public anger, arose from inquiries made by Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the nationalist, anti-immigrant party coarsening public debate in a country known in the postwar era for its staid political culture.
“What fate awaits Sami A. in Tunisia is not the problem of German taxpayers,” the party said in a statement. “To protect and financially equip an Islamist, to feed hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants while less and less remains for our own people is not acceptable, but it suits [Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s [vision for] Germany.”
Numerous former aides and bodyguards to bin Laden have been prosecuted for crimes, including some unrelated to the coordinated 2001 bombings. For instance, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for bin Laden, was convicted in 2008 by a military commission of providing material support to al-Qaeda but acquitted of a conspiracy charge. In 2010, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who admitted membership in a 15-person group of bin Laden bodyguards, was convicted of conspiracy in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York for a pair of embassy bombings in 1998.