IT WAS LATE September 2002, and construction crews were just finishing work on the main prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when three German intelligence agents arrived on the island aboard a U.S. military plane.
The reason for their visit was sensitive. The Pentagon was still arguing that those held at Guantanamo were "the worst of the worst" and "the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth," but behind closed doors CIA officials were coming to the conclusion that a number of detainees had no links to terrorism, and were working on a list of prisoners to be set free.
One of the detainees being considered for release was Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turkish citizen who had been pulled off a bus in Pakistan the year before and turned over to U.S. forces. Since then, American security agencies hadn't turned up any evidence that he belonged to a terrorist group or posed a threat to the United States. But before clearing his release, the CIA wanted the Germans to interrogate him and offer their stamp of approval.
Shortly after they arrived, the agents were led out to a trailer near the dusty sprawl of cell blocks known as Camp Delta. The air conditioner was on full blast, and Kurnaz, a stocky young man with blunt features and a thick red beard, was seated on one side of a long table, his hands and feet shackled to a ring in the floor. The men took turns questioning him—about the nightclubs he frequented in his wilder years, about his reasons for embracing Islam, about his journey to Pakistan and the heavy boots he bought before leaving—while a hidden camera rolled in the background.
All told, they spent 12 hours with him over two days. By the end they concluded that he had simply found himself "in the wrong place at the wrong time" and "had nothing to do with terrorism and al-Qaida," according to German intelligence reports.
They discussed their findings with CIA and Pentagon officials, then boarded a plane back to Germany. During a stopover in Washington, D.C., one of the agents visited the local branch of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, and reported back to headquarters via a secure phone line, saying: "USA considers Murat Kurnaz's innocence to be proven. He should be released in approximately six to eight weeks." A few days later, a Pentagon release form for the detainee was printed and awaiting signature.
"At that point, the picture was clear," says Lothar Jachmann, a retired spy who headed the intelligence-gathering operation on Kurnaz for Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, and was briefed on the Guantanamo visit by one of the agents. "We had nothing on him, and we had gotten feedback that the Americans had nothing on him either. The plan was to let him go."
But Kurnaz was not set free. Instead, he spent another four years languishing at Guantanamo, where he was repeatedly designated an "enemy combatant," despite evidence showing he had no known links to terrorist groups.
Lawyers for Guantanamo detainees often argue that their clients are being held based on thin intelligence, but Kurnaz's case is the first where the record clearly shows that evidence of innocence was ignored to justify his continued detention. His story, pieced together from intelligence reports, newly declassified Pentagon documents, and secret testimony before the German Parliament—much of it never before reported in the United States—offers a rare window into the workings of the secretive system used to hold and try terrorism suspects.
MURAT KURNAZ, the son of Turkish immigrants, was born and raised in Bremen, a rainy north German port city, where he lived with his family in a simple brick row house. His father, Metin, worked the assembly line at a Mercedes Benz plant, while his mother, Rabiye, stayed home with him and his two younger brothers. On Fridays he and his father attended the neighborhood Kuba Mosque, a storefront sanctuary with a barbershop, bookstore, and cavernous teahouse where old men in crocheted skullcaps huddle around plastic tables.
Mosque-goers remember Kurnaz as a shy, quiet boy who didn't take much interest in religion. "He was a normal Muslim Turk, who prayed once in a while, but was not very observant," says Nurtekin Tepe, a local bus driver, who has known Kurnaz since he was a child. Instead, Kurnaz spent his time watching Bruce Lee movies, dreaming about motorbikes (he hoped to get one and drive it 110 miles per hour on the autobahn), and lifting weights, often with his neighbor, Selcuk Bilgin, who had many of the same interests, though he was six years older.
This began to change in the fall of 2000. Kurnaz, then 18, was working as a nightclub bouncer; Bilgin had a dead-end job at a supermarket. Some of their friends had started getting in trouble with the law. Feeling there must be something more to life, both men began to take a deeper interest in Islam. Before long, they had cut pork from their diets, grown their beards long, and started attending a new mosque, Abu Bakr, which was located in a dingy, fluorescent-lit office building near Bremen's main train station and preached a strict brand of Sunni Islam.
Around this time, Kurnaz also started searching for a Muslim bride, and in the summer of 2001 he married Fatima, a young woman who hails from a rural Turkish village. The union was arranged by relatives, and the couple met only once before the ceremony. The idea was to bring her to Germany as soon as her paperwork was sorted out. Meanwhile, Kurnaz and Bilgin made plans to travel to Pakistan. The reason for the trip has been a matter of much debate, but Kurnaz claims he was worried that he didn't know enough about Islam to be a good Muslim husband and wanted to study the Koran before Fatima's arrival.
The flight was scheduled to depart Frankfurt on October 3, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, but even before Kurnaz and Bilgin boarded the plane their plans began to unravel. Bilgin was stopped at passport control because of an outstanding $1300 fine levied after his dog ran away and attacked a bicyclist. Unable to pay, he called his older brother, Abdullah, in Bremen and asked him to wire the money. Instead, Abdullah phoned the Frankfurt police and urged them not to let Bilgin fly. "My brother is following a friend to Afghanistan to fight the Americans," he said, according to police reports. "He was stirred up in a Bremen mosque."
Questioned by police a few days later, Abdullah, who unlike his brother has a poor grasp on German, said his words had been taken out of context; he'd feared Kurnaz and Bilgin might get caught up in the conflict, but didn't know for a fact that they had plans of fighting. But by that time, the wheels were already in motion. Bilgin was arrested and Bremen police launched a criminal investigation into him, Kurnaz, and two other men who attended Abu Bakr. Germany's domestic intelligence agency also got in on the act, sending an undercover agent to the mosque to ferret out information.
Meanwhile, Kurnaz, who had gotten on the plane without Bilgin, was traveling through Pakistan, unaware of the commotion his departure had caused.