Polish-Born Muslim Convert Sentenced for Leading Role in Tunisian Synagogue Bombing

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 6 Issue: 6

Christian Ganczarski (Photo: Der Spiegel)

A French court has sentenced Christian Ganczarski, a Polish-born German national and convert to Islam, to 18 years in prison for his role in the 2002 bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia. Though Ganczarski has been under suspicion for years, it was only the recent intervention of a shadowy Paris-based counterterrorism center that allowed the long-time al-Qaeda associate to be brought to trial.

The June 2003 arrest of Ganczarski at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport while he was in transit from Riyadh to Frankfurt was an early example of cooperation between international intelligence agencies using the Paris-based Counterterrorist Intelligence Center (CTIC), better known as "Alliance Base." First mentioned publicly in an article published in the Washington Post in 2005, the "Alliance Base" is a counterterrorism command center in which security officers from Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, and the United States work together towards the common goal of defending the West from al-Qaeda attacks. To properly understand the level of cooperation and the priority given by Western governments to counter the very real al-Qaeda threat, it is worth bearing in mind that the decision to establish the command in France was made in 2002, at a time when the French and American administrations were involved in a deeply acrimonious dispute over whether to invade Iraq. The name "Alliance Base" is a direct reference to the meaning of the name al-Qaeda – "The Base." The center has been at the nexus of a number of delicate international counterterrorism efforts. When the German government recognized that it was unable to prosecute him in his home nation, it arranged to have him transported through France where stricter terrorist legislation meant that he could be arrested and charged.

In France, Ganczarski was charged under the nation’s "association with terrorism" legislation for his role in the April 11, 2002, bombing of the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. The attack, which claimed 21 lives, including 14 German and two French nationals (it was as a result of the French deaths that Ganczarski could be tried in France), was carried out by a 25-year-old Tunisian named Nizar Naouar, who detonated a gas-filled truck outside the historical synagogue. Seen as the first major success by an al-Qaeda affiliated group since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the bombing was claimed by the "Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites" in a letter received by the London-based Arab dailies Al-Quds al-Arabi and Al-Hayat (Die Tageszeitung, April 17, 2002). This was the same group that claimed the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa. Al-Quds also reported receiving a will attached to the letter in the name of Seif ul-Dinn el Tunisi, dated July 5, 2000 (AP, April 17, 2002). Prior to the attack it was reported that the German Embassy in Tunis had received a letter from "al-Qaeda’s Tunisian wing" in January 2002, threatening German assets in the Islamic world. A German tour group in the country reported being attacked five days before the bombing by a group of protesters who pelted their bus with rocks while chanting "Bin Laden" and "Arafat." (Le Figaro, April 18, 2002)

The connection to Ganczarski was established as a result of an intercepted telephone call made by Naouar at 6:18 a.m. on the morning of the strike, in which he uses his nom-de-guerre Seif al-Din and asks his friend Ganczarski for "dawa" (blessing) before carrying out his attack (Der Spiegel, April 22, 2002; Le Journal de la Dimanche, February 6). The two had met at a camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Naouar was also reported to have made a call to al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Shaykh Muhammad in Pakistan before the attack, a number that Ganczarski also called at around the same time. The intercepted telephone call between Ganczarski and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was later cited as the first in a chain of events that led to Khalid’s subsequent arrest in Pakistan (Telegraph, March 4, 2004). Khalid Shaykh Muhammad and Walid Naouar (Nizar’s brother) were co-defendants with Ganczarski in the trial, though Khalid’s current detention for an indefinite term in Guantanamo meant that French judges had decided he would be tried separately once he was able to appear in court (Der Spiegel, February 6). Much was made in parts of the French press of the fact that the court decided to not call upon Muhammad’s witness statements, which Ganczarski appealed to be included (Le Figaro, January 6; AFP, January 6)

Ultimately, this phone call is the only direct connection between Ganczarski and the atrocity in Djerba, a fact that made his successful prosecution in Germany very unlikely. At the same time, his long track record of connections with al-Qaeda and the fact that French citizens were killed in the Djerba attack meant that he was liable for prosecution under French law. According to German authorities, these ties date back to 1991 when, as an early member of al-Qaeda, he was responsible for recruiting fighters in Krefeld and Essen in West Germany. Born in 1966 to Polish Catholic parents in Gliwicie, his family moved to the Western German city of Mülheim an der Ruhr when he was young (Der Spiegel, February 5). In the late 1980s he converted to Islam-apparently thanks to a North African co-worker he met as a metallurgist in one of the many Rhur valley factories-and started down the path of radicalization. In 1992, he was spotted by a visiting radical cleric and won a scholarship to study Islam in Medina as part of a Saudi-driven effort to convert Westerners to the Wahhabi brand of Islam prevalent in the Kingdom (Le Monde, January 28). [1]

Ganczarski proved to be a less-than-stellar student, however, and he was unable to overcome linguistic and academic difficulties to get into the university. His zeal, however, remained strong, and from August-September 1999 he made the first of six trips to Afghanistan (Der Spiegel, January 5). Here he was spotted by fellow convert "Jihad Jack" Roche, a British-Australian convert to Islam who was convicted of being involved with Jemaah Islamiya in a series of planned bombings in Australia. Roche testified before the court in Paris via videolink that he had seen Ganczarski at one of these camps in deep conversation with Osama bin Laden (AFP, January 26). It has also been confirmed that Khalid Shaykh Muhammad knew Ganczarski and used him to transmit messages to Osama. Further video evidence was provided to the court through an al-Qaeda propaganda video shot on January 8, 2001, at the Tarnak Farm al-Qaeda training camp in Kandahar, where Ganczsarski is seen sitting in the front row with Mohammed Atta sitting behind him. Ganczarski dismissed this as a coincidence, asking, "When you go to the theatre, do you know everyone in the audience?" (Der Spiegel, February 5) It has also been alleged that Ganczarski knew Mounir El Motassadeq, the Moroccan national who was initially imprisoned in Germany as a co-conspirator to the 9/11 plotters but has now had his sentence overturned by the German constitutional court (Deutsche Welle, June 12, 2006).

What is unclear, however, is the degree to which Ganczarski was a leader in al-Qaeda. The prosecution provided documentary evidence found in Kandahar in 2002 that identified him, under his nom-de-guerre Abu Muhammad al-Alamani, as the "contact for the recruitment of new terrorists." Furthermore, a set of laminated cards found on the bodies of dead al-Qaeda fighters giving the radio call signs of the leadership included radio code CG 135 for Abu Muhammad al-Alamani (Der Spiegel, February 5). Most coverage has focused on his apparent technical and computer skills. At the same time, the absence of clear links from Ganczarski to other plots has raised questions in some minds about his role as a senior planner, though his membership in al-Qaeda is not in doubt. In the end, the prosecution won the case, with the French court handing Ganczarski and his co-conspirator Walid Naouar 18- and 12-year sentences respectively. Walid was accused of providing false documents and a satellite phone; two others accused of providing false documentation earlier in the plot will stand trial later this year (Der Spiegel, February 6). The fate of the final conspirator, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, remains unclear, though it appears he will face either execution or a lifetime of incarceration for his terrorist activities before he is able to stand trial in France.