Al Qaida in her backyard

Seven years ago I was at the auto show in Frankfurt when a reporter from USA Today text-messaged me something about a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. By his second message, I was running through the giant conference center, desperate for a TV, a good Internet connection, a cab. Back in the hotel he said presciently, "I think that somehow everything we do for the next couple of years will have to with today."

He'd spend most of the next few years in Afghanistan. I'd be running all over Europe and North Africa, chasing shadows.


Hunting the plotters became my own blood sport during my tour in Europe. Two days after the Sept 11 attacks, the news broke that Mohamed Atta & Co., had been living a couple hours away in Hamburg, so off we raced, a half dozen American and British reporters, catching a train from Berlin's Zoo Station and going after the biggest cop story of our lives.

Atta and several other plotters had lived in an apartment in the Harburg section, near the technical university in a neighborhood of students and immigrants. I talked to his academic adviser (Atta had written an excellent dissertation), and a friend (he claimed disbelief that his pals were up to anything. Later, he'd be convicted of accessory to murder.) A colleague found a house frau who cooked an egg for her husband at the same time every night, and looked out the window on the foreigners who were always meeting behind pulled curtains. Al Qaida in her backyard.

A few months later, I spent weeks working with my Czech translator on a report that Atta had slipped into that country to meet with an Iraqi agent. He'd met him, he'd not met him - the story kept changing. Finally, it was confirmed by a top Czech official. Then it was officially denied when immigration records placed him in the U.S. at the time. My stories looked like hell. A useful linking of Al Qaida and Iraq that one would have been.

But my favorite chase came on an exclusive tip from my translator, who was a Prague journalist. Atta had been meeting with some thugs involved in a conspiracy to smuggle drugs and people from Afghanistan, my friend had learned from a high-ranking police source. So we drove down to Brno, a dusty old city in Moravia to meet these Afghans. We switched cars, in case we'd been followed, then met them on a busy street. Smart. Scared.

These were big guys, five or six of them wearing leather coats and buzzed hair. They had friends who owned a restaurant. It would be easiest to find if they gave us a ride, they offered. My translator quickly said yes and we climbed into the back of one of their BMWs. Less smart. More scared.

Nice car, I said. The one I needed to talk with was wanted in Germany for assault. He was 29, a power-lifter with a scar running from forehead to cheek from fighting in Afghanistan "for democracy," he said. He still carried shrapnel in his left forearm.

Finally, over soft drinks at the country and western bar, we told them what we'd heard. They looked truly blown away when we said two businessmen had reported he met with Atta, the main guy of 9/11.

He smiled. "I am the kind of Muslim who likes pork, woman and liquor."

It turned out they had nothing to do with Atta. It was some other guy they'd met, and just another crazy Czech story. But it was not every day that I hang with the Sopranos of South Moravia.

adapted from Blinq, 8/23/05