ULM, Germany — Khaled el-Masri says his strange and violent trip into the void began with a bus ride on New Year's Eve 2003.
When he returned to this city five months later, his friends didn't believe the odyssey he recounted. Masri said he was kidnapped in Macedonia, beaten by masked men, blindfolded, injected with drugs and flown to Afghanistan, where he was imprisoned and interrogated by U.S. intelligence agents. He said he was finally dumped in the mountains of Albania.
"One person told me not to tell this story because it's so unreal, no one would listen," said Masri, a German citizen who was born in Lebanon.
A Munich prosecutor has launched an investigation and is intent on questioning U.S. officials about the unemployed car salesman's claim that he was wrongly targeted as an Islamic militant. Masri's story, if true, would offer a rare firsthand look at one man's disappearance into a hidden dimension of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. authorities have used overseas detention centers and jails to hold or interrogate suspected terrorists, such as at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many of the estimated 9,000 prisoners in U.S. military custody were captured in Iraq, but others, like Masri, were allegedly picked up in another country and delivered to U.S. authorities in Afghanistan or elsewhere for months of confinement.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on Masri's case, but White House, Justice Department and CIA officials have long argued that U.S. laws authorize such covert operations. They say U.S. officials have been given assurances in every case that no one is tortured.
"This is not a rogue agency on these issues," said a former senior CIA official who is familiar with the practice. "All these programs have been done under strict supervision, and have saved lives."
The German government is investigating Masri's allegations.
"I have no indication that Masri is not telling the truth," Munich prosecutor Martin Hofmann said in a recent interview. Hair analysis -- which can identify malnourishment and whether someone spent time in a certain part of the world -- suggests that Masri was maltreated and could have been in Afghanistan in early 2004, said his lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic.
"I cannot bring kidnapping charges against a country," Hofmann said. "Decisions now have to be made by higher German authorities. Bearing in mind the politically explosive nature of this case, I still believe it can be handled swiftly."
Masri's allegations come at a sensitive time for Washington and Berlin. President Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder met last month to help mend ties in the wake of Germany's opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. German officials are troubled by the possible kidnapping of one of their citizens but do not want to jeopardize cooperation with Washington in the war on terrorism. There also is the question of what role, if any, German intelligence played in Masri's disappearance.
Masri, a stout man with combed-back black hair, may have run into trouble because of his name and place of worship.
His mosque, the Multicultural House in Ulm, has been under surveillance by German authorities as a haven for radical mullahs and extremists. Some of its worshipers enlisted with militants in Chechnya, the breakaway Russian republic. Suspected Al Qaeda member Reda Seyam, who was arrested after the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia, and later released, had spent time in the Ulm mosque and once borrowed a car belonging to Masri's wife.
In a twist that raises the possibility of mistaken identity, U.S. intelligence services have listed a Khaled el-Masri as a suspected terrorist operative with ties to Osama bin Laden. That Masri, still believed to be at large, allegedly persuaded several of the Sept. 11 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, to train in Bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan.
These factors may have converged as Masri sat on a bus that New Year's Eve.
Masri, a father of four, said he was having family problems and decided to escape his small apartment for a short holiday in Macedonia. This account raises doubts among some German officials, but Masri is adamant that he needed time away from his wife.
The tenor of the trip changed about 3 p.m. when his passport was confiscated after the bus crossed the Serbian border into Macedonia. Three hours later, Masri said, he was waiting for his documents to be returned when "two guys in plainclothes and carrying pistols arrived and asked me if I had connections to Islamic organizations. I told them no. They questioned me until 10 p.m. and then they put me in a car."
Masri said he was taken to a hotel in the capital, Skopje, and was guarded by Macedonian teams of three men working in shifts. He said he demanded to see an official from the German Embassy but no one came. He tried to flee, he said, but was threatened with guns.