A recent routine police operation uncovered a possible terror suspect. The development illustrates just how tense the security situation is in Germany, with the government issuing the clearest warnings yet of a possible attack by Islamist terrorists. How much do the country’s security officials know?
The officers were exceedingly polite, waiting for Ali R. to complete his Friday prayers, pack his things and leave the mosque in the western German city of Essen. Only then did they approach the imam and ask him to come with them. They took him to the Büren Prison near the northwestern city of Paderborn, where detainees are held pending deportation. The action was taken in response to a request by the German foreigners registration authority, which had been seeking Ali R., a medical student, since March, because his German residence permit had expired. The officers were not particularly enthusiastic about their mission, which was just another routine police operation. As a result, their search of Ali R., 29, was perfunctory at best.
But what the officers found when they searched “Sheikh Ali,” as the imam is known, at the end of June turned a routine operation into an investigation that has captured the attention of the authorities.
The documents that Ali R., a Palestinian who grew up in the Gaza Strip, had stored on a USB storage device included information on the use of bombs and booby traps, bomb-building instructions and a propaganda video. When agents analyzed his mobile phone, they discovered ambiguous text messages in Arabic in which mention was made of a “bride” and a “groom” — terms Islamists have used in the past as code words when planning attacks.
According to the counterterrorism files in which Germany’s federal and state governments collect information about Islamists, the student had been listed as a “relevant person” since 2005 and was considered part of the jihadist milieu. In one photo, he is shown with a full beard and wearing a white crocheted cap of the type worn by pious Muslims.
Initially detained for the purpose of deportation, Ali R. had suddenly become a terrorism suspect. The federal prosecutor’s office has now taken charge of the case and is now investigating R. on suspicion of being a member of a terrorist organization. But the key question remains unanswered: Is the medical student merely a windbag who has seen one too many Osama videos, who looked at some pertinent Internet sites and was also thinking about an upcoming wedding? Or did the investigators interrupt the early stages of plans for a terror attack? In other words, did they prevent the kind of event about which Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a Christian Democrat (CDU), and his top official, August Hanning, have issued repeated warnings in recent weeks?
The arrest of the sheikh from Essen shows how the situation has become more strained and incalculable than ever before. German security authorities, especially the Interior Ministry, have rarely spoken as often and openly about a supposedly imminent attack as they have this summer. They have both a preventive plan — what the authorities intend to do prevent this attack — and an emergency plan that would be implemented if an attack actually does take place.
The government is fluctuating between alarmism and reassurance. It is a double-sided policy that no one can combine in one sentence as skillfully as Hanning: “We must be prepared for the possibility of an attack, but it is my feeling that law enforcement authorities are quite well prepared.”
Who Can Best Guarantee Security?
This is the dialectic speech of politicians going into an election: On the one hand, there could be a disaster; on the other hand, we have everything under control. It is a matter of preventing attacks, but it is also a matter of the German parliamentary election on Sept. 27 and the question of which politicians are best able to guarantee the Germans’ security. The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have one of their own, Schäuble, at the helm of the Interior Ministry and has in Angela Merkel a chancellor who seeks to demonstrate strength. Domestic security may not win elections during a global economic crisis, as the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have tried to do in the past. But a bomb exploding in Germany could quickly spell an election loss.
In 2004 Islamist terrorists demonstrated in Spain exactly how a bloody attack could influence politics. After several bomb explosions in Madrid commuter trains killed 191 people, the Spaniards voted the incumbent conservative government out of office and elected Socialist José Luis Zapatero, who has headed the government ever since. Even though the situation is only somewhat comparable, because the conservative government supported the Iraq war and the socialists were opposed to it, the Spain scenario is widely discussed in Berlin these days. “We all have Madrid at the back of our minds,” says Hanning.
The same applies to Schäuble. The interior minister knows how powerful the effects of an attack can be. He was the head of the government’s crisis staff in the former West Germany, he experienced the Hanns-Martin Schleyer kidnapping in 1977 — when the far-left Red Army Faction abducted and killed the president of the German Employers Association — and he saw how quickly a constitutional state under pressure can be thrown out of joint.
Preventing an attack is the highest priority for Schäuble. To do so, he is willing to accept the fact that his warnings make people anxious and that Süddeutsche Zeitung derisively characterized his ministry as the “Federal Ministry of Fear.”
Of course, the news currently unfolding behind the scenes is far from comforting. A delegation of officials from the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA), the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, and the BND, the country’s foreign intelligence agency, recently visited several countries in North Africa. The officials returned convinced that al-Qaida had declared Germany a target for attacks.
Part 2: ‘Germany Has Been Singled Out’
Intelligence agencies in Africa, as well as the CIA, have noticed for some time that “Al-Qaida in the Maghreb,” the terrorist organization’s North African branch, is paying more and more attention to Germany. This is not good news for Schäuble, and it corresponds to a warning from the CIA, which notified Berlin in late May that al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan had decided to attack Germany or German interests abroad — and had assigned the task to the Maghreb organization. “Germany has been singled out,” say officials in Washington.
The enemy already has a name: Abu Zayd.
The Moroccan national, the leader of a division of al-Qaida in North Africa, is a veteran of the terrorist milieu and has been active for at least six years. In fact, intelligence agencies are only too familiar with Abu Zayd, who is believed to be the leader of a group that kidnapped Marianne P., a teacher from the southwestern German city of Darmstadt, while she was on a desert trip this spring. Only after months of negotiations and the release of an al-Qaida supporter from a prison in Mali did the commander release the hostage at the end of April.
The authorities believe that Abu Zayd is the man who is planning attacks against German interests. These interests could include German companies involved in the construction of a subway system in Algiers, or the German Embassy in the Algerian capital. Or perhaps nothing will happen at all. The authorities are unclear about the details, but they do believe that they know why Germany is being targeted.
“Al-Qaida has made it its mission to drive foreigners out of Afghanistan,” says Hanning. Germany has the third-largest troop contingent in Afghanistan, next to the United States and Great Britain, and in hardly any other country is public sentiment so critical of its country’s Afghanistan mission. Hanning believes that the Islamists’ goal is to “attack the supposedly weakest link in the chain of Western nations.” The threats of attacks leading up to September elections are meant to force Germany to withdraw, just as the Madrid train bombings prompted Zapatero to pull out Spanish troops from Iraq in 2004.
The Islamist Potential
The German military’s most recent offensive in northern Afghanistan only heightens this image of Germans as the enemy rather than participants in the reconstruction effort. This has prompted Bekkay Harrach, an Islamist from Bonn, to threaten that it is “high time” to “give them something to think about.” Harrach, who has gone to Pakistan to join al-Qaida, is seen as one of the driving forces behind the escalation.
Berlin’s response has been to mobilize law enforcement officials to a degree not seen in years. In mid-July, Hanning hosted a meeting at the government’s counterterrorism center in Berlin with his counterparts from the German states. Jörg Ziercke, the president of the BKA, presented his assessment of the situation. What he described was a summing up of Islamist potential in Germany.
According to Ziercke, 99 Islamists in Germany are considered “threats,” meaning that authorities believe them to be capable of staging an attack. Another 324 suspicious individuals are classified as “relevant persons,” including “Sheikh Ali” from Essen. They are part of an environment the government referred to as the “sympathizer scene” in the days of the Red Army Faction terrorist group. Of this group, 142 apparently went to suspicious countries voluntarily, including 60 who are believed to have completed terrorist training before returning to Germany.
The numbers sound menacing, but they also highlight the authorities’ helplessness. In fact, German authorities are not even sure where exactly many of the supposed 60 returnees from terrorist camps are, while the number of sympathizers of the North African al-Qaida organization identified in Germany is straightforward: zero. A senior security official criticizes the government action plan for being “a mixture of being active geared toward public relations and poking around in the fog.”
In the case of “Sheikh Ali” from Essen, at any rate, the authorities are pleased that they came across him, albeit accidentally. Nevertheless, the imam has filed an application for asylum at the Büren prison. He claims that because his relatives in Gaza sympathize with the Fatah Movement, he could face a Hamas-initiated “blood feud” upon his return, which is why he is requesting asylum in Germany. “I have not been involved in any political organization,” says Ali R. He claims that he was only active in a group that offers advice to Muslim patients at the University of Essen Hospital.
Investigators are also looking for possible accomplices and other incriminating information. If the evidence remains insufficient for an indictment, “Sheikh Ali” will be deported to his native Gaza. His asylum application has been rejected.
If that happens, the list of relevant persons will have been reduced to 323 names.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan