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Germany bewildered between old terrorists and newcomers

Thursday 14/March/2019 - 03:11 PM
Shimaa Hafzy

Terrorism is on the rise in Germany. The phenomenon is not new, although it has taken on various forms over the decades. During the Weimar Republic, terrorism was routinely practiced as elected officials were beaten and murdered. The political climate eventually led to the rise of the Nazis. In the 1960s, the Red Army Faction (RAF) appeared on the scene. Several generations devoted themselves to targeting what they saw as Western imperialism. Today, the threat of terrorism in Germany comes from Islamic radicals, which is viewed as the country’s primary national security concern.

In 2005, German authorities began recording the number of potential “Islamic militants” inside the country.1 In January 2005, there were 105 individuals posing a potential national security threat. By January 2007, that figure had dropped to 65. By January 2011, however, it had risen sharply to 130. Of these, 59 are German natives, whereas in 2009 only 27 were German natives. Seventeen of the 130 are imprisoned in Germany, while 43 are currently abroad suspected of supporting armed jihad. Of the 43 abroad, six are imprisoned in foreign countries. Approximately 96 of the 130 are citizens within the European Union.2 The majority of the radicals are centered in Berlin, Hamburg, and North Rhine-Westphalia. Five would-be extremists leave Germany on average each month to go to one of the militant training camps in Pakistan.3

Another feature is the growth of converts4 to Islam who have become radicalized. In 2007, the percentage of radicals in Germany who were converts to Islam was 8.2%. By the end of 2010 that figure had increased to 17.7%.5 Of the 130, five of the individuals are women—all German nationals living in Berlin. Three of the women are converts, and German authorities believe that they have all traveled to the Pakistani tribal areas with their husbands.6

This article identifies the various German militants who have joined the Islamic Jihad Union, al-Qa`ida central, as well as those who undertook jihad as “lone wolf” terrorists. Based on the following case studies, Islamist extremism in Germany could be growing and proliferating at a faster rate than in other European countries, giving Germany the unfortunate distinction of being one of the main centers for terrorist activity on the European continent.

The Islamic Jihad Union

One al-Qa`ida affiliate linked to a number of Germans is the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The IJU splintered from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in March 2002. It settled in North Waziristan Agency and made Mir Ali its headquarters.7

In September 2007, German authorities detained three IJU operatives, including two German converts, disrupting the group’s plans to attack targets in Germany—including the Ramstein Airbase where the primary targets would be U.S. diplomats, soldiers and civilians. A fourth suspect was arrested soon after in Turkey. The operatives, known as the Sauerland cell, had acquired approximately 700 kilograms of hydrogen peroxide and an explosives precursor, which they secretly stockpiled in a garage in southern Germany. Had the plot succeeded, it would have been the biggest attack in Europe, more powerful than the bombs used in the Madrid and London train attacks in 2004 and 2005 respectively.8

The four members of the Sauerland cell admitted to belonging to a “terrorist organization,” plotting murder and conspiring for an explosives attack. On March 4, 2010, a Düsseldorf court jailed the members of the cell. Sentencing the extremists to between five and 12 years, Judge Ottmar Breidling said that they planned to stage a “monstrous bloodbath.”9 The four included converts Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider, who each received 12-year jail terms. Adem Yilmaz, a Turkish citizen, received 11 years, while Atilla Selek, a German of Turkish origin, was sentenced to five years.10

The leader of the group was Gelowicz, who was born in Munich and converted to Islam when he was 16-years-old.11 Although he became a devout Muslim, he appeared to lead the life of a normal teenager. His views changed, however, when he started visiting an Islamic center in the southern city of Neu-Ulm. During the trial, Gelowicz admitted to being a member of the IJU and said that in 2006 he traveled to one of the group’s training camps in the tribal areas of Pakistan where he received training in weapons and explosives. He also met Schneider at the camp, who later became one of the other operatives in the Sauerland cell.12

The trial confirmed for the first time the existence of an IJU cell on German soil. In addition, the cases of Gelowicz and Schneider, in particular, shocked the country, raising questions how seemingly “normal” Germans could become radicalized by Islamic militant preaching and attend terrorist training camps.

The IJU claims to have several German members, and the group has been targeting Germany for some time now, both through propaganda and also with operations. The IJU was involved in the recruitment and training of Cuneyt Ciftci, Germany’s first suicide bomber. Ciftci, born in Bavaria to a family of Turkish immigrants, was married and had two children. Yet he drove a pick-up truck laden with explosives into a U.S. guard post in Afghanistan on March 3, 2008, resulting in the deaths of two U.S. soldiers. In the aftermath, a disturbing video clip of Ciftci appeared, showing him smiling and brandishing a pistol.13

In an IJU production from October 2008, entitled “A Call from Hindukush,” the German convert Eric Breininger14 (also known as Abdulgaffar al-Almani) stated that Germany’s policies toward Muslims, including its military engagement in Afghanistan, are “increasing the risk of attacks on German soil.” He also encouraged the German people to “approach their own government if they want to be spared from the attacks of Muslims in Germany.”

The number of Germans involved with the IJU is clearly alarming. Fortunately, the IJU has suffered a number of setbacks in the last few years.16 Nevertheless, it is premature to say that the group’s infrastructure has been completely dismantled in Pakistan. The IJU is still functional, and the thread that connects it to Germany remains intact.17

Al-Qa`ida Central

For al-Qa`ida’s central leadership, Germany has always served as a useful staging ground and launch pad for international operations. The original starting point was the northern city of Hamburg, where the plot for the 9/11 terrorist attacks was hatched. The Hamburg cell consisted of several people, but most notably the three suicide pilots Muhammad `Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah. On January 8, 2007, a German court sentenced Moroccan Mounir el-Motassadeq, a friend of the 9/11 pilots, to 15 years in prison for being an accessory in the murders of 246 people aboard the commercial planes used in the 9/11 attacks. El-Motassadeq came to Germany in 1993 to study engineering and fell in with a radical Islamic group in Hamburg that included two of the hijackers, Muhammad `Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi.

He had wired money to al-Shehhi, and he admitted to attending a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan sponsored by Usama bin Ladin.18 El-Motassadeq was involved in the running of the al-Quds mosque in Hamburg, which prosecutors say was the focal point of the group’s activities.19 The mosque, which is in Hamburg’s St. Georg district, has been under surveillance since the 2001 attacks. In August 2010, German police finally shut down the mosque because they believed it was again being used as a meeting point for extremists.

Al-Qa`ida’s connections to Germany extend beyond the Hamburg cell. On February 5, 2009, a French court found German national Christian Ganczarski guilty of playing a central role in the deadly 2002 Djerba attack in Tunisia when a gas-laden truck smashed into a synagogue, killing 21 people.

 Ganczarski was sentenced to 18 years.21 The Djerba attack, which was claimed by al-Qa`ida, targeted the historic Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, a magnet for tourists.22 As part of the attack, suicide bomber Nizar Naouar drove into the building in an explosives-laden fuel tanker. In total, 14 German tourists, five Tunisians and two French nationals were killed and many more people were injured.23 Among evidence put forward by the prosecution were images of Ganczarski and Usama bin Ladin at training camps in Afghanistan. He was known as “Ibrahim the German.” A video dating from January 2001 showed him sitting in the first row among hundreds of armed fighters in an al-Qa`ida camp, watching a speech by Bin Ladin. Behind him sat the 9/11 pilot Muhammad `Atta.24

In July 2010, another German citizen from Hamburg was detained for his ties to al-Qa`ida. Ahmed Sidiqi, a German citizen of Afghan origin, was apprehended in Kabul and transferred to U.S. custody. He worked for a cleaning company at the Hamburg International Airport, attended the al-Quds mosque, and had direct ties to Mounir el-Motassadeq.25 Sidiqi was the source of much of the information on a potential “Mumbai-style” terrorist plot in Europe.26 Shortly after, U.S. drone strikes killed several militants with German citizenship in the tribal areas of Pakistan in September and October 2010. These militants were possibly tied to the proposed Mumbai-style terrorist plot for Europe.27

On May 9, 2011, a Frankfurt court sentenced Rami Makenesi, a German man of Syrian origin, to four years and nine months in prison after he admitted on the opening day of his trial that he was a member of al-Qa`ida and trained at one of its paramilitary camps in Pakistan.

In exchange, he was given a reduced sentence. Makanesi left Germany for Pakistan in 2009 to undergo training at a camp in North Waziristan. Prosecutors stated that he had planned to return to Germany to raise funds for al-Qa`ida and participate in terrorist operations.28 Makenesi was tasked to raise 20,000 euros (approximately $29,000) every six months and was supposed to act as a contact in Germany.29 He was arrested in Pakistan in June 2010 and returned to Germany two months later. During his trial, Makanesi cooperated with authorities, outlining planned terrorist attacks that allowed for increased security measures.30

Al-Qa`ida has also utilized German nationals in its propaganda material. Bekkay Harrach, a German national, rose within al-Qa`ida to become part of its propaganda production unit, al-Sahab. Harrach appeared in a 2009 video entitled “Rescue Package for Germany.” His words largely echoed those of Eric Breininger. Harrach warned that if Germany continued its military engagement in Afghanistan, it would not “get away with it for free,” and therefore the German people should “stand up and be reasonable” in the upcoming September 2009 parliamentary elections.31 It was the first time al-Sahab tailored a message specifically to Germans—including by an actual German national—which strengthened al-Qa`ida’s image as a truly global organization.32

Lone Wolves

In addition to the threat from al-Qa`ida and more organized terrorist groups, the spread of “lone wolf” terrorism is also a major concern for Germany’s security apparatus. “Lone wolves” are more motivated to act spontaneously and sporadically. Although they may not necessarily be successful as they lack the hands-on skill of more established terrorist operatives, they also do not leave a trail to other cells or terrorist groups abroad, making it harder for authorities to track them and disrupt their activities.

On July 31, 2006, Jihad Hamad and Youssef el-Hajdib, both Lebanese nationals, placed two suitcases filled with propane gas and crude detonators on regional trains in Cologne. The bombs were supposed to explode near Hamm and Koblenz. Although the triggers went off, the canisters failed to detonate. German authorities said the bombs could have caused up to 75 casualties. The attacks were originally planned for the 2006 FIFA Soccer World Cup held several weeks earlier, but the suspects reportedly abandoned the plan when they realized that the bombs would not be ready in time.

 Hamad fled to Lebanon where German investigators tracked him down in conjunction with their Lebanese counterparts. El-Hajdib was arrested in Germany.35 On December 18, 2007, a court in Beirut sentenced Hamad to 12 years in prison. On December 9, 2008, el-Hajdib was sentenced to life in prison by a Düsseldorf court.

Another case of “lone wolf” terrorism in Germany occurred on March 2, 2011, when Arid Uka traveled to Frankfurt airport armed with a pistol and two knives. Uka spotted two U.S. airmen emerging from a baggage claim area and followed them to an exit where a U.S. Air Force bus was waiting. Uka watched as U.S. military service members gradually arrived, then asked one of them for a cigarette and where the soldiers were heading. After the airman confirmed that they were on their way to Afghanistan, Uka turned around, reached into his backpack and loaded a magazine into his pistol.

 Uka waited until almost all the airmen had boarded the bus, then shot dead a senior airman as he returned from a luggage trolley. Boarding the bus, Uka then fatally shot an airman in the driver’s seat while repeatedly shouting “God is great” in Arabic. He seriously wounded two other men standing in the bus aisle. Uka is believed to have fired nine times before his gun jammed. He then fled from the bus into a terminal where he was tackled and detained by German authorities.

 Uka, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, was a devout Muslim. Although born in Kosovska Mitrovica, his family had been living in Germany for 40 years. On the surface, Uka was a German success story for an immigrant family. In 2005, he and some classmates won a government prize for a school project on how to prevent violence in society and posed proudly with Gerhard Schröder, the chancellor of Germany at the time.39 He worked part time in the mail room at Frankfurt airport.40

According to German prosecutors, the internet may have played a major role in Uka’s radicalization. His Facebook page illustrated a side of him that even his family apparently did not know. He posted a link to a jihadist battle hymn, “I can no longer stand this life of humiliation among you.

My weapon is ready at all times.” According to German authorities, Uka confessed to targeting U.S. military members, claimed he acted alone and did not belong to a terrorist network or cell. In addition, the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo’s capital of Pristina referred to “the act of a single individual.”