Terror Arrests in Vienna: Austria's 'Jihad by Telecommute'

By Yassin Musharbash

They translated and prepared terror videos, claims of responsibility and al-Qaida propaganda on the Internet. Austrian police have now attributed this handiwork to the Global Islamic Media Front and the leader of this network is reportedly among the arrested.

Austrian special unit police officers lead away a suspected terrorist in Vienna on Wednesday.
DPA

Austrian special unit police officers lead away a suspected terrorist in Vienna on Wednesday.

It's been three weeks since the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) put out an ad for a translator to help with the growing workload in terror news. "Brothers and sisters with English language skills are especially sought," wrote a GIMF member. "We're looking for someone with time to sacrifice for Allah and thereby support the jihad." Instructions were to send an e-mail response, after which one would receive "a little job" in return.

"Jihad by Telecommute" could have been GIMF's business slogan. For almost two years it operated a pair of Internet sites in German, one of which used a discussion forum to publicize acts of terror committed by bin Laden & Co. No one else in the German-speaking world was more effective at this task.

At least until Wednesday, when Austrian police took three people into custody believed to be connected with the site -- including two men, 26 and 21, and a 21-year-old woman. They are accused of having been involved in the production of a video published on the GIMF homepage on March 11 that showed a disguised Arabic-speaking spokesperson threatening attacks in Germany and Austria if those countries did not withdraw their soldiers from Afghanistan.

One line from a video asking the question, "Is it not dumb to embolden the mujahedeen to carry out attacks in your country?" proved particularly worrisome to the authorities.

Austria has no troops in Iraq and only four officers serving in Afghanistan.

Police did not elaborate on details of the arrests, though they did say that a fourth person was arrested but later released due to a lack of evidence.

Contact with the English-language GIMF

Not much is yet known about the three persons arrested. The woman and one of the men are married to each other. All three are Muslims and Austrian citizens, though not converts, and all were unemployed. They are second-generation immigrants from the Arab world, according to Austrian Interior Minister GŁnther Platter, who spoke at a hastily convened press conference on Wednesday evening.

According to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, one of those arrested is the presumed head of the German-language GIMF, founded in fall 2005. Its model was the international GIMF, which came into being sometime around 2002 -- originally only in Arabic -- in order to redistribute al-Qaida material on the Internet.

An English-language branch was then founded, whose Web site presumably inspired the alleged head of the German GIMF to open up another franchise. Among the things that points to some cooperation between the sites is that the German-language site started off as a blog set up on a free service provider just as the English-language version was. The two sites had links to each other.

One of the men, whose identity is known to SPIEGEL ONLINE, was very active on Arabic-language jihad Web sites. In the name of GIMF, for example, he posted offers in an Islamic discussion forum used by almost all terror organizations to publish claims of responsibility for terrorist acts.

Virtual Contact with al-Qaida?

Austrian authorities revealed on Thursday their belief that the suspects arrested were in direct contact with al-Qaida over the Internet. According to Erik Buxbaum, Austria's general manager for public security, Austrian terror specialists followed events 'live' while the groups communicated. E-mail traffic was observed, and the group of young Muslims was kept under observation as part of a "large bugging operation" code-named "Target."

According to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, contact between the group and al-Qaida was most likely made in jihadist Internet forums.

German terror investigators had been keeping a close eye on the German-language GIMF Web site, which appeared in fall 2005. "You can follow radicalization in real-time here," said a concerned official a few months ago, referring to the Web site. There was serious discussion on the GIMF discussion forum about issues such as whether Muslims who have strayed from their faith must be killed, and photographs of the corpses of US soldiers were shown.

Both Web sites run by the German GIMF have been down for a few weeks, but that has nothing to do with investigations that have been underway in recent months. Instead, there has been a general blackout among many of the jihad Web sites brought about by a campaign of al-Qaida opponents in the US, who sent e-mails of protest en masse to the Internet providers and hosts of these sites.

In the meantime, it has been reported that the arrested have admitted to having had contact with al-Qaida. Their apparent claim, however, to not have built a terrorist cell corresponds with the information held by German authorities, who have not assumed that the German GIMF was planning a terror attack in the real world.

The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors al-Qaida activity on the Internet, stated Thursday that the leader of the Vienna-based GIMF may have had links to the Army of Islam, the group that kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston earlier this year.

After having the three under observation over a period of months, Austrian police and a special forces unit called "Cobra" carried out the arrests. Officials claim that they worried that the suspects might flee abroad and perhaps erase computer hard-drives. Documents and computers seized during the raid will most likely provide information about who numbered among the GIMF's supporters.

Although no weapons or bombs were found, the head of the group is believed to have tried to obtain bomb-making materials. In addition, the Austria broadcaster ORF has reported that the 26-year-old leader attended a terrorist training camp, although German intelligence officials are skeptical of this claim.

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