In early June, the image of a slim man wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a shiny light-blue tie, standing in front of a dark-red velvet curtain, was broadcast around the world. It was the new US president, Barack Obama, giving a remarkable speech to the Muslim world at the University of Cairo, in which he called for an end to the cycle of suspicion and discord between the United States and the Muslim world. He said that he had come to Egypt to seek a new beginning.
A similar image appeared three months later, in a video which has been circulating on the Internet since Sept. 18. Again, a slim man, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and shiny light-blue tie is standing in front of a dark-red velvet curtain. But unlike Obama, this man has shoulder-length, greasy hair and looks like an overgrown version of a gawky teenager. The man, Bekkay Harrach, 32, is a militant Islamist, and he wants to instill fear in the German population.
Speaking in a markedly soft voice, the German-Moroccan swears an oath of allegiance to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. He threatened "bitter consequences" and a "grim awakening" in the 14 days following the German national election, if its result did not lead to the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan.
Trying to Influence the Election
The video resembles a badly made comedy sketch, and yet it has caused unease among German security authorities. It doesn't take a professional terrorism expert to feel threatened by the appearance of a known al-Qaida member a few days before an important election. The terrorist network has already attempted to influence elections in the West on two occasions. On March 11, 2004, 10 bombs exploded in several commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people. Three days later, the conservatives, who had previously been tipped to win, lost Spain's parliamentary election. The Socialist candidate and new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, promptly initiated the withdrawal of Spanish troops his predecessor had sent to Iraq to support the US campaign there. And even though Zapatero also increased the Spanish contingent in Afghanistan, the bombing was a triumph from al-Qaida's point of view.
In October of the same year, terrorist leader bin Laden sought to influence the US presidential election. Some believe that the race between incumbent President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry would have ended differently if bin Laden had not released a new video just a few days before the election.
And now Germany. Does the Harrach video represent al-Qaida's third attempt to shape politic opinion in a major Western country? And how should the young terrorist's message be interpreted? Is it "merely" intended to instill fear in the German public? Or is he announcing an attack?
State of Anxiety
Harrach's hateful video had hardly been released before German Chancellor Angela Merkel took steps to show just how calm she was. "German security authorities are doing everything in their power to guarantee the safety of the population," Merkel reassured the German public.
Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble also seemed unruffled. "We will not allow ourselves to fall into a state of anxiety, which is what the terrorists hope to achieve with attacks," Schäuble said, and added, in remarks clearly directed at Harrach and al-Qaida: "Whatever you do, you will not influence the democratic process in Germany."
Germany has seen various terrorist threats in recent years, including the failed plots of the so-called "suitcase" bombers who left bombs on regional trains in 2006 and the Sauerland cell whose planned attacks against US targets in Germany were foiled by investigators in 2007. Germans were also among the casualties in the 2002 bombing on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. The fact that the chancellor and the interior minister reacted to Harrach's tirades shows that they are taking him seriously. Indeed, the video has changed the security situation in Germany.
In the past, authorities had consistently said that Germany is part of a "worldwide danger zone" and that an "abstract threat" existed. The Harrach video has made it more concrete, attaching a face to the threat, the soft, youthful face of a man intelligence officials say has reached the middle level of the al-Qaida leadership. Harrach is believed to be a member of the terror network's external operations committee, which is apparently responsible for attacks abroad.
On German Soil
The question is no longer whether Bin Laden's terrorist organization has set its sights on Germany. Germany is only the second Western country, next to the United States, that al-Qaida has addressed so directly and in its native language. "What is new about this is that the terrorists have expressly stated their intention to act on German soil, and have specified a timeframe for attacks," says August Hanning, a senior official in the Interior Ministry, who does not believe that Harrach is acting alone. "We think that this was authorized by the al-Qaida leadership."
This is precisely what the terrorist group signaled in a subsequent propaganda video, which includes a reference to Harrach's threats. Then an Osama bin Laden audio message, which was posted on the Internet Friday and featured German subtitles, demanded that Europeans leave Afghanistan. Yet another Internet video, apparently from the Taliban, appeared later on Friday threatening Germany. That video showed images of famous sights in Germany, including Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, Cologne Cathedral and the Oktoberfest festival in Munich.
Until now, German authorities had assumed that possible attacks would be aimed at Germans and German interests abroad, such as attacks on the German military, the Bundeswehr, in Afghanistan or spectacular kidnapping cases. But this assessment has now changed. "Harrach's statements underscore the existing threat of attacks in Germany and against German interests worldwide," writes the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) in a report dated last Tuesday.