Officials in Germany believe that a suspected terrorist cell in Düsseldorf may have been led by a top al-Qaida terrorist, SPIEGEL has learned from sources with knowledge of the investigation by the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) and the Federal Prosecutor's Office. High-ranking al-Qaida member Atiyah Abd al-Rahman allegedly contacted Moroccan Abdeladim K., who is believed to be the leader of the Düsseldorf group, from Pakistan months ago. The Düsseldorf cell reportedly later lost contact with the al-Qaida leader, and further attempts to communicate with Rahman were unsuccessful.
The United States has a $1 million bounty on Rahman, who was born in Libya and is believed to have joined al-Qaida in the 1980s under Osama bin Laden and risen up to the leadership ranks. German al-Qaida member Rami Makanesi, who left the network, claimed that Rahman has since become the terrorist organization's chief in Afghanistan.
Investigators at the Federal Prosecutor's Office have learned that the suspected al-Qaida activists in Düsseldorf had problems with the detonators for their bombs.
German, CIA and Moroccan Cooperation
The arrest of the three suspects last week followed a months-long investigation by German authorities as well as the CIA and the Moroccan secret service. The BKA, which has special authority under German law when it comes to combating terror, even created its own "Comet" organizational structure for the purposes of the investigation.
Investigators first became aware of the Düsseldorf terror cell last fall after Ahmed Siddiqui, a resident of Hamburg and a terror suspect who had been arrested in Afghanistan, as well as another German informant, provided authorities with information about several alleged terrorist cells. They reportedly claimed the cells were planning attacks in Germany. At the time, then-German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party warned the public of the possible imminent threat.
On Friday, Germany's Rheinische Post newspaper quoted de Maizière's successor, Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), as stating that flight passenger information had helped investigators track down the cell.
"The Americans informed us of the conspicuous and unusual travel patterns of the suspects," Friedrich told the newspaper. He described airline passenger data as "an important element for this investigative success." So far, information about the travel routes used by the cell have not been made public.
'Highly Conspiratorial' Behavior
During the investigation of the cell, officials discovered the trail of K., the primary suspect, a 29 year old of Moroccan origin who had studied engineering at the University of Dortmund but had dropped out and was forced to leave the country. Later, he re-entered Germany illegally. A second suspect apparently worked as an electrician. Last week, BKA chief Jörg Ziercke said the second suspect had grown up in a "very Western environment." The BKA had installed trojan software on main suspect K.'s computer to track his communications and also wiretapped his calls.
Police also learned that K. had regular contact with a high-ranking al-Qaida member in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, presumably Rahman. At the start of 2010, K. is also believed to have traveled to an al-Qaida training camp in the region, where he was given commands by a high-ranking member of the terror organization to conduct a bombing attack on Germany.
Investigators decided to move and make the arrests after K. purchased soldering equipment that could be used to complete attack preparations. In addition, the group had acquired other substances including diesel fuel, wax and firelighters that could be used in bomb-making. But investigators believe the men were not yet capable of building a full bomb, and two of the three men had had trouble yielding hexamine from the firestarters in order to build a detonator for the bombs.
At the start of 2011, K. travelled to Morocco before returning to Germany in March. German investigators had been informed of his movements by Moroccan authorities and kept him under constant observation. Sources close to the investigation say investigators had observed "highly conspiritorial" behavior. He had allegedly communicated with his accomplices -- 31-year-old German-Moroccan Jamil S. and 19-year-old Iranian Amid C., a high school student close to graduation -- through telephone call shops and USB sticks. Both men are suspected of having supported K. in his plans to carry out a terror attack.
Ziercke said last week that investigators believe the men are part of a network that includes up to eight people. "But there could also be more," he said, adding that the investigation was ongoing.
Friday's statement by Interior Minister Friedrich indicates that the development marks the first time that an investigative success has been tracked to passenger data in Europe. Since 2003, European Union countries have shared the names and further data about passengers to US authorities for all travel between the EU and America.
Interior Minister Defends Anti-Terror Laws
"We should be clear about the fact that these clues from the intelligence agencies didn't just come together coincidentally -- they are based on the systematic evaluation of the searches permitted under our laws," Friedrich said. He used the development as an opportunity to promote the extension of Germany's current controversial anti-terrorism laws, which are currently under review. "There are many examples here of the investigative successes that are based on legal basis that has been provided under the anti-terror law," the CSU politician said.
Currently, Merkel's government coalition, comprised of the conservative CDU/CSU and its junior partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), are split over extending the anti-terror law. The law, which provides additional measures to German intelligence agencies in combating terror, was first passed by the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, which saw his center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) govern together with the Green Party. Under the law, intelligence officials have access to information about telephone calls and Internet connections and bank account information. Also as a result of the law, passports now contain biometric data, armed air marshals can now fly on German planes and Islamist religious groups can be banned if they are suspected of supporting terrorism. But the temporary package of laws is set to expire in January 2012. The coalition government is currently seeking to negotiate a compromise.
dsl/SPIEGEL -- with wires
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