By Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark
It isn't easy being a militant Islamist, as Abdeladim el-K. and Jamil S. learned on a Tuesday two weeks ago. The two men were sitting in a two-room apartment on Witzelstrasse in the German city of Düsseldorf, complaining to each other about how complicated it is to build a functioning bomb. "Bomb is not so difficult as detonator," said Abdeladim el-K., "because detonator more dangerous than bomb."
The al-Qaida handbooks make it all sound so easy. You buy charcoal lighters and extract the hexamine, and already you have a component for a bomb. Apparently the method works everywhere, except possibly in Germany, where charcoal lighters have a different chemical composition than in other countries. In Düsseldorf, investigators would later discover a cooking pot the two men may have wanted to use to boil down the lighters.
The apartment was under surveillance, as were the men's phones and computers. The police had been listening in on the two men's conversations for weeks, except when the sound of the television or the washing machine drowned out what they were saying. On Wednesday, when the men, speaking in broken German, began discussing "making an attack at bus stop" or possibly on a bus, the federal prosecutor's office decided to move in rather than wait until the would-be terrorists had built their bomb and were ready to use it.
On the morning of Friday, April 29, police arrested Moroccan national Abdeladim el-K., 29, German-Moroccan electrician Jamil S., 31 and German-Iranian student Amid C., 19, who was on the verge of taking his final examinations prior to graduating from high school.
At the center of the investigation in Düsseldorf was Abdeladim el-K., who investigators believe was the leader of the cell. He had allegedly brought the virus of Islamist terror from Afghanistan to Düsseldorf and had been in contact with Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a senior member of al-Qaida. The two men had apparently met in an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan, and it appeared that el-K. was al-Qaida's man for the Rhine-Ruhr region of western Germany.
Most Have Attended Training Camps
Much has changed in the Islamist terrorist scene in Germany in the almost 10 years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but one constant has remained. Like the 9/11 attackers, the overwhelming majority of militant jihadists in Germany have attended training camps run by al-Qaida or affiliated groups.
In these camps, would-be terrorists receive instruction on terrorism techniques and are given orders to be carried out in Europe. The camps are still in the Hindu Kush region that straddles Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, but now they are somewhat farther to the south than before, in the border area between the two countries. The Western invasion of Afghanistan did not change that. Neither have countless military offensives or US drone attacks.
Osama bin Laden is dead, as are many of his closest associates. But the recruitment of new blood is still going strong. The terror network has been continually transforming itself, as new terrorists have come up through the ranks, running individual camps and smaller organizations, before disappearing from view again.
Al-Qaida today resembles an army whose battalions were torn apart after the invasion of Afghanistan and whose surviving troop units are now operating more or less autonomously. But there are still many soldiers willing to fight, including some from Germany. "So many people arrive every month that there are problems finding places for them to stay," says Rami Makanesi, a suspected al-Qaida member from Hamburg who also attended a training camp in the Hindu Kush region.
Paradoxically, the new structure, with its many splinter groups, makes it easier for Islamist fanatics to latch onto one of the organizations. "In the last few years, the threat level in Germany from al-Qaida has actually increased," says German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU).
Surge in Volunteers
Never before have as many volunteers from Germany attended terrorist training camps as in the last two years. According to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, 138 people from Germany planned to travel to a training camp in 2009 alone. Since then, five volunteers leave the country on average each month to go to one of the camps in Pakistan. In the last decade, at least 220 people from Germany have completed terrorist training, with about half returning to Germany.
German authorities now know a lot about what happens in places like Mir Ali and Miram Shah, two centers of the jihad movement in Pakistan's tribal areas. They know, for example, that the emir of one training camp pays his recruits only a few rupees a day, which is not even enough to buy a piece of meat.
They have heard that activists with an organization called the "German Taliban Mujahideen" and German members of al-Qaida meet and talk while shopping around noon at the market in Mir Ali. The men from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, on the other hand, are unpopular, because they supposedly behave like occupiers.
They are also familiar with derisive comments that al-Qaida fighters have made about Mounir Chouka, who lives in Bonn and has made so many propaganda videos that investigators have trouble keeping up. Within such circles, the man is regarded as a coward, because he routinely disappears before the first shots are fired.
The German investigators owe much of their knowledge to the statements made last fall by three German al-Qaida members, including the two friends from Hamburg, Ahmad Sidiqi and Rami Makanesi, who disappeared in March 2009.
Makanesi managed to slip away unnoticed, taking the train to Vienna and then flying to Tehran. If he hadn't called his wife in Hamburg from Pakistan two weeks after his disappearance, the authorities would not even have known his location at first. It wasn't until more than a year later, in June 2010, after Makanesi wanted to return to Germany and had called the German embassy in Islamabad, that he was arrested in Pakistan, wearing a burqa as a disguise.
He is now being held at Weiterstadt Prison in western Germany, awaiting his trial before a Frankfurt court. Makanesi, 25, has become a valuable source for German federal investigators. His case is typical of that of many young men from Germany who join al-Qaida.
Makanesi was born in Bockenheim, a Frankfurt neighborhood. His father was from Syria and worked as a car dealer in both Germany and Romania. His parents separated when he was in the sixth grade. He began smoking marijuana at 12 and soon began consuming hashish the way others smoke cigarettes, smoking five to 10 joints a day. "I was stoned when I went to bed at night, and when I woke up I'd start smoking again. It was always that way," Makanesi told the investigators. "I was constantly high." He began snorting cocaine at 14.
He was sentenced to two weeks in a youth detention facility, and then another two weeks soon afterwards. He was ordered to attend a seminar on violence. Eventually he was expelled from high school in Frankfurt because of his destructive behavior. Somehow he managed to obtain a high school diploma by attending an adult education center.
The month of Ramadan in 2007 marked a turning point. Makanesi encountered the itinerant preachers of the deeply conservative proselytizing organization Tablighi Jamaat. The Tablighis held a 10-day seminar at a Frankfurt mosque. Makanesi slept at the mosque, and instead of getting high he listened to the Islamic lectures. He was so taken by their message that he stopped taking drugs. Religion was his new addiction. From then on, things happened very quickly.
He met a German woman on the Internet who had converted to Islam, and they soon married under Islamic law, but without a German marriage certificate. "German law means nothing to us," he boasts.
In late September 2008, a group of Islamists met late one night in Bonn in a park along the Rhine River. Security officials observed the meeting, but the Islamists were prepared. Sentries placed along the road leading to the park had been told to look for unknown cars and headlights. The police tailing the men didn't stand a chance.
Makanesi was one of the men who attended the meeting. To this day, it remains unclear what exactly was discussed that evening, although investigators assume that it was plans to smuggle jihadists to Pakistan. Makanesi was now living in Hamburg and praying at the Al-Quds Mosque, where Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers had also met.
When officials from the German Federal Police (BKA) questioned Makanesi as a witness in early 2009, they found the young man to be self-confident and almost patronizing. "Let me explain it to you," he told the inspector, "al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq help the population. It's the same as when a neighbor comes to your aid when you are being attacked."
Four weeks later, he was gone.
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