Islamist Angst How Germany Is Dismantling Civil Rights amid Terror Fears
Germany has so far been spared a bloody Islamist terror attack. But it only took two planned attacks in Germany to persuade a majority of the population to support a massive dismantling of civil rights.
Jihad and Fritz. It would be hard to imagine two names much more different than these. Yet there is one thing these two young men with their thoroughly Muslim and German first names have in common. The media attention they attracted to themselves in 2006 and 2007 triggered shifts in German public opinion similar to those brought about by the series of murders perpetrated by the far-left terror group the Red Army Faction three decades ago.
Lebanese student Jihad Hamad, 20, came to Cologne in the spring of 2006. On July 31 of the same year, he and a fellow Lebanese national took two suitcase bombs they had made and placed them on regional trains. Fortunately the bombs were not assembled correctly and failed to go off. However, the nation was shaken by press reports alleging ties to al-Qaida and evoking scenes that could have been reality if the attack had succeeded -- huge balls of fire, wrecked trains, dozens of dead and injured.
Then in September 2007, Fritz Gelowicz, a 28-year-old German who had converted to Islam while still in high school, was arrested in Oberschledorn, a small town in Germany's Sauerland region, along with two fellow Muslims. The three men, known as the Sauerland cell, had purchased 12 barrels of hydrogen peroxide for the apparent purpose of making bombs. Once again the police, the press and the government speculated about connections to Osama bin Laden and the scale of the disaster an attack of this kind could have caused.
Prior to the public alarm caused by the cases involving Jihad and Fritz, the danger of Islamist mass murder in Germany was thought to be as remote as the Hindu Kush mountain range in Afghanistan. In contrast to the United States (2,973 dead in 2001), Spain (191 dead in 2004), and the United Kingdom (56 dead in 2005), Germany has thus far been able to avoid an Islamist massacre on its territory.
It's true that Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has identified around 32,000 of Germany's more than 3 million Muslims -- in other words, around 1 percent of the total Muslim population -- as being members of an Islamist organization of some kind. Of these 32,000 persons, however, not even one in 100 is considered to be a militant and potentially dangerous "agitator" (as around 70 individuals are currently classified) or to be in some other way "relevant" (as 170 are classified).
Until Fritz, Jihad and their accomplices appeared on the scene, Germany had apparently not been very high on the list of possible targets for the global Islamist movement. According to the Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA), militant Muslims -- such as the 9/11 attackers around Mohammed Atta who lived for a time in Hamburg -- had long been using Germany as a place to marshal their forces and make preparations for attacks planned in other countries.
Intelligence experts see the strategy pursued by exile groups active in Germany, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Palestinian Hamas or Chechen separatists, in a similar light. They are all fighting for the establishment of a theocracy in their respective countries. According to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, "the majority of these organizations employ terrorist methods in their home countries."
In Germany, on the other hand, these exiles "focus their attention on providing assistance to and influencing fellow expatriates as well as on collecting donations to support the activities of their parent organizations in their respective home countries." The bulk of the some 180 investigations currently being carried out against Islamists in Germany concerns the financing and recruitment of fighters for wars in faraway places.
The fact that the Islamist strategy of carrying out bomb attacks in countries other than Germany can nonetheless result in death and injury to German citizens, was shown by the 9/11 attacks as well as those on the islands of Djerba and Bali. So far, more than 70 Germans have been killed by terrorist bombs while on vacation or on business abroad.
However, there were soon indications that the attackers could well have Germany itself in their sights. In 2003 and 2005, Islamists were given long prison sentences by judges in Frankfurt and Düsseldorf for planning attacks on the Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg, which is located on the border with Germany, and on Jewish institutions in Germany.
In 2004, a plot to attack Iraq's then-prime minister, the pro-American Ayad Allawi, was uncovered in Berlin. Federal prosecutors charged a group of Islamists with having made preparations for the attack. In a telephone conversation monitored by intelligence agents prior to a scheduled visit by Allawi, the Iraqi exiles in question were heard speaking of a "waterpipe" -- according to one informant, probably a code word for explosives. However, investigators were unable to find any evidence that pointed to a bomb.
While the office of the Federal Prosecutor boasted that it had prevented the first Islamist attack on German soil by making arrests before anything happened, testimony provided by witnesses seemed to indicate that an assassination attempt on German soil was not necessarily in keeping with the strategy being pursued at the leadership level.
According to one witness, the person who was allegedly planning the attack made a call "to Munich" to ask whether he could go ahead and carry it out. "I want to -- but in Germany and France we aren't allowed to," the Berlin Islamist is reported to have complained, according to undercover intelligence agents. The reason for this was apparently the fact that these countries were not involved in the Iraq war.
This argument dovetails with an assessment that was shared by most analysts at the time. Al-Qaida strategists had good reason to want to spare Germany, given that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had refused to follow President George W. Bush's lead. Indeed, Germany is criticized or referred to as an enemy in only two of Osama bin Laden's videotaped messages.
But the assessment that Germany is definitely not in the terrorists' sights is no longer accurate. First of all, Schröder's conscientious objection to the Iraq war has been succeeded by a more conservative agenda and an expansion of the German presence in Afghanistan. Secondly, attacks in Germany no longer have to be planned and approved in the remote mountains of Waziristan in Pakistan. German intelligence agencies no longer see al-Qaida as having a centralized command structure. Instead, it consists of a virtual and informal network of individuals and small groups who are pan-Islamic in orientation but organized decentrally, if at all.
So-called "non-aligned mujahideen," individuals inspired by bin Laden but who act on their own, include veterans who have returned from the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. These much-admired older warriors have been consistently successful in recruiting young would-be martyrs from the congregations of certain mosques.
Intelligence agents have also begun to note among Germany's homegrown terrorists the presence of young Germans who have recently converted to Islam. Many of these young converts feel the need to impress fellow Muslims by displaying extreme fanaticism.
Security experts have come to the conclusion -- based largely on the plans made by the bomb builders around Jihad, the Lebanese Islamist, and Fritz, the German Islamist -- that Germany is indeed coming into the sights of self-motivated Islamist groups that are willing to strike on their own, possibly in spontaneous attacks. Indeed, experts believe that Germany is in a process of transformation, from an area where Islamists prepare for attacks elsewhere, to -- in the words of the BKA -- "part of a European risk zone."
These two cases are repeatedly cited as reasons for controversial security plans proposed by Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Schäuble is increasingly creating the impression that he wants to combat jihadism using the methods of a police state -- using Big Brother to fight bin Laden, so to speak.
Although the Italian mafia alone killed more people in Germany in a single year -- six people were murdered in Duisburg in 2007 -- than all the Islamists living here have ever done, no other purported threat has made so many people willing to forfeit basic civil rights as the one evoked by the actions of Jihad and Fritz. When examined with the benefit of hindsight, these two cases appear in a considerably different light in many respects than they did when they were initially presented to the public.
- Part 1: How Germany Is Dismantling Civil Rights amid Terror Fears
- Part 2: Little Jihad, Big Brother
- Part 3: Eroding Privacy and Curbing Civil Liberties