Targeting Terrorists Germany's Dilemma in Dealing with Islamist Threats
German police believe there are 602 Islamists living in the country who could be capable of perpetrating a terrorist attack. Politicians want to crack down on possible extremists, but many of the measures under consideration are ineffective or legally dubious. By SPIEGEL Staff
The man thought to have once provided security for the world's best-known terrorist is short and stocky -- just 1.65 meters (5' 5") tall, as Sami A. told a journalist in an interview last year. "And I'm supposed to be dangerous?"
But that's what the security authorities in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia believe. They paint a dark picture of the 40-year-old. They say he received terrorist training in Afghanistan and later served as one of Osama bin Laden's guards. They also believe him to be a member of the radical Islamist group Tablighi Jamaat and a fundamentalist cleric who has persuaded young men to join the jihad. Two of his alleged protegés have already been prosecuted in Germany. In rejecting his asylum application, the Higher Administrative Court in Münster wrote in 2015 that Sami A. represents "a considerable threat to public safety."
And yet, the Tunisian man continues living in Germany today.
There have, to be sure, been attempts to throw the book at him. Federal prosecutors investigated him for potential membership in al-Qaida, but were forced to drop the case for lack of evidence. And in 2006, the Foreigner Registration Office issued deportation orders for Sami A., but the administrative court in Düsseldorf froze the order in 2009 and again in 2016. The court ruled that, as a terror suspect, Sami A. was in danger of being tortured back home in Tunisia. In instances where the threat of torture exists, even Islamists are permitted to stay in Germany.
Having come to Germany as a university student in 1997, Sami A. currently lives in a working-class district of Bochum with his German wife and four children. He is required to report to the police between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. every day and was once arrested for violating his reporting requirement.
His case is a good example of just how difficult it can be for the German government to deal with people it considers a threat but who cannot be convicted of a crime due to insufficient evidence. The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has identified 602 individuals who are so-called "Islamist threats." Some 300 of them live abroad -- in Syria or in Iraq, often as fighters for terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS) -- while around 100 are currently in jail in Germany. Of the 200 remaining suspected enemies of the state, most have not yet committed any prosecutable crimes, but authorities nevertheless believe them to be capable of "politically motivated crimes of considerable significance." That's how the BKA and the 16 state criminal offices have defined these individual threats since 2004. Put more simply, they believe these 200 identified individuals are capable of committing terrorist acts at any time.
"Threat" is a vague working term. And the individuals who have been identified as such often aren't even aware of it. The decision to classify a person as a threat is made by the state offices of criminal investigation, and the person's name is then added to a national list kept by the BKA. According to the definition, threats are identified "on the basis of certain established facts" which fall short of being actual crimes. Unable to prosecute them, the most the state can do is keep these individuals under close surveillance to the greatest degree possible.
But they often aren't successful, as seen in the case of Anis Amri, the perpetrator behind the December attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. Officials had also classified him as a threat, but authorities were unable to prove he had committed any terrorist acts and they also couldn't deport him to Tunisia. He was a free man who used his freedom to shoot a semi-truck driver, steal the vehicle and murder 11 more people.
Government Tightens Laws
In recent weeks, the federal government has agreed on new measures allowing law enforcement officials to better monitor Islamist threats. One of those measures, for example, is the use of ankle monitors, which is a lot cheaper than a police surveillance team. The new rules also simplify and expedite procedures for deporting foreigners who have committed a crime.
The tighter rules are intended as a signal that the government is taking back control. The truth, though, is that many of the rules don't go far enough. An attack like the one that took place in Berlin in December is still possible. And someone like Sami A., who has been identified as a threat, is still protected from deportation.
Berlin faces a dilemma. Any attempt to deal with all the people the state perceives as a threat would require the government to throw fundamental aspects of civil rights in Germany into question. They would quickly arrive at the same simple solution that the populists on the right are proposing: The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is demanding the categorical deportation of all individuals who have been identified as Islamist threats as well as for "biometric data to be collected for all migrants."
The state government in Bavaria recently proposed a similarly radical solution. The state has drafted a law that would enable judges to order the unlimited preventative detention of individuals identified as threats.
Legal professionals consider unlimited preventative incarceration to be problematic. Thomas Feltes, a professor of criminology at the University of Bochum, considers the draft law to be purely symbolic. "Do we want to put all potential threats behind bars for an unlimited amount of time? Then we will be putting ourselves at the level of Turkey and we would be creating lots of little Guantanamos," he says.
Proposals like the one from Bavaria are indicative of government uncertainty in the face of these potential threats. Even as these stricter laws are introduced, authorities at the federal and state level still haven't agreed on uniform procedures for dealing with individual Islamist threats.
The case of Emre A. of Hildesheim is a good example of how difficult the situation can be. Identified by police as a threat to German security, Emre A. is sitting in a white tiled room 150 kilometers southwest of Budapest when he is visited by SPIEGEL. Three Hungarian guards are present throughout the interview.
Emre A. has a narrow gray face, a full beard and black hair tied back in a pony tail. "I suffer from depression and panic attacks," says the Turkish citizen, who was born in Germany. He has lost 20 kilograms (45 pounds) since he was arrested one year ago while trying to cross the Hungarian-Romania border with falsified Belgian identity papers.
The Hungarian authorities questioned him repeatedly. Did he want to join the war? Did he plan to go to Syria and join Islamic State? "The police, the intelligence agencies, they have all questioned me," says Emre A, claiming that the longest interrogation lasted 72 hours. In the end, he was sentenced to nine-and-a-half months in jail "because of the forged identification papers." In December, the 25-year-old was finally transferred to the pre-deportation detainment center in Kiskunhalas.
Before Emre A. disappeared from the Salafist scene in Hildesheim, he regularly visited the notorious mosque of the German-Speaking Islam Circle (DIK) in the northern part of the city. That is where Abu Walaa, the self-proclaimed sheikh arrested in Germany last November, preached. Prosecutors believe Walaa had IS ties and used the mosque to radicalize young Muslims before trafficking them to Syria and Iraq as fighters. Anis Amri, the perpetrator in the Berlin attacks, had also visited the Hildesheim mosque.
In December 2015, Emre A. was issued legal orders prohibiting him from leaving Germany. The state office of criminal investigation in Lower Saxony had received information suggesting he was "almost certainly" planning to leave the country and travel to Syria. His participation in the war there would "endanger" Germany's foreign relations to "a considerable degree," the order states. Emre A. was ordered to hand over his passport and he had to report to the police each day. "Plus, I was constantly being followed by plain-clothes police officers," he says. "I was able to recognize their vehicles."
Around five weeks later, Emre A. skipped the country anyway. One afternoon, he made a final visit to register with the police and his mobile phone was last connected to the network at 4 p.m. on Feb. 6, 2016. Then he disappeared.
Visitors at the detention center in Kiskunhalas are allowed to stay for a maximum of 45 minutes. Emre A. lowers his voice and says he wants to return to Germany. "Why won't they let me come back?" he asks. But even though Emre A. was born in Germany, he only has Turkish citizenship and never obtained German nationality. An employee at the Turkish Embassy in Budapest visited him and offered assistance. "But what am I supposed to do in Turkey?" he asks. "I have two children in Hildesheim. I want to go home." He hasn't even see his newborn daughter yet. She's only a few months old.
Keeping Threats on the Radar
So why did he leave Germany in the first place? "I couldn't take the surveillance any longer. I wanted to visit relatives in Turkey, not join IS." But he declines to talk about the details of his trip, the forged passports and the two people who accompanied him. He offers only, "I haven't committed any crime and can be accused of nothing."
Investigators don't have any concrete incriminating evidence against Emre A. An anonymous informant supplied police with the names of six young men from the Hildesheim mosque who had wanted to travel to Syria and Emre A. was on the list. As a consequence, he was immediately classified as a potential Islamist threat. Police did not, however, find evidence that the group was planning an attack in Germany.
In that sense, Emre A. is right: He apparently didn't break any laws. Nevertheless, the investigating authorities strive to assess who might commit a crime. On the basis of those assessments, surveillance teams are dispatched across the country.
"The only thing we can do is keep the individual threats on our radar," says André Schulz, head of the Federation of German Police Detectives. He says there are no guarantees and that it is the job of the state offices of criminal investigation to determine which of these potential Islamist threats is the greatest. "What's lacking is a catalog of criteria for classifying potential threats as such," Schulz says.
Currently, the police databases have two categories: "potential threats" and "relevant persons." The latter category is for individuals like contact people or supporters who aren't considered to be acutely dangerous themselves.
But German domestic intelligence at the federal and state levels has a completely different approach. It maintains files on 10,000 people it believes are seeking to use legal channels to implement their vision of society, which is based on Islamist ideology. Internally at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, as German domestic intelligence is officially called, these people are referred to as "legalists." An additional category is reserved for the estimated 9,700 Salafists who pursue a literal interpretation of the Koran and who are often prepared to resort to violence. But the intelligence agencies' greatest focus is on those 1,600 people thought to be most capable of establishing terrorist structures and carrying out attacks.
To make things even more chaotic, each state intelligence agency decides on its own who is placed in which category. There has, at least, been a nationwide agreement in place since 2011 on who should be classified as a member of the Salafist scene. But the criteria are vague and only include a portion of those who pose a danger.
'We Urgently Need a Nationwide Approach'
The criteria, for example, include questions like: Does the person take part in Salafist events? Does the person donate money to related organizations? But as one intelligence official admits, they do not consider those who are not religiously active or who, as in the case of Ani Amri, are involved in drug dealing. "We actually need to consciously treat even non-suspicious activity as suspicious," the official says. But where, then, is the balance between constitutionally-based law enforcement and capriciousness?
Because the objective justification for such decisions is often so difficult to identify, police officers and domestic intelligence agents are calling for clear guidelines on how classifications are to be made and what measures follow from those classifications. "We urgently need a nationwide approach," says a source at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. "Otherwise nobody has a clue."
- Part 1: Germany's Dilemma in Dealing with Islamist Threats
- Part 2: 'No Blueprint for Dealing with Dangerous Islamists'