'Jihad on our Doorstep' German Spy Chief Warns of Al-Qaida's Growing Strength in North Africa
Part 2: 'We Are on the Side of the Hated Americans'
SPIEGEL: According to a survey conducted by Germany's Allensbach Institute in 2006, 98 percent of Germans associate Islam with violence and terrorism. Many of the more than 3.5 million Muslims living in Germany feel that they are under general suspicion as a result of this attitude. The constant warnings about terrorism, like the ones you have given here, only reinforce the mistrust.
Uhrlau: The generalization that Islam and Muslims are dangerous does indeed tend to have more of an alienating and radicalizing effect than a de-escalating effect. But the truth is that we have a very broadly diversified Islam in Germany. The Muslims in Germany come from many nations. There are Turks, Iranians and Arabs, but also Asians from the Far East. Besides, there are various branches of Islam: Sunnis, who make up the majority, Shiites, most of Iranian extraction, as well as Alevis, who are primarily from Turkey.
SPIEGEL: Is this differentiation relevant for the intelligence agencies?
Uhrlau: We have to pay closer attention when it comes to the Sunnis. Who is a follower of Wahhabism, for example? This is an especially radical interpretation of the faith, which originated in Saudi Arabia, a country allied with the West. On the other hand, many see Iran, a Shiite theocracy, and its controversial nuclear program under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a threat to world peace. And yet Iran does not play a significant role in our threat analysis relating to jihad terrorism. To the best of our knowledge, the Shiites are not receptive to al-Qaida's way of thinking.
SPIEGEL: But isn't it risky to rule out possibilities like this?
Uhrlau: Given the dimensions of the potential threat, if you believe that everything is possible then you can no longer use the tools of observation and information-gathering in a targeted manner. Based on my past experience working for the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, I know that not all left-wing extremists are terrorists, for example. Differentiation is crucial to targeted information gathering.
SPIEGEL: The Office for the Protection of the Constitution focuses primarily on Turkish organizations within the Islamist scene in Germany.
Uhrlau: Turkish Islam traditionally plays an important role for the domestic intelligence agencies. Milli Görüs, the largest Islamist organization in Germany with about 26,000 members, is under observation. With its extremist worldview, it poses a threat to our constitutional democratic order. But it is not an organization that preaches violence. Germany's 2.5 million Muslims of Turkish origin come from a secular country that is strongly oriented toward the West, a country where militant fundamentalist movements are relatively insignificant -- unlike Lebanon, say, where the radical Hezbollah has many supporters.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean that we should be pleased that the Turkish variety of Islamism is so strong in our country?
Uhrlau: At least we don't have the kinds of problems that the United Kingdom and France are facing because of their colonial past. The Pakistani Muslims in England and the North African Muslims in France come from countries in which Islamist beliefs and violence play a more important role in parties and movements than in Germany. This is also reflected among the immigrant population.
SPIEGEL: Your counterparts in Paris and London are concerned about so-called home-grown terrorism. Is this something that we also have in Germany?
Uhrlau: The arrests in Oberschledorn are evidence that we also have this phenomenon in Germany. Even though many of the potential terrorists were born and grew up in Europe and do not stand out, they feel marginalized. As a reaction to this, the second or third generation of immigrants reverts much more strongly to its roots. In the process, religious belief becomes decisive. A process of isolation begins that leads to a parallel society. They are convinced that they must defend their own religion and values against the majority Western society.
SPIEGEL: Feeling misunderstood and wanting to defend your faith is one thing, but wanting to killing "infidels" is another.
Uhrlau: A fanatic prepared to commit violence sees himself as part of the ummah, the Muslim community of believers. He perceives any attack on his fellow Muslims -- be it by the Israelis in the Gaza Strips or by the Americans in Iraq -- as an attack on himself and his religion. Someone like this is an easy target for jihad or al-Qaida propaganda and can be recruited for the holy war against the "infidels."
SPIEGEL: Did the refusal of the Social Democratic and Green Party coalition government under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to take part in the Iraq war reduce the risk of attack in Germany? Will a stronger German military presence in Afghanistan increase it?
Uhrlau: Jihad is triggered by current political developments. The jihadists do not reward us for having stayed out of the Iraq war. And whether we increase our presence in Afghanistan is irrelevant for the Islamists. As far as they are concerned, Germany is already not a neutral country. We are on the side of the hated Americans and we traditionally support Israel, which they consider a "Zionist entity."
SPIEGEL: How large is the army of jihadists in Germany?
Uhrlau: We estimate that there are a few hundred extremists who are prepared to commit acts of violence. Up to 700 people are under various levels of observation by German intelligence and security agencies. Most of them live in our midst. A small proportion of these people, however, stand out by being frequent travelers. We currently know that more than a dozen people, including converts, have traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, where they seek contact with like-minded people.
SPIEGEL: So you simply allow these potential terrorists to go about their business?
Uhrlau: As long as there is no concrete evidence that they are making preparations for attacks, we have no other choice. But we do attempt to monitor their movements and determine their destinations. Not all of them are potential bombers -- some are traveling as couriers. The Islamists are very familiar with the technical possibilities which the intelligence agencies have at their disposal. Hence important messages are delivered in person.
SPIEGEL: Can you prove direct contacts to al-Qaida?
Uhrlau: We follow them into the inaccessible tribal areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan ...
SPIEGEL: ... where al-Qaida's terrorist training camps are located ...
Uhrlau: ... and we try to find out what they are doing there and with whom they are meeting. A lot of information is due to intensive cooperation with intelligence agencies in countries through which these suspects pass on their way to the Hindu Kush region. Some are briefly detained and questioned for other offences on their way back. But the fact that we are on their tail doesn't really deter them. They continue undaunted. This doesn't necessarily have to lead to the construction of a bomb. Some specialize in propaganda, in recruiting other activists or in conveying information.
- Part 1: German Spy Chief Warns of Al-Qaida's Growing Strength in North Africa
- Part 2: 'We Are on the Side of the Hated Americans'
- Part 3: 'The Challenge Posed by Islamist Terrorism is Global'