SPIEGEL talks to Ernst Uhrlau, the president of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, about the risk of attack by Islamist terrorists in Germany, how German Muslims are training in camps in Afghanistan and the risk from al-Qaida in North Africa.
The fight against Islamist terrorism is becoming increasingly globalized as intelligence agencies around the world cooperate and share information. One of the major nodes in that network is Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), which is based in Pullach in Bavaria.
Together with Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the BND keeps an eye on the activities of Muslim extremists in Germany and abroad. Although there has never been a major Islamist terror attack in Germany, a number of Islamist plots have been hatched in the country -- the most famous of which being the 9/11 attacks, which were partly planned by a terror cell in Hamburg.
In recent years, there have been two major plots to carry out attacks in Germany, both of which failed for different reasons. In 2006, two Lebanese men -- popularly known as the "suitcase bombers" -- tried to detonate bombs on trains in Germany. The plan failed when the bombs failed to explode, due to flaws in their construction.
Then in 2007, German authorities foiled a plot by a three-strong terror cell in the Sauerland region. The men, two of whom were German converts to Islam, had planned to target US Army bases and airports in Germany. The conspiracy, which was uncovered after a months-long surveillance operation by the German authorities, sparked fears that the kind of "home-grown" terrorism seen in the United Kingdom had spread to Germany.
SPIEGEL talked to Ernst Uhrlau, head of the BND, about the fight against Islamist terror, the dangers posed by converts to Islam and how marginalization of Muslims can lead to radicalization.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Uhrlau, last September three Islamists were arrested in the village of Oberschledorn in the Sauerland region. They were in the process of storing explosives for use in a number of potentially devastating attacks. Six years after Sep. 11, 2001, are terrorists now taking aim at Germany?
Uhrlau: We are part of a broad European danger zone. Militant Islamists have already planned attacks seven times. According to information obtained by Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office, we must now assume that it is highly likely that further attacks are planned. We are worried that in the future we will not be able to prevent all the operations.
SPIEGEL: What role does Germany play in the terrorists' strategy?
Uhrlau: On the one hand, we are a target for attack by Islamist terrorists. One example is the Cologne suitcase bombers -- two Lebanese men who deposited homemade explosive devices in German regional trains in the summer of 2006. The fact that the device didn't explode was apparently due to mistakes the men had made in assembling the bombs. On the other hand, we are also a place where terrorists prepare attacks they intend to carry out in other countries. For example, the so-called Meliani Group used Frankfurt as a base in 2000 when it planned an attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France.
SPIEGEL: Where did these terrorists come from?
Uhrlau: They were North Africans who had been living in Germany for a long time. In this context, we are watching the activities of al-Qaida in North Africa with great concern. A handful of groups have become ensconced there, largely unobserved, and are strengthening (terrorist leader Osama) bin Laden's terrorist network. What is evolving there brings a completely new quality to the jihad on our doorstep.
SPIEGEL: How much influence have the al-Qaida network and Osama bin Laden's propaganda had on potential terrorists in Germany so far?
Uhrlau: The Meliani Group had no connection to al-Qaida. But the preparations for Sep. 11, 2001 bear the handwriting of bin Laden and al-Qaida. The attacks against America were orchestrated from the Hamburg cell run by Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohamed Atta, and that was a direct connection to al-Qaida.
SPIEGEL: Did the suitcase bombers and the explosives makers arrested in Oberschledorn receive instructions from someone outside Germany?
Uhrlau: No, there was no connection to bin Laden. But this sort of remote control isn't even necessary. Even a small, independent group can prepare and carry out extremely serious attacks. Obtaining the necessary materials, like the explosives and the triggers, is relatively easy.
SPIEGEL: The Oberschledorn group consisted of a Turk and two Germans who had converted to Islam. Which of them was the dominant force?
Uhrlau: The Germans were the leaders. They were true fanatics.
SPIEGEL: Are religious converts especially dangerous?
Uhrlau: Most converts are peaceful people who have discovered Islam as part of a personal search for meaning. But converts that end up in extremist circles often have a tendency -- just like political renegades -- toward absolute intolerance and a high degree of radicalism. This makes them especially valuable for militant Islamic networks.
SPIEGEL: How many converts are there who are prepared to use violence?
Uhrlau: We are talking here about two or three dozen people who the intelligence agencies are keeping a close eye on. Where do they travel? Who do they meet? Which mosques do they attend? Is the imam in whom they confide a recognized religious scholar? Or are we dealing with backyard mosques, with sheiks and imams who preach violence, as was the case with the Al-Quds mosque in Hamburg's St. Georg neighborhood frequented by Mohamed Atta and his accomplices?
SPIEGEL: How do intelligence officials become aware of these people? They must have been noticed in some way before they could be placed under observation.
Uhrlau: In the case of converts, the police and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution are often tipped off by people close to the converts, sometimes from teachers and fellow students who have noticed unusual changes in young people. For instance, a group of German high-school students suddenly announced that they wanted to become Muslims and join the jihad. They were quite serious, not just showing off.
'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.
'The Challenge Posed by Islamist Terrorism is Global'
SPIEGEL: What role does the Internet play in all this?
Uhrlau: One that we must not underestimate. The Internet is where ideas for attacks are dreamed up, where terrorist know-how is made accessible to the public and where concrete operation plans are shared. This takes place in hidden chat rooms and Web sites, some of which are elaborately protected. Some of these dead letter boxes are so well protected by encryption algorithms that even intelligence agencies need years to crack them.
SPIEGEL: But in that case, online surveillance, which has provoked so much controversy in Germany, doesn't help you much either.
Uhrlau: It would indeed help us, by enabling us to penetrate the secure forums more easily.
SPIEGEL: What is the importance of these forums for the terrorists?
Uhrlau: The ones that are relatively harmless campaign for jihad, are filled with hate and propaganda and inflame their visitors with attack videos and emotional music. The militant forums show examples of successful attacks and films of terrorists who became martyrs by committing an attack. They also provide instructions for mass murder. They describe in detail, for example, how to set up an explosive vest so that it causes the greatest possible destruction.
SPIEGEL: The Cologne suitcase bombers also downloaded the instructions for how to make their bombs from the Internet.
Uhrlau: Luckily, some things don't always work in practice the way the terrorists imagined they would. Is it possible in Germany to test a home-made bomb to see if it works? Not really. This is why some travel to the training camps in Afghanistan or look for test sites in North African training camps.
SPIEGEL: How close are the BND and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution agents to these individuals? Do you work with Muslim informers or undercover agents?
Uhrlau: That's a sensitive area. Intelligence agencies should never reveal how good their connections are. But naturally we use connections to Muslim organizations in order to identify changes and processes of radicalization at an early stage.
SPIEGEL: Despite all their efforts, however, the intelligence agencies still haven't managed to truly penetrate into the Islamist groups.
Uhrlau: On the contrary, they do gain access to extremist circles, as the success of the Obershledorn operation demonstrated. We had information about these people at a very early stage, when we were told that two close friends of the two German converts were being trained in Pakistani terror camps. This information was received before an observation team working for the Office for the Protection of the Constitution observed members of this group, on New Year's Eve 2006, possibly scouting out an American military barracks as a target for an attack.
SPIEGEL: This example suggests that various agencies are working closely together.
Uhrlau: With the Joint Counterterrorism Center (GTAZ) in Berlin's Treptow district, which was established in 2004 and includes the BND and 36 other agencies, we created a well-functioning system of communication and cooperation that allows us to detect and prevent terrorist activities early on, and to support the criminal prosecution agencies. The constant presence of representatives of the German states and the various federal agencies, including the Office of the Federal Prosecutor, has led to an extraordinary professionalization of the German security and intelligence community.
SPIEGEL: What exactly does that mean?
Uhrlau: Take, for example, the case that was just described, in which two people believed to be German citizens were arrested in Pakistan. The report was also sent to the GTAZ. There, information was compared: What sort of people were they? Where did they live? Who has further information about them? Are they in contact with others who are already on file somewhere? We exchange this sort of information with the other institutions. That way we make sure that no agency keeps its information to itself.
SPIEGEL: Do you also pass on information you have obtained from your partner intelligence agencies in other countries?
Uhrlau: The challenge posed by Islamist terrorism is global. That's why our cooperation must also be international. This works well. The success in Obschledorn last September, for example, was the result of broad international cooperation between German and American intelligence agencies, as well as with Turkish agencies.
SPIEGEL: And how willing to help are intelligence agencies in Muslim countries?
Uhrlau: We are in regular contact. I travel a great deal within the wide Islamic crisis zone, from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula and to the northern part of the Persian Gulf.
SPIEGEL: And are you welcome everywhere in the Middle East?
Uhrlau: We are dealing with very varied forms of government in this region. But there is a mutual interest not to allow the terrorists to succeed.
SPIEGEL: Despite everything, isn't the prevention of an attack still a matter of luck?
Uhrlau: Yes, luck is part of it. But the chances improve when we proceed systematically and know our trade.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Uhrlau, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Norbert F. Pötzl and Dieter Bednarz. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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