'Jihad on our Doorstep': German Spy Chief Warns of Al-Qaida's Growing Strength in North Africa
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.
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.
- 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'
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