The Bomb Plot Terror from the German Heartland
Exactly one year ago, German investigators arrested three Muslim extremists. They wanted to build a bomb in southern Germany capable of killing as many as possible. The ringleader was born and raised in a German family. But how did he become a terrorist?
Fritz Gelowicz knows exactly what he wants the bomb to look like months before it is actually built. As it takes shape before his eyes, he imagines it as a vision sent from Allah -- a very bloody vision.
"Two hundred kilograms with shrapnel, inshallah, now that'll make a big explosion."
As many casualties as possible, that is the goal of the simple plan that Fritz Gelowicz is discussing on this summer day in July of last year with Adem Yilmaz, his closest confidant and presumed co-conspirator. The two men are driving a rented Ford S-Max from Stuttgart to the town of Freudenstadt in the Black Forest, in south-western Germany. They have three canisters of hydrogen peroxide solution in the trunk, which Gelowicz purchased at a chemical supply shop in Hodenhagen near the northern German city of Hannover.
The hydrogen peroxide is the stuff of Gelowicz's visions. When the solution is boiled down and other ingredients are added, the resulting mixture can be highly explosive. The brew is called "Satan's Mother" in the terrorist community.
The drive to Freudenstadt, where the two men will deposit the hydrogen peroxide in a rented garage, provides deep insights into the mind of Fritz Gelowicz. The rental car is bugged, enabling investigators to listen in on the conversations between the two men.
'Allah Has Blinded Them'
Gelowicz and Yilmaz talk shop about the number of bombs and victims. They expect there to be at least 150 casualties, with the target being someplace big -- a place like Frankfurt Airport. Yilmaz suggests the central German city of Giessen, noting that there are some really big American discos there. He says that he wants "to maximize the impact, Achi, really: another Sept. 11."
The word "Achi" means "my brother" in Arabic. "What I've done, Achi, now that's something they could really lock me up for, Achi," says Yilmaz. "Well, sure, they'd have to lock us all up," Gelowicz replies, and Yilmaz chuckles. "If only they knew," Gelowicz continues, with a note of condescension in his voice. "Allah has blinded them."
In this case, however, Allah was not on the side of Fritz Gelowicz. In fact, Allah had blinded the two Islamists -- and had not blinded the police. By the time of the bugged car trip, the entrances to their apartments had been under video surveillance for some time, the hydrogen peroxide in the garage had been replaced with ordinary water, and the third member of the trio, Daniel Schneider, was also under police observation. In fact, the three men had become part of a cat-and-mouse game between the state and its worst enemies, a game that was being followed with great interest in both Berlin and Washington D.C. Both the German chancellor and the US president had been briefed.
The Man in Charge of Logistics
In the indictment prepared by the federal prosecutor's office, which was served on Tuesday, Fritz Gelowicz, 29, Adem Yilmaz, 29 and Daniel Schneider, 22, were charged with membership in a terrorist organization, making preparations for a crime involving explosives and, in Schneider's case, attempted murder.
Gelowicz, who the federal prosecutor's office considers the ringleader, is the most prominent figure in this case. The Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) describes him as being the "coordinator and the man in charge of logistics." According to an internal BKA document, Gelowicz can be "credited with the lion's share of the preparations for a bombing attack in Germany."
The case will be tried before a state superior court in the western city of Dusseldorf, in a high-security wing. It will be one of the biggest and most important cases since the end of the left-wing terror group Red Army Faction in 1993. Today, Fritz and his friends are considered Germany's public enemy number one.
The authorities now know that the men got their marching orders from Pakistan, and that Gelowicz is one of about 50 Islamists from Germany who went to Pakistan to learn how to build bombs in the name of Allah. Some of them are still there.
But what authorities know almost nothing about is how a blonde boy nicknamed "Fritzi," who spent a sheltered childhood in the south-western German region of Swabia, became a fanatic, a man who now calls himself "Abdullah," or "Servant of God," and is so "filled with hate," as August Hanning, Deputy Secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Interior, has said.
In the years after Sept. 11, 2001, Germany sought new ways to fight Islamist terrorists. The country now has a counterterrorism center, a counterterrorism database and counterterrorism laws. Should that prove to be insufficient, the Germans can always rely on big brother in Washington D.C., who, as in the Gelowicz case, is more than happy to intercept e-mails between southern Germany and the Pakistani mountains and to give German authorities a heads up that a state enemy is in their midst. But what motivates Islamists like Gelowicz remains a mystery.
Gelowicz, whose father sells solar panels and whose mother is a doctor, was neither an especially good nor an especially poor student. Gelowicz himself studied industrial engineering at the Neu-Ulm University of Applied Science. He is now incarcerated at Stammheim, a prison outside of Stuttgart, but by converting to radical Islam, Gelowicz planted the seed of Islamist terrorism into the very center of German society. But why? Why does someone like Gelowicz contemptuously refer to the Germans as "Kuffar," or infidels, as people "who don't think the way we do, you know? We don't care about anything, you know what I mean?"
No. We don't know what he means. How does he think? What is the source of his profound hatred of society?
The search for answers to these questions takes us to a provincial city in southern Germany, of all places, to what appears to be safe-and-sound world, a place where people are not out of work and where the sidewalks are kept neatly swept. It takes us to a landscape of rolling hills bisected by the Danube River, with the Bavarian town of Neu-Ulm on one side and the city of Ulm in the state of Baden-Württemberg on the other.
Fritz Martin Gelowicz was born in Munich, the younger of two boys, and grew up on the left bank of the Danube, in Ulm. His father was originally from Poland. The family seemed to be the epitome of middle-class harmony, but then religion became a factor. Its impact was underestimated at first.
As a teenager in high school, Fritz struck up a friendship with a Turkish boy named Tolga D., whose father was an energetic and conservative Muslim. Tolga was drawn to Salafism, the faith of the "pious ancestors" who adhered strictly to the original text of the Koran. The two boys became best friends, which was apparently the first important factor in determining the future course of Gelowicz's life.
Fritz's father would later tell the police that it was Tolga who converted his son to Islam -- in 1995, when Fritz was only 15. Until then, his interests were much the same as those of many of his contemporaries. He listened to American hip-hop, had his first experiences with alcohol and smoked the occasional joint. Three years earlier, when Fritz was just entering puberty, his parents' marriage failed, which affected him deeply. In a letter he later wrote, he described his family life as "disturbed" and complained that it had "affected him greatly, both emotionally and physically." But Tolga's family, and those of other Turkish friends, offered Fritz a view of a different world, one in which the extended family provided a sense of security, during everything from family meals to visits to the mosque, where clear rules were taught and where there was only one authority: Allah.
- Part 1: Terror from the German Heartland
- Part 2: An 'Intelligent Kid' Turns to Radical Islam
- Part 3: Joining the Jihad
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