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The Great Fear: Germany Openly Warns of Terror Threat

By and

A recent routine police operation uncovered a possible terror suspect. The development illustrates just how tense the security situation is in Germany, with the government issuing the clearest warnings yet of a possible attack by Islamist terrorists. How much do the country's security officials know?

The officers were exceedingly polite, waiting for Ali R. to complete his Friday prayers, pack his things and leave the mosque in the western German city of Essen. Only then did they approach the imam and ask him to come with them. They took him to the Büren Prison near the northwestern city of Paderborn, where detainees are held pending deportation. The action was taken in response to a request by the German foreigners registration authority, which had been seeking Ali R., a medical student, since March, because his German residence permit had expired. The officers were not particularly enthusiastic about their mission, which was just another routine police operation. As a result, their search of Ali R., 29, was perfunctory at best.

An Islamist threatens Germany in a propaganda video for al-Qaida. Zoom
AFP/ IntelCenter

An Islamist threatens Germany in a propaganda video for al-Qaida.

But what the officers found when they searched "Sheikh Ali," as the imam is known, at the end of June turned a routine operation into an investigation that has captured the attention of the authorities.

The documents that Ali R., a Palestinian who grew up in the Gaza Strip, had stored on a USB storage device included information on the use of bombs and booby traps, bomb-building instructions and a propaganda video. When agents analyzed his mobile phone, they discovered ambiguous text messages in Arabic in which mention was made of a "bride" and a "groom" -- terms Islamists have used in the past as code words when planning attacks.

According to the counterterrorism files in which Germany's federal and state governments collect information about Islamists, the student had been listed as a "relevant person" since 2005 and was considered part of the jihadist milieu. In one photo, he is shown with a full beard and wearing a white crocheted cap of the type worn by pious Muslims.

Initially detained for the purpose of deportation, Ali R. had suddenly become a terrorism suspect. The federal prosecutor's office has now taken charge of the case and is now investigating R. on suspicion of being a member of a terrorist organization. But the key question remains unanswered: Is the medical student merely a windbag who has seen one too many Osama videos, who looked at some pertinent Internet sites and was also thinking about an upcoming wedding? Or did the investigators interrupt the early stages of plans for a terror attack? In other words, did they prevent the kind of event about which Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a Christian Democrat (CDU), and his top official, August Hanning, have issued repeated warnings in recent weeks?

The arrest of the sheikh from Essen shows how the situation has become more strained and incalculable than ever before. German security authorities, especially the Interior Ministry, have rarely spoken as often and openly about a supposedly imminent attack as they have this summer. They have both a preventive plan -- what the authorities intend to do prevent this attack -- and an emergency plan that would be implemented if an attack actually does take place.

The government is fluctuating between alarmism and reassurance. It is a double-sided policy that no one can combine in one sentence as skillfully as Hanning: "We must be prepared for the possibility of an attack, but it is my feeling that law enforcement authorities are quite well prepared."

Who Can Best Guarantee Security?

This is the dialectic speech of politicians going into an election: On the one hand, there could be a disaster; on the other hand, we have everything under control. It is a matter of preventing attacks, but it is also a matter of the German parliamentary election on Sept. 27 and the question of which politicians are best able to guarantee the Germans' security. The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have one of their own, Schäuble, at the helm of the Interior Ministry and has in Angela Merkel a chancellor who seeks to demonstrate strength. Domestic security may not win elections during a global economic crisis, as the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have tried to do in the past. But a bomb exploding in Germany could quickly spell an election loss.

In 2004 Islamist terrorists demonstrated in Spain exactly how a bloody attack could influence politics. After several bomb explosions in Madrid commuter trains killed 191 people, the Spaniards voted the incumbent conservative government out of office and elected Socialist José Luis Zapatero, who has headed the government ever since. Even though the situation is only somewhat comparable, because the conservative government supported the Iraq war and the socialists were opposed to it, the Spain scenario is widely discussed in Berlin these days. "We all have Madrid at the back of our minds," says Hanning.

The same applies to Schäuble. The interior minister knows how powerful the effects of an attack can be. He was the head of the government's crisis staff in the former West Germany, he experienced the Hanns-Martin Schleyer kidnapping in 1977 -- when the far-left Red Army Faction abducted and killed the president of the German Employers Association -- and he saw how quickly a constitutional state under pressure can be thrown out of joint.

Preventing an attack is the highest priority for Schäuble. To do so, he is willing to accept the fact that his warnings make people anxious and that Süddeutsche Zeitung derisively characterized his ministry as the "Federal Ministry of Fear."

Of course, the news currently unfolding behind the scenes is far from comforting. A delegation of officials from the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA), the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, and the BND, the country's foreign intelligence agency, recently visited several countries in North Africa. The officials returned convinced that al-Qaida had declared Germany a target for attacks.

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