The Threat from Within A German Islamist Rises up al-Qaida's Ranks

Recently, al-Qaida directly threatened Germany in a video for the first time. The man featured in the video grew up in Germany and has recently risen within the ranks of the terror group. Intelligence sources fear al-Qaida is planning a major attack to coincide with German elections this year.

By SPIEGEL Staff


In the confused world of many jihadists, the struggle is pure and romantic and death in Allah's name is a precursor to paradise. But when Bekkay Harrach, 31, tried to prepare his wife Elisabeth, 29, for the prospect of his final exit, a martyr's death suddenly loomed as a very real and painful threat.

Who knows how long a mujahedeen has to live in Afghanistan?

On this particular day, she was in Germany's Rhineland region, in their two-room apartment in the Bonn district of Bad Godesberg. He was in the wilds of Waziristan, in the Afghan-Pakistani border area. The two of them spoke on the phone and had a great deal to say to each other. She hoped that she could soon travel there to join him.

Read the Koran, he said -- the places that describe how a wife should mourn for her husband when he passes away. He wanted her to act as instructed by the Prophet. But even in times of jihad, love is stronger than the holy scriptures, at least at that moment in the spring of 2008. Harrach's wife started to sob on the phone. She had converted to Islam, she shared his faith, but she didn't want her husband die. Not then and there.

Harrach's longing for death has now become world-famous. He dreams of blowing himself up for Allah, as he announced in a video released on the Internet two weeks ago. In the film, the German identifies himself as a member of the al-Qaida terrorist organization and threatens Germany with attacks: "Our nuclear bomb is a car bomb, every Muslim can be one."

The video, which bears the logo of the al-Qaida multimedia wing al-Sahab -- meaning "the clouds" in Arabic, marks the beginning of a new phase of a modern war in which the West has to combat deeply puzzling opponents such as Harrach. It is an official declaration of war by al-Qaida against Germany. There is only one other country that has been bestowed with the dubious honor of receiving its very own al-Qaida video: the United States. "Without approval by al-Qaida leaders," says a German intelligence agent, "such a film would never be released."

There has never been such a direct message, uniquely intended for Germany, warns August Hanning, a top deputy in the Interior Ministry. "This has taken on a new quality," he says. The film is part of a campaign that aims to force the German government to withdraw its soldiers from Afghanistan. Hanning says it is apparently designed according to the "Spanish model." In 2004, three days before the Spanish general elections, bombs were detonated on board crowded commuter trains in Madrid. Shortly after taking office, the government of Prime Minister José Rodríguez Zapatero announced that Spain was withdrawing its troops from the unpopular Iraq mission. But Spain maintained its presence in Afghanistan.

From the Islamists' point of view, the Germans have gradually lost their innocence. Although their initial reconstruction mission in the relatively peaceful north was welcomed by many Afghans, this positive impression has been largely replaced by the distorted image of an occupying force with an expanded mandate and some 3,500 troops whose Tornado reconnaissance aircraft assist the Americans. There are a number of indications that al-Qaida may attempt to sway public opinion in the run-up to the German parliamentary elections with a spectacular attack on German installations in the region. The film thus indicates a threat to the German soldiers, who are now even more likely to become the target of al-Qaida attacks. The Chancellery, the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry are taking the situation very seriously.

As if further proof were necessary, on Jan. 17 a car bomb exploded in front of the German Embassy in Kabul, killing the attacker and five other people. The shockwave from the explosion blew out the 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) thick bulletproof glass from the facade of the embassy, devastated the offices and caused over €1 million ($1.3 million) in damages. The building was so severely damaged that it may have to be torn down. But the diplomats narrowly avoided a catastrophe: The target of the attack was presumably a tanker truck parked between the embassy and a nearby US base. The vehicle caught fire, but did not explode.

The latest terrorist offensive in Afghanistan reaffirms a statement made by former German Defense Minister Peter Struck, who once said that Germany's security "is also defended in the Hindukush." Al-Qaida mouthpiece Harrach underscores just how dangerous this part of the world has become for Germany.

Harrach's story is also proof of the partial failure of the international Afghanistan mission. The primary objective of the war -- to destroy the terrorist infrastructure -- may have been achieved in large parts of the country. But in southeastern Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan, and in the remote mountainous region called Waziristan, entire battalions of young men can be trained to kill in camps that remain largely undisturbed by government authorities.

Like the Afghan heartland before the war, this area controlled by Pashtun tribes has become a magnet for sympathizers from Germany. According to intelligence agencies, between 50 and 100 young Islamists from German cities like Frankfurt, Ulm, Bonn and Berlin have completed military training there, and at least a dozen of them are still presumed to be in the mountains. Harrach is their most important representative. Thanks to him, Germany's enemy now has a name and a face, albeit one wrapped in a black turban and issuing ominous threats.

In contrast to the majority of the 9/11 attackers, this enemy is actually a homegrown one who grew up in the Rhineland after his family moved from Morocco to Germany in November, 1981. As a young man, he socialized early on with people connected to the King Fahd Academy, which had a reputation as a breeding ground for anti-Western tendencies. In 1997, the young Moroccan adopted German citizenship.

Intelligence agencies first took notice of Harrach after the attacks of 9/11. At the time, they thought he was merely a sympathizer. But that quickly changed when he traveled to the Middle East in 2003, to the West Bank, where he was injured in a clash with Israeli soldiers. When he returned, his possessions were smeared with blood. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, he traveled twice to Iraq. Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, asked Harrach about these trips to Iraq during an unsuccessful attempt to recruit the young man in Bonn. He spoke elusively of a "humanitarian trip" and claimed that he was visiting relatives. Intelligence officials believe, however, that Harrach wanted to volunteer in the fight against US troops.

As an adult, he earned a high school diploma by attending night school, and later enrolled in a technical college in Koblenz to study laser technology and business mathematics. This explains why he presents mathematical equations in his threat video and, in all seriousness, explains that "Taliban and al-Qaida" are "like a prime number": They are only divisible by one and themselves. This must also be news to the warlords in Afghanistan.

His achievements on campus were less impressive, and in February 2004 he dropped out of school. His lectures circulate on the Internet, dealing with topics such as "the path to paradise," where he comes across as eloquent and entertaining. On one occasion, he talks about how to outsmart the soul when it is about to fall prey to sin. He argues with ice cream: "Dear soul, if you don't read the Koran now, there will be no Magnum with almonds!" But when it comes to a dialogue between the world's great religions, he doesn't fool around: "Some Muslims shy away from calling Christians and Jews infidels," he lectured, yet Allah has "clearly stated" this in the Koran.

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