By Holger Stark
Halil S. is a man who knows his way around computers. When he went online, he often used a special service for encrypted access that prevented investigators from tracing his Internet activities. As a result, crack officers from Germany's GSG-9 elite police force had to be patient. Before arresting him, they had to wait until S. had booted up his computer and established the encrypted connection.
The moment came at 12:05 p.m. last Thursday. S., whose last name may not be made public due to German privacy laws, was online when GSG-9 officers broke down the door to his student apartment in the western city of Bochum. He lived there under an assumed name. The officers threw him to the ground and quickly secured his computer.
German security officials allege that the 27-year-old is the fourth member of the so-called "Düsselfdorf Cell." The group is believed to be the al-Qaida cell currently active in Germany and tasked with carrying out a major attack in Europe.
Three other members of the cell, Moroccan Abdeladim el-K. and two accomplices, were arrested in late April and are being held in custody. Authorities believe that S. worked to carry forward their plot. In May, he tried to make direct contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen and al-Qaida propagandist killed in a CIA drone attack in Yemen in late September. Calling himself "Abdullah," S. raved to him about automatic rifles and spoke about an attack using explosives. He also spoke of his illicit plans to raise money. From Yemen, he received both advice and instructions.
Among the Volunteers
For months, S. was considered the most dangerous terror suspect in Germany. And his activities weren't just being followed by hundreds of investigators. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Chief of Staff Ronald Pofalla and Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich made sure they kept well informed on the case. Investigators even tried to remotely search his computer, but their efforts failed.
The arrest shows that al-Qaida doesn't plan on giving up despite the serious setbacks it has suffered in recent months. Osama bin Laden is dead, as is his chief of operations, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who is suspected of having directed the German group. He was killed by a CIA missile attack in August in Pakistan -- as was al-Awlaki in September.
S. was born in Gelsenkirchen, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and studied mechanical engineering. He first appeared on investigators' radar on April 16 when he visited Abdeladim el-K. in Düsseldorf. Video surveillance shows S. going into an apartment that would later prove to be the Islamists' headquarters. Investigators listened in on S.'s conversations with K. using bugs planted in the apartment. They heard his voice, but they still didn't know his name. For them, he was merely the man with the red sweatshirt.
Still, it quickly became clear that S. had to be playing a special role. On the day he visited K.'s apartment, S. provided him with a list of 45 credit card numbers including the names, addresses and passwords of their owners. This pool of information was meant to allow them to operate under false identities. K.'s contact list included S.'s coded telephone number.
Investigators suspect that Halil S. belonged to a circle of young volunteers that K. surrounded himself with. On a USB stick, investigators also found a letter that K. had apparently written to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.
In it, he wrote: "Oh, our sheik, praised be Allah. German intelligence services have been informed about me." This knowledge led K. to alter his appearance and to change the address of his official residence. "I am training some youths from Europe who are clean when it comes to security matters," he wrote, adding that he wanted to "leave behind brothers who will carry on with the work." K. saved the letter on his computer two weeks before his arrest.
Gathering Funds for an Attack
It is still not known whether S. was one of the "brothers" who had supposedly avoided detection. On May 1, two days before the police raid in Düsseldorf, S. ordered online a device for detecting bugs and a "spy alarm" outfitted with a camera. Using a false passport, he also ordered a computer, which he picked up at a parcel pick-up station without having paid for it.
In addition, he opened bank accounts using false documents as well as an eBay account. Then he made contact with people in northern Germany with ties to organized crime, although his accomplices were most likely unaware of his Islamist background. On eBay, S. listed high-quality SLR cameras for sale. Their buyers had to pay up front, but they never received any cameras. S. is thought to have netted 5,200 ($6,890) from the scam.
Investigators suspect that S. intended to use this money to pay for preparations for an attack. He gave a friend several thousand euros and asked him to buy a pistol for him in Hamburg. In addition to S., federal prosecutors are investigating five other men.
"We are still keeping our pledges, victory or martyrdom," Abdeladim el-K. had promised al-Qaida leaders. But he didn't mention that another possible alternative was a gray prison cell.
Translated from the German by Josh Ward
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