Terrorism in Germany Every Investigator's Nightmare
Youssef el Hajdib and Jihad Hamad came to Germany as students and behaved inconspicuously -- until the day they deposited two suitcase bombs in regional trains. Now they're behind bars. They represent a new profile of terrorists who seem to emerge out of nowhere, one that poses difficult challenges for German investigators.
Terror suspect Youssef Hajdib: Did the would-be terrorists believe they were part of al-Qaida?
"If my son is an extremist, I will kill myself," Hamad mumbles. A photograph of his 20-year-old son was shown on television a few hours earlier. It was a remarkably clear image that left no doubt that it was his son, Jihad Hamad, who, referred to in Germany as the second suitcase bomber, was being sought by police.
A short time later, a Lebanese security official appeared at Shahid Hamad's door and spoke with him. When the official left, Hamad called a family meeting in his living room, with its imitation French antiques, heavy curtains and walls decorated with verses from the Koran. He says now that he told his son to turn himself in, and that the two then went to a police station.
"We have a pure son," says Bushra Jaber, his mother, from behind her veil, as sits next to her husband. Jihad, she says, wrote poetry and was fascinated by languages and Germany, where he had gone to study computer engineering.
It was the dream of a child whose parents had put away 7,200 from the father's small military pension and then, in August of last year, had transferred the money to an account at Deutsche Bank as collateral to enable their son to obtain the student visa he needed to study abroad.
"Jihad didn't grow up on the street. We raised him with dignity and decency, and we sent him to a Christian school," his father says. "He cannot possibly be an extremist," his mother adds, sobbing.
The next day, the Lebanese interior ministry informed the world press that Hamad had made a partial confession and that he was the one who had taken the suitcases to the train station in Germany. According to the Lebanese statement, data was discovered on his computer that could tie him to al-Qaida.
Looking for a motive
But who in fact is Hamad? An Islamist who deliberately learned German at a language school in Tripoli so that he could enter the country as a student, essentially under the radar of counterterrorism officials, and calmly go about preparing an underhanded terrorist attack? Or did a young man, hungry for education, arrive in Germany on Jan. 2, 2006 and, for some unknown reason, suddenly and without attracting attention, turn into a killer?
By last Friday, investigators still hadn't found answers to these questions. But they did know that "assembly errors" were the only thing that prevented the explosion of the two bombs hidden in suitcases that Hamad and his presumed accomplice, Youssef Hajdib, now in custody at Berlin's Moabit prison, deposited in two regional trains at Cologne's main train station on July 31. As it turned out, a simple mistake protected Germany from what would presumably have been the worst terrorist attack in its history, one that would have claimed many dead and injured.
The front pages of last week's newspapers were plastered with frightening headlines like "Terror has Arrived!" and "Germany Targeted by Terrorists!" Media stories drew parallels between the thwarted attacks and the attacks on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004 and the London bus and subway bombings in July 2005 -- attacks that claimed more than 243 lives and injured more than 2,000.
"We were lucky this time," Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said when the second suspect was arrested, adding, "we couldn't have prevented it."
Jihad Hamad turned himself in after hiding at his parent's home in Tripoli, Lebanon.
But whatever Schäuble and his counterparts in the state governments decide at a conference of interior ministers scheduled for Monday, and whatever measures they take, the one thing that has investigators especially concerned is that would-be attackers may not necessarily be members of a local "domestic terrorist organization," but simply Muslim fanatics acting entirely on their own. This presumed new breed of independent terrorists, officials believe, appear out of nowhere and form miniature cells of their own. Instead of a network and commanders, all they need is a reason to strike, bomb-building instructions they can easily download from the Internet and the conviction that they are acting on behalf of a greater cause. In some sense, these self-made terrorists may also believe that they are part of al-Qaida, which has long since transformed itself from being only a terrorist organization, instead encompassing an entire ideology.
The new threat
Germany's internal intelligence service was already warning against this new type of terrorist back in July, when security experts were weighing possible terrorism scenarios in Europe related to the war between Hezbollah and Israel. These kinds of attackers are every investigator's nightmare, because they are able to operate under the radar of terrorist databases and the surveillance activities of the country's intelligence agencies. They are not members of a large group that can be observed or infiltrated with intelligence agents. Not having learned the terrorist trade in training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan, they persistently fall through the cracks whenever there is a large-scale crackdown. Finally, because they are self-funded and do not communicate with handlers elsewhere, they provide authorities with few leads to follow. Hamad and Hajdib could very well be precisely such nightmare candidates.
Of course, it didn't seem that way at first. After the attempted attacks, investigators quickly succeeded using classic counterterrorism tools, such as international intelligence cooperation and telephone surveillance. But only a few hours after surveillance videos of the suspects were aired on television, Hajdib, who lived in the northern German city of Kiel, managed to get away.
He had apparently grown nervous and, two Fridays ago, called his father, who lives in the Lebanese city of Tripoli and has long been under observation by Lebanese intelligence. Hajdib senior is a member of Hizb al-Tahrir, an organization banned in Germany since 2003 and under observation in Lebanon because of its extremist positions, which include calls for the destruction of Israel and open talk of a caliphate stretching from the Mediterranean to China.
The Lebanese agents were astonished to hear that the father was apparently in the picture and knew exactly what his son meant when he asked: "My picture is on TV, what should I do?" The father urged his son to "get out of Germany immediately."
Lebanese intelligence promptly picked up on what Youssef was telling his father and notified German authorities. Because Youssef had even told his father on the telephone that his plan was to flee to Scandinavia and that he would have to leave early in the morning, the Germans were quickly able to narrow down his possible travel options. At 3:53 a.m., German agents arrested the first of the two suitcase bombers at Kiel's main train station.
The investigators moved quickly over the next several days. They identified Hamad, searched his Cologne apartment, where they found and secured bomb-making materials and, in the west-central cities of Oberhausen and Essen, arrested two men suspected of having helped the suitcase bombers. In Kiel, officials arrested an acquaintance of Hajdib they suspected of providing logistical support to the cell and escorted him, still in his underwear, from his apartment in the middle of the day.
Some at the BKA felt that the arrests would enable them to investigate "typical network cases," or terrorists who already fit into existing terrorism structures and can depend on their help. But after hours of interrogation, the officials had to release the men for lack of sufficient evidence. They are now considered witnesses, not suspects.
- Part 1: Every Investigator's Nightmare
- Part 2