It was a routine call that took a patrol from Berlin's 52nd police division to the Hallesches Tor subway station on Sept. 10, 2011. A man had been caught trying to ride the subway without a ticket, and the officers were needed to check his identity. The delinquent was let go after he identified himself as Ecevit S., born in Turkey in 1973. The incident was documented as a minor offence.
Today, less than a year-and-a-half later, the fare-dodger has become a political bone of contention between Germany and Turkey. On Feb. 1, Ecevit S. blew himself up in front of the United States Embassy in Ankara, killing a Turkish security guard and seriously injuring three other individuals. German authorities had been well aware that the suicide bomber was a political hothead, and that he had been staying in Germany until a few months before the bombing.
This helps explain the brusque response from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other European Union countries to what appeared to be a lax approach to counterterrorism. "Terrorists who commit the bloodiest murders in Turkey" were being allowed to travel freely in Europe, Erdogan ranted. From Ankara's perspective, German law enforcement is not proceeding forcefully enough against suspects like Ecevit S., who was subject to a Turkish arrest warrant. The pro-government Turkish newspaper Zaman accused Germany of being a "central accomplice" to terrorism.
Last Wednesday, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), faced the Turks' displeasure when he met with Deputy Prime Ministers Beir Atalay and Bekir Bozdag in Ankara. The Turkish politicians demanded that Germany take stronger action against banned terrorist organizations like the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) and the Kurdish separatist group the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and suggested an "intensive dialogue" between the two countries. Friedrich rebuffed the accusations, saying that membership in these organizations is also a punishable offence in Germany.
In Germany Since 1998
German authorities had undeniably been aware for some time of the man who would later commit the Ankara suicide bombing. In April 2011, the German federal prosecutor's office even launched a covert investigation against S. on suspicion of "membership in a foreign terrorist organization." At the time, the Germans believed that the then 38-year-old was an official with the DHKP-C, a left-wing extremist terrorist organization that uses Germany as a refuge in its armed struggle against the Turkish state.
According to the investigation, S. had been in Germany, most recently in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where he was soliciting donations for the organization, which has been banned in Germany since 1998. Nevertheless, there was apparently insufficient evidence to arrest him.
Or was it sheer negligence on the part of German investigators, who missed an opportunity to take him into custody? The suspect disappeared last fall.
German authorities relocated him between Christmas and New Year's. The Turkish police contacted the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and, almost simultaneously, Turkey's National Intelligence Agency (MIT) contacted the German domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). The Turkish officials told the Germans that they had information suggesting that suspected terrorist Ecevit S. had entered Turkey to commit a bombing there. On Jan. 2, the BKA responded that it could not provide any information on his whereabouts because it had lost track of him in mid-October. The agents at the BfV sent a similar letter to their Turkish counterparts on Jan. 15.
Now the question is being raised as to whether the Ankara attack may have been planned on German soil. Investigators are taking a close look at S.'s former surroundings in the Cologne area, searching for possible contacts who may have escaped their notice in the past.
In the process, they are also trying to reconstruct an account of the radical leftist's past. According to court records, Ecevit S. was already a terror suspect in his native Turkey in the late 1990s. He was arrested in Istanbul in August 1997, when Turkish police accused S., 24 at the time, of involvement in two rocket-launcher attacks on a security services administrative building and an officers' mess hall. According to Turkish officials, he was known by the code name "Murat" in the underground organization DHKP-C, and weapons and a rocket-launcher had been found in his apartment.
After more than three years in pretrial detention, the suspect, who claimed he had been tortured, went on a hunger strike. He and dozens of other prisoners were protesting plans to transfer them to what are known as F-type prisons, where they feared reprisals by guards. After a hunger strike of eight months the seriously ill suspect was released on parole.
A 'Living Bomb'
The Turkish police arrested him again twice after that, S. later reported, claiming that the officers had referred to him as a "living bomb." Finally, in the spring of 2002, shortly before his trial was set to begin, he went into hiding, allegedly staying with friends.
On June 10, the military judges on the 4th State Security Court in Istanbul sentenced him to death in absentia, for "membership in the illegal, armed terrorist organization DHKP-C" and involvement in attacks. The sentence was later changed to life in prison, and the authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.
S. remained in hiding until he managed to escape to Germany in September 2002.
The German chapter in the story of the Ankara bomber began with a visit to a fellow Turk in Cologne's Mülheim neighborhood. Ali Y., 77, recalls that the stranded S. told him that he had cancer and urgently needed a German address so he could be treated in a Cologne hospital. Y., a retiree, agreed to help him. He says that he only knew the man fleetingly and had no knowledge of his radical past. "He couldn't live here, because there wasn't enough room," he says.
S. also used the retiree's apartment as a mailing address for his application for political asylum. During his asylum hearing, S. claimed that he had traveled from Ankara to Düsseldorf on a Turkish Airlines flight, using a forged passport. He said that he had thrown away the documents, and he didn't want to reveal the name he had used to enter the country.
In a decision issued on June 2, 2005, a Cologne court rejected the application as unfounded, citing the terrorist attacks S. had allegedly committed in Turkey. Nevertheless, the authorities chose not to deport him because he might be tortured in Turkey.
The BfV soon became interested in S. According to agents, he initially worked as the director of an Anatolian training and cultural center in the western German city of Duisburg that had been linked to the DHKP-C. Then he began a "classic career in the leadership of the left-wing extremist organization," says a senior BfV official. But German investigators did not notice that S. had undergone any "further radicalization" in the years he spent in the country, they say.
Tolerated in Germany
From the industrial Ruhr region, the Turk moved to Brussels, where he was active as a leader of the local branch of the DHKP-C. After a short period there, he returned to Germany, where he served in the leadership of the "Berlin section."
The German intelligence services must have known early on that S. was more than just a harmless follower of the banned DKHP-C. In 2009, his activities led to a judicial inquiry by the public prosecutor's office in Berlin for violation of the German law on criminal associations. During a raid on his apartment, officers found DHKP-C flyers and other propaganda material. The proceedings against him were closed.
Still suffering physically from the effects of his 2002 hunger strike, S. moved to Cologne. According to his then attorney, he entered psychological treatment for neurological problems. After a "security questioning" in late 2011, he lost his right of residence and, from then on, was merely tolerated in Germany. He was required to report to the police weekly and was not allowed to leave Cologne.
But apparently this didn't interfere with his activities as a DHKP-C activist. He was promoted to district manager of the organization in Cologne, and registered a demonstration in front of the Turkish general consulate the fall of 2012.
After the suicide bombing in Ankara, the DHKP-C published a photo of S. on its website. He is holding a Scorpion submachine gun in his right hand, and in his left hand he appears to be holding the trigger for his explosive belt.
BY JÜRGEN DAHLKAMP, HUBERT GUDE, SVEN RÖBEL, AND FIDELIUS SCHMID