In early June, the image of a slim man wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a shiny light-blue tie, standing in front of a dark-red velvet curtain, was broadcast around the world. It was the new US president, Barack Obama, giving a remarkable speech to the Muslim world at the University of Cairo, in which he called for an end to the cycle of suspicion and discord between the United States and the Muslim world. He said that he had come to Egypt to seek a new beginning.
A similar image appeared three months later, in a video which has been circulating on the Internet since Sept. 18. Again, a slim man, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and shiny light-blue tie is standing in front of a dark-red velvet curtain. But unlike Obama, this man has shoulder-length, greasy hair and looks like an overgrown version of a gawky teenager. The man, Bekkay Harrach, 32, is a militant Islamist, and he wants to instill fear in the German population.
Speaking in a markedly soft voice, the German-Moroccan swears an oath of allegiance to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. He threatened "bitter consequences" and a "grim awakening" in the 14 days following the German national election, if its result did not lead to the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan.
Trying to Influence the Election
The video resembles a badly made comedy sketch, and yet it has caused unease among German security authorities. It doesn't take a professional terrorism expert to feel threatened by the appearance of a known al-Qaida member a few days before an important election. The terrorist network has already attempted to influence elections in the West on two occasions. On March 11, 2004, 10 bombs exploded in several commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people. Three days later, the conservatives, who had previously been tipped to win, lost Spain's parliamentary election. The Socialist candidate and new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, promptly initiated the withdrawal of Spanish troops his predecessor had sent to Iraq to support the US campaign there. And even though Zapatero also increased the Spanish contingent in Afghanistan, the bombing was a triumph from al-Qaida's point of view.
In October of the same year, terrorist leader bin Laden sought to influence the US presidential election. Some believe that the race between incumbent President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry would have ended differently if bin Laden had not released a new video just a few days before the election.
And now Germany. Does the Harrach video represent al-Qaida's third attempt to shape politic opinion in a major Western country? And how should the young terrorist's message be interpreted? Is it "merely" intended to instill fear in the German public? Or is he announcing an attack?
State of Anxiety
Harrach's hateful video had hardly been released before German Chancellor Angela Merkel took steps to show just how calm she was. "German security authorities are doing everything in their power to guarantee the safety of the population," Merkel reassured the German public.
Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble also seemed unruffled. "We will not allow ourselves to fall into a state of anxiety, which is what the terrorists hope to achieve with attacks," Schäuble said, and added, in remarks clearly directed at Harrach and al-Qaida: "Whatever you do, you will not influence the democratic process in Germany."
Germany has seen various terrorist threats in recent years, including the failed plots of the so-called "suitcase" bombers who left bombs on regional trains in 2006 and the Sauerland cell whose planned attacks against US targets in Germany were foiled by investigators in 2007. Germans were also among the casualties in the 2002 bombing on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. The fact that the chancellor and the interior minister reacted to Harrach's tirades shows that they are taking him seriously. Indeed, the video has changed the security situation in Germany.
In the past, authorities had consistently said that Germany is part of a "worldwide danger zone" and that an "abstract threat" existed. The Harrach video has made it more concrete, attaching a face to the threat, the soft, youthful face of a man intelligence officials say has reached the middle level of the al-Qaida leadership. Harrach is believed to be a member of the terror network's external operations committee, which is apparently responsible for attacks abroad.
On German Soil
The question is no longer whether Bin Laden's terrorist organization has set its sights on Germany. Germany is only the second Western country, next to the United States, that al-Qaida has addressed so directly and in its native language. "What is new about this is that the terrorists have expressly stated their intention to act on German soil, and have specified a timeframe for attacks," says August Hanning, a senior official in the Interior Ministry, who does not believe that Harrach is acting alone. "We think that this was authorized by the al-Qaida leadership."
This is precisely what the terrorist group signaled in a subsequent propaganda video, which includes a reference to Harrach's threats. Then an Osama bin Laden audio message, which was posted on the Internet Friday and featured German subtitles, demanded that Europeans leave Afghanistan. Yet another Internet video, apparently from the Taliban, appeared later on Friday threatening Germany. That video showed images of famous sights in Germany, including Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, Cologne Cathedral and the Oktoberfest festival in Munich.
Until now, German authorities had assumed that possible attacks would be aimed at Germans and German interests abroad, such as attacks on the German military, the Bundeswehr, in Afghanistan or spectacular kidnapping cases. But this assessment has now changed. "Harrach's statements underscore the existing threat of attacks in Germany and against German interests worldwide," writes the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) in a report dated last Tuesday.
High Threat Level
Investigators are concerned about the clear strategy behind the series of messages and the gradual escalation of their content. For the first time, the messages include direct threats and a clearly defined timetable. Intelligence agents also regard the string of messages as an al-Qaida campaign designed well in advance to coincide with the Bundestag election. The volume of propaganda in related online forums has also increased. Jihadist terror groups have already issued at least 17 propaganda messages specifically relating to Germany in 2009, compared with only six such messages in 2008.
According to the US company IntelCenter, which specializes in analyzing such forums, the use of German as a propaganda language has experienced an "unprecedented increase" in jihadist publications. The US experts believe that the threat of attack in Germany is now "at a significantly high level."
This is consistent with the conclusions of various intelligence agencies. In late May, the US government warned German security authorities that the al-Qaida leadership had apparently "singled out" Germany for attacks. US authorities believe al-Qaida's branch in North Africa is slated to carry out possible attacks, and that one of its leaders, Abu Zaid, is pressing ahead with plans to target Germany.
Last weekend, US Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute contacted her German counterpart, August Hanning, to reiterate the warning that Germany is under threat.
'Maintain a Low Profile'
Washington is clearly taking the situation seriously. Citing the Harrach video, the US State Department issued a travel alert for US citizens in Germany, advising them "to maintain good security practices at all times, and to maintain a heightened situational awareness and a low profile." The alert is valid until Nov. 11.
In July, when the Americans issued their first warnings, BKA President Jörg Ziercke convened a meeting of senior government officials in Berlin to discuss the aggravated security situation. The group approved a package of security measures, key parts of which were activated in a teleconference last Thursday.
Since then, federal police officers carrying machine guns have been patrolling airports, the intelligence agencies have intensified reconnaissance and cooperation, known Islamic activists are being scrutinized and helicopters are circling over major train stations. But none of these efforts has produced any results yet. "We still have no information about concrete attack plans," says Hanning.
German security authorities have beefed up their infrastructure and resources in the last eight years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They are determined not to suffer a repeat of the humiliating case of the 9/11 terrorists, who were able to prepare for their attacks in a student apartment in Hamburg without attracting the authorities' attention. Security laws have been gradually tightened, laws were enacted to require communication companies to store data on telephone calls and emails, and a steadily growing number of telephone calls were monitored. In addition, counterterrorism databases were set up and intelligence agencies have recruited more experts on Islamist terrorism.
Looking for Recruits
Nevertheless, this massive effort failed to prevent a man like Aleem Nasir, who authorities identified as a sympathizer with terrorist organizations as long ago as 2001, from traveling unimpeded from his home in the western German town of Germersheim to Pakistan and the border region with Afghanistan, where he delivered money and equipment to al-Qaida fighters. Nasir is believed to have been in contact with senior al-Qaida leaders since 2004 at the latest, and to have actively participated in fighting against US troops in 2006.
It was not until June 2007 that Nasir was arrested, in Lahore, Pakistan. His trial offered deep insights into current al-Qaida structures in Germany. Since then, it has been clear that the organization remains active in Germany, where it continues to recruit new blood.
This July, a higher regional court in the western city of Koblenz sentenced Nasir to eight years' imprisonment, partly for membership of a terrorist organization. The judges were convinced that Nasir, who had claimed to be a dealer in precious stones, was in fact responsible for providing al-Qaida with equipment, which he obtained from companies like Frankonia, a Stuttgart-based supplier of hunting equipment.
Investigators also believe that one of Nasir's responsibilities in Germany was to "search for people willing to undergo military training in an al-Qaida camp," who would then be "available for the organization's terrorist activities." Nasir was an important point of contact in the German terrorist recruitment network. Nasir apparently met Bekkay Harrach in the southern town of Sindelfingen around the end of 2006, through a suspected associate who investigators say kept an eye out for promising recruits for Nasir.
'Something Planned for Germany'
When Harrach traveled to a training camp in the Pakistani-Afghan border area via Iran a short time later, he brought along a letter of recommendation from Nasir. In June 2007, the two men are believed to have met again in a camp in the Pakistani border province of Waziristan, where Harrach was apparently being trained in the use of weapons and explosives.
After a failed attempt to return to Germany, Nasir was arrested in Pakistan, where he confessed to authorities. There is a serious problem with his confession, however, in that it was apparently obtained through torture. He later told German officials that he had made up parts of the confession.
According to a June 27, 2007 report by the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, Nasir had "speculated" that "something was planned for Germany." From today's perspective, the passages in the controversial ISI report relating to other possible al-Qaida aspirants in Germany seem particularly significant. The report states that Harrach asked Nasir to bring "a few of his colleagues" to Waziristan. Another German recruit in Nasir's care is believed to have asked to have four other individuals, who are not identified by name, smuggled out of the Bonn area.
Ties to Germany
To this day, German intelligence officials are not certain whether a plan to stage attacks in Germany was discussed in the training camp in Waziristan, although they have not ruled out the possibility. Even knowing how many al-Qaida members they are dealing with would be helpful to the German officials. "We are trying to illuminate an enormous, dark field with small flashlights," says a member of Germany's domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. "We have many people in our sights, but no one knows whether we have identified all the relevant individuals."
BKA President Jörg Ziercke is also unable to give a conclusive answer to the question of where the men who returned from the Pakistani training camps are in Germany today. His agency, which is currently conducting more than 200 terrorism-related investigations, has only a rudimentary grasp of the scope of the problem. German authorities don't even know the real names of some of these men, while others have only been identified in CIA reports.
According to an internal BKA situation report, the agency has information about "approximately 180 individuals with ties to Germany, who are believed to have received or intend to receive paramilitary training." About 80 have apparently returned to Germany, of which 15 are in custody.
Because of this lack of certainty, specialists at the intelligence agencies' Joint Internet Center (GIZ) in Berlin are feverishly analyzing the latest al-Qaida videos. Do they contain hidden clues about targets and possible attackers? And could they even contain orders for an al-Qaida team?
A Successful Campaign
Experts believe that Harrach, with his attempt to come across as a leader in the video, was mainly interested in establishing himself as an al-Qaida representative to be taken seriously. But why the warning in the first place? Why not stage an attack without providing advance notice? Apparently, the German jihadist is emulating his idol bin Laden, who has consistently claimed to have given due warning before attacks. After Sept. 11, 2001, bin Laden, citing interviews he had given to Western journalists, insisted that he had pointed out the risk of attack to the United States "again and again."
In his video, Harrach embraces another of the al-Qaida leader's arguments. In a democracy, he says, the electorate can be held responsible for its government's decisions, because the people, after all, have voted their government into office. Does this imply that a threat must inevitably lead to an attack? Apparently not. Bin Laden himself in 2006 announced further "imminent" attacks on the United States, attacks that never took place.
Would the absence of an attack in Germany constitute a loss of face for al-Qaida, as many experts believe? Not necessarily. Even after the expiration of Harrach's two-week warning period, no security agency would believe that the threat level had somehow decreased. The German Interior Ministry is already recommending that the additional security measures which were introduced following the Harrach video be continued for a longer period than just a few days after the election, as was originally planned.
From the terrorists' perspective, their campaign linked to Germany's 2009 national election is already a success. Suddenly everything seems possible.