Arrest in Pakistan Conflict in Berlin over Handling of a German Jihadist
Germany's Foreign and Interior Ministries are at odds over how to handle German jihadists who wish to return home. Last week's arrest of a German-born extremist by Pakistani police has left some wondering whether Germany has passed up a golden opportunity to gather intelligence from a suspected homegrown Islamist. By SPIEGEL Staff
The Islamist who called the German Embassy in Islamabad almost two weeks ago sounded nervous, but determined. He introduced himself as Rami M. and said he wanted to return to Germany, but he needed travel documents. He claimed that both his passport and his driver's license had been stolen. Maintaining that a trip to the embassy would be too dangerous, he asked if officials there could send him new papers.
The embassy turned him down; the caller would have to appear personally to pick up his documents. But they offered to send him a provisional right-of-passage document. In the e-mail they subsequently sent Rami M., embassy officials requested that "the authorities concerned ... render whatever assistance might be needed" and confirmed the caller's appointment: Monday, June 21 at 9:30 a.m. in Islamabad.
Rami M. then sent a message to his family telling them that he was on his way. That was the last they would hear from him.
The 25-year-old has since turned up, but he never made it to the German Embassy in Islamabad. He is now in captivity in Peshawar locked in a cell belonging to the Pakistani intelligence service ISI, infamous for their interrogation methods. Last Monday, Pakistani police arrested him at a checkpoint as he was descending out of the mountains of Waziristan. The arrest triggered a debate which has been raging ever since in faraway Berlin: Was his arrest a successful anti-terrorism operation or the result of a denunciation? Might the Germans even have tipped off the Pakistanis to avoid having to do the dirty work themselves?
Dropped Off the Radar
The arrest has fanned the flames of a debate regarding how officials should deal with terror suspects who show a willingness to return to Germany and what message they want to send in such cases. Whereas the German Foreign Ministry was in favor of a discussion with Rami M. in the embassy, the Interior Ministry in Berlin insisted that the suspect be picked up by the Pakistani police.
Their reasons stem from the fact that Rami M., born in Frankfurt, is one of the best known figures in the German Islamist scene. In Hamburg, he had assembled a group of radical Muslims who often went to Friday prayers together. In March 2009, Rami M. left Germany and dropped off the radar. He and a group of eight young men and women made their way to the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. Since then, German investigators have seen him as a danger; public prosecutors have issued an international arrest warrant on suspicion that he has joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
German officials are convinced that Rami M. spent time in terrorist training camps. In a telephone conversation with his father last December, he complained about forced marches through the mountains with a bazooka on his back. He wrote his wife in January of this year that he wanted to die in battle as a martyr. In another conversation he spoke of scorpions and snakes. He told his brother that he worked for a charity and that he had nothing to do with terrorism, but Pakistani security officials accuse him of having received training on how to build suicide vests. They say he has also participated in the fight against NATO troops in Afghanistan.
For security officials, he is one of the most important catches for years and could have turned out to be a valuable entry into a scene in Pakistan to which dozens of Germans are thought to belong.
Embassy officials in Islamabad were thus suitably alarmed when Rami M. placed his call earlier this month. A discussion in the embassy was followed by an emergency conference in Berlin attended by officers from the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry. Those from the Interior Ministry were particularly adamant in their opposition to allowing Rami M. to visit the embassy. The alleged explosives expert, they said, should not be granted any opportunity to carry out an attack. Instead, they said, the Pakistanis should arrest him before he got there.
Foreign Ministry officials, however, were unhappy with the proposal, meaning that the two ministries ultimately pursued two contradictory strategies. While the embassy sent Rami M. the June 18 e-mail offering their support, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office informed their Pakistani counterparts on June 19 of Rami M.'s ensuing appointment at the embassy. The secret service had a "tip off that a high-ranking activist would be in the region around the city of Bannu," a Pakistani police officer told SPIEGEL. "So we and the army established the checkpoint." M.'s left leg is reportedly injured and he is in poor condition.
Rami M.'s family now wants to know if Germany is responsible for his arrest. They say he was afraid of falling into the hands of the ISI and would rather have confronted accusations of involvement in terror in Germany. His wife has even accused the embassy of betrayal.
German officials have likely passed up a golden opportunity. The arrest not only calls the credibility of the new exit program for Islamists -- launched just last week -- into question. But Rami M. cannot, for the time being, be questioned by German officials. So far, Pakistan has declined to cooperate in the investigation. Indeed, they have yet to even confirm the identity of the man they arrested.
By Susanne Koelbl, Yassin Musharbash, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark