The call came from abroad, and the man speaking hurriedly on the other end of the line sounded as if he feared for his life. He wanted out, he told the officers of the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) -- out of the terrorist scene. He wanted to come back to Germany, back to his family. Then he asked if German officials could help him.
Right now, they're trying to do just that. The BKA is pursuing the case under the codename "Nova." The apparently remorseful man could be an important possible whistleblower from a dangerous region of the globe. In fact, he is also the most recent reason why German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière put the entire country in a state of fright on Wednesday.
During a hastily called press conference that day, de Maizière stated that Germany faced the threat of terrorist attacks that might be launched against the country at some point in November. As he put it, Germany is "presently dealing with a new situation."
Just two days earlier, the source had called for the third time in just a short period and provided more information. He told officials that a small group of terrorists wanted to conduct a raid on the Reichstag building in Berlin, which houses the federal parliament, and that that was only one of the targets included in their attack plans.
Germany on High Alert
Since then, Germany has been in a state of high alert. The Reichstag is surrounded with barricades and its popular cupola tourist attraction temporarily closed to visitors. Police armed with submachine guns are patrolling major railway stations and airports. And vacations have been called off for officials at the country's security agencies. Wherever they have cause for doing so, the authorities are secretly monitoring communications, conducting surveillance operations and launching undercover investigations. At the moment, investigators seem to be at a loss; their modus operandi: "We'll prod the shrubs and see if we can flush out any birds."
"There is cause for worry, but no cause for hysteria," de Maizière assured his listeners. But while he has never been much of an agitator, his colleagues at the state level have described the situation in much more drastic terms. Uwe Schünemann, for example, who has been the interior minister of the northwestern state of Lower Saxony since 2003, stated that he had "never experienced a heightened security situation like this one." And Berlin Senator for the Interior Ehrhart Körting, whose position is tantamount to that of a government minister in the city-state, has already even gone so far as to call on the inhabitants of the German capital city to report suspicious-looking individuals of Arab origin to the police. "If you suddenly see three somewhat strange-looking men who are new to your neighborhood, who hide their faces and who only speak Arabic," Körting said, "you should report them to the authorities."
Under heightened pressure, officials in Germany's 16 federal states are now checking to see when and where major events are scheduled to take place this coming week within their boundaries. And nothing suggested as a possible target is being discounted, no matter how unlikely. For example, officials in Rhineland-Palatinate warned the state's interior minister, Karl Peter Burch, that there was always a lot going on at IKEA stores on Saturdays.
Serenity, Scaremongering and Strategy
Since last week, German politicians at both the state and federal levels have once again had to figure out how they will handle themselves when making warnings about terrorist attacks. They have had to come up with a language that can simultaneously convey both an alert and a sense of calm.
This is no easy task. For one thing, this isn't the first time this has happened. In September 2009, for example, right before federal elections were held, there were concrete threats that resulted in a heightened security situation. But, in the end, nothing happened. This time around, people are wondering whether they are on the precipice of an emergency or whether these are once again empty threats.
Still, one thing is certain: For the time being, Germany has become a different country -- more nervous, more anxious, more agitated. And Germany's domestic security policies are being put to the test.
When Interior Minister de Maizière assumed his office in October 2009 in conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, he aimed to cool down the heated sense of alarm regularly fanned out by his predecessors. What's more, the man who had served as Merkel's chief of staff in Chancellery until being moved to the role of interior minister in her new government, was given the task of nurturing a more relaxed relationship between her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its new coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). In particular, it was his job to not draw out the long-standing conflict over domestic security policies with the Justice Ministry, which has been led since the 2009 election by Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the FDP. Indeed, Merkel feared that the quarrelsome FDP might try to capitalize on the issue to win over more voters, so she assigned de Maizière to prevent that from happening.
In fact, the plan was to repeat the same strategy that the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), had used when they were in the so-called "grand coalition" with the center-left Social Democratic Party, between 2005 and 2009. At the time, they made a point of undermining the SPD by championing what had traditionally been the latter party's issues.
But now the game plan has changed. This November will drastically alter de Maizière's understanding of his role in office. If he tries to return things to their previous state of calm, he's going to have a very tough time. In fact, it's much more likely that he will be a completely different interior minister.
For a while now, de Maizière's softer stance has prompted opposition by politicians on the right involved with domestic security issues. But they are now calling louder than ever for a tougher course to be followed. Merkel is also adjusting to the new situation and is reportedly happy with the way de Maizière handled himself last week. Likewise, no one seems to have voiced any criticism last Thursday evening during a meeting of the Coalition Committee, a regular gathering of the parties that are part of the government.
The almost complete lack of protest has a lot to do with where the alarming information is coming from. In fact, information regarding the supposedly imminent attacks has come from two independent sources. Shortly before receiving the telephone call about the planned attacks, BKA officials had received a cable from their American counterparts at the FBI, America's federal police force, warning of possible attacks.
Still, what truth is there in these "security-related" pieces of information coming from both domestic and foreign sources? And, given all the discrepancies in the warning messages, just how much do they deserve to be trusted? Indeed, even among security officials themselves, there is some doubt about how legitimate these statements are -- and about just how acute the danger threatening Germany really is.
An Attack Modelled after Mumbai
What the caller reported was undeniably alarming. According to him, al-Qaida and associated groups based in Pakistan were making joint preparations for an attack in Germany. One idea was to remotely detonate a bomb using a mobile phone. Another called for a small group of terrorists to storm the Reichstag with guns blazing, take hostages and end everything in one calamitous bloodbath. Indeed, BKA officials learned that the latter plan had been modeled on the storming of luxury hotels in Mumbai, the Indian capital, almost exactly two years ago, in a massacre that left 175 people dead.
According to the caller, the plan called for the terrorists to procure the submachine guns, automatic rifles, explosives and whatever else they would need to storm Germany's parliament building in the Balkans. He said that two men had already traveled to Germany six to eight weeks earlier, adding that one had the nom de guerre of "Abu Mohammed" and that the other one was a German of Turkish origin. Both apparently had roots in the Greater Berlin metropolitan area, were currently unemployed and living off of welfare payments and had immersed themselves in the anonymity provided by a major city -- until the time should come for their activation.
Likewise, there were allegedly four other volunteers -- including a German, a Turk, a North African and another jihadist of unknown identity -- in the training camps run by al-Qaida and related groups waiting for the signal to travel to Germany. And, according to the telephone source, al-Qaida's plan was to attack in February or March.
The only question now relates to just how credible the caller's statements are. He is an insider who joined up with armed groups several months ago and has earned a reputation as a fanatic fighter.
But could it be that he is only trying to tell German officials the juiciest things possible in order to raise his own market value and thereby prompt them to extract him from the terror scene? Or could it be that al-Qaida is even planning a second spectacular coup like the one in December 2009, when the Americans allowed a supposedly top-level turncoat onto an American military base without any sort of pat-down, who went on to detonate his explosive vest and blow seven CIA officials to bits?
A Strange Message
A clear picture has yet to emerge. And one reason for this is also the fact that it was only two weeks ago that the FBI first decided to share information about another possible attack with German officials.
In this case, even the way contact was made was unusual. Under normal circumstances, liaisons from the CIA station in Germany are the ones to communicate American warnings to their German counterparts. But, this time around, it was an apparently particularly anxious FBI that chose to directly notify the BKA.
The FBI told the Germans about an obscure Indian group called "Saif," or "sword." Despite being a Shiite group, it had allegedly made a pact with al-Qaida, a Sunni organization, and sent five of its men to the Pakistani province of Waziristan for training. According to the FBI, two volunteers -- who were already equipped with visas allowing them to travel freely within the 25 European countries belonging to the Schengen zone -- were supposedly already en route to Germany and would enter the United Arab Emirates on Monday, Nov. 22. There, they would allegedly be provided with new travel documents before traveling on to Germany. One of the men is supposedly named "Khan," which is about as common in that part of the world as "Smith" is in English-speaking countries. And no firm conclusion had been made about their nationalities.
The FBI agents even named the presumed masterminds behind the operation. A certain Mushtaq Altaf Bin-Khadri, who is in charge of finances and training for "Saif," allegedly dispatched the terrorist squad. But the FBI was not in a position to comment on the targets of the two men in Germany.
One name came up time and again in the communiqué, and one that pricked the Germans' ears: Dawood Ibrahim. The 54-year-old arms trader is "India's most-wanted man." The US government has listed him as a "global terrorist" and persuaded the United Nations to place his name on a list of supporters of terror. Ibrahim is rumored to be the head of D-Company, a criminal syndicate named after himself, and is believed to be in charge of smuggling the suspected terrorists into Germany.
Both the FBI and the BKA are attaching a lot of importance to the information in the FBI communiqué. But the intelligence services of the two countries -- the CIA in the United States and the BND and Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Germany, the country's foreign and domestic intelligence agencies, respectively -- point to internal contradictions as reasons for their skepticism. As they see it, for example, it is highly unlikely that a Shiite group would team up with Sunni terrorists, especially since a good part of al-Qaida propaganda vilifies Shiites. Other reasons for doubt include the facts that none of the intelligence agencies was previously familiar with an organization called "Saif," that there have been no previously recorded threats against Germany by Indian extremists, and that the whole scenario seems rather implausible.
On the other hand, the FBI information is uncommonly concrete. In addition to the names of the suspects, it also provides information about the exact day on which they are supposed to arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, Ibrahim is believed to be one of the men behind the terror attacks in Mumbai. If he really is involved, that alone would be reason enough for worry.
Under normal circumstances, a message of this kind from the United States would no doubt be cause for serious-minded scrutiny, but it would not be a cause for alarm. For example, the BKA would go through all recent visa applications, and federal police officers would take a closer look at all the people entering Germany from Arab states. And the intelligence services would make the rounds to see if any of its partners had any helpful information on the matter.
Indeed, under normal circumstances, there are always a lot of these communiqués, most of which turn out to be false alarms. But these are no normal circumstances. Germany is in a state of emergency. Other countries, such as the United States, employ a system of official warning levels based on color codes that change -- from yellow to orange, for example -- when the danger level is thought to increase. But, in Germany, the interior minister is the barometer: He consults with experts -- and then it is he who must call the shots.
For the minister, a situation like this presents a dilemma. If he remains silent and something happens, he's a failure. If he makes loud warning and nothing happens, he's just a rabble-rouser trying to push through controversial tougher security laws. And, of course, the public never thanks you if everyday life continues in a normal, peaceful way.
Absolute Security Remains a Pipe Dream
When de Maizière became Germany's interior minister, he had planned to lead the ministry in a level-headed way. For example, he prefers to use phrases such as "internal calm" rather than "internal security." And it was only six weeks ago that he uttered the sentence: "There's no cause for alarm." But, since then, the chorus of warning voices has only ballooned in size.
This change in course is the combined result of everything that happened beforehand. It might very well turn out that the alleged Indian terror squad stays home and that the raid on the Reichstag never happens. But what will remain is a well-founded supposition that there is a critical mass of terrorists in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan that is thinking about launching attacks in Europe -- and certainly in Germany, as well.
Given such circumstances, there is a major sense of alarm among German officials. Last Thursday, just a day after de Maizière's shocking press conference, the BKA issued a press release "in connection with the current high-risk situation." It reported that a piece of suspicious luggage had been discovered a day earlier in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, before being loaded onto a plane bound for Germany. The laptop bag contained batteries, wires, a detonator and a clock -- in other words, all the ingredients you need for a potential airborne catastrophe.
It sounded as if another terror plot had been foiled. Had there been a plan to blow up Air Berlin Flight 7377 en route to Munich? And had the authorities, yet again, discovered an explosive device at the last minute? In the end, all the worry was unfounded. As it turned out, the piece of luggage was a test device built by a company that designs "real test" suitcases to be used to test security measures. It remains unclear who checked the bag in. But the fact that the BKA was so quick to go into alarm mode -- and publicly so -- has been a communications debacle.
Of course, these days, nobody wants to be the one that wasn't sufficiently circumspect, the one who took too long to speak up. No one wants a replay of situations like the one from the beginning of November, when de Maizière didn't know for hours whether the package that had arrived at the Chancellery contained actual explosives or was just a false alarm. Now, the threshold for sounding the alarm is already much lower.
Bonded by Fear
Of course, you can never be too sure. Over the last 12 months, a series of attacks concocted in the Afghan-Pakistani border region have been foiled in the West. For example, in May, a car bomb set in New York's Times Square by a man with ties to the Pakistani Taliban failed to properly detonate. In Copenhagen, al-Qaida had made plans to storm the offices of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper as revenge for its 2005 publishing of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In October 2009, David Headley, an American citizen with Pakistani roots, was arrested after having already visited the newspaper's offices in order to scout them out before the planned attack. Other targets reportedly included the subway systems of New York City and Washington.
On the other hand, absolute security is a pipe dream. For example, British authorities had even conducted rehearsals for how to respond to possible attacks. But, even so, when attacks claiming 56 lives (including those of four attackers) did strike London, on July 7, 2005, they were unable to prevent them. Likewise, US intelligence services had warned India a number of times that terrorists were planning attacks in Mumbai.
The new situation in Germany has at least had one positive side effect: For the time being, the traditionally quarrelsome interior ministers from both the state and the federal levels have refrained from their usual bickering. Following informal talks held last Thursday in Hamburg, Minister Bruch of Rhineland-Palatinate noted that he had "never experienced such harmony within this group" that has apparently been bonded together by their shared fear.
- • Al-Qaida Warnings: Threat of Terror Escalates in Germany
- • Making Sense of the Mumbai Attacks: In the Triangle of Terror