Osama bin Laden may be dead, but al-Qaida is alive and well in Germany. Each month, an average of five Islamists leave the country for terrorist training camps in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. Recent arrests in Düsseldorf show just how dangerous homegrown terror has become.
It isn't easy being a militant Islamist, as Abdeladim el-K. and Jamil S. learned on a Tuesday two weeks ago. The two men were sitting in a two-room apartment on Witzelstrasse in the German city of Düsseldorf, complaining to each other about how complicated it is to build a functioning bomb. "Bomb is not so difficult as detonator," said Abdeladim el-K., "because detonator more dangerous than bomb."
The al-Qaida handbooks make it all sound so easy. You buy charcoal lighters and extract the hexamine, and already you have a component for a bomb. Apparently the method works everywhere, except possibly in Germany, where charcoal lighters have a different chemical composition than in other countries. In Düsseldorf, investigators would later discover a cooking pot the two men may have wanted to use to boil down the lighters.
The apartment was under surveillance, as were the men's phones and computers. The police had been listening in on the two men's conversations for weeks, except when the sound of the television or the washing machine drowned out what they were saying. On Wednesday, when the men, speaking in broken German, began discussing "making an attack at bus stop" or possibly on a bus, the federal prosecutor's office decided to move in rather than wait until the would-be terrorists had built their bomb and were ready to use it.
On the morning of Friday, April 29, police arrested Moroccan national Abdeladim el-K., 29, German-Moroccan electrician Jamil S., 31 and German-Iranian student Amid C., 19, who was on the verge of taking his final examinations prior to graduating from high school.
At the center of the investigation in Düsseldorf was Abdeladim el-K., who investigators believe was the leader of the cell. He had allegedly brought the virus of Islamist terror from Afghanistan to Düsseldorf and had been in contact with Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a senior member of al-Qaida. The two men had apparently met in an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan, and it appeared that el-K. was al-Qaida's man for the Rhine-Ruhr region of western Germany.
Most Have Attended Training Camps
Much has changed in the Islamist terrorist scene in Germany in the almost 10 years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but one constant has remained. Like the 9/11 attackers, the overwhelming majority of militant jihadists in Germany have attended training camps run by al-Qaida or affiliated groups.
In these camps, would-be terrorists receive instruction on terrorism techniques and are given orders to be carried out in Europe. The camps are still in the Hindu Kush region that straddles Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, but now they are somewhat farther to the south than before, in the border area between the two countries. The Western invasion of Afghanistan did not change that. Neither have countless military offensives or US drone attacks.
Osama bin Laden is dead, as are many of his closest associates. But the recruitment of new blood is still going strong. The terror network has been continually transforming itself, as new terrorists have come up through the ranks, running individual camps and smaller organizations, before disappearing from view again.
Al-Qaida today resembles an army whose battalions were torn apart after the invasion of Afghanistan and whose surviving troop units are now operating more or less autonomously. But there are still many soldiers willing to fight, including some from Germany. "So many people arrive every month that there are problems finding places for them to stay," says Rami Makanesi, a suspected al-Qaida member from Hamburg who also attended a training camp in the Hindu Kush region.
Paradoxically, the new structure, with its many splinter groups, makes it easier for Islamist fanatics to latch onto one of the organizations. "In the last few years, the threat level in Germany from al-Qaida has actually increased," says German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU).
Surge in Volunteers
Never before have as many volunteers from Germany attended terrorist training camps as in the last two years. According to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, 138 people from Germany planned to travel to a training camp in 2009 alone. Since then, five volunteers leave the country on average each month to go to one of the camps in Pakistan. In the last decade, at least 220 people from Germany have completed terrorist training, with about half returning to Germany.
German authorities now know a lot about what happens in places like Mir Ali and Miram Shah, two centers of the jihad movement in Pakistan's tribal areas. They know, for example, that the emir of one training camp pays his recruits only a few rupees a day, which is not even enough to buy a piece of meat.
They have heard that activists with an organization called the "German Taliban Mujahideen" and German members of al-Qaida meet and talk while shopping around noon at the market in Mir Ali. The men from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, on the other hand, are unpopular, because they supposedly behave like occupiers.
They are also familiar with derisive comments that al-Qaida fighters have made about Mounir Chouka, who lives in Bonn and has made so many propaganda videos that investigators have trouble keeping up. Within such circles, the man is regarded as a coward, because he routinely disappears before the first shots are fired.
The German investigators owe much of their knowledge to the statements made last fall by three German al-Qaida members, including the two friends from Hamburg, Ahmad Sidiqi and Rami Makanesi, who disappeared in March 2009.
Makanesi managed to slip away unnoticed, taking the train to Vienna and then flying to Tehran. If he hadn't called his wife in Hamburg from Pakistan two weeks after his disappearance, the authorities would not even have known his location at first. It wasn't until more than a year later, in June 2010, after Makanesi wanted to return to Germany and had called the German embassy in Islamabad, that he was arrested in Pakistan, wearing a burqa as a disguise.
He is now being held at Weiterstadt Prison in western Germany, awaiting his trial before a Frankfurt court. Makanesi, 25, has become a valuable source for German federal investigators. His case is typical of that of many young men from Germany who join al-Qaida.
Makanesi was born in Bockenheim, a Frankfurt neighborhood. His father was from Syria and worked as a car dealer in both Germany and Romania. His parents separated when he was in the sixth grade. He began smoking marijuana at 12 and soon began consuming hashish the way others smoke cigarettes, smoking five to 10 joints a day. "I was stoned when I went to bed at night, and when I woke up I'd start smoking again. It was always that way," Makanesi told the investigators. "I was constantly high." He began snorting cocaine at 14.
He was sentenced to two weeks in a youth detention facility, and then another two weeks soon afterwards. He was ordered to attend a seminar on violence. Eventually he was expelled from high school in Frankfurt because of his destructive behavior. Somehow he managed to obtain a high school diploma by attending an adult education center.
The month of Ramadan in 2007 marked a turning point. Makanesi encountered the itinerant preachers of the deeply conservative proselytizing organization Tablighi Jamaat. The Tablighis held a 10-day seminar at a Frankfurt mosque. Makanesi slept at the mosque, and instead of getting high he listened to the Islamic lectures. He was so taken by their message that he stopped taking drugs. Religion was his new addiction. From then on, things happened very quickly.
He met a German woman on the Internet who had converted to Islam, and they soon married under Islamic law, but without a German marriage certificate. "German law means nothing to us," he boasts.
In late September 2008, a group of Islamists met late one night in Bonn in a park along the Rhine River. Security officials observed the meeting, but the Islamists were prepared. Sentries placed along the road leading to the park had been told to look for unknown cars and headlights. The police tailing the men didn't stand a chance.
Makanesi was one of the men who attended the meeting. To this day, it remains unclear what exactly was discussed that evening, although investigators assume that it was plans to smuggle jihadists to Pakistan. Makanesi was now living in Hamburg and praying at the Al-Quds Mosque, where Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers had also met.
When officials from the German Federal Police (BKA) questioned Makanesi as a witness in early 2009, they found the young man to be self-confident and almost patronizing. "Let me explain it to you," he told the inspector, "al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq help the population. It's the same as when a neighbor comes to your aid when you are being attacked."
Four weeks later, he was gone.
'Embark on Jihad in Your Own Countries'He went to Mir Ali in Waziristan, in Pakistan's remote border region. When he arrived, an Uzbek group took away his money and possessions and interrogated him. There was a great fear of traitors. Makanesi rented a room for 500 rupees a month, or about 5 ($7), next to the largest mosque in the town. When he felt homesick, he bought Pepsi-Cola and Nutella in the market. The traditional Pashtun dish of potatoes with oil disgusted him.
When the war came to Waziristan in the fall of 2009, Makanesi dragged anti-aircraft missiles up a hill to fight the Pakistani army, which was on the march in the tribal areas. He had little knowledge of war. He weighed 125 kilos (275 pounds), had trouble with his knee and shoulders and felt more comfortable with big talk than with heavy weapons.
The defense efforts failed miserably. When Pakistani forces captured the nearby city of Makin, the al-Qaida fighters disassembled their machine guns and fled.
Anyone who was in Waziristan at that time almost automatically became a fighter. That also applied to most of the Germans. The BKA kept a classified list of between 30 and 40 people from Germany who were believed to be in Waziristan. There were over a dozen from Berlin alone. One of them was Fatih T., 27.
'Thirty-Nine Ways to Support Jihad'
In the propaganda videos T. used to target adolescents in Germany, he was shown proudly pointing at the wreckage of a downed helicopter. Wearing a heavy black beard, he called upon young people in neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrants, such as Kreuzberg in Berlin and Wilhelmsburg in Hamburg, to join him in the fight against the infidels. He told them that it was up to them "to embark on jihad in your own countries."
Fatih T. had lived in the quiet Berlin neighborhood of Lankwitz, where he had attracted little attention to himself and was considered friendly. He had an iPhone, drove a scooter and was officially a student at a technical college. He even received state educational assistance payments totaling about 600 a month. But when family members were clearing out his apartment, they found a book titled "Thirty-Nine Ways to Support Jihad."
In Pakistan, he now went by the name of Abd al-Fattah al-Muhajir, and was the leader of a group calling itself the German Taliban Mujahideen. As awe-inspiring as the group's name was intended to sound, it actually consisted of no more than a handful of members.
In the run-up to the 2009 national election in Germany, the German Taliban issued a video that warned of attacks in Germany and showed photos of the Brandenburg Gate, the main train station in Hamburg and the Oktoberfest in Munich. Then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble took the warning seriously. Fatih T. and his friends must have felt very important indeed.
Requests for Money
From Waziristan, Fatih T. directed a network of supporters, most of them in Berlin. On one occasion, he asked them to send him up to $2,000 every three months, and on another he told them to take certain Turkish-language Islamic religious courses. He also told them that he couldn't contact them by phone, because he was staying in a country that the infidels viewed as a threat.
His family members received an email telling them that Fatih T. had a tumor in his kidney, was in a hospital in Yemen and urgently needed money for a transplant, which cost about 50,000. But the email was sent from Pakistan, not Yemen. The fighters apparently needed the money for their holy war.
In an Internet chat, Fatih T. tried to convince an old acquaintance from Kreuzberg to commit a suicide bombing attack in Germany, or at least that was how German investigators interpreted what T. had typed into his computer. A Berlin court had already convicted two of his supporters, with one receiving a prison sentence of two-and-a-half years and the other 22 months. Another of his closest associates was still on trial.
In the emails T. sent to Berlin from Waziristan, he wrote that he was "high on adrenaline." He was apparently referring to the effects of the bloody battles, in which losses were high. A number of the friends who had accompanied T. were already dead, shot by the Pakistani army.
Those in Mir Ali, including Makanesi, whose situation was similarly grim, quickly got wind of the names of the fallen jihadists. He had already lost 13 of his fellow combatants, Makanesi said in a telephone conversation with his wife, who had remained in Germany. He had a death wish, and yet he was afraid to die. He felt torn, asking himself whether Allah would take him to paradise, or whether he should return to his wife and daughter in Germany.
Computer Training for Jihad
He wrote a letter requesting a meeting with the mayor of Mir Ali, who was also a member of al-Qaida. Soon afterwards, a man arrived in a Toyota SUV who called himself Mohammed Younis al-Mauretani. The sheikh was slim and had dark eyes, a sharp chin and curly brown hair. He knew the entire Koran by heart. One night Makanesi watched Sheikh Younis spend hours playing an economic simulation game on a computer.
Makanesi said that he could raise money for al-Qaida in Germany. "Perfect. That's exactly what I would like," Sheikh Younis allegedly replied.
Sheikh Younis, Makanesi, his friend Ahmad Sidiqi and a Hamburg Islamist associated with the 9/11 pilots trained on the computer. The sheikh showed them how to use two computer programs called "Asrar" and "Camouflage." One is an encryption program for messages, and the other is used to hide encoded messages in image files. This was the way al-Qaida planned to communicate with the future German cell to be headed by Makanesi.
Sheikh Younis told the Germans that he had asked bin Laden for his permission to establish the cell, and that the terrorist leader had given his approval and had also agreed to provide some of the funding. The connection was apparently made through an al-Qaida member who would later play an important role for Germany, even though Makanesi didn't know it at the time. A Libyan with a thin moustache and a turban, his name was Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. According to Makanesi, he is the head of al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
During that summer and fall, in which Makanesi and his friend Ahmad Sidiqi began to talk to authorities, a third German began providing information. He contacted the BKA in November 2010. The man, like Sidiqi, told the BKA about other cells on German soil and described the individuals involved. The pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together when, in early 2011, American intelligence officials informed the Germans that a senior member of al-Qaida had established contact from Pakistan, via the Internet, to a man from Düsseldorf.
In Contact with Bin Laden
The German investigators were alarmed when they heard the name of the mysterious unknown man from Pakistan: It was not Mohammed Younis but Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who, according to the US authorities, had joined bin Laden's group as an adolescent in the 1980s. German and American investigators believe that he is one of the top five al-Qaida officials, and there is a $1 million reward for his capture in the United States. Abd al-Rahman is the only person who was in contact with bin Laden, says Makanesi. He describes the senior terrorist as "highly intelligent" and as a "very fastidious and serious person" who hardly ever laughed. The German met Abd al-Rahman in the summer of 2009. At the time, Abd al-Rahman was reportedly traveling around and talking about his life. Afterwards, according to Makanesi, he took down the names of fighters.
The BKA's investigation of the Düsseldorf cell was in high gear. Their computers came up with a list of 740 possible suspects, which was analyzed and narrowed down to 10 people. In the end, everything pointed to Abdeladim el-K. Surveillance of several callshops revealed that the Moroccan had tried to contact Abd al-Rahman several times. But his subsequent attempts to communicate with him failed. The Düsseldorf cell was now a satellite that had lost contact with the ground station.
There are many indications that al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan is deliberately recruiting volunteers like Abdeladim el-K. from Germany and then sending them back to their countries of origin to commit attacks. The Islamists' hope is that at least one cell will eventually succeed. Makanesi, who now claims that he regrets his time with al-Qaida, says that he sometimes had the feeling "that we were being used to test how far they could go in Europe."
No More Certainties
A few certainties were thought to apply after 9/11. One was that the third-generation youth of Turkish origin who had grown up in Germany had a more moderate understanding of Islam and were therefore less susceptible to Sunni extremism. Another was that it was primarily Arabs who sympathized with bin Laden, and a third was that terrorists could be spotted by the fact that they were in touch with other terrorists in places like Afghanistan.
There are no longer any certainties today. Young Turkish-Germans like Fatih T. embark on jihad, filled with hate, and eventually end up with some splinter group. Others escape the notice of the authorities completely as they become radicalized and turn into lone attackers like Arid U., who killed two American soldiers at Frankfurt Airport in March in an execution-style shooting. And then there are people like Makanesi and Abdeladim el-K., who were apparently in direct contact with al-Qaida officials.
Early this year, el-K. spent a few weeks in his native Morocco, where the local intelligence agency kept him under tight surveillance. After returning to Düsseldorf he became increasingly cautious, almost paranoid. He took to wearing a wig whenever he left his apartment, as if this would enable him to elude the people who were shadowing him.
But the wig did him as little good as hiding out in Abbottabad did bin Laden.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission