German Terror Arrests From the Rhine River to the Jihad

The arrest of two Muslim extremists at the Cologne-Bonn airport last week shows that German converts continue to volunteer for the jihad. Investigators fear that some are on their way back now that they've received training.

By SPIEGEL Staff


It was Friday morning, shortly before 7:00 a.m., and all passengers had boarded KLM flight 1804 at the Cologne-Bonn airport. The small Fokker 50 was ready for takeoff. This particular Friday was a special day for devout Muslims, being one of the last days of the holy month of Ramadan. According to the literature distributed by radical Islamists, anyone who completes his journey to Jihad during Ramadan will go straight to paradise. At least two of the passengers -- Abdirazak B., 24, and Omar D., 23, both Germans with Somali backgrounds -- were aware of this.

But they weren't the only ones. Criminal investigators from the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia had been trailing the two men -- and when officials found a letter from a relative of Omar D. in the physics student's luggage indicating that he had decided to join the "holy war," they decided to strike. The plane was prevented from taking off and the pair's path to Jihad came to an end on the Cologne-Bonn runway.

The arrest of the duo was the result of an ongoing covert operation run by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency. Investigators have long been keeping tabs on Islamists from Germany as they head for the Hindu Kush to train for the Jihad. For a number of weeks now, agents have maintained surveillance on a group of young fanatics in the Bonn region who are closely linked to the two detained German-Somalis. All these men are preparing to leave their lives in Germany behind them. Some have already given notice for their apartments, others have said farewell to friends.

Abdirazak B. and Omar D. were more or less the vanguard of this group. At times the investigating agencies had even considered confiscating their passports. The suspects wanted to travel to Entebbe in Uganda, and investigators have reason to believe that they planned to continue from there to Pakistan. There was even talk of a possible attack against one of Uganda’s many well known Jewish institutions, a development that led German officials to alert the US government and the Israelis.

On Their Way Back

According to a classified BfV report, over the past few years 50 extremists have slipped out of Germany with the aim of going into hiding in the Afghan-Pakistani border region and learning the trade at terrorist training camps. Some of them, like Sadullah Kaplan from Langen and Cüneyt Ciftci from Munich, were killed in the “holy war.” Others, like Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider, who were arrested last year and convicted of planning an attack in Germany -- part of the so-called "Sauerland Group" -- are serving prison sentences.

Still others, like Eric Breininger, 21, and Houssain al-Malla, 23, are apparently on their way back to Germany. Last week, Breininger became the new face of Islamic terrorism in Germany. On Thursday, the country’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) launched a nationwide manhunt for Breininger and a warrant has been issued for his arrest. Officials fear that Breininger, who received training in Pakistan, wants to return to Germany to carry out an attack.

The young man from the state of Saarland in western Germany is one of the latest converts to radical Islam -- and a difficult one to see coming. He played soccer on the youth team of Borussia Neunkirchen, styled his hair with gel, and went to tanning salons. But then he became radicalized virtually overnight. In early 2007, he was working for a parcel service in Neunkirchen where he met a colleague of Pakistani descent who wore a long beard and was enthusiastic about Islam. Breininger was delighted. He embraced the new religion and tossed his cross necklace into a river.

“That’s when he started to change,” recalls his sister Anke. She says she tried to confront him when he dropped out of business school in May 2007, “but I couldn’t get through to him anymore.” Breininger is “a very impressionable person,” says one investigator, “who could have just as easily ended up with the neo-Nazis or Scientology, if he had fallen under their influence.”

One day he told his relatives that he was no longer a German, but a Muslim, and that the Germans were all infidels, including his own family.

Rapid Transistion to Religious Warrior

Breininger moved into an apartment in Saarbrücken-Herrensohr with Daniel Schneider, who became a kind of mentor for him. The converts firmly rejected all worldly values. Neighbors said that the two young men “prayed often and very loudly to Allah.” In the austere rooms of the Omar Mosque, Breininger married his girlfriend according to Islamic law and proudly told her about Jihad: “That’s also what I intend to do,” he said.

It only took half a year for Breininger, a child of the material world, to transform into Abdul al-Gaffar, the religious warrior. It didn’t take much longer for Abdirazak B. and Omar D. to become radicalized. D. is a German citizen who attended a vocational prep school in the town of Rheine and, after graduation, went on to study at a Dutch university. His former roommate Michael K. says that he underwent a gradual transformation that began one and a half years ago. “Omar had always prayed,” recalls Michael, “but he became more extreme.”

At first, they used to go into town together and once in a while they would see a movie. But then Omar increasingly retreated to his room to watch Arab-language DVDs on his laptop. One day Michael asked Omar if he “was falling in with terrorists.” Omar gave a nebulous response.

It was around this time that Omar started to grow a beard, like the Somali Abdirazak B., known as “Zak” at the Brüser Berg soccer club in Bonn.

An Effort to Reach Paradise

Club members noticed a change in Zak. “He talked a lot about Allah and sent religious text messages,” says an acquaintance. Two weeks ago, Zak called him up. “He was crying and said we had to make an effort to reach paradise, and insisted on seeing me,” says the man. Today, he thinks that Zak probably wanted to say farewell. His last text message dates from Sept. 5. He wrote that “the moment has arrived when the duas will be answered,” referring to his Islamic prayers.

Omar D., Abdirazak B. and Eric Breininger all know each other, at least indirectly. They have a common friend from Bonn, Mohammed B., who investigators suspect has helped transfer volunteers to Pakistan. The airport arrests may have prevented Omar D. and Abdirazak B. from following a path similar to Breininger’s over a year ago, when he suddenly disappeared, although not necessarily of his own volition.

Schneider had told him to leave the country. He said that the Sauerland Group was preparing a bomb attack, and he wanted to ensure that Eric avoided falling into the hands of investigators. “So I told my brother that he absolutely had to go,” said Schneider later on.

When Breininger disappeared, it appeared at first that he wanted to end his life in Afghanistan as a suicide bomber. In April and May, two videos surfaced. “If you love God and his emissaries, then come to Jihad because that is the way to paradise,” Breininger said into the camera. In the film it looks as if he is on drugs.

Investigators haven’t figured out why he has set out to return to Europe, most likely to Germany. The last signs of life from Breininger date back to late August, when he was still in the mountains of Afghanistan. Presumably, the masterminds of Jihad have more use for him in Europe. There are many potential suicide bombers in Afghanistan, but not in Germany.

Now it’s a race between Breininger and the intelligence agents. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict that Breininger’s career will soon come to an end -- one way or another.

ANDREA BRANDT, SIMONE KAISER, MARCEL ROSENBACH, HOLGER STARK

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