Targeting Terrorists Germany's Dilemma in Dealing with Islamist Threats
Part 2: 'No Blueprint for Dealing with Dangerous Islamists'
The police, at least, have more clear structures in place for the exchange of information. As soon as a person has been identified as a possible threat, the decision is shared with all state criminal investigation offices and with the federal BKA. The centralized list is maintained by the BKA and it is updated monthly. But the ultimate responsibility for managing the threat resides with the state in which the perceived threat is living.
The state offices of criminal investigation create a profile of each potential threat. In addition to photos, it contains fields with all the information known about the person -- among other things their nationality, marital status, family status, contacts, whether they know martial arts, language proficiency and computer skills. If enough information is obtained to launch criminal proceedings, the public prosecutor is informed.
One of the most recent entries onto the list of potential threats is Kevin T. of Neuss, a city neighboring Düsseldorf. Operating under the pseudonym "Sayfullah," he posted comments on the internet regarding his assessment of Islamic State reports. Regarding a report that a 15-year-old boy had been decapitated for listening to Western music, for example, he wrote that the punishment had been too severe. "A whipping probably would have been sufficient," commented a person going by the name Mahmud. "I think so, too," wrote Kevin T.
Kevin T., a German who converted to Islam, landed on the list because he had been in contact with a 17-year-old from Vienna who officials believed was planning an attack. Police then searched Kevin T.'s apartment a few weeks ago and temporarily detained him.
Beyond that connection, officials at the state Interior Ministry in Düsseldorf say Kevin T. was seen in the streets of Neuss carrying an Islamic State flag and clearly identifiable as a Salafist. He is not, however, considered to be a major figure in the Salafist scene and during questioning, he denied being an IS sympathizer. But is a person like Kevin T. actually dangerous? Is he a threat to the state he lives in? Or is he just a post-pubescent loudmouth?
The potential threats of today, it seems, are not generally college-educated attackers like the 9/11 perpetrators in Mohammed Atta's circle, who spent years planning the attacks on New York and Washington. For today's IS-inspired attackers, a driver's license, a knife or an ax are sufficient.
Furthermore, it is not uncommon to find unpredictable and emotionally unstable individuals within today's latest generation of Islamists -- people like Sascha L. from Northeim near the university town of Göttingen. Police arrested the 26-year-old a few weeks ago on suspicions that he was planning an attack on soldiers and police officers. During a search of his apartment, officers found chemicals and electronic components that could be used in the construction of an explosive device. Three years ago, though, Sascha L. was posting right-wing extremist videos on YouTube. Is he just on a confused search for his own identity? Or is he, in fact, an enemy of the state?
"There's no blueprint for dealing with dangerous Islamists," says Boris Pistorius, the interior minister of the state of Lower Saxony. "We have to look very closely at each case."
Two Dozen Serious Threats?
That's why terror experts must constantly be performing fresh analysis on each potential threat. What risks does the person pose? Should surveillance measures be increased or reduced?
Questions such as these are discussed every day at a former military barrack in Berlin's Treptow district. Representatives from more than 40 police and domestic intelligence agencies work together there as part of the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (GTAZ). A projector beams presentations and images onto a screen while yellowed maps hang on the walls along with a clock that shows different times around the world.
At GTAZ, every Islamist who is placed on the potential threat list is discussed. The group also takes a close look at those who are to be removed from the list. The discussions are organized by the BKA-led Working Group for Operative Information Exchange. In 2015, the group met 250 times, a significant increase over the previous year, when there were 140 meetings. And the workload of officials working there increases by the day. "Few here work for less than 12 hours a day," says one top investigator.
Germany's new refugees also mean more work for the agency. Last year, around 400 cases were reported of Islamists allegedly seeking to recruit refugees. Most of the reports turned out not to be true and a senior official says there are currently around two dozen people under surveillence in Germany for whom there is evidence of terrorist intent.
The number of reports coming into Germany from foreign intelligence agencies has also increased significantly. Since the summer of 2015, Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency has received two to three reports a day about alleged terrorist activity in the country. Often, it is only superficial information, but checking it amounts to considerable work.
During GTAZ meetings, there is often disagreement on the assessment of individual threats. When Daniel S., a former member of the German terrorist cell known as the Sauerland Group, which was uncovered in 2007, was released from jail, the BKA advocated removing him from the list, arguing that he had credibly distanced himself from Islamism. But the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Saarland disagreed and placed him on the list of potential threats. Now he is monitored on a regular basis, almost 10 years after his arrest.
Back on the Radar
The approach to Adnan V. is also highly controversial. A higher regional court in Frankfurt convicted the former chemistry student to two years of probation in 2011 for providing assistance to a terrorist organization. He had promoted al-Qaida on the internet and also passed along bombmaking instructions. But he would later publicly distance himself from Islamism several times and also confessed in court. "That's why we want to give you a chance," the court's top judge said on the day of the ruling.
Yet despite insisting otherwise, it appears that V. never entirely turned his back on the Islamist scene. When investigators in the state of Hesse searched the apartment of Islamist Halil D. in the town of Oberursel in 2015, they also came across correspondence from Adnan V. At the time, Halil D. had been suspected of planning a bomb attack at a bicycle race -- suspicions prosecutors were unable to prove in court.
But the attention received by Halil D. pushed Adnan V. back onto the radar of the state apparatus. Domestic intelligence agents began visiting him regularly and warned him against lapses. V. complained bitterly to the officials about once again being placed under surveillance.
"Being identified as a potential threat carries a stigma with it," says Berlin lawyer Tarig Elobied. Some of his clients have complained of having difficulty finding jobs after being placed on the authorities' surveillance lists. Others claim that they are innocent and that they feel harrassed by the agents. Legally, however, they don't have much recourse.
Even Islamists who have been reported killed in Syria frequently remain on investigators' radar. "There is significant concern that we could be misled by an incorrect death report and that one of them could reappear," says one police chief. It is rare that a name is removed from the list, he says, with officers preferring to be on the safe side. "Nobody wants to end up being the one who underestimated a threat."
As happened in the case of Anis Amri, the Berlin attacker. Amri was discussed seven times at GTAZ. Those participating in the discussion believed that the chance was relatively limited that he would participate in a terrorist attack. On a scale of one ("a dangerous event is likely") to eight (no danger), they assigned Amri a five (attack "rather unlikely").
Among the evidence examined in Amri's cases was a claim made by an informant from North Rhine-Westphalia that Amri had sought to obtain an automatic weapon and explosives to "do something." But they were unable to find any proof for the claim, which is why they viewed the scenario as unlikely. Their evaluation wasn't completely wrong: Amri did not get his hands on an automatic weapon. But investigators failed to realize that he was dangerous nonetheless.
Officials from the federal and state police forces now intend to focus more on the personalities of those presenting a potential threat rather than just on possible scenarios. They hope that doing so will result in a more efficient use of their resources: Those posing significant risk have to be under constant surveillance while those who aren't as dangerous can be watched more sporadically.
To develop such personality profiles, the BKA has joined together with the Working Group for Forensic Psychology at the University of Konstanz to create a new instrument called Radar-iTE. It is a method that allows police experts to evaluate the danger a specific individual represents by analyzing all data available about that person.
The basis for that analysis is a standardized list of questions looking at a variety of features of the person's biography: How did the person grow up? How well are they integrated into social circles outside of the Islamist scene? Do they have a police record and, if yes, for what crimes? What are their attitudes to violence? Do they have military experience? Do they have access to weapons? How have their interactions with officials been? To analyze the resulting data, experts compare the information they have about 30 attackers with the data from 30 potentially threatening individuals and "relevant persons."
In the end, the analysis results in a color-coded threat assessment: Green for instances where the threat is "moderate," yellow for "noteworthy" and red for "high." When investigators used the new instrument to test Anis Amri after the fact, he ended up in the red category. In the future, those identified as high risk will be placed under more intense surveillance.
The new program is slowly being introduced at the state level, with priority given to states where the most Islamists live: Berlin, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and, first and foremost, North Rhine-Westphalia. The number of those thought to pose a terrorist threat has spiked in the state in recent years. In 2007, just 10 names were on the list, but by 2016, the total had risen to 211, along with 105 additional "relevant persons."
The next step foresees states coordinating their approaches to dangerous Islamists and coming up with common procedures.
A Patchwork of Methods
It is a challenging undertaking given that German states determine individually what methods are allowed. Whereas in Bavaria, the phone of someone who has been determined to be a terrorist threat may be tapped, that is not allowed in North Rhine-Westphalia or Berlin. Online surveillance is likewise only allowed in two states. It is a patchwork of methods, says one GTAZ investigator.
Despite the improvements currently being made, it is an illusion to believe that governments can keep all those intent on damaging it under control. Officials will overlook potential attackers or misjudge them -- and sometimes it will overreact, as it did on Nov. 17, 2015, when the international football friendly between Germany and the Netherlands was called off in Hannover due to a terror warning.
Almost right until kickoff, GTAZ police officials thought the match could go ahead as planned despite a warning that had been received from a foreign intelligence agency. But when additional evidence began trickling in, the airplane of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was on her way to the game, had to be turned around so she could head back to Berlin. The fans in the stadium were likewise sent home. Only later did it turn out that there had apparently been no threat at all.
On the afternoon of that day, investigators checked in on several people on their list of potential terrorist threats who they thought could possibly be linked to the heightened threat level in Hannover. And in Hildesheim, a car was pulled over. "We had just finished our shopping," says Emre A. in the Hungarian prison where he was locked up. "We bought some soft drinks and something to eat." Shortly after he and his companions climbed back into the car and drove off, "automatic weapons were suddenly pointed at us from all sides. I had several red dots on my body." The four men were pulled out of the car and forced to lie flat on the road. "One officer dressed in civilian clothing held his automatic weapon directly to my head," Emre A. says.
Emre A. was released again later that evening. Officials still don't know if he truly represents a danger, though they believe he might. Last December, Hildesheim municipal officials gave Emre A.'s lawyer written notice that his client's residency permit for Germany had expired. The lawyer filed a complaint in response against the retention of his client's Turkish passport.
Recently, Hungary deported Emre A. -- not to his family in Germany but to Turkey.
By Maik Baumgärtner, Jörg Diehl, Hubert Gude, Martin Knobbe, Jörg Schindler and Fidelius Schmid
- Part 1: Germany's Dilemma in Dealing with Islamist Threats
- Part 2: 'No Blueprint for Dealing with Dangerous Islamists'