Sauerland Cell in the Dock Germany Prepares for Homegrown Terror Trial

The members of the Sauerland cell who allegedly planned to bomb targets in Germany are about to go on trial. It looks like an open-and-shut case, but federal prosecutors want to prove that the defendants belong to a foreign terrorist organization -- an accusation that is based on dubious witnesses.

By Yassin Musharbash and

They won't be allowed to wear Islamic knit caps when they see each other again, that much is clear. They will also not be able to perform all their daily prayers as they are used to doing, at least not at the right times.

When Fritz Gelowicz, Daniel Schneider and Adem Yilmaz enter the courtroom on Wednesday next week, it will be the first time that they will have seen each other since that fateful Tuesday in September 2007, when the three young men from the German towns of Ulm, Neunkirchen and Langen became known overnight as the "Sauerland group," an alleged terror cell that investigators say was planning a horrific act: simultaneous car bomb attacks with as many victims as possible. "The world will burn," as one of the defendants reportedly said.

Ever since a massive police detachment of 600 officers surprised the trio in Oberschledorn in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, catching them in the act of mixing the ingredients for their alleged test bombs, the Islamists have been held at widely separated locations. They have been held in the high-security wings of Stammheim, Schwalmstadt and Weiterstadt prisons, largely isolated from other inmates. They were even alone when they exercised in the prison yards.

The state reserves this form of isolation for its most dangerous enemies. Now this special treatment will enter its public phase. On April 22, the presiding judge of the Sixth Criminal Division -- which specializes in security-related issues -- of the Higher Regional Court in Düsseldorf, Ottmar Breidling, will open proceedings against the trio as well as a fourth man who was arrested later, the alleged accomplice Attila Selek. It will be the beginning of an exceptional trial.

The German public will feel transported back in time to the big terror trials of the 1970s involving the Red Army Faction (RAF), West Germany's most prominent far-left terrorist group. With its intimidating security architecture, the bunker-like new court building in Düsseldorf looks like a modern day version of Stammheim, the purpose-built prison venue where the RAF leaders were held and tried.

The defendants will sit behind panes of glass, separated by guards whose job is to prevent any contact among the men. Even their lawyers can only communicate with them via 24 air holes.

It became clear during a preliminary hearing at the trial venue in mid-March that very little leniency can be expected from the presiding judge. Breidling has experience with trials of Islamic extremists -- and he has a reputation for being a hard-line judge. Last December, he sentenced the failed "suitcase bomber" Youssef Mohammed el-Hajdib to life in prison for multiple counts of attempted murder.

The evidence against the defendants seems so overwhelming that the Sauerland trial looks like an open-and-shut case. The investigations alone were an enormous law enforcement effort, comprising one of the largest surveillance operations in postwar German history. Now it appears things will continue on a similarly grand scale during the trial. Federal prosecutors from Karlsruhe have assembled 521 loose-leaf folders, enough to fill up a shelf 42 meters (138 ft.) long. Prosecutors alone have listed 219 witnesses and experts. The parties anticipate that the trial will last two years.

These proceedings have far-reaching political ramifications. The group's attack plans have altered Germany's political and legal landscape, even though their bombs were never completed. Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider have shown the Germans that "homegrown" terrorism is not only a British problem. In addition, Adem Yilmaz and Attila Selek -- both Turks who grew up in Germany -- are also seen as a warning signal: Will any of the country's other 2.5 million residents of Turkish origin succumb to the call of terrorism?

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who belongs to the conservative Christian Democrats, used the Sauerland terror cell as an argument in favor of a new law for the country's Federal Criminal Police (BKA). Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, a member of the left-leaning Social Democrats, has proposed legislation that would make it a punishable offense to visit a terror camp or possess bomb-building instructions.

But this law doesn't exist yet, and it would have no influence on the outcome of this trial in any case, as it was not in force when the suspects were allegedly hatching their plot. In Düsseldorf the prosecution is building its case on Section 129b of the German Criminal Code, which was added to the code in 2002. This section is aimed mainly at international jihadists, among other groups, and punishes membership in a terrorist organization abroad with up to 10 years in prison. Investigators in such proceedings enjoy extremely far-reaching rights, and the defendants are subject to rigid detention conditions.

Of course Chief Federal Prosecutor Monika Harms could rely entirely on Section 129a, which was specifically tailored to the RAF and makes it a punishable offense to be a member of a domestic terrorist organization. She could concentrate on the story of a few young men in Germany who became radicalized and shut themselves off from the rest of society, who purchased barrels of hydrogen peroxide at €200 ($265) apiece, and then talked about possible targets: discos and bars "with American sluts" and the "prestige target" of the US air base Ramstein.

There are a large number of such conversations on tape. Agents bugged the men's vehicles and the holiday home that they apparently wanted to use to make test explosives; they read their e-mails and kept their apartments under observation. At the same time, however, the police stress that this by no means qualifies as "total" surveillance, which would prove problematic under German law; Germany's Federal Constitutional Court has ruled that individuals' "core" private sphere cannot be placed under surveillance. The defense sees the matter differently, however.

The wiretapping transcripts constitute the prosecution's most compelling evidence. The motivation, plans and determination of the three men will be hard to deny. Nonetheless, Harms has decided to prosecute the case based on another line of attack. She intends to take this domestic case to the international stage and link a domestic terrorist organization to a foreign one. She sees these provincial German Islamists as being connected to major international terrorists and an organization in the wilds of Waziristan called the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), whose camp they allegedly visited.

Relatively little is known about the IJU, which was formed in 2002 and has roots in Uzbekistan. Starting in 2004, it bombed its way into the headlines with attacks on the Israeli and the US embassies in Tashkent, the office of the Uzbek prosecutor general and a bazaar. Today, the IJU is estimated to have no more than a few hundred fighters. In any case, after being intensely pursued by the authorities in Uzbekistan, they have relocated their base of operations to the Waziristan region in Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan.

But why is it so important for Germany's chief federal prosecutor to prove that the defendants are members of the IJU?


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