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.
Von Yassin Musharbash und Marcel Rosenbach

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?

Dubious Tales and Dodgy Testimony

The answer lies primarily somewhere in the future, when other trials may have to be conducted. According to prosecutors, Gelowicz and his fellow defendants actively recruited friends and acquaintances for the holy war, and at least half a dozen of them have headed for the terrorist training camps. If the Sauerland group is found guilty, it should be easier to convict their alleged recruits, such as Houssain al-Malla and Eric Breininger,  should they ever return from the Hindu Kush.

In Waziristan, though, there are no bugs or wiretapping, only a wealth of hearsay and hypotheses -- which are significantly more difficult to use in a court of law.

Federal prosecutors have therefore gone to great lengths in their bid to document the foreign activities of the Sauerland gang. The result is a tale with dubious witnesses, mysterious sources and a number of contradictions. Their version of events begins in the summer of 2005 in Damascus, where Gelowicz and Yilmaz had traveled to take an Arabic course. In the Syrian capital they allegedly met a member of the IJU for the first time. They later referred to him as "Jaf" in their e-mails, sometimes also as "Jafer." Prosecutors say that this man is an Uzbek national named Gofir Salimov, born Feb. 27, 1978 in Parkent.

Salimov smuggles people across borders for the IJU, but in the case of the Sauerland cell, he was apparently also acting as a recruiter. The prosecution says that the decision by Gelowicz and Yilmaz to head for the terror training camp in Pakistan dates back to their encounter with Salimov.

At this particular point, the investigators' reconstruction of events may sound logical -- but it has gaps. There is no evidence to substantiate a meeting between Gelowicz and Salimov in Damascus. The prosecution has in fact constructed this piece of the puzzle based on ambiguous e-mails.

And even if this meeting actually took place: Did Salimov mention an organization called the IJU to the Germans? Or did he merely promise to show them the fabled door to jihad?

In December 2005, Yilmaz left the Syrian capital, and Gelowicz followed suit in April 2006. Shortly thereafter, both of them traveled via Turkey to Iran and, with Salimov's help, continued on to Waziristan, to an IJU training camp somewhere near Mir Ali, close to the border with Afghanistan. That's the prosecution's version of events.

As proof of the defendants' integration into IJU structures, prosecutors have produced what is supposed to be a top witness, an insider: Surat J., who, by his own account, was once the number two man in the IJU. Although the 40-year-old is not familiar with the names Gelowicz and Yilmaz, he has identified the two men from photographs. The Uzbek says that he saw them three times within the organization in Waziristan between March and May 2006. He says that the IJU's leader, Najmiddin Jalolov, personally gave the Germans the order to carry out attacks in their homeland.

The witness says that Germany became a target for the Uzbeks because of the air base operated by the German military, the Bundeswehr, in the Uzbek town of Termez: The German soldiers were apparently blocking the route between the IJU's country of origin, Uzbekistan, and their current base of operations in Pakistan.

This statement has a flaw, though. For over two years now, the witness has been held in a prison in Kazakhstan, a country that human rights organizations have repeatedly accused of mistreating prisoners. German investigators and a representative of the Federal Prosecutor's Office visited him in the Kazakh capital Astana in July 2008. The prisoner received his guests wearing a yellow Jesus t-shirt with a peace dove on it. According to the record of the meeting, a Kazakh witness stated that J. was in good physical condition.

Nevertheless, the entire investigative approach raises difficult questions. What value does such testimony have? What importance should it have in a fair and legal trial? Who can rule out that J. was briefed before he was questioned? To top it off, the Uzbek maintains that he saw the two Germans back in March 2006, when the prosecution says that Gelowicz was still in Damascus. An easy mistake to make, noted Germany's Federal Criminal Police.

Things are equally problematic with another incriminating source that investigators visited in Uzbekistan, a country where the rule of law is virtually non-existent. Sherali A., who has been in prison since 2006, remembers two Germans named Abd al-Malik and Talha, who he met in a terror camp, he says. This happens to match the names that Gelowicz and Yilmaz used for themselves.

But there are problems with this story, too. A. maintains that he met the Germans long before April 2006. And he says that he has absolutely no knowledge of the Islamic Jihad Union. The witness refers merely to the "Ahmad Group," although this group is also supposed to be led by Najmiddin Jalolov.

Consequently, prosecutors face a familiar problem, which is particularly serious in this case: Virtually nothing is more difficult than proving that someone is a member of a specific Islamist terrorist organization.

Although the IJU connection is rather obscure, after the two men returned to Germany, a decidedly clearer picture emerges. As soon as they arrived back home, Schneider and Gelowicz began to communicate with a man referred to as "Sule," who investigators identify as Suhail Buranov, apparently one of Jalolov's representatives. Yilmaz maintained contact with "Jaf".

Based on e-mails, federal prosecutors believe that they can place the defendants within the hierarchy of the IJU. The correspondence refers to a "boss" and a "big brother" in the "homeland," which is apparently a reference to Pakistan. Commands can also be reconstructed, such as taking care of "the matter" in 15 days.

The defense sees opportunities for counterattacks against the second pillar of the prosecution's case in particular. They are preparing a number of petitions. For instance, defense lawyers want the testimony of the prisoners in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to be ruled as inadmissible, because of -- among other reasons -- the simple fact that they cannot question the witnesses themselves.

But what role did the Germans actually play for the IJU? Were they useful idiots, full-fledged members or subcontractors? The trial will also address these questions.

This matter could of course be clarified by the defendants, who were recently transferred to the Rhineland region in a top secret operation. Schneider was the first to be flown in by helicopter; agents escorted him to the takeoff pad in front of the Schwalmstadt prison walls. Gelowicz followed on Wednesday. During the preliminary hearing, though, it became clear that the defendants would exercise their right to remain silent at the outset of the trial. This is also suggested by the fact that the first witnesses -- the defendants' relatives -- will already be called to the stand on the second day of proceedings.

However, the defendants appear to be more open when it comes to secondary events. Schneider is also accused of attempting to murder a police officer during his arrest, and he is apparently prepared to testify on that matter at least. Earlier, during questioning, he denied any intention to kill.

And Gelowicz also showed a certain degree of willingness to cooperate, or so it appeared. On his computer, police found an encrypted data container, which the BKA couldn't crack. In response to requests from investigators, Gelowicz handed over the password 14 days ago. But police didn't find anything enlightening. There was nothing inside -- except traces of shredded data.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen