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SPIEGEL ONLINE

01/27/2009 05:34 PM

The Threat from Within

A German Islamist Rises up al-Qaida's Ranks

By SPIEGEL Staff

Recently, al-Qaida directly threatened Germany in a video for the first time. The man featured in the video grew up in Germany and has recently risen within the ranks of the terror group. Intelligence sources fear al-Qaida is planning a major attack to coincide with German elections this year.

In the confused world of many jihadists, the struggle is pure and romantic and death in Allah's name is a precursor to paradise. But when Bekkay Harrach, 31, tried to prepare his wife Elisabeth, 29, for the prospect of his final exit, a martyr's death suddenly loomed as a very real and painful threat.

Who knows how long a mujahedeen has to live in Afghanistan?

On this particular day, she was in Germany's Rhineland region, in their two-room apartment in the Bonn district of Bad Godesberg. He was in the wilds of Waziristan, in the Afghan-Pakistani border area. The two of them spoke on the phone and had a great deal to say to each other. She hoped that she could soon travel there to join him.

Read the Koran, he said -- the places that describe how a wife should mourn for her husband when he passes away. He wanted her to act as instructed by the Prophet. But even in times of jihad, love is stronger than the holy scriptures, at least at that moment in the spring of 2008. Harrach's wife started to sob on the phone. She had converted to Islam, she shared his faith, but she didn't want her husband die. Not then and there.

Harrach's longing for death has now become world-famous. He dreams of blowing himself up for Allah, as he announced in a video released on the Internet two weeks ago. In the film, the German identifies himself as a member of the al-Qaida terrorist organization and threatens Germany with attacks: "Our nuclear bomb is a car bomb, every Muslim can be one."

The video, which bears the logo of the al-Qaida multimedia wing al-Sahab -- meaning "the clouds" in Arabic, marks the beginning of a new phase of a modern war in which the West has to combat deeply puzzling opponents such as Harrach. It is an official declaration of war by al-Qaida against Germany. There is only one other country that has been bestowed with the dubious honor of receiving its very own al-Qaida video: the United States. "Without approval by al-Qaida leaders," says a German intelligence agent, "such a film would never be released."

There has never been such a direct message, uniquely intended for Germany, warns August Hanning, a top deputy in the Interior Ministry. "This has taken on a new quality," he says. The film is part of a campaign that aims to force the German government to withdraw its soldiers from Afghanistan. Hanning says it is apparently designed according to the "Spanish model." In 2004, three days before the Spanish general elections, bombs were detonated on board crowded commuter trains in Madrid. Shortly after taking office, the government of Prime Minister José Rodríguez Zapatero announced that Spain was withdrawing its troops from the unpopular Iraq mission. But Spain maintained its presence in Afghanistan.

From the Islamists' point of view, the Germans have gradually lost their innocence. Although their initial reconstruction mission in the relatively peaceful north was welcomed by many Afghans, this positive impression has been largely replaced by the distorted image of an occupying force with an expanded mandate and some 3,500 troops whose Tornado reconnaissance aircraft assist the Americans. There are a number of indications that al-Qaida may attempt to sway public opinion in the run-up to the German parliamentary elections with a spectacular attack on German installations in the region. The film thus indicates a threat to the German soldiers, who are now even more likely to become the target of al-Qaida attacks. The Chancellery, the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry are taking the situation very seriously.

As if further proof were necessary, on Jan. 17 a car bomb exploded in front of the German Embassy in Kabul, killing the attacker and five other people. The shockwave from the explosion blew out the 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) thick bulletproof glass from the facade of the embassy, devastated the offices and caused over €1 million ($1.3 million) in damages. The building was so severely damaged that it may have to be torn down. But the diplomats narrowly avoided a catastrophe: The target of the attack was presumably a tanker truck parked between the embassy and a nearby US base. The vehicle caught fire, but did not explode.

The latest terrorist offensive in Afghanistan reaffirms a statement made by former German Defense Minister Peter Struck, who once said that Germany's security "is also defended in the Hindukush." Al-Qaida mouthpiece Harrach underscores just how dangerous this part of the world has become for Germany.

Harrach's story is also proof of the partial failure of the international Afghanistan mission. The primary objective of the war -- to destroy the terrorist infrastructure -- may have been achieved in large parts of the country. But in southeastern Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan, and in the remote mountainous region called Waziristan, entire battalions of young men can be trained to kill in camps that remain largely undisturbed by government authorities.

Like the Afghan heartland before the war, this area controlled by Pashtun tribes has become a magnet for sympathizers from Germany. According to intelligence agencies, between 50 and 100 young Islamists from German cities like Frankfurt, Ulm, Bonn and Berlin have completed military training there, and at least a dozen of them are still presumed to be in the mountains. Harrach is their most important representative. Thanks to him, Germany's enemy now has a name and a face, albeit one wrapped in a black turban and issuing ominous threats.

In contrast to the majority of the 9/11 attackers, this enemy is actually a homegrown one who grew up in the Rhineland after his family moved from Morocco to Germany in November, 1981. As a young man, he socialized early on with people connected to the King Fahd Academy, which had a reputation as a breeding ground for anti-Western tendencies. In 1997, the young Moroccan adopted German citizenship.

Intelligence agencies first took notice of Harrach after the attacks of 9/11. At the time, they thought he was merely a sympathizer. But that quickly changed when he traveled to the Middle East in 2003, to the West Bank, where he was injured in a clash with Israeli soldiers. When he returned, his possessions were smeared with blood. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, he traveled twice to Iraq. Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, asked Harrach about these trips to Iraq during an unsuccessful attempt to recruit the young man in Bonn. He spoke elusively of a "humanitarian trip" and claimed that he was visiting relatives. Intelligence officials believe, however, that Harrach wanted to volunteer in the fight against US troops.

As an adult, he earned a high school diploma by attending night school, and later enrolled in a technical college in Koblenz to study laser technology and business mathematics. This explains why he presents mathematical equations in his threat video and, in all seriousness, explains that "Taliban and al-Qaida" are "like a prime number": They are only divisible by one and themselves. This must also be news to the warlords in Afghanistan.

His achievements on campus were less impressive, and in February 2004 he dropped out of school. His lectures circulate on the Internet, dealing with topics such as "the path to paradise," where he comes across as eloquent and entertaining. On one occasion, he talks about how to outsmart the soul when it is about to fall prey to sin. He argues with ice cream: "Dear soul, if you don't read the Koran now, there will be no Magnum with almonds!" But when it comes to a dialogue between the world's great religions, he doesn't fool around: "Some Muslims shy away from calling Christians and Jews infidels," he lectured, yet Allah has "clearly stated" this in the Koran.

'A Joyful Message from Afghanistan'

His image as a hardliner from the mosques contrasts with the outward appearance that many acquaintances describe. "He was always well-dressed," says a neighbor, "nice suits, good shirts," a polite man who always correctly introduced himself: "Hi, I'm Bekkay, I'm Moroccan!" The Harrachs lived on the first floor of a yellow apartment house. Next to the dented mailbox someone has crossed out a Star of David. Harrach's wife Elisabeth always wore a veil when she left the apartment. Bekkay was often out until late at night.

He had already become a major player on the German scene.

However, according to the intelligence agencies, he only became an internationally wanted terrorist thanks to a man who himself faces charges in Koblenz as an alleged terrorist: Aleem Nasir, a gemstone dealer from the town of Germersheim. Nasir can reportedly write letters of recommendation that serve as calling cards to hook up with al-Qaida.

After obtaining one of these handwritten references, Harrach headed east. He traveled via Turkey to Iran, where a smuggler who goes by the codename "Zain" made the necessary contacts, and in mid-March 2007, he arrived in Waziristan. In Pakistan, Bekkay Harrach, the German citizen, became "Abu Talha, the German." The metamorphosis was complete. Back in the Bonn district of Bad Godesberg, his wife Elisabeth was pregnant -- she was expecting a son, who was to be born in June 2007.

When Harrach disappeared, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution launched Operation Toledana, one of the agency's top missions, which aimed to find out what exactly was going on in Pakistan and how much of a threat this represented for Germany.

Initial reports from the ISI, Pakistan's secret service, and the American CIA gave an impression of the nature of this threat: Harrach was reportedly being personally trained by the head of planning for al-Qaida -- an Egyptian named Abu Ubaida -- in a variety of areas, including techniques for the remote detonation of bombs.

Abu Ubaida was killed in early 2008 by an American missile, but Harrach escaped unscathed. And he rose up through the ranks of the terror organization.

Despite a number of setbacks, an analysis by Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, says that al-Qaida currently consists of at least four functioning sections: the propaganda department, the finance section, the military division responsible for the war in Afghanistan and a committee for "foreign operations." Harrach is now apparently a member of "the section responsible for terrorist planning" and has become a "man in the central structure of the organization," as one intelligence official puts it, important enough at least to figure on the internal wanted list of the CIA and the ISI. If the Americans locate him, he can expect to be the target of a Hellfire missile launched by an unmanned drone.

In Waziristan, Harrach stands under the protection of the local warlord, Siraj Haqqani, but he is apparently well aware of the attention that the Americans are giving to him. The German now keeps all his movements secret and communicates via messengers, a commander from the Haqqani clan told SPIEGEL. He says that all the fighters in the region know the German guest.

Harrach and the warlord reportedly first met a year ago. Haqqani respects the foreigner for his technical skill in making bombs, but he is primarily impressed with his ability to draw up attack plans "very precisely on paper." No major attack of the last few months, says the Pashtun commander, has been planned without Harrach's expertise: "If we want to do something, we always ask the German for his opinion."

He has enjoyed a meteoric career. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, no other German has managed to rise so high within the hierarchy of the terror organization. He can tap into the logistical network of al-Qaida -- and this opens up a wide range of possibilities.

Harrach is now an important man in Afghanistan, not only within al-Qaida, and this makes him particularly dangerous from a German perspective. In Waziristan, south of the border city Khost, where the Pakistani government only occasionally shows much of a presence -- and even the US Army is powerless --, a lively milieu has emerged, where a number of German Islamists are just waiting for men like Harrach to give them their combat orders. German is now spoken in the training camps and in the threat videos, most recently in a 30-minute film by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which surfaced at the end of the year.

Under the title "A Joyful Message from Afghanistan," a man named Abu Adam sends greetings, in nearly perfect German, to his beloved Granny in Germany -- and then calls on his "siblings" to join the armed jihad struggle against the infidels.

The attraction of such terror groups first became evident with the advent of the so-called Sauerland cell, headed by Fritz Gelowicz, Daniel Schneider and Adem Yilmaz, who are all in custody awaiting trial. They were allegedly trained in Pakistan in 2006 by an Uzbek group called the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) as a sort of "first generation" of new Jihad disciples. Investigators say that Yilmaz acted as a one-man travel agency for terror recruits. At least seven of his acquaintances from the Jihadist scene in the German city of Langen embarked on a trip organized by Yilmaz, and two friends of Daniel Schneider's from the German state of Saarland soon followed. The most well-known is the German convert Eric Breininger, 21, from Neunkirchen, a confused young man who recently on two occasions released video messages in which he threatened to launch attacks but looked as if he were under the influence of drugs.

The fact that these recruits are interested in more than just playing religiously charged Boy Scout games is well illustrated by the case of Cüneyt Ciftci, born in Freising near Munich in 1979. Until his disappearance, he was an ordinary, reliable worker at industrial giant Bosch in Ansbach. Then, in April 2007, Ciftci left Germany with his wife and their two children, and nearly a year later, on March 3, 2008, he ended his life in a spectacular ball of fire. A huge explosion in front of the Afghan-American barracks in Khost killed five, including two American soldiers and Ciftci himself. The Turk had driven a delivery truck loaded with several tons of explosives in front of the barracks and detonated the deadly freight.

Security experts say that it is only a matter of time before the next volunteer from Germany dies as a suicide bomber.

Whether the attackers belong to an official group like the IJU, al-Qaida or the IMU is virtually irrelevant -- the circles are too tightly intertwined and their goals are too similar in the fight against the infidels. Organizations such as the IJU and the IMU have "the same allies and the same enemies," says French political analyst Didier Chaudet, who has studied the Jihadist scene in the region.

This is the brave new world of Bekkay Harrach, who also wanted his wife to come join him, but the intelligence agencies had her under surveillance. Operation Toledana became a cat-and-mouse game. An initial attempt to leave the country failed in late 2007. Elisabeth and her son waited three days in Iran for a smuggler who never showed up, so they returned to Germany. In May 2008, she made a new attempt. Elisabeth gave notice for the apartment -- but decided not to pay the last three months' rent: €340, plus heat and utilities. She gave a false address in Islamabad as her destination. This time she made it.

Another German convert from the scene is now living in the apartment in the Bonn district of Bad Godesberg. Based on information obtained from his fiancée, a German-Somali, the intelligence agencies have reason to believe that he is eager to leave Germany to fight in the Jihad.

MATTHIAS GEBAUER, YASSIN MUSHARBASH, MARCEL ROSENBACH, HOLGER STARK

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.

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