On Tuesday, a court in Düsseldorf convicted Youssef Mohammed el-Hajdib for attempting what could have been a massive terrorist attack near Cologne.
El-Hajdib, a 24-year-old Lebanese man who had come to Germany to study, and his accomplice, Jihad Hammad, boarded two trains in Cologne in July 2006 with suitcase bombs comprised of propane gas tanks and crude detonators. If they had gone off, dozens would likely have been murdered on the packed commuter trains. The attack ultimately failed, owing to the apparent technical incompetence of the pair, but Judge Ottmar Breidling in his ruling still saw sufficient intent to sentence el-Hajdib to life behind bars.
On Wednesday, German newspapers look to the ruling as a warning that the threat of terrorism in Germany on the scale of the attacks that occurred in Madrid and London is far greater than most people choose to believe. Editorialists seem unanimous in the opinion that the verdict and stiff sentence were "fair."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"That a 'suitcase bomber' captured in Germany has now been given the stiffest sentence possible, despite the fact that no one was injured, sends an important message. From the very start, there was little suggesting that the defendant only wanted to send a 'warning message.' Like the Hamburg cell and later perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he started out as an open-minded young Muslim who became increasingly radicalized. They were given every freedom possible and yet still (or perhaps because of that) wanted to murder countless innocent people. It raises the question of whether the German penal code's aim of resocialization and deterrence can be grasped by fundamentalists. But one can't rule out the possibility that it can and one must hope that the Düsseldorf ruling will have a chilling effect on would be copycats."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Lifelong imprisonment is the toughest sentence ever meted out to a suspected terrorist in Germany. The ruling was issued against a man known as the 'Suitcase Bomber of Cologne,' a young Lebanese who likes to wear a uniform of famous German soccer player Michael Ballack and was a student who had come to Germany to study to become an engineer and to act out his hatred against the faithless here."
"Most Germans didn't follow the trial, but they have been awakened by the court's verdict. A court has now confirmed what the Federal Prosecutor's Office has been saying for two years: Germany has never been closer to a major terrorist attack like the ones that took place in London and Madrid than it was two years ago in Cologne. This sense of astonishment merely underscores how mistaken most Germans are about the true scope of the terrorist threat. Despite constant reminders from the interior minister and federal prosecutor, the recognition that Berlin, Munich or Frankfurt could become the target of Islamist assassins just hasn't registered in the minds of most people. Instead they seek refuge in the though that, at best, there are amateur terrorists incapable of an act that big. People may choose to believe this, but it certainly doesn't represent reality."
The left-leaining Die Tageszeitung writes that the sentence is "hard, but fair":
"In the end, the defense was unable to disprove the assertion by the Federal Prosecutor's Office that the only thing that prevented an indescribable catastrophe was the two bomb builders' technical inability. El-Hajdib wanted to kill and he would have murdered many if he had been able to. If there is any case in which the imposition of a life sentence in prison is justified, then it is in one like this."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"The trial against el-Hajdib and his accomplice (who was tried and convicted in Lebanon) offers an interesting psychogram of two seemingly typical terrorists. In contrast to bin Laden and the Hamburg terror cell, el-Hajdib came from a family of modest means. He was nevertheless supposed to become an engineer in Germany. But the rigorous demands of his studies became too much for him. The more challenging his studies became, the more religious he became. At this trial, the accused tried to portray his accomplice as the mastermind behind the act (his accomplice, of course, said the opposite) and that he had prevented mass murder by sabotaging the bombs. The judges, whom the defendant greeted with two 'Fuck You fingers,' refused to accept this line of argumentation -- after all, the rest of the attack had been planned so meticulously."
"These character aspects that so ominously pair intellectual laziness with the urge to commit spectacular acts is often overlooked in portraits of terrorists. They are almost always seen as both deeply devout and able to play the part of the Westerner. But none of that is true. They often lack endurance and discipline. The fact that he wanted to commit the attack wearing a Michael Ballack uniform comes across like a sarcastic self-portrait."
Finally, the Stuttgarter Zeitung writes:
"The sentencing of el-Hajdib to life in prison is appropriate and there is much to suggest he will stay in prison longer than most murderers. The determining factor for letting prisoners out on parole is that they no longer represent a danger to society. And people do change after spending years in prison, but attempts at resocialization are especially difficult with religious fanatics. Outward appearances and good behavior in prison aren't enough."
"The work of the investigators as well as the judges in the trial shows that the constitutional state has the tools it needs to successfully fight violent Islamist criminals. The case also documents how dangerous these perpetrators can be. We also had a little luck."