Germany Warns of Threat
THE GREAT FEAR
Germany Openly Warns of Terror Threat
By Jürgen Dahlkamp and Holger Stark
A recent routine police operation uncovered a possible terror suspect. The development illustrates just how tense the security situation is in Germany, with the government issuing the clearest warnings yet of a possible attack by Islamist terrorists. How much do the country’s security officials know?
The officers were exceedingly polite, waiting for Ali R. to complete his Friday prayers, pack his things and leave the mosque in the western German city of Essen. Only then did they approach the imam and ask him to come with them. They took him to the Büren Prison near the northwestern city of Paderborn, where detainees are held pending deportation. The action was taken in response to a request by the German foreigners registration authority, which had been seeking Ali R., a medical student, since March, because his German residence permit had expired. The officers were not particularly enthusiastic about their mission, which was just another routine police operation. As a result, their search of Ali R., 29, was perfunctory at best.
But what the officers found when they searched “Sheikh Ali,” as the imam is known, at the end of June turned a routine operation into an investigation that has captured the attention of the authorities.
The documents that Ali R., a Palestinian who grew up in the Gaza Strip, had stored on a USB storage device included information on the use of bombs and booby traps, bomb-building instructions and a propaganda video. When agents analyzed his mobile phone, they discovered ambiguous text messages in Arabic in which mention was made of a “bride” and a “groom” — terms Islamists have used in the past as code words when planning attacks.
FROM THE MAGAZINE
According to the counterterrorism files in which Germany’s federal and state governments collect information about Islamists, the student had been listed as a “relevant person” since 2005 and was considered part of the jihadist milieu. In one photo, he is shown with a full beard and wearing a white crocheted cap of the type worn by pious Muslims.
Initially detained for the purpose of deportation, Ali R. had suddenly become a terrorism suspect. The federal prosecutor’s office has now taken charge of the case and is now investigating R. on suspicion of being a member of a terrorist organization. But the key question remains unanswered: Is the medical student merely a windbag who has seen one too many Osama videos, who looked at some pertinent Internet sites and was also thinking about an upcoming wedding? Or did the investigators interrupt the early stages of plans for a terror attack? In other words, did they prevent the kind of event about which Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a Christian Democrat (CDU), and his top official, August Hanning, have issued repeated warnings in recent weeks?
The arrest of the sheikh from Essen shows how the situation has become more strained and incalculable than ever before. German security authorities, especially the Interior Ministry, have rarely spoken as often and openly about a supposedly imminent attack as they have this summer. They have both a preventive plan — what the authorities intend to do prevent this attack — and an emergency plan that would be implemented if an attack actually does take place.
The government is fluctuating between alarmism and reassurance. It is a double-sided policy that no one can combine in one sentence as skillfully as Hanning: “We must be prepared for the possibility of an attack, but it is my feeling that law enforcement authorities are quite well prepared.”