Aftershocks of Berlin Christmas market attack lead to counter-terrorism debates in Germany

It is now almost a year ago that Anis Amri, a Tunisian man who had arrived in Germany in 2015 and claimed to be a refugee, steered a lorry into a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 and injuring 56.

New report on intelligence failings

Almost immediately after the event, growing evidence pointed to severe failings on the part of the authorities. Not only had they not noticed the danger emanating from Amri; different sections of the justice system had also failed to arrest the young man following any of his multiple brushes with the law.

Amri, whose legal right to remain in the country had expired long ago, had had repeated run-ins with the police not only on the grounds of suspected Islamist radicalism but also for violations of residence requirements and for a range of drug infractions.

Now, a new report, commissioned by the government of Berlin, has attempted to chronicle the events leading up to the December 2016 attack. Its author, former federal prosecutor Bruno Jost, paints a dismal picture of German counter-terrorism efforts.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/fall-anis-amri-sonderermittler-wirft-behoerden-versagen-vor-a-1172571.html ))

Lack of cooperation and of personnel in the counter-terrorism sector

Jost describes how large gaps opened up in Germany’s counter-terrorism architecture that allowed Amri to slip through the cracks for more than a year. The vertical information flow between different levels of the security apparatus remained deficient, so that high-level counter-terrorism bodies – who discussed Amri and his potential plans – never held all the relevant information that had been collected.

Horizontally, cooperation between the different institutions – various police departments, domestic intelligence agencies, and prosecutorial bodies – was equally haphazard. Moreover, security agencies did not share information across Germany’s internal federal boundaries, meaning that the states of Berlin, North-Rhine Westphalia, and Baden-Württemberg left each other in the dark regarding their respective insights into Amri’s persona and intentions.

Finally, Jost highlighted severe staff shortages particularly in Berlin: although the capital’s authorities had for a time designated Amri as the most dangerous individual with jihadist linkages in the city, they were unable to keep track of him. Notably, he could only be monitored on weekdays: on weekends, there was a lack of staff.

Solving the staffing problems

As a response to the Amri case, politicians from across the political spectrum have called for greater centralisation of counter-terrorism efforts at the national level. Similarly, there is cross-partisan agreement on the need to replenish Germany’s police, whose forces had been depleted over the course of several years of budget cuts.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/nach-bericht-zu-anis-amri-das-ist-wirklich-eine-bittere.694.de.html?dram:article_id=398118, http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-10/terrorismus-union-forderung-reform-ueberwachung-anis-amri ))

More personnel, however, will most likely not solve all problems but may also generate new issues of its own. In fact, the reliability of German counter-terrorism staff has come repeatedly into question in recent months.

Questions about the reliability of intelligence personnel

First, the country’s domestic intelligence agency – the Verfassungsschutz – was rocked by revelations about an alleged Islamist mole. In this somewhat bizarre case, a former porn actor and bank clerk, who had recently joined the agency, had passed on classified information online to a supposed member of the Salafi scene – who, in fact, turned out to be another member of the Verfassungsschutz working undercover.

While it was initially suspected that the man had acted out of jihadist motivations, he ultimately turned out to be not driven by political or religious terrorism but by “boredom”: in different internet fora, the man had enjoyed playing different ‘roles’, passing himself off in turns as a hard-core militarist, a far-right neo-Nazi, and a fervent jihadist.(( http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/vermischtes/urteil-maulwurf-verfassungsschutz-100.html ))

A state informer as an Islamist agent provocateur

In the case of Anis Amri, intelligence personnel has played an occasionally dubious role, too. Prior to his attack on the Christmas market, Amri moved in the orbit of hard-line preacher ‘Abu Walaa’, arrested in November 2016 for being the central node of ISIS’s network in Germany. Recent investigations have shed light on the potentially pivotal role of an inside man employed by the Verfassungsschutz within these circles.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/anschlag-in-berlin-die-mysterioese-rolle-eines-v-manns-im-fall-amri-1.3689391 ))

The undercover informer, working under the codename “Murat”, had driven Amri to Berlin on at least one occasion in 2016. Moreover, there is evidence that Murat pushed Amri to commit an attack in Germany: a Muslim man who had witnessed interactions between Murat and Amri turned to the police after the Christmas market attack, alleging that Murat had been a crucial influencer inciting Amri to violence against German targets.

Murat had reported to his superiors at the agency that Amri was considered a candidate for travelling to Syria in order to join local jihadist groups – rather than being prepared to mount an operation in Germany. Now the possibility emerges that Murat himself may have overplayed his role as an agent provocateur, thereby helping to pave the way for the Berlin attack.

Blurring lines between state intelligence bodies and terror groups

The case of “Murat” thus highlights the possibility that the inside agents of the Verfassungsschutz – called V-Männer in German intelligence jargon – may become important factors in the terrorist groups they are supposed to observe.

The resulting blurring of the lines between intelligence agency and terror group is not confined to the Islamist spectrum: Investigations into the National Socialist Underground (NSU) cell, who killed 10 (mostly immigrant) victims between 2000 and 2006 and was responsible for two bomb attacks as well as 14 bank robberies, have uncovered systematic linkages between the neo-Nazi terror group and the German intelligence community.(( http://taz.de/Die-NSU-Serie-Teil-2/!5350062/ ))

Shadow of the NSU case

Seven intelligence agencies paid more than 40 men and women inside the NSU’s network. Among them were high-level neo-Nazi functionaries; and many informers had a long criminal history ranging from incitement of racial hatred to attempted murder.

A high-level agent the Verfassungsschutz is suspected of having been at the scene of at least one of the NSU’s murders; and the agency’s informers have been accused of having sheltered NSU members and of having delivered weapons and explosives. After the NSU was discovered, the agency shredded a large number of documents pertaining to the NSU affair, protecting its informers and preventing the full investigation of the group to this day.

The Verfassungsschutz’s heavy reliance on inside men also caused the failure of an attempt to ban the neo-Nazi NPD Party in 2003: the fact that high-level NPD leaders were in fact paid informers of the domestic intelligence agency led the Constitutional Court to decide that the party could not be banned because it was too close to the state and hence not independent in its decisions.(( http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/v-mann-affaere-fatale-frenz-connection_aid_204938.html ))

Demands for more electronic surveillance

It is perhaps against this backdrop that agencies have recently renewed their demands for enhanced legal and technological tools that can help dispense with reliance on controversial V-Männer. The President of the Verfassungsschutz, Hans-Georg Maaßen, reiterated  his call that his agency be given access to online messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram. He also demanded enhanced competencies for surveillance of internet browsing.(( http://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/deutschland/verfassungsschutzchef-maassen-fordert-mehr-technische-werkzeuge/20416986.html ))

One might be tempted to observe that none of these new tools would have been necessary to apprehend Anis Amri: existing legal possibilities would have been sufficient, had the various players in the police and intelligence communities only managed to work together and use them.

When asked about the failure to stop Amri, however, Maaßen continues to reject all responsibility. Instead, he places the blame at the feet of Angela Merkel’s (brief) open-door policy of summer 2015. Maaßen asserts that Amri crossed the border irregularly, that he had no legal claim to asylum, and that he should have been deported back to Italy under the rules of the Dublin system even before his agency should have become involved.(( http://www.fr.de/politik/geheimdienst-verfassungsschutz-fordert-mehr-befugnisse-a-1363344,0#artpager-1363344-0 ))

Two Frenchmen charged with plotting terror attack from their prison cells

Prosecutors have filed terror charges against two suspected jihadists believed to have been planning to carry out an attack after their upcoming release from prison, sources close to the case said Monday.
The men discussed the would-be plot, which included possibly taking hostages or machine-gunning victims, while they were serving time in Fresnes prison south of Paris.
“These two radical Islamists wanted to set up a group of fighters with the aim of… various actions outside prison,” said one of the probe sources.
One of the suspects is a 28-year-old Cameroonian described by authorities as an Islamic State group sympathizer, while the other is a 22-year-old Frenchman.
Both were behind bars for non-terror offenses and were suspected of being radicalized while serving their sentences. They were charged Friday with being part of a terrorist conspiracy. The Cameroonian man was also believed to have been in contact with a person in Iraq or Syria, where Islamic State is under pressure from a US-led coalition.

2 men arrested near Paris planned terror attack, wanted to join ISIS

Two men who were arrested following the discovery of explosive materials and components at an apartment in a Paris suburb of Villejuif wanted to make a bomb to commit a terrorist attack, Paris’ prosecutor has said.

 

“They had agreed to commit an attack on the [French] territory to take revenge on the coalition but they had not worked out any specific plan to date,” Francois Mollins said at a news conference Sunday.

The prosecutor added that one of the suspects admitted the two considered attacking soldiers who were deployed to locations deemed vulnerable for the terrorist attacks. The plot was uncovered as part of Operation Sentinel that was launched following the November 2015 Paris attacks and is part of the ongoing state of emergency.

Both suspects admitted that they wanted to join Islamic State (IS, former ISIS/ISIL) and leave for Syria or Iraq as early as in 2015 but they could not because of a “lack contacts and financial means.” The pair added they were planning to carry out an attack in the name of the terrorist group.

One of the suspects identified as Frederique L, 37, was “in direct contact” with Rachid Kassim, a French jihadist, who joined IS and left France to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Kassim, who was killed in a US airstrike in February, is suspected of being the instigator of several terrorist attacks on French soil, including the double murder of police officers in Magnaville in June 2016 and the attack on the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray church in northern France.

On Wednesday, 105 grams of TATP were accidentally discovered in an apartment located in Villejuif along with a liter of sulfuric acid, a liter of hydrochloric acid as well as 8 liters of acetone and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

Mollins said “the substances discovered at the scene could be used to produce between three and four kilos of TATP.” Investigators also found components needed to make a detonator, including wires, electric batteries, match heads and bulbs from Christmas wreaths.

A USB device containing videos showing a series of explosives tests on the terrace of the Villejuif apartment raided by the police was also found at the scene. Islamic State propaganda videos on a computer belonging to one of the suspects and leaflets with inscriptions in Arabic were also found in the apartment.

British Muslim responses to Barcelona terrorist attack

After terrorist attacks in the Spanish cities of Barcelona and Cambrils, British Muslims have responded in various ways. Independent British Muslim journalist, Abbas Nasir, noted that Barcelona was attacked despite its previous strong opposition to the Iraq war. For him, this indicates that terrorism is not about the West but about “spiritually defunct” individual Jihadis.

Leading Britain’s Conversation radio host, Maajid Nawaz, compared the Spanish terrorist attacks to the Charlottesville’s white supremacist violence. He said that people “don’t want to challenge neo-Nazi ideology and yet every time there’s a jihadist those on the far-right do want to talk about ideology.”

Farrukh Younus, the article’s author, decries U.S. President Trump’s false story about General Pershing deterring terrorism by shooting perpetrators with pigs blood. Younus writes, “It is a sad day when the President of the United States needs to understand that pigs are not a ‘Muslim-kryptonite.'”

Younus suggests that Muslims should be naturally against terrorism. As terrorism contradicts “Prophet Muhammad’s own design for city living: a place where people of all faith, can live together in peace.”

He also notes that Las Ramblas, the name of the road on which the terrorist attack occurred, has an Arabic origin meaning “river bed that is dry.” Following on this, he writes, “these terrorists who casually took innocent lives, harming others, have an empty, dry soul, devoid of the spirit that gives life beauty, meaning or purpose.”

Racist right-wing social media glorifies terrorism against Muslims after the Finsbury Park Attack

The far-right group, Britain First, posted about the Finsbury Park Mosque terrorist attack on its Facebook page. Many of the responses to the post tried to justify the attack on Muslims.

One respondent said, “The muslims are asking for it [sic]”. Other comments followed similar themes of victim blaming.

Others praised the terrorist, Darren Osborne, who was called a “patriot” and “hero” on the social media site. Others critiqued the small death toll from his attack.

The person who reported the threatening comments to the Home Office was concerned that these threatening comments against Muslims would not be treated with the same seriousness as similar (or milder) comments made by alleged Islamist extremists.

Under the Terrorism Act of 2006, these Facebook comments could be considered a crime because they may amount to an “encouragement of terrorism.”

 

Union of French Mosques condemns Manchester attack

The Union of French mosques released the following statement regarding the recent Manchester attacks:

“The Union of French Mosques (UMF) condemns with the greatest vigor the terror attack carried out in Manchester, Monday May 22, leaving 22 victims, including children and a little 8 year old girl, as well as teenagers. Many of those hurt are in critical condition and for some, the injuries are life-threatening.

The UMF extends its sincerest condolences to the victims’ families and hopes for a prompt recovery for those hurt, and wishes to express its support for and solidarity with the British people.

Only a few days before Ramadan, a symbol of peace, sharing, solidarity and compassion, the terrorist group Daesh carried out this craven and despicable act against all of humanity, which is a new affront to Muslims around the world and their faith.”
Paris, May 23, 2017

Rhône-Alpes Council condemns London attacks

The Rhône-Alpes Regional Council of the Muslim Faith released the following statement from its president Benaissa Chana condemning the recent attack in London:

“Terrorists sought to shake London, an exemplary model of the vivre-ensemble, by hitting it once again on June 3, leaving seven dead and more than 50 hurt, including Frenchmen. The CRCM Rhône-Alpes condemns with the greatest firmness this craven and barbaric act. It extends its sincerest condolences to the victims’ families and hopes for a quick recovery for those hurt.”

It also called on France’s Muslims “to pray during this sacred month for serenity, our country’s security and world peace.”

 

 

London Bridge Attacker profiles

Three men perpetrated the attack last Saturday night in the London Bridge and Borough Market areas. All three men have been identified by Scotland Yard.

The most recent attacker to be identified is 22-year-old, Moroccan-Italian Youssef Zaghba. Prior to the attack, he had been living in East London and working at a restaurant. Although the Italian police previously prevented him from travelling to Syria via Istanbul to allegedly join ISIS fighting, they did not share this information with British intelligence and Zaghba was not known to British authorities. He was born in Morocco and lived there most of his life.His mother lives in Italy, as she is separated from his father.

One of the other attackers, Khuram Butt, was known to police and MI5 but police had no understanding of this attack. Butt appeared in a Channel 4 TV documentary called, “The Jihadis Next Door” and was banned from his East London mosque for interrupting a sermon. He was born in Pakistan but came to the UK as a young child; he has been living in Barking, East London. He had a baby and a toddler. Butt was athletic and an Arsenal fan. He angered when he saw women cycling in his area. He played with neighbourhood children often. Butt worked for Transport for London and for a fast food restaurant.

Rachid Redouane, 30, is the third terrorist profiled in the article. He identified as Moroccan and Libyan; however, he sometimes also used the name Rachid Elkhdar. At the time of his death, he was carrying an Irish ID card, which may have helped him obtain permission to enter the UK. He lived in Dublin previously for part of 2015 and possibly 2016. He was not known to police. He was a pastry chef. He married Charisse O’Leary in 2012, a British citizen who ever converted to Islam. Recently, the couple split after disagreements over raising their now 17-month-old daughter.

Manchester terrorist turned from drug-user to suicide bomber

Salman Abedi, the Manchester terrorist attacker, smoked cannabis and dropped out of the University of Salford (where he was studying for a business degree). Some  of his friends say he may have been involved in gangs before he became radicalised. After quitting university, he worked at a bakery.

Some experts are seeing this trajectory  as a  somewhat typical  shift from crime to  terrorism. Because criminals are accustomed to violence, according to some, there is a smaller jump to political violence.

At one point, Abedi flew an  ISIS flag from his Manchester home but the police did not interview.

Abedi attended the Burnage Academy for Boys between 2009 and 2011 but the school did not make a statement because of the status of the investigation.

Neighbours were not very familiar with Abedi but noticed a recent increase in the religiosity of his appearance. Friends from school said that he was ‘fun’ until he went to Libya in 2011. Abedi reportedly had just returned from a trip to Libya a few days before the attack.

Abedi’s cousins were arrested as well and two of them were recently released.

Muslim organisation organises interfaith vigil

A Muslim organisation in Manchester, the Ramandan Foundation, organised an interfaith vigil in St Ann’s Square for the victims of the Manchester terrorist attack. The ceremony included a message from Pope Francis, read by the regional head of the Catholic Church, the Bishop of Salford John Arnold. There were also speeches by other religious leaders from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim backgrounds.