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 ))

Joué-lès-Tours, Nantes, Dijon: surge in terrorist threats

Three violent acts in three days have heightened fear surrounding terror attacks in France. There does not appear to be any connection between the three attacks. On December 20 in Joué-lès-Tours a man carrying ISIL’s flag assaulted several police officers in a police station before being apprehended. The following day, a motorist drove through pedestrians and called out “Allah Akbar” in Dijon, causing injuries. On Monday, December 22 another motorist drove through a Christmas market in Nantes, causing one death and nine injuries before critically injuring himself.

Members of government gathered on December 23 in order to discuss measures against terrorist threats. “We must mobilize all security and legal services,” declared prime minster Manuel Valls after the meeting. “We must protect the public, the French. With only a few hours until Christmas, it’s the security services’ mission and we must also protect public agents who are targets of certain terrorist acts.”

According to criminal psychologist Roland Coutanceau, the first attack can be categorized as an act of terrorism because “there is an extremist belief that we can decode in the man’s life.” However, he stated that the second attack in Dijon was committed by a mentally ill person with a history of hospitalizations in psychiatric wards and therefore cannot be definitely described as an act of terror. Coutanceau argues that in the final attack “we see that there’s a criminological logic present in what one calls mass murder but does not necessarily connote a terrorist logic. It could be, but it’s not necessarily the case.”

UK Muslims welcome the homeless in Christmas

A British Muslim has invited the needy and homeless to enjoy Christmas day for free in his restaurant in the British town of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.

“I’m Muslim, I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I’m open on Christmas Day, to celebrate and help someone else’s religious festival,” Usman Majid, the owner of The Grill restaurant on Buckingham Street.

However, food was not the only service offered during the day. Currently, the staff are handing out clothes and are hoping to offer haircuts to all of those who have nowhere to go on Christmas day.

Usman also told us donations for it have been amazing.

“It’s cold, it’s bitter outside and we have a nice warm place, a nice warm meal, new clothes and a haircut if we can do it,” Majid said.

“We’re not saying we’re going to change your life, that’s unrealistic, it’s not going to happen, but for 8 or 9 hours I can affect your Christmas Day,” he added.

Michigan Jews, Muslims volunteering on Christmas

December 23, 2013

 

DETROIT (AP) – The Detroit area’s Jewish community is once again working with Muslims this week to do some good deeds while their Christian neighbors celebrate Christmas.

About 1,000 Jewish volunteers from several congregations are expected to join local Muslims Wednesday for Mitzvah Day, the largest single day of volunteering by the local Jewish community. The Michigan Muslim Community Council is coordinating volunteers from its communities.

The volunteers will be helping social service agencies at about 40 sites throughout the day. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit has sponsored Mitzvah Day for more than 20 years. Muslims have been part of the effort for the past five years.
Mitzvah means “commandment” in Hebrew and is generally translated as a good deed.

 

AP: http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2013/12/michigan_jews_muslims_voluntee.html

Muslim Christmas Celebrations Gain Footing In America

December 24, 2013

By Omar Sacirbey

 

RNS – A generation or two ago, when America’s Muslims were new immigrants who made up an even smaller minority of Americans than they do today, the lights, trees, carols, gifts and festive spirit of Christmas were viewed by many Muslims as a threat to their children’s Islamic faith.

But these days, a growing number of Muslims celebrate Christmas, or at least partake in some ways, even if they don’t decorate their homes with trees and a light show. Indeed, many Muslim families have created their own unique Christmas traditions.

“I teach my three children, who attend public school and happen to be born into an interfaith Christian-Muslim family, that we absolutely do celebrate Christmas because we are Muslim,” Hannah Hawk of Houston wrote in an email. Rather than putting up a tree or lights, “we celebrate the reason for the season, Jesus, by studying all that is written about him in the Quran and by examining historical theories.”

The Hawks also give to charity, bake treats for neighbors, invite them to dinner, and wish friends, colleagues and teachers “Merry Christmas” with cards and phone calls. Hawk’s kids get together with Christian friends to perform various good deeds. This year, they will play songs (violins, viola, trumpet, cellos, bells) at a local community hospital for patients recovering from surgery.

To be sure, some Muslim leaders still criticize Christmas celebrations as assimilation gone too far.

Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, a former president of the Islamic Society of North America, has argued that Muslims should not celebrate Christmas because the holiday commemorates the birth of a figure revered by Christians as the Son of God, which violates Islamic beliefs.

“We should tell our children that we are Muslims and this is not our holiday,” Siddiqi said in comments posted at the website OnIslam.net. “This is the holiday of our Christian neighbors and friends.”

To protect their children from the attraction of Christmas, he said, Muslim parents should take advantage of Islamic camps and conferences established at this time of year for this very reason.

But others see a new generation of Muslims born or reared in the United States who feel secure enough to view Christmas as another tradition they can relate to, and to celebrate it in a wide variety of ways — as do their Christian neighbors.

“Muslims should join their Christian neighbors to celebrate Christmas,” said Rizwan Kadir, a financial adviser who is active in his Muslim community in suburban Chicago. “We also believe in Isa,” Kadir added, using the Arabic name for Jesus, “and he has a very special place in Islam.”

While Muslims don’t believe Jesus was crucified or that he is part of the triune Godhead, they do believe in the Virgin birth, and claim Jesus as a prophet — a predecessor to Muhammad — who ascended to heaven, and will return as part of the Second Coming.

Kadir adds that Muslims shouldn’t retreat from Christmas festivities. His family doesn’t put up a tree or lights, but Kadir does go to holiday parties at work, wishes friends and neighbors a “Merry Christmas,” and watches “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and “Home Alone” — a Kadir family tradition.

“To me, those are just fun things that people do around this time of year,” said Kadir. “It doesn’t make you a Christian. It doesn’t mean you’re compromising your faith.”

That view, however, has taken time to evolve.

Zeyna Ahmed, the American-born daughter of Egyptian parents, remembers that her mother liked some aspects of Christmas. But her father “stifled it.”

“Their way of holding on to their heritage was just pushing everything that was Muslim,” said Ahmed, who lives in Easton, Pa.

When her four children started asking why the family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, she felt it wasn’t adequate to say, “because we’re Muslim,” since “we also believe in Jesus,” Ahmed said.

So, for the last seven years, Ahmed, who is divorced, has celebrated Christmas with a tree, lights, and acts of charity. She also gets a menorah for Hanukkah and cooks a big meal on the last night.

“I want to expose them to different traditions,” Ahmed said, referring to her kids. “I feel like if you respect their holidays, they’ll respect our holidays. It develops mutual respect.”

Hawk agreed. “Christmas, like Ramadan, is the perfect interfaith footbridge for Muslim-Christian fellowship,” she wrote. “Both are the perfect times to hold interfaith vigils, pray together for peace, and pledge to uphold God’s message to spread goodwill and reach out to and help the less fortunate in our society.”

Some Islamic leaders have come on board, too.

Imam Talal Eid of Quincy, Mass., a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, cited the 13th verse of the Quran’s 49th chapter, which states that God created “peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”

And, he added, at a time when some Christians and Jews in America have fasted in solidarity with Muslims during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Muslims should reciprocate.

“This is not about theological details,” said Eid. “This is a matter of fellowship and social activity. There is nothing wrong with exchanging gifts and participating.”

 

Religion News Service/Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/24/muslim-christmas-celebrations_n_4494836.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

Some schools cancel Christmas performances: League Sends Letter

December 17, 2013

 

“Reports received from some schools in Turin show that performances of a classic children’s Christmas play will not be organized or there will be a play but without any reference to the Nativity and the Catholic religion, to avoid offending the growing number of Muslims who attend local schools. In all cases, individual headmasters make this decision.

“If this report is confirmed it would be a very serious matter” said the Northern League’s Roberto Carbonero in a letter to the City’s schools. “It is not acceptable to favor uncontrolled immigration over our citizens, our children, who now must give up their own traditions and their own culture. In our schools we should not be ashamed of the Catholic base of our society and our history.”

 

La Repubblica: http://torino.repubblica.it/dettaglio-news/19:29/4441798

Quotidiano Piemontese: http://www.quotidianopiemontese.it/2013/12/18/nelle-scuole-di-torino-niente-recite-di-natale-per-rispetto-dei-musulmani/#_

Halloween in Schools: “A Holiday Like any other?”

October 29, 2013

 

“Halloween is a holiday that appeals to children and celebrated in all the schools.” However a school in Tavernerio tries to diminish the controversy triggered by the statements of Father Agostino Clerici who at first sharply criticized the Halloween party at the primary school and then, on his blog, argued with a teacher who “stated the school’s intention to allow a recitation on the occasion of Christmas, but avoid naming Jesus, in order to comply with two Muslim students.”

“Halloween is a holiday like any other and is celebrated in all the schools. As for Christmas, Jesus and the crib have a different meaning for non-Catholic boys from the Muslim world,” says Samuela Romanò, Vice Executive of the school.

 

La Provincia: http://www.laprovinciadicomo.it/stories/Cronaca/halloween-a-scuola-festa-come-unaltra_1030053_11/

My 18 months with former EDL leader Tommy Robinson by Mohammed Ansar

October 18, 2013

 

It was April 2012, and it was my first face-to-face meeting with Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), the leader of the English Defence League (EDL). We were appearing on a BBC1 programme called The Big Questions. Little did I know this would be the start of an 18-month journey together that would end with Tommy leaving the EDL.

It was an odd position to find myself in. I had spent years as an outspoken advocate against Islamophobia, working to counter extremism and trying to address what I felt was an emerging civil rights crisis for Muslims in Britain. Muslim communities everywhere were under threat, attacks against mosques and individuals were at epidemic levels and rising. Yet the Islamic tradition is that you do not try to crush those who wish to oppress you, you try to educate them. You pray for them. You enlighten them. Despite the heated exchanges that day, I was able to extend to Tommy an offer: that we have dinner.

Three hours of debate followed. Tommy meanwhile seemed to enjoy ordering the most expensive thing on the menu. He liked his steak on the rare side. At the end of it we both tweeted two statements from Tommy – that I “must be reading a different Qur’an to everyone else” and “if every Muslim was like you there would be no problem”. The response was shocked and sceptical. That I had passed the Tommy Robinson test for acceptability was nothing to be pleased about. He had to meet more people. We needed to do more work.

So our journey together continued. Despite both my mother and wife questioning my sanity, I had always wanted to stand up and address an EDL meeting, and come face to face with Tommy’s supporters. A town hall-style meeting was arranged at a hotel in Luton. Because of the risks, the crowd was limited to around 50 people, and I was given a four-strong security team, including my own bodyguard, a Jehovah’s Witness called Rudi. It was a stressful experience. The anger and hostility from EDL members surfaced over things I thought long gone, with the National Front-daubed brick walls of 1970s Britain: coming over here and taking our jobs and our women, erosion of culture (they even believed they were limited from practising Christmas), multiculturalism, and immigration. It was important to listen – they are not uncommon views. Painful ones.

At the end of the meeting, I had to break my fast, as required in the month of Ramadan. I invited Tommy back to my room and he stood with me as I offered a dua supplication/prayer. We ate food from a local Indian takeaway. Tommy’s insistence on refusing halal meat on camera was a regular theme throughout our time together, despite the fact he eats it at Nandos and his favourite Turkish kebab shop. As I prayed maghrib (sunset prayers) he watched, quietly. Tommy has always been much better to talk to in a one-to-one setting. We could have a real conversation. When the camera was rolling, I felt we rarely saw the real Tommy.

Later Tommy held a conference with Maajid Nawaz, of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam, and announced he was quitting the EDL. I was cautiously optimistic. Throughout the journey my aim had been simple – to see if we could move Tommy on his views and to see if the British public would shift on theirs. My view had always been that any new future should be conditional on Tommy distancing himself from former extremist pals, and that shared ideology.

My journey with Tommy has shown one thing – that to embrace diversity in modern society we need to work out our differences. It’s often a messy and imperfect process, but it’s vital that we remain hopeful. Discourse and dialogue can work. How else can we tackle hate and prejudice?

 

The Guardian:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/19/my-journey-with-edl-tommy-robinson

Britain ‘giving in to sharia councils’ says Norway’s anti-immigration leader

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Siv Jensen, the 44-year-old leader of the Progress party who cites Baroness Thatcher as her inspiration, said: “What I have seen that the UK has done is to give in to the claims of sharia councils, and I don’t think we should give into that. In Norway we have one law, and that is the Norwegian law.” Miss Jensen, who is unmarried, said Britain was suffering the results of earlier mistakes in its immigration policy.

 

Christian Tybring-Gjedde, who leads the party in Oslo, speaks about a cultural war with Islam. “We can’t celebrate Christmas in school, we can’t sing Christmas Carols,” he told the Telegraph. “This is a small part of our culture, which is being washed away gradually, and it’s very painful. We gave them a home, and now it’s us who have to adapt to their culture.”

 

Somali-American man convicted in 2010 Portland, Ore., Christmas bomb plot apologizes

PORTLAND, Ore. — A young Somali-American man convicted of plotting to bomb a 2010 Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland’s town square has written an apology letter in advance of his sentencing and says he renounces his former beliefs.

In the letter filed Friday by his lawyers in federal court, Mohamed Mohamud offers to speak to young Muslims “to help keep them away from the path of extremism” and tells U.S. District Judge Garr King he turned to books to help himself “walk a better path.” His reading list ranges from “The Grapes of Wrath” to President Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” to “A Zombie Apocalypse.”

Mohamud was arrested Nov. 26, 2010, after pressing a button on a cellphone that he believed would detonate a 1,800-pound diesel-and-fertilizer bomb near thousands of people at the annual holiday gathering.

The bomb was a fake supplied by undercover FBI agents posing as al-Qaida recruiters.