Planned knife attack
In recent days German police have moved against a host of terrorism suspects, highlighting the threat of attacks linked to the so-called Islamic State in the country.
In Berlin, a refugee was arrested on November 2. While the man claimed to be a Syrian national, American intelligence described him as Tunisian Islamist Ashraf al-T. The man initially denied all charges and asserted that he was the victim of a mix-up.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/karlsruhe-festgenommener-fluechtling-spricht-von-verwechslung-1.3235619 )) The investigative judge at the Federal Court of Justice, responsible for all terrorism cases, refused to take up the case due to a lack of evidence.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/festnahme-in-berlin-terrorverdaechtiger-ashraf-al-t-in-haft-wegen-urkundenfaelschung-1.3234513 ))
Subsequently, however, it emerged that the suspect had apparently planned a knife attack in Berlin, akin in nature to the axe assault in a train near Würzburg in July 2016.((http://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/terrorverdaechtiger-berlin-105.html )) Moreover, like the train assailant, al-T. appears to have been in online contact with an IS middleman in Syria. And like in the case of the suicide bomber that targeted a festival in the Bavarian town of Ansbach in July, the investigation into Ahsraf al-T. paints a picture of a unstable individual with a history of mental health issues, including a suicide attempt. ((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/karlsruhe-festgenommener-fluechtling-spricht-von-verwechslung-1.3235619 ))
The arrest of Ashraf al-T. comes as the latest foiled plot targeting the German capital. In March 2016, police had arrested Syrian Shaas al-M. After his arrival in Germany as a refugee in early 2015, al-M. had collected intelligence on potential targets for an IS attack in Berlin, including the lively Alexanderplatz, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Reichstag. At the time of his arrest, al-M. was poised to return to the IS’s ‘caliphate’, having joined the group for the first time in 2013. ((http://www.morgenpost.de/berlin/article208694887/Mutmasslicher-Terrorist-zielte-auf-das-Herz-Berlins.html ))
Jaber al-Bakr, whose protracted arrest and subsequent suicide in prison sent shockwaves through the German political scene as well as the Syrian community in early October, had equally prepared an attack in Berlin: his aim appears to have been a suicide bombing at the city’s main airport. ((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/10/17/manhunt-arrest-suicide-attacker-keep-germany-suspense/ )) All three cases highlight the extent to which the Islamic State has made use of the migratory flows to Europe in order to place its agents in Germany and elsewhere.
High-profile arrest of Abu Walaa
These developments coincide with a more high-profile arrest on November 8: after years of surveillance by the German domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, police arrested hard-line preacher Abu Walaa and four of his associates on terrorism charges. In his sermons and on social media, the Iraqi preacher had openly supported and celebrated the IS’s project and methods and encouraged believers to participate in the Syrian jihad.
The preacher had been active in the city of Hildesheim in Lower Saxony, whence he organised the travel of fighters to the Syrian battlefields. Founded in 2012, his Islamic centre had quickly emerged as one of the major hubs of jihadism in Germany. At least 20 members of the congregation have already made their way to the IS’s territory. This led German security insiders to assert that, of all extremist players on the German scene, “he [Abu Walaa] is the worst.”((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/eil-wichtiger-anwerber-des-is-in-deutschland-verhaftet-1.3239523 ))
According to the Federal Prosecutor, Abu Walaa handpicked sympathisers ‘ready’ to join the IS and organised the basic travel arrangements, while his accomplices implemented his commands.((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/islamischer-staat-festnahme-von-abu-walaa-ist-schlag-gegen-die-salafistenszene-a-1120283.html )) The Federal Prosecutor asserted that Abu Walaa functioned as the intellectual and spiritual father of a wide-ranging network of IS supporters in Germany.((http://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/niedersachsen/hannover_weser-leinegebiet/Schlag-gegen-deutsches-IS-Netzwerk,abuwalaa104.html ))
After a rushed search of Abu Walaa’s Hildesheim premises in July 2016, at which time evidence was insufficient to allow for the preacher’s arrest,(( http://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/niedersachsen/hannover_weser-leinegebiet/Polizei-durchsucht-Hotspot-der-Salafisten-Szene,salafisten340.html )) the testimony of a returnee from Syria appears to have solidified the case against Abu Walaa. The statements of 22-year-old Anil O., a former foreign jihadist fighter, were among the most important pieces of evidence to emerge.
Already in July 2016 when he met with German journalists in Turkey, Anil O. claimed that Abu Walaa was “the highest representative of the IS in Germany”. Anil O., a German national of Turkish extraction and top-grade medicine student at Aachen University, asserted that he himself had come under Abu Walaa’s influence at his Hildesheim centre.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/islamisten-in-deutschland-das-ist-der-schlimmste-1.3239861-2 ))
Anil O.’s case is among the growing number of judicial proceedings against foreign fighters returning from the Syrian theatre of war.((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/10/30/german-courts-seek-move-beyond-counter-terrorism-measures-path-breaking-trials-fighters-syrian-battlefields/ )) Of the more than 750 German nationals and residents that have travelled to the Levant, 250 have already made their way back. Anil O. asserted that he had been disgusted by the IS’s atrocities he witnessed in Syria and wanted to prevent others from making the mistake of joining the group.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/islamisten-in-deutschland-das-ist-der-schlimmste-1.3239861-2 )) His cooperation with German authorities also constitutes a way for the former fighter to reduce his prison time.((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/islamischer-staat-festnahme-von-abu-walaa-ist-schlag-gegen-die-salafistenszene-a-1120283.html ))
Strong media presence
Abu Walaa’s nimbus significantly derives from his strong online presence. On social media and on his website, he presents himself as ‘the preacher without a face’, due to the fact that in the majority of his videos he only appears as a shadow or in shots showing his head from the back. In order to spread his message, he even markets his own smartphone app.
In this respect, the arrest of Abu Walaa is an important step forward in German counter-terrorism efforts: the more than 1,000 judicial proceedings on terrorism charges that have been brought to court so far were nearly always directed against little fry. Suspects were mostly individuals who had actively joined or passively been sucked into radical networks; yet the networks themselves and their high-level organisers were hardly ever targeted.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/islamisten-in-deutschland-das-ist-der-schlimmste-1.3239861 ))
The Federal Minister of Justice, Heiko Maas (SPD), consequently hailed the arrest of Abu Walaa and his associates as “an important step against the extremist scene in Germany”. Yilmaz Kilic, head of the Lower-Saxon branch of Turkish-dominated DITIB, Germany’s largest Muslim association, equally lauded the police action: “when someone abuses our religion for extremism, then the police should step in.”((http://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/niedersachsen/hannover_weser-leinegebiet/Schlag-gegen-deutsches-IS-Netzwerk,abuwalaa104.html ))
On a slightly different note, influential radical Salafi preacher Pierre Vogel, with whom Abu Walaa had often clashed – mainly over Vogel’s rejection of the Islamic State – exhibited a good deal of schadenfreude at his rival’s arrest.((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/islamischer-staat-festnahme-von-abu-walaa-ist-schlag-gegen-die-salafistenszene-a-1120283.html ))