Europe's first al-Qaeda trial opened in Frankfurt on Tuesday. At stake is the fate of five Algerian men accused of planning a bomb attack in Strasbourg and Germany's reputation as a serious terrorist-fighting country.
A terrorist deterrent
The world’s eyes turn to Building E, courtroom II of the Frankfurt District Court on Tuesday to witness the beginning of Europe’s first trial involving suspected members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
German state police arrested the five Algerian men on December 26, 2000 and April 14, 2001 after lengthy surveillance and charged them with planning a bomb attack on the Christmas Market in Strasbourg on the French-German border. In two Frankfurt apartments, police found weapons, bomb-making material and instructions and an incriminating videotape, according to the indictment.
The city of Frankfurt has spent close to 600,000 euro on security around the district court in the center of Germany’s skyscraper city. Two of Germany’s biggest channels have already filed protests with Germany’s highest court after court officials said TV cameras would have very limited access to the courtroom.
Hundreds of journalists and observers will attend the trial, which prosecutors hope will reveal a bit of how the al-Qaeda terrorist network operates in Europe.
"You will all go to Hell, God willing"
The five were part of an al-Qaeda cell in Frankfurt active since at least Fall 2000, according to the indictment. Over a period of a few months, the group, using fake credit cards, criss-crossed Germany buying chemicals used to make bombs. In their raid, police also discovered nails and pressure cookers, the same materials used in a deadly bombing in France by Islamic fundamentalists a few years earlier.
But it was a raid in the second apartment that prosecutors discovered perhaps their most crucial piece of evidence: a videotape. The tape shows a peaceful Strasbourg Christmas Market filled with smiling people. As the tape rolls, one of the suspects’ voices is heard off-camera saying "You will all go to hell, God willing."
Prosecutors will also bring evidence proving the men trained at terrorist camp in Afghanistan in 1998. They also hope to use Mohammed Bensakhria, 34, the suspected ringleader of the group and a high-ranking deputy of Osama bin Laden, arrested by Spanish police in June 2001.
"We are all very concerned about our security"
Security measures are costing the cash-strapped city about 5,000 euro per day. Police have sealed off neighboring streets and erected concrete barricades in front of the courtroom. A full 30 security guards will be on duty throughout the trial, expected to last more than a year.
"We are all very concerned about our security as a result of this trial," Heinrich Gehrke, the head of Frankfurt’s judge’s council told DW-WORLD.
Tensions are even higher following the death of at least 10 German tourists after a fuel-filled truck crashed into the Jewish Synagogue al-Ghriba in Djerba, Tunisia. Amid news reports that an al-Qaeda cell had claimed responsibility for the attack, German government investigators arrested a man near Duisburg, North Rhine-Westphalia who may be linked to the Djerba incident (see link below).
Shedding the "safe haven" image
The news has come just as Germans began to relax a little bit from the aftermath of Sept. 11. The country was criticized by some in the US Congress as a "safe haven" for terrorists following the revelation that the planners of the attacks studied and prepared at universities in Hamburg.
Tuesday’s trial is seen by many as a chance for Germany to shed that image. The German government reacted quickly and severely following the attacks, expanding both the size and powers of law enforcement officers and casting a more critical eye on the country’s 2 million strong Muslim community.
The measures haven’t brought much success in battling the Islamic fundamentalist network experts say is very active in Germany. Though authorities made numerous arrests of suspected Islamic terrorists following the Sept. 11 attacks, none of the charges have stuck.
Convicting and soundly punishing five suspected al-Qaeda members would do much for that battle and for Germany's reputation in the world.