A group of alleged terrorists on trial in Germany claim they were led and radicalized by an undercover agent working for German intelligence. Authorities admit he was a spy - but only after he had contact with the group.
The web has become a major tool for recruiting terrorists
Seven men and one woman are on trial in Munich on charges of supporting foreign terrorist organizations. But the defense's claim that the group was in fact run by an intelligence infiltrator might yet change the outcome of the trial.
The eight defendants allegedly formed the German section of the International Islamic Media Front, an organization regarded as essentially a European propaganda wing of al Qaeda. Seven of the defendants are German citizens, while one is Turkish.
"There are two kinds of danger that we're talking about," said Holger Schmidt, a terrorism expert with German public radio, who's following the proceedings in court.
"Only one of the defendants is accused of involvement in actual acts of terror, but the prosecution stresses that Islamist terrorism can only work effectively though propaganda on the Internet," Schmidt said.
"In this case this is about collecting money and about recruiting future terrorists - fighters for the jihad - and that's a field in which the Internet has become much more important than anything else. So it's in connection with the preparation and support of jihad and terrorism that the prosecution views this group as very dangerous indeed," he said.
Was the head of the group at the same time also a spy for German intelligence?
Yet things are not as straightforward as they might seem. Initially there was a ninth defendant, who was for some time the head of the German branch of the Islamic Media Front.
But the charges against him have been temporarily suspended. On Thursday he was in court - not as a defendant but as a witness - in order to testify against his former fellow jihadists.
The prosecution argues the defendant-turned-witness had already received a 16-month suspended sentence for armed robbery in 2009 and, as his possible sentence in the terror case would be less than that, the charges have been suspended.
But the defense team sees the case entirely differently. They have revealed that, in fact, the former ringleader of the terror network was not only a jihadist preaching hatred on the Internet but also an informant for German intelligence.
The authorities do not deny this but say the young man only became an undercover agent in 2009 when he was no longer a member of the Islamic Media Front.
"During the time he was active in the Global Islamic Media Front there was no cooperation of any sort between him and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution," says an official statement.
But that explanation does not satisfy the defense team.
Radicalized by the undercover spy?
"They're trying to take everyone for a ride with their explanation as to why the charges have been dropped," said Mutlu Günal, one of the defense lawyers.
Some of the defendants blame the spy for their radicalization
"The truth is he was in the pay of the intelligence agency, so now they're trying to invent a story to fit, and all the participants in this trial are being fed a lie. But that just doesn't conform with the rule of law. This has been a problem throughout the case, and it does not make the German justice system look very good."
In fact, if the witness was already an informant while he was the head of the Islamic Media Front, this would change the entire court case. Because many of the defendants - some of whom were teenagers at the time - say that it was only the alleged informant who radicalized them and spurred them on to commit the very crimes for which they now have to answer.
The controversial witness showed up in court on Thursday and was expected to testify - but didn't.
With reference to membership of the terrorist organization, his lawyer said he wouldn't testify because he might incriminate himself. And he cannot talk about his work as an informant as that information is confidential.
In the end, the judges will have to decide whether to accept or reject the intelligence agency claims that the witness only started working with them after his time as the head of the Internet propaganda group. But even if they do accept the official line, the case is expected to drag on until October or November this year.
Author: Andreas Illmer
Editor: Susan Houlton