Five big German terror trials | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 06.09.2016
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Five big German terror trials

Salafist Sven Lau, whose trial started on Tuesday, is hardly Germany's first extremist facing a conviction. DW takes you into the court room for five of the country's biggest trials against Islamists.

Sven Lau is infamous in Germany for an Islamist publicity stunt. In 2014, the Salafist led several men in orange vests with the slogan "Sharia police" through the streets of the western German city of Wuppertal. Lau and his followers acted like state authorities and warned people visiting local clubs and bars to adhere to Sharia, or Islamic law.

Now a trial against Lau is underway at a regional court in Düsseldorf. He is accused of recruiting young men for the Islamist organization Jamwa (roughly "army of emigrants and helpers") and urging them to fight infidels in Syria. When these fighters return to Germany, they are considered a high security risk because they've been trained with weapons and potentially radicalized even further.

Since 2012, Germany has seen a large number of court cases brought against Islamists who traveled to countries like Syria and Iraq or supported terrorist organizations like the "Islamic State" (IS) in other ways. Several of them ended with prison sentences for the defendants, but a couple of trials have been going on for months or even years - with no end in sight.

Harry S. in Hamburg. (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Marks)

Harry S. opened up in court

Harry S., the remorseful Salafist

"Going to Syria was the biggest mistake of my life," Harry S. said in July 2016 on the last day of his trial at a Hamburg court. The 27-year-old, who was born in the northern German city-state of Bremen, spent three months with IS in Syria in the summer of 2015. He grew up in a Christian family and went to a Catholic private school. He later converted to Islam during college and became part of the radical Islamist scene in Bremen after a stint in jail.

In Syria, he participated in a terrorist-training boot camp and appeared in a German-language recruitment video. When he saw how civilians were murdered for the short film, he wanted out. Harry S. claimed he was married, got kicked out by IS officials and eventually ended up at a Hamburg court. He insisted he never killed anyone. Because of that and his remorse, he was sentenced to three years in jail for being a member of a foreign terrorist organization.

From fighter to father

Sebastian B. didn't admit to anything. The young convert claimed he traveled to Syria for humanitarian reasons in August 2013. But the judges at a Düsseldorf court didn't believe him. Witnesses had said they had seen B. living in a camp outside Aleppo with several other terrorist trainees. The court said the now-29-year-old joined the Jihad in Syria to fight against regime troops and initially took over logistical tasks after his training, but later also participated in armed fights.

During his trial, B. was accused of being a member of Jamwa - the same organization that Lau allegedly associated with. The judge said the terrorist organization provided B. with a sense of purpose that was lacking in his unstable youth in the western German town of Herford. That didn't earn him a sympathy bonus, though. Despite having started a family since his return from Syria, B. was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail in April 2016. His lawyer announced he'd file an appeal.

Nils D. in Düsseldorf. (Photo: DW/M. Gopalakrishnan)

Defendant Nils D. didn't want to show his face but was willing to share details about his time with IS

Hunting deserters

Planning to go to Syria to fight with terrorist troops? Make sure to contain your ego and not brag about it later. That's how Nils D. got caught. The young man went from Dinslaken, a Salafist hotspot in western Germany, to Syria in October 2013 and joined IS. He became part of a special unit whose job it was to hunt down deserters. For more than a year, D. set out with Kalashnikovs and explosives to find those who had turned their backs on IS. He was said to casually walk past torture victims and to have witnessed countless public executions.

After he returned more than a year later in November 2014, D. bragged about his deeds on the phone with friends, which eventually got him arrested. He gave a detailed confession, giving investigators numerous names of other German Islamic extremists, and was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail by a Düsseldorf court in March 2016.

'Stealing for Jihad'

A group of eight men between the ages of 24 and 36 are on trial in Cologne for allegedly breaking into churches, schools and other facilities and stealing more than 19,000 euros ($21,000). The men wanted to fund individuals who were "fighting people with faiths different from their Salafist beliefs [to] overthrow the government in Damascus and replace it with an Islamist theocracy," according to the court. Or, as the judge put it succinctly: they were "stealing for Jihad."

One of the accused was identified by the prosecution as a radical in a YouTube video. In the clip, the prosecution says, the suspect is seen condemning Muslims that "sit among the infidels" doing nothing while the Muslim community suffers as "dirty hypocrites." The men were arrested after a police raid in November 2014. The trial began in October 2015 and is ongoing.

Police officers at Bonn train station. (Photo: Marius Becker/dpa)

Police evacuated Bonn's train station in December 2012 after a bomb was found

The train station bombing that wasn't

One of Germany's biggest terrorism trials is also ongoing. In December 2012, a bag with a faulty bomb in it was found in the Bonn train station. It hadn't gone off, but the goal was clear: kill hundreds of people and disrupt ordinary life in Germany's former capital. The suspect, Marco G., was caught and his trial started in September 2014.

The 29-year-old and several accomplices are also accused of attempting to kill a local right-wing politician in March 2013. G. hasn't talked in court so far, except for yelling "Allahu Akbar," but some of his accomplices have given very incriminating statements. The trial is expected to continue well into the fall.