Germany still a terrorist target, security experts say | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.05.2011
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Germany

Germany still a terrorist target, security experts say

Following the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, security officials in Germany are still investigating hundreds of suspected terrorists. Federal police say terrorist activity has even grown in recent years.

Police patroling Cologne's train station

German security officials are still on high alert

After the news broke that US operatives had killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Chancellor Angela Merkel joined German security officials in asserting that they could not rule out terrorist counterattacks.

Merkel described the news as a "victory for the forces of peace" on Monday, but said bin Laden's death did not mean extremism had been overcome.

"Last night the forces of peace achieved a victory. But this does not mean that international terrorism has been defeated yet. We must all remain vigilant," Merkel said in a statement.

Before leaving for a previously planned trip to Washington on Monday, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich reiterated this concern.

People should be vigilant

"It would be premature to celebrate and conclude that terrorism has ended," said Friedrich, adding that although Berlin had no indication that US interests in Germany faced a greater threat of terrorism in the wake of bin Laden's death, the threat of terrorism still remains.

"In the last 10 years, a network of interconnected cells developed which still exists," he said. While in the US, Friedrich is scheduled to hold talks with US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder and chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.

Two police officers in Leipzig airport

Security across Germany increased last fall

The danger in Germany remains "unmitigated," according to Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Terrorism Research in the western city of Essen.

Tophoven agrees with Germany's federal police that bin Laden was a spiritual role model for German terrorist cells - but told Deutsche Welle that potential terrorist attacks have long been planned without his aid.

"Small terrorist groups have long assumed an independent existence and received orders directly from training camps or intermediaries," Tophoven said.

In fact, just last Friday an independently operating al Qaeda cell made news in Germany when three men, aged 29 to 31, were arrested in the western cities of Dusseldorf and Bochum.

Over months of investigations, police determined the men were planning to set off a bomb onboard public transportation, and explosives were seized from one apartment in Dusseldorf. One of the men, originally from Morocco, is said to have kept regular contact with a high-ranking al Qaeda official.

Heightened alert

In November, German authorities received from overseas several warnings of terrorist plots.

Reports spread that militant Islamists trained by al Qaeda in the Afghan-Pakistani border region were on their way to Germany to launch violent attacks.

German authorities launched a nationwide manhunt operation, as well as massive police dispatches in train stations, airports and crowded public areas.

Although such an attack did not take place that month, security experts contended that it was not for lack of resolve on the part of terrorists. With last week's arrests, it appears they may be right.

A police officer in front of the US embassy in Berlin

Germany is not the only focus of anti-terrorist investigations

Followers the 'greatest threat'

"The worrisome development is that there are a lot of German followers of Islamist terrorist organizations who haven't yet emerged," said Jörg Ziercke, president of Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office.

Security experts estimate the number of terrorist sympathizers in Germany at somewhere between 100 and 200 people, and federal police have classified some 130 people as "threats." These suspected terrorists, as well as the people close to them, are kept under constant observation.

Another development in recent years is that blogs and various Internet forums have become the venue for efforts to recruit further followers.

"That must be prevented," said Interior Minister Friedrich, who has advocated further training of counterterrorism officials. Last month members of the Global Islamic Media Front, which used the Internet to recruit terrorists in Germany, came to trial in Munich.

'Unsettled' terrorists

While Germany was often seen as a retreat for Islamist terrorists in the 1990s, safety authorities in recent years have recorded increasing activity and travel among suspects.

"The scene has become unsettled," confirmed Ziercke. In particular, the number of people listed by investigators as "threats" appears to be growing.

One such "threat" was Bekkay Harrach, a German of Moroccan extraction, who released a video before Germany's 2009 parliamentary elections under the name Abu Talha. In the video, he threatened violence if Germany did not withdraw its soldiers from Afghanistan. Harrach is believed to have later been killed in a skirmish in northern Afghanistan.

Still from a video by terrorist Abu Talha

Terrorist Abu Talha's real name was Bekkay Harrach

Investigation and arrests

Federal prosecutors in Germany are currently conducting around 300 investigations against Islamist terror suspects.

Since last year, Germany's safety authorities have greatly expanded the list of suspects they monitor. Now individual converts to radical Islam and immigrants with or without German citizenship are being observed in particular. Some 70 of the people being monitored are believed to have paramilitary training.

However, the investigations are not just focused on Germany. Federal investigators are also in Afghanistan, working together with local police through the European Union Police Mission to analyze al Qaeda groups in Maghreb, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Iraq - groups considered more dangerous than their European counterparts.

But the most effective measure in terrorism prevention, according to Tophoven, is the winning of sympathizers' minds. One illustration, he said, was a former terrorist whose testimony last year helped diffuse parcel bombs from Yemen that had made it as far as Cologne and London.

Author: Wolfgang Dick / dl

Editor: Martin Kuebler

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