A Bavarian criminal investigator has admitted that the state once actively encouraged radicalized Islamists wanting to fight in the Middle East to leave Germany. Nowadays, the priority is preventing their departure.
Federal German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Thursday announced a conference with his counterparts in regional governments, focusing on better coordination when dealing with radicalized Islamists in Germany.
This followed an investigative report on German public television revealing that some German Islamists had received encouragement and even help if they showed a desire to leave the country. The chief officer in charge of counterterrorism at Bavaria's LKA investigative police department, Ludwig Schierghofer, told the "Monitor" program and later the DPA news agency that the measure was conducted "to protect our population."
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The idea, Schierghofer said, was "to get people out of the country" if it was clear that "the danger existed that they might commit attacks."
"If somebody had become radicalized and wanted to leave the country, then we tried to either let him depart, or even sought to accelerate their departure using legal means," Schierghofer said.
Schierghofer told DPA that the practice was put into writing in Bavaria in 2009, but that it was stopped late last year when it became apparent that the policy was helping groups like the "Islamic State." He also said that authorities began trying to stop more serious suspects - "known terrorists and dangerous Islamists" - from leaving the country as early as 2008, in cases where it was clear they planned to commit crimes once abroad.
Stopping departure - and return
De Maiziere's interior ministry issued a statement to the "Monitor" program, saying that under current German policy, "the security forces of the federal and regional governments use every possible legal means to prohibit the departure of people who wish to take part in violent terrorist acts in other countries."
The interior minister himself on Thursday said that the conference was planned for mid-October.
"We do not want people from Europe to fight on the side of IS against Kurds or Yazidi," de Maiziere said. He said the government's goal was to prevent their departure for warzones, "and even more importantly, to prevent their return, so that they cannot carry out any attacks in Germany."
The reports on past German policies to deal with radicalized Muslims prompted severe criticism from the opposition.
Green party interior security spokeswoman Irene Mihalic said that de Maiziere should answer formal questions on the practice in front of the parliamentary internal affairs committee.
"The practice of encouraging jihadists to depart the country, would be tantamount to the export of terrorism," Mihalic said. "Should these theories be substantiated, then the German interior ministry's handling of jihadists up until late 2013 would have been outrageous."
De Maiziere said the conference would focus on better cooperation between European members of the open-border Schengen Zone, and also on domestic means to limit so-called "terror tourism" out of Germany.
De Maiziere suggested revoking not just the passports of suspected Islamists, but also their official ID cards - (a "Personalausweis" in Germany) - to be replaced by a replacement document. The Personalausweis, which all Germans are supposed to carry with them at all times, serves as the primary form of identification in Germany. De Maiziere also pointed to the possibility of revoking German nationality for known Islamists with dual nationality.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, is aware of 450 citizens thought to have left the country to join terror groups.
msh/glb (AFP, dpa)