Four men are accused of planning a bomb attack in Germany - on behalf of al Qaeda. They are alleged to have had contact to core elements of the terrorist movement on the Pakistani-Afghan border.
Over the course of a 30-day trial, a senior regional court in Düsseldorf aims to clarify the details of what could have been one of the worst terrorist attacks ever to have occurred on German soil. One of the most important questions will be how close the group's contact to al Qaeda actually was.
The four men between the ages of 21 and 32 who have been charged can expect long jail sentences. No confessions viable in a court of law have been forthcoming. There are, however, 260 ring-binders filled with information gathered by investigators. The prosecutor's arraignment runs to 500 pages. The main accusation is that they set up a terrorist unit and prepared to commit murder.
'Düsseldorf terror cell'
The four alleged terrorists were arrested in April 2011
The Moroccan Abdeladim El-K. is accused of being the group's ringleader. He moved to Germany in 2001 and studied mechatronics in Bochum. He allegedly visited an al Qaeda training camp in Waziristan, Pakistan, in 2010 before searching for accomplices in Germany. In Düsseldorf he found three allies. The German-Iranian Amid C., who just one year earlier had tried to pass his high school diploma, Halil S., who studied mechanical engineering in Bochum, and Jamil S., a German-Moroccan electrician. All four led inconspicuous lives.
According to the assessment of Rolf Tophoven, director of the Essen Institute for Terrorism Research, the group was not particularly well connected with other extreme Islamist groups in Germany. But Tophoven still thinks they were dangerous.
"What was special about the Düsseldorf Cell is that they had direct contacts to the Pakistani-Afghan border area," he says. "That meant they had access to the al Qaeda structure - to the core of al Qaeda."
This is the first time a group in Germany has been alleged to have had such contacts. According to investigations by the Federal Criminal Police Agency, the backers and instructors of the Düsseldorf Cell were Atiyallah al-Libi and Younis al-Mauretani. Libi was recently killed in a rocket attack. Younis is in jail in Pakistan.
The security services have prevented several attacks
A special commando unit from the Federal Criminal Police Agency arrested the men in April last year as they were said to be heating grill lighters in the bathroom of a Düsseldorf apartment. They were allegedly trying to extract hexamine to use as an explosive catalyst. But the supermarket grill lighters only contained paraffin. The bomb recipe supposedly came from an al Qaeda training camp. Abdelabdim El-K. is said to have written down the recipe at the camp and brought it back to Germany.
Investigators at the Federal Criminal Police Agency got their evidence by wire-tapping the computers of the alleged terrorists and intercepting their e-mails. They listened in on conversations in the Düsseldorf apartment over weeks. Their job was made more difficult because the men often turned up the television or left the washing-machine running. A concrete target was never discussed, but when the men said they now wanted to "slaughter the dogs," the security services intervened.
The Sauerland Group had already collected its explosives
As in previous similar cases, the decisive lead came from an American secret service agency which had been listening to telephone conversations from Pakistani terrorist camps. The Federal Criminal Police Agency is said to have received its tip-off from the CIA. But even without these connections, terrorist researcher Tophoven believes the German security services are well placed to prevent such attacks.
Indeed, the security services have been able to prevent several Islamist attacks and to arrest those responsible, as in the case of the Sauerland Group - four men who planned an attack on an airport and US institutions in 2007. Before that, in 2006, the suitcase bombers were arrested as they tried to blow up two regional trains; due to a construction error the bombs failed to explode. In 2004, members of the group Ansar al-Islam, who planned to assassinate the then interim Prime Minister of Iraq Iyad Allawi during a visit to Germany, were also arrested. And in 2002, the authorities caught members of the terrorist group Al-Tawhid who planned to attack Jewish institutions in Germany.
The court, which has experience handling other high-profile terrorist trials against Islamist groups, is sitting in a high-security tract of the courthouse. A verdict is expected in November.