Like the British and Spanish before them, Germans are discovering the eerie cinema verite of modern terrorism: the blurry images of suspected militants caught on surveillance cameras within their borders.
Germany didn’t think it was a high-profile terrorism target until television screens showed two men, dressed in dark pants and light shirts, wheeling suitcase bombs across train platforms here. The explosives didn’t detonate, but the case has led to debates over security measures and fears that militant cells may be scattered across the country.
Although the paths of several Sept. 11 hijackers were traced to a mosque in Hamburg, many Germans believed their government’s opposition to the subsequent Iraq war had left them immune to terrorism. They paid only passing attention to extremist threats, even as security agencies have rounded up Islamic radicals living in Germany with connections to international terrorist networks.
Home to one of Europe’s largest immigrant populations, this nation faces dangers on several fronts: organizations backed by groups such as Al Qaeda; homegrown cells, such as those that acted in London last year and Madrid in 2004; and an emerging threat from loosely affiliated angry Muslim men who keep in touch in cyberspace and could, according to terrorism experts, be radicalized in an instant.
“This newer breed is a kind of terrorist ghost army,” said Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Essen. “They’re often not known to security and intelligence officials. Because of surveillance of mosques, these men have gone underground. They’re in secret cells located in the circles of immigrant communities.”
Since the arrests in August of two Lebanese men in connection with the attempted train bombings, security officials have focused on improving counterterrorism databases, policing the Internet and installing more surveillance cameras in train stations, airports and public squares.
Domestic intelligence-gathering, however, is a sensitive matter in a nation where a brutal spy network once kept the Nazi regime in power.
“We don’t want a situation like in China, where 20,000 police officers control the Internet and completely suppress free speech,” said Juergen Trittin, a Green party member of parliament.
But the failed plot has the public reexamining the line between civil rights and security. Populist commentator Franz Josef Wagner wrote an open letter in Bild, the country’s largest tabloid, to Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble: “It’s your job, dear Interior Minister, to make us understand there is a new cause of death: terrorism. It’s your job to shake us awake.”
The exposure to terrorism that Germany faces “is still primarily directed against third parties such as U.S., Israeli and British interests,” said Jochen Hippler, a political scientist at the University of DuisburgEssen.
“But this train attempt shows [militants] are willing to strike German targets.”
The men accused of planting the bombs, Youssef Mohamad Hajdib and Jihad Hamad, are students from Lebanon. Hajdib arrived in Germany in 2004 and was enrolled in a university in Kiel. Hamad entered the country early this year to study mechanical engineering.
Both men fled to Lebanon after the bombs on trains bound for Dortmund and Koblenz failed to explode July 31. Hajdib, 21, returned to Germany and was arrested; Hamad, 19, the son of a retired army officer, surrendered in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.
Police are investigating whether the men had connections to an international network or may have acted on their own. German authorities said Hajdib marched earlier this year in a demonstration protesting the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. His father is suspected of being a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a politically radical Islamic group banned in Germany for anti-Semitism. The organization promotes the creation of an Islamic caliphate across Europe and the Middle East.
Der Spiegel magazine reported last week that Hajdib’s college application listed an address in Hamburg shared by the Islamic-Albanian Cultural Center and the Al Nur mosque, which intelligence officials believe has ties to radical elements.
A third suspect in the case, identified as a Syrian, met Hajdib in Kiel and reportedly often prayed with him in a dormitory.
Police at first suspected that the men had acted in response to Israeli military strikes in Lebanon. But investigators now believe the attack was planned before Israel’s battle with Hezbollah began in mid-July. Joerg Ziercke, president of Germany’s Federal Criminal Police, has said the men frequented Al Qaeda websites and were angry about the death of terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, killed in June in Iraq by a U.S. airstrike.
Unlike the bombings in London and Madrid, the German plot apparently wasn’t intended to inflict massive casualties. The bombs, made of propane tanks and gasoline bottles, were loaded on midday trains and set to explode 10 minutes before the trains reached their final destinations.
The rudimentary construction of the explosives and other flaws in the operation, including easily intercepted telephone calls, suggest that the plotters were not trained by a sophisticated organization.
Police also wonder about the radical fervor of the suspects. Hamad gave himself up on the advice of his father, an act terrorism experts say indicates a lack of the type of ideological rigor found, for example, in Al Qaeda operatives.
Germany keeps surveillance on 200 to 300 Islamic extremists, terrorism experts say. In July, Hamburg police arrested Redouane Habhab, a Moroccan-born German citizen whom federal prosecutors suspected of recruiting militants to carry out suicide bomb attacks in Iraq. The prosecutor’s office said Habhab completed explosives training in Algeria and had “numerous contacts with an international network of violent jihadists.”
In 2005, four militants were convicted in Duesseldorf of planning grenade attacks on Jewish sites. The men were members of Al Tawhid, a terrorist group once linked to Zarqawi.
In raids across Germany over the last 18 months, police have arrested members of the Iraqi militant group Ansar al Islam. The organization’s German network is predominantly focused on raising money and finding medical assistance for wounded militants.
In 2004, suspected Ansar operatives allegedly plotted to assassinate then-Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi while he was visiting Berlin.