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World & Nation

Germany says an intelligence informant offered state secrets to jihadists on the Internet

German intelligence headquarters
German authorities said a suspect had made a partial confession to gathering information for an attack on the domestic intelligence agency headquarters in Cologne.
(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)

Germany arrested an informant for the government’s intelligence services after he was caught making radical Islamist statements and offering to give away top-secret information on the Internet, German authorities said Wednesday, in an embarrassing setback to their efforts to counter the threat of jihadist terrorism.

The state prosecutors office in Dusseldorf said the 51-year-old suspect, a bank employee of Spanish origin living in Germany, had joined the country’s domestic intelligence service in April to observe the militant Islamist scene as an informant, but was arrested late Tuesday and accused of offering to share  classified information under an alias in an Internet chat room.

There was no evidence that he actually passed any state secrets, authorities said.

He was caught after an online conversation with an intelligence agent posing as a jihadist, according to German media reports. Authorities said the suspect, who was not identified, had made a partial confession to gathering information for an attack on the intelligence agency headquarters in Cologne. The agency is the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, known by its German initials, BfV.

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Authorities did not identify the chat room where the man was posting, but said it “had a connection” to Islamist groups.

The case quickly revived fears of jihadist attacks in Germany, a country already on tenterhooks over the worry that terrorists could be hiding among the more than 1 million refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who have arrived in the last year.

The suspect faces charges of espionage and preparing an act of violence against the state.

Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, in Berlin on Wednesday.
Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, in Berlin on Wednesday.
(Kay Nietfeld / Associated Press )

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Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the BfV, said the suspect, a naturalized German citizen, had become radicalized — probably in 2014 — without even his family being aware of it. Maassen warned that foreign intelligence services as well as foreign extremists are constantly trying to infiltrate the domestic intelligence agency as well as the country’s foreign intelligence agency.

“That’s why we always have to be on high alert for attempts to infiltrate our intelligence services,” he said, adding that the agencies were trying to determine how much damage might have been caused by the incursion.

Fear of terrorist attacks is running high in Germany following a series of deadly militant attacks in France and Belgium in the last year. Germany has been hit with three relatively minor incidents this year: a knife attack against a police officer, an ax attack against tourists on a train and a bungled suicide bombing in which only the attacker from Syria was killed.

But ahead of an election next September in which Chancellor Angela Merkel will be seeking a fourth term, there are concerns that an attack caused by a refugee could severely damage her chances. Merkel has faced criticism from the right wing of her conservative party for allowing in so many refugees and for refusing demands to impose a ceiling of 200,000 per year.

Support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which strongly opposes Merkel’s refugee policies, has surged to record highs in state elections this year; its growing strength has put it as high as 15% in national polls. 

Der Spiegel magazine’s online edition cited authorities as saying they had discovered a cache of top-secret intelligence information in the suspect’s possession as well as suggestions for terrorist attacks “against the infidels,” apparently referring to non-Muslims. He offered to try to pave the way for other militants to get assignments at the agency, Der Spiegel reported.

The agency did not say how the suspect got the classified information, or why an informant would have had access to it.

“So far, there have been no reliable indications that the accused had already given security-relevant information to people from the violent Salafist scene,” prosecutor Ralf Herrenbrueck, whose office is leading the investigation, told the Associated Press in a written response to questions.

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There are an estimated 40,000 Islamists in Germany, according to the government. Maassen had warned in September that the number of adherents to the Salafist sect, an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam that advocates a government based on Islamic law, had grown from 5,500 to 9,200 over the last three years.

Germany has outlawed six Islamist groups since 2012. Some had been recruiting young Germans with Muslim roots to join militants in Syria and Iraq. The government has said that about 820 people have left Germany to fight for Islamic State.

The infiltration also reminded Germans of West Germany’s reputation as a “sieve” for spies during the Cold War. Numerous spies from Communist East Germany were arrested in the 1990s, after German reunification, after it was discovered that they had infiltrated the West German intelligence agencies on behalf of East Germany and the Soviet Union.

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent

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