Germany’s Dilemma in Dealing with Islamist Threats

Maik Baumgärtner et al., Der Spiegel, March 23, 2017

The man thought to have once provided security for the world’s best-known terrorist is short and stocky—just 1.65 meters (5′ 5″) tall, as Sami A. told a journalist in an interview last year. “And I’m supposed to be dangerous?”

But that’s what the security authorities in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia believe. They paint a dark picture of the 40-year-old. They say he received terrorist training in Afghanistan and later served as one of Osama bin Laden’s guards. They also believe him to be a member of the radical Islamist group Tablighi Jamaat and a fundamentalist cleric who has persuaded young men to join the jihad. Two of his alleged protegés have already been prosecuted in Germany. In rejecting his asylum application, the Higher Administrative Court in Münster wrote in 2015 that Sami A. represents “a considerable threat to public safety.”

And yet, the Tunisian man continues living in Germany today.

There have, to be sure, been attempts to throw the book at him. Federal prosecutors investigated him for potential membership in al-Qaida, but were forced to drop the case for lack of evidence. And in 2006, the Foreigner Registration Office issued deportation orders for Sami A., but the administrative court in Düsseldorf froze the order in 2009 and again in 2016. The court ruled that, as a terror suspect, Sami A. was in danger of being tortured back home in Tunisia. In instances where the threat of torture exists, even Islamists are permitted to stay in Germany.

Having come to Germany as a university student in 1997, Sami A. currently lives in a working-class district of Bochum with his German wife and four children. He is required to report to the police between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. every day and was once arrested for violating his reporting requirement.

His case is a good example of just how difficult it can be for the German government to deal with people it considers a threat but who cannot be convicted of a crime due to insufficient evidence. The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has identified 602 individuals who are so-called “Islamist threats.” Some 300 of them live abroad—in Syria or in Iraq, often as fighters for terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS)—while around 100 are currently in jail in Germany. Of the 200 remaining suspected enemies of the state, most have not yet committed any prosecutable crimes, but authorities nevertheless believe them to be capable of “politically motivated crimes of considerable significance.” That’s how the BKA and the 16 state criminal offices have defined these individual threats since 2004. Put more simply, they believe these 200 identified individuals are capable of committing terrorist acts at any time.

“Threat” is a vague working term. And the individuals who have been identified as such often aren’t even aware of it. The decision to classify a person as a threat is made by the state offices of criminal investigation, and the person’s name is then added to a national list kept by the BKA. According to the definition, threats are identified “on the basis of certain established facts” which fall short of being actual crimes. Unable to prosecute them, the most the state can do is keep these individuals under close surveillance to the greatest degree possible.

But they often aren’t successful, as seen in the case of Anis Amri, the perpetrator behind the December attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. Officials had also classified him as a threat, but authorities were unable to prove he had committed any terrorist acts and they also couldn’t deport him to Tunisia. He was a free man who used his freedom to shoot a semi-truck driver, steal the vehicle and murder 11 more people.

Government Tightens Laws

In recent weeks, the federal government has agreed on new measures allowing law enforcement officials to better monitor Islamist threats. One of those measures, for example, is the use of ankle monitors, which is a lot cheaper than a police surveillance team. The new rules also simplify and expedite procedures for deporting foreigners who have committed a crime.

The tighter rules are intended as a signal that the government is taking back control. The truth, though, is that many of the rules don’t go far enough. An attack like the one that took place in Berlin in December is still possible. And someone like Sami A., who has been identified as a threat, is still protected from deportation.

Berlin faces a dilemma. Any attempt to deal with all the people the state perceives as a threat would require the government to throw fundamental aspects of civil rights in Germany into question. They would quickly arrive at the same simple solution that the populists on the right are proposing: The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is demanding the categorical deportation of all individuals who have been identified as Islamist threats as well as for “biometric data to be collected for all migrants.”

The state government in Bavaria recently proposed a similarly radical solution. The state has drafted a law that would enable judges to order the unlimited preventative detention of individuals identified as threats.

Legal professionals consider unlimited preventative incarceration to be problematic. Thomas Feltes, a professor of criminology at the University of Bochum, considers the draft law to be purely symbolic. “Do we want to put all potential threats behind bars for an unlimited amount of time? Then we will be putting ourselves at the level of Turkey and we would be creating lots of little Guantanamos,” he says.

Government Uncertainty

Proposals like the one from Bavaria are indicative of government uncertainty in the face of these potential threats. Even as these stricter laws are introduced, authorities at the federal and state level still haven’t agreed on uniform procedures for dealing with individual Islamist threats.

The case of Emre A. of Hildesheim is a good example of how difficult the situation can be. Identified by police as a threat to German security, Emre A. is sitting in a white tiled room 150 kilometers southwest of Budapest when he is visited by SPIEGEL. Three Hungarian guards are present throughout the interview.

Emre A. has a narrow gray face, a full beard and black hair tied back in a pony tail. “I suffer from depression and panic attacks,” says the Turkish citizen, who was born in Germany. He has lost 20 kilograms (45 pounds) since he was arrested one year ago while trying to cross the Hungarian-Romania border with falsified Belgian identity papers.

The Hungarian authorities questioned him repeatedly. Did he want to join the war? Did he plan to go to Syria and join Islamic State? “The police, the intelligence agencies, they have all questioned me,” says Emre A, claiming that the longest interrogation lasted 72 hours. In the end, he was sentenced to nine-and-a-half months in jail “because of the forged identification papers.” In December, the 25-year-old was finally transferred to the pre-deportation detainment center in Kiskunhalas.

Before Emre A. disappeared from the Salafist scene in Hildesheim, he regularly visited the notorious mosque of the German-Speaking Islam Circle (DIK) in the northern part of the city. That is where Abu Walaa, the self-proclaimed sheikh arrested in Germany last November, preached. Prosecutors believe Walaa had IS ties and used the mosque to radicalize young Muslims before trafficking them to Syria and Iraq as fighters. Anis Amri, the perpetrator in the Berlin attacks, had also visited the Hildesheim mosque.

In December 2015, Emre A. was issued legal orders prohibiting him from leaving Germany. The state office of criminal investigation in Lower Saxony had received information suggesting he was “almost certainly” planning to leave the country and travel to Syria. His participation in the war there would “endanger” Germany’s foreign relations to “a considerable degree,” the order states. Emre A. was ordered to hand over his passport and he had to report to the police each day. “Plus, I was constantly being followed by plain-clothes police officers,” he says. “I was able to recognize their vehicles.”

Around five weeks later, Emre A. skipped the country anyway. One afternoon, he made a final visit to register with the police and his mobile phone was last connected to the network at 4 p.m. on Feb. 6, 2016. Then he disappeared.

Visitors at the detention center in Kiskunhalas are allowed to stay for a maximum of 45 minutes. Emre A. lowers his voice and says he wants to return to Germany. “Why won’t they let me come back?” he asks. But even though Emre A. was born in Germany, he only has Turkish citizenship and never obtained German nationality. An employee at the Turkish Embassy in Budapest visited him and offered assistance. “But what am I supposed to do in Turkey?” he asks. “I have two children in Hildesheim. I want to go home.” He hasn’t even see his newborn daughter yet. She’s only a few months old.

Keeping Threats on the Radar

So why did he leave Germany in the first place? “I couldn’t take the surveillance any longer. I wanted to visit relatives in Turkey, not join IS.” But he declines to talk about the details of his trip, the forged passports and the two people who accompanied him. He offers only, “I haven’t committed any crime and can be accused of nothing.”

Investigators don’t have any concrete incriminating evidence against Emre A. An anonymous informant supplied police with the names of six young men from the Hildesheim mosque who had wanted to travel to Syria and Emre A. was on the list. As a consequence, he was immediately classified as a potential Islamist threat. Police did not, however, find evidence that the group was planning an attack in Germany.

In that sense, Emre A. is right: He apparently didn’t break any laws. Nevertheless, the investigating authorities strive to assess who might commit a crime. On the basis of those assessments, surveillance teams are dispatched across the country.

“The only thing we can do is keep the individual threats on our radar,” says André Schulz, head of the Federation of German Police Detectives. He says there are no guarantees and that it is the job of the state offices of criminal investigation to determine which of these potential Islamist threats is the greatest. “What’s lacking is a catalog of criteria for classifying potential threats as such,” Schulz says.

Currently, the police databases have two categories: “potential threats” and “relevant persons.” The latter category is for individuals like contact people or supporters who aren’t considered to be acutely dangerous themselves.

But German domestic intelligence at the federal and state levels has a completely different approach. It maintains files on 10,000 people it believes are seeking to use legal channels to implement their vision of society, which is based on Islamist ideology. Internally at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, as German domestic intelligence is officially called, these people are referred to as “legalists.” An additional category is reserved for the estimated 9,700 Salafists who pursue a literal interpretation of the Koran and who are often prepared to resort to violence. But the intelligence agencies’ greatest focus is on those 1,600 people thought to be most capable of establishing terrorist structures and carrying out attacks.

To make things even more chaotic, each state intelligence agency decides on its own who is placed in which category. There has, at least, been a nationwide agreement in place since 2011 on who should be classified as a member of the Salafist scene. But the criteria are vague and only include a portion of those who pose a danger.

‘We Urgently Need a Nationwide Approach’

The criteria, for example, include questions like: Does the person take part in Salafist events? Does the person donate money to related organizations? But as one intelligence official admits, they do not consider those who are not religiously active or who, as in the case of Ani Amri, are involved in drug dealing. “We actually need to consciously treat even non-suspicious activity as suspicious,” the official says. But where, then, is the balance between constitutionally-based law enforcement and capriciousness?

Because the objective justification for such decisions is often so difficult to identify, police officers and domestic intelligence agents are calling for clear guidelines on how classifications are to be made and what measures follow from those classifications. “We urgently need a nationwide approach,” says a source at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. “Otherwise nobody has a clue.”

The police, at least, have more clear structures in place for the exchange of information. As soon as a person has been identified as a possible threat, the decision is shared with all state criminal investigation offices and with the federal BKA. The centralized list is maintained by the BKA and it is updated monthly. But the ultimate responsibility for managing the threat resides with the state in which the perceived threat is living.

The state offices of criminal investigation create a profile of each potential threat. In addition to photos, it contains fields with all the information known about the person—among other things their nationality, marital status, family status, contacts, whether they know martial arts, language proficiency and computer skills. If enough information is obtained to launch criminal proceedings, the public prosecutor is informed.

One of the most recent entries onto the list of potential threats is Kevin T. of Neuss, a city neighboring Düsseldorf. Operating under the pseudonym “Sayfullah,” he posted comments on the internet regarding his assessment of Islamic State reports. Regarding a report that a 15-year-old boy had been decapitated for listening to Western music, for example, he wrote that the punishment had been too severe. “A whipping probably would have been sufficient,” commented a person going by the name Mahmud. “I think so, too,” wrote Kevin T.

Kevin T., a German who converted to Islam, landed on the list because he had been in contact with a 17-year-old from Vienna who officials believed was planning an attack. Police then searched Kevin T.’s apartment a few weeks ago and temporarily detained him.

Beyond that connection, officials at the state Interior Ministry in Düsseldorf say Kevin T. was seen in the streets of Neuss carrying an Islamic State flag and clearly identifiable as a Salafist. He is not, however, considered to be a major figure in the Salafist scene and during questioning, he denied being an IS sympathizer. But is a person like Kevin T. actually dangerous? Is he a threat to the state he lives in? Or is he just a post-pubescent loudmouth?

The potential threats of today, it seems, are not generally college-educated attackers like the 9/11 perpetrators in Mohammed Atta’s circle, who spent years planning the attacks on New York and Washington. For today’s IS-inspired attackers, a driver’s license, a knife or an ax are sufficient.

Furthermore, it is not uncommon to find unpredictable and emotionally unstable individuals within today’s latest generation of Islamists—people like Sascha L. from Northeim near the university town of Göttingen. Police arrested the 26-year-old a few weeks ago on suspicions that he was planning an attack on soldiers and police officers. During a search of his apartment, officers found chemicals and electronic components that could be used in the construction of an explosive device. Three years ago, though, Sascha L. was posting right-wing extremist videos on YouTube. Is he just on a confused search for his own identity? Or is he, in fact, an enemy of the state?

“There’s no blueprint for dealing with dangerous Islamists,” says Boris Pistorius, the interior minister of the state of Lower Saxony. “We have to look very closely at each case.”

Two Dozen Serious Threats?

That’s why terror experts must constantly be performing fresh analysis on each potential threat. What risks does the person pose? Should surveillance measures be increased or reduced?

Questions such as these are discussed every day at a former military barrack in Berlin’s Treptow district. Representatives from more than 40 police and domestic intelligence agencies work together there as part of the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (GTAZ). A projector beams presentations and images onto a screen while yellowed maps hang on the walls along with a clock that shows different times around the world.

At GTAZ, every Islamist who is placed on the potential threat list is discussed. The group also takes a close look at those who are to be removed from the list. The discussions are organized by the BKA-led Working Group for Operative Information Exchange. In 2015, the group met 250 times, a significant increase over the previous year, when there were 140 meetings. And the workload of officials working there increases by the day. “Few here work for less than 12 hours a day,” says one top investigator.

Germany’s new refugees also mean more work for the agency. Last year, around 400 cases were reported of Islamists allegedly seeking to recruit refugees. Most of the reports turned out not to be true and a senior official says there are currently around two dozen people under surveillence in Germany for whom there is evidence of terrorist intent.

The number of reports coming into Germany from foreign intelligence agencies has also increased significantly. Since the summer of 2015, Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency has received two to three reports a day about alleged terrorist activity in the country. Often, it is only superficial information, but checking it amounts to considerable work.

During GTAZ meetings, there is often disagreement on the assessment of individual threats. When Daniel S., a former member of the German terrorist cell known as the Sauerland Group, which was uncovered in 2007, was released from jail, the BKA advocated removing him from the list, arguing that he had credibly distanced himself from Islamism. But the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Saarland disagreed and placed him on the list of potential threats. Now he is monitored on a regular basis, almost 10 years after his arrest.

Back on the Radar

The approach to Adnan V. is also highly controversial. A higher regional court in Frankfurt convicted the former chemistry student to two years of probation in 2011 for providing assistance to a terrorist organization. He had promoted al-Qaida on the internet and also passed along bombmaking instructions. But he would later publicly distance himself from Islamism several times and also confessed in court. “That’s why we want to give you a chance,” the court’s top judge said on the day of the ruling.

Yet despite insisting otherwise, it appears that V. never entirely turned his back on the Islamist scene. When investigators in the state of Hesse searched the apartment of Islamist Halil D. in the town of Oberursel in 2015, they also came across correspondence from Adnan V. At the time, Halil D. had been suspected of planning a bomb attack at a bicycle race—suspicions prosecutors were unable to prove in court.

But the attention received by Halil D. pushed Adnan V. back onto the radar of the state apparatus. Domestic intelligence agents began visiting him regularly and warned him against lapses. V. complained bitterly to the officials about once again being placed under surveillance.

“Being identified as a potential threat carries a stigma with it,” says Berlin lawyer Tarig Elobied. Some of his clients have complained of having difficulty finding jobs after being placed on the authorities’ surveillance lists. Others claim that they are innocent and that they feel harrassed by the agents. Legally, however, they don’t have much recourse.

Even Islamists who have been reported killed in Syria frequently remain on investigators’ radar. “There is significant concern that we could be misled by an incorrect death report and that one of them could reappear,” says one police chief. It is rare that a name is removed from the list, he says, with officers preferring to be on the safe side. “Nobody wants to end up being the one who underestimated a threat.”

As happened in the case of Anis Amri, the Berlin attacker. Amri was discussed seven times at GTAZ. Those participating in the discussion believed that the chance was relatively limited that he would participate in a terrorist attack. On a scale of one (“a dangerous event is likely”) to eight (no danger), they assigned Amri a five (attack “rather unlikely”).

Among the evidence examined in Amri’s cases was a claim made by an informant from North Rhine-Westphalia that Amri had sought to obtain an automatic weapon and explosives to “do something.” But they were unable to find any proof for the claim, which is why they viewed the scenario as unlikely. Their evaluation wasn’t completely wrong: Amri did not get his hands on an automatic weapon. But investigators failed to realize that he was dangerous nonetheless.

Personality Profiles

Officials from the federal and state police forces now intend to focus more on the personalities of those presenting a potential threat rather than just on possible scenarios. They hope that doing so will result in a more efficient use of their resources: Those posing significant risk have to be under constant surveillance while those who aren’t as dangerous can be watched more sporadically.

To develop such personality profiles, the BKA has joined together with the Working Group for Forensic Psychology at the University of Konstanz to create a new instrument called Radar-iTE. It is a method that allows police experts to evaluate the danger a specific individual represents by analyzing all data available about that person.

The basis for that analysis is a standardized list of questions looking at a variety of features of the person’s biography: How did the person grow up? How well are they integrated into social circles outside of the Islamist scene? Do they have a police record and, if yes, for what crimes? What are their attitudes to violence? Do they have military experience? Do they have access to weapons? How have their interactions with officials been? To analyze the resulting data, experts compare the information they have about 30 attackers with the data from 30 potentially threatening individuals and “relevant persons.”

In the end, the analysis results in a color-coded threat assessment: Green for instances where the threat is “moderate,” yellow for “noteworthy” and red for “high.” When investigators used the new instrument to test Anis Amri after the fact, he ended up in the red category. In the future, those identified as high risk will be placed under more intense surveillance.

The new program is slowly being introduced at the state level, with priority given to states where the most Islamists live: Berlin, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and, first and foremost, North Rhine-Westphalia. The number of those thought to pose a terrorist threat has spiked in the state in recent years. In 2007, just 10 names were on the list, but by 2016, the total had risen to 211, along with 105 additional “relevant persons.”

The next step foresees states coordinating their approaches to dangerous Islamists and coming up with common procedures.

A Patchwork of Methods

It is a challenging undertaking given that German states determine individually what methods are allowed. Whereas in Bavaria, the phone of someone who has been determined to be a terrorist threat may be tapped, that is not allowed in North Rhine-Westphalia or Berlin. Online surveillance is likewise only allowed in two states. It is a patchwork of methods, says one GTAZ investigator.

Despite the improvements currently being made, it is an illusion to believe that governments can keep all those intent on damaging it under control. Officials will overlook potential attackers or misjudge them—and sometimes it will overreact, as it did on Nov. 17, 2015, when the international football friendly between Germany and the Netherlands was called off in Hannover due to a terror warning.

Almost right until kickoff, GTAZ police officials thought the match could go ahead as planned despite a warning that had been received from a foreign intelligence agency. But when additional evidence began trickling in, the airplane of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was on her way to the game, had to be turned around so she could head back to Berlin. The fans in the stadium were likewise sent home. Only later did it turn out that there had apparently been no threat at all.

On the afternoon of that day, investigators checked in on several people on their list of potential terrorist threats who they thought could possibly be linked to the heightened threat level in Hannover. And in Hildesheim, a car was pulled over. “We had just finished our shopping,” says Emre A. in the Hungarian prison where he was locked up. “We bought some soft drinks and something to eat.” Shortly after he and his companions climbed back into the car and drove off, “automatic weapons were suddenly pointed at us from all sides. I had several red dots on my body.” The four men were pulled out of the car and forced to lie flat on the road. “One officer dressed in civilian clothing held his automatic weapon directly to my head,” Emre A. says.

Emre A. was released again later that evening. Officials still don’t know if he truly represents a danger, though they believe he might. Last December, Hildesheim municipal officials gave Emre A.’s lawyer written notice that his client’s residency permit for Germany had expired. The lawyer filed a complaint in response against the retention of his client’s Turkish passport.

Recently, Hungary deported Emre A.—not to his family in Germany but to Turkey.

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