Germany occupies a special, ignominious place in the annals of Islamist terrorism in the 21st century.
It was in and around Hamburg’s inner-city Al Quds Mosque that the perpetrators met, planned and coordinated logistics for the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Three of the four 9/11 pilots hailed from the Hamburg cell, having for years posed undetected as students at the port city’s technical university. Moreover, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Al Quds Mosque remained a magnet and recruiting point for Islamist radicals – as well as a symbol of the German security service’s lassitude – until authorities finally shut it down a couple of years ago.
In German Jihad: On the Internationalization of Islamist Terrorism, Giudo Steinberg argues that Germany, though seldom in the limelight, was and remains pivotal to the jihadist global agenda. In Germany, as elsewhere, the movement has transformed itself dramatically since the days of the first Hamburg cell – into a leaderless, transnational and asymmetric project that western security services will not dismantle easily. The Boston bombing was only the most recent case in point.
Back in 2001, Al Qaeda’s Hamburg cell mirrored the organisation’s profile at the time: members were exclusively Arab and operations were run centrally out of Afghanistan, with strict top-down discipline. The targets were America and its allies in the Middle East.
That changed in the aftermath of 9/11. Al Qaeda lost its base in Afghanistan. Ramped-up security made it tougher to coordinate across continents, thus forcing Al Qaeda to flatten its command structure and grant regional groups more autonomy. At the same time, it profited a torrent of new recruits from outside the Arab Muslim world, including from northern Africa, the European diaspora, and Central and South Asia. This gain was Al Qaeda’s loss, too: it relinquished its command of the international jihad as regional groups struck out on their own, bringing the fight to their own front yards, be that Chechnya, Kashmir, Europe or elsewhere.
“Through an increasing amount of propaganda materials on the internet and translations into more and more languages, Al Qaeda managed to broaden the social base of the jihadist movement in Europe,” writes Steinberg. One of the most striking examples was Germany’s Sauerland Group, composed of two German-Turkish and two German converts, whose 2007 bomb plot was foiled by German security services.
The path of the German radicals to jihad led through underground networks to Turkey, then Iran, and then on to the military training camps in Waziristan run by Al Qaeda, Uzbek jihadists, and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. As fighters on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, the German recruits often proved too soft to make an impact on the battlefield. Back in Germany, though, they knew the lay of the land. At first, Germany was just a refuge and support base – then it, too, became a target.
Even though foreign troops have exited Iraq and are now pulling out of Afghanistan, Steinberg is not optimistic about jihadist terrorism subsiding in Europe. The “new internationalist” jihad, as he calls it, is a hybrid of leader-led and leaderless units, in which the in-country operatives take general direction from jihadist groups abroad but act on their own.
German-origin jihadist groups, argues Steinberg, have consolidated in Pakistani tribal regions and are “a terrorist force to be reckoned with”. Everywhere that states fail – and the list in the Middle East seems only to grow longer – is a potential haven for Islamists.
Yemen has already proven to be a near-ideal base for Al Qaeda, argues Steinberg. Among the Arab affiliates, the Algerian Al Qaeda is the gravest threat to European security, especially in France and Spain. The Indian subcontinent will remain a hotspot of Islamist terrorism, regardless of Al Qaeda’s fate. In Germany, the expansion of the Salafist movement has radicalised more Germany-based Muslims than ever before. New intelligence reveals that energy infrastructure, such as gas pipelines and tankers, is being targeted.
How, in addition to surveillance and vigilance, can the West stem the radicalisation of disillusioned immigrants and new attacks? Withdrawing from Afghanistan is a start, says Steinberg. The West’s wars and troop presences in the Muslim world are grist to the mills of the international jihad.
Steinberg is Germany’s foremost specialist on Islamist terrorism in Europe. He is currently a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
q Your book is the first comprehensive account of Islamist terrorism in Germany. Yet there are dozens of such books in other countries. Why so?
a The German jihadist scene has only developed since around 2005. Of course, there was the Hamburg cell [see review] but they were foreigners who came here to study.
Why has Germany among the western powers been spared terrorist Islamist attacks?
We did have a single attack by a man who was apparently a lone wolf. In 2011 he shot and killed two US American military personnel at Frankfurt airport. And much larger plots were all thwarted. They’ve also been very important in new strategies that Al Qaeda developed as of 2010 involving Germans and Germany, namely the “Europlot,” when it sent back European recruits to build new structures and perpetrate attacks in Germany and other countries.
Still, there’s been nothing like 9/11 or the bombings in London and Madrid. Is it because German intelligence is so good?
On the contrary. Although German intelligence is not as bad as some say, it is not operating on the level of the French, the British, or the Americans. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, only the US and its allies in the Middle East were targets. For a short time after 2003, Germany was spared because it did not take part in the Iraq War, which was the single most radicalising factor at the time. Germans thought they might be spared, but in 2006 the German military presence in Afghanistan became more visible because of the escalating Taliban insurgency. That is when Al Qaeda and affiliated organisations started to target Germany.
In your book, you tell how it was US intelligence, gathered by the National Security Agency (NSA), that helped point German secret services to the most dangerous of the bomb plots hatched in Germany. Was this information gathered through Operation Prism, the surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden and currently so controversial in Europe?
I don’t know as I hadn’t heard of Prism before the Snowden revelations. But the information that ultimately led to thwarting the so-called Sauerland Group was given to our foreign intelligence service by the NSA. This detail has now gained importance here in Germany because it is one very important example where US intelligence, possibly Operation Prism, saved German lives.
Have the drone strikes had an impact on the jihadist scene in Germany and Europe?
The drone strikes have had great influence on the German jihadist scene. Most Germans arrived in Pakistan’s tribal regions in 2009, when Obama escalated the drone war. As a consequence, Al Qaeda decided to evacuate most of its fighters in 2010 and ordered some Europeans to return to their home countries, build new structures, and perpetrate attacks there.
What’s the most difficult aspect of researching and writing about Islamist terrorism in Germany?
Linguistics are the biggest practical problem. If you take a look at the German jihadist scene in 2001, you needed two languages: German and Arabic. The networks at the time were largely composed of Arabs. This changed when German Turks and German Kurds entered the fold in 2005-2006. That means you have at least to be able to read Turkish texts. Most recruits then joined one of the Uzbek groups. So it helps if you read this language, which I don’t.
Since you finished your book, the biggest terrorist strike has been in the US, in Boston. What does this tell us?
There is a trend towards “individual jihad” in the western world since 2011. This represents a major shift in Al Qaeda strategy, which was triggered by the weakening of the organisation as a result of the drone strikes. And western followers have heeded the call, as the attacks in Boston, London and Paris in recent years illustrate.
Paul Hockenos is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.