Countering Jihad in Germany

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The international online edition of Spiegel magazine has an in-depth interview with Ernst Uhrlau, the president of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND. Uhrlau discusses the threat to Germany posed by Al-Qaeda inspired jihadist militants; the role played by homegrown terrorists, and by converts in particular; and the processes by which the marginalisation of Muslims can lead to radicalisation.

AFP/SITE Institute via SPIEGEL

The whole interview is recommended, but the following is an extract:

Uhrlau: Turkish Islam traditionally plays an important role for the domestic intelligence agencies. Milli Görüs, the largest Islamist organization in Germany with about 26,000 members, is under observation. With its extremist worldview, it poses a threat to our constitutional democratic order. But it is not an organization that preaches violence. Germany’s 2.5 million Muslims of Turkish origin come from a secular country that is strongly oriented toward the West, a country where militant fundamentalist movements are relatively insignificant — unlike Lebanon, say, where the radical Hezbollah has many supporters.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean that we should be pleased that the Turkish variety of Islamism is so strong in our country?

Uhrlau: At least we don’t have the kinds of problems that the United Kingdom and France are facing because of their colonial past. The Pakistani Muslims in England and the North African Muslims in France come from countries in which Islamist beliefs and violence play a more important role in parties and movements than in Germany. This is also reflected among the immigrant population.

SPIEGEL: Your counterparts in Paris and London are concerned about so-called home-grown terrorism. Is this something that we also have in Germany?

Uhrlau: The arrests in Oberschledorn are evidence that we also have this phenomenon in Germany. Even though many of the potential terrorists were born and grew up in Europe and do not stand out, they feel marginalized. As a reaction to this, the second or third generation of immigrants reverts much more strongly to its roots. In the process, religious belief becomes decisive. A process of isolation begins that leads to a parallel society. They are convinced that they must defend their own religion and values against the majority Western society.

SPIEGEL: Feeling misunderstood and wanting to defend your faith is one thing, but wanting to killing “infidels” is another.

Uhrlau: A fanatic prepared to commit violence sees himself as part of the ummah, the Muslim community of believers. He perceives any attack on his fellow Muslims — be it by the Israelis in the Gaza Strips or by the Americans in Iraq — as an attack on himself and his religion. Someone like this is an easy target for jihad or al-Qaida propaganda and can be recruited for the holy war against the “infidels.”

SPIEGEL: Did the refusal of the Social Democratic and Green Party coalition government under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to take part in the Iraq war reduce the risk of attack in Germany? Will a stronger German military presence in Afghanistan increase it?

Uhrlau: Jihad is triggered by current political developments. The jihadists do not reward us for having stayed out of the Iraq war. And whether we increase our presence in Afghanistan is irrelevant for the Islamists. As far as they are concerned, Germany is already not a neutral country. We are on the side of the hated Americans and we traditionally support Israel, which they consider a “Zionist entity.”

SPIEGEL: How large is the army of jihadists in Germany?

Uhrlau: We estimate that there are a few hundred extremists who are prepared to commit acts of violence. Up to 700 people are under various levels of observation by German intelligence and security agencies. Most of them live in our midst. A small proportion of these people, however, stand out by being frequent travelers. We currently know that more than a dozen people, including converts, have traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, where they seek contact with like-minded people.

SPIEGEL: So you simply allow these potential terrorists to go about their business?

Uhrlau: As long as there is no concrete evidence that they are making preparations for attacks, we have no other choice. But we do attempt to monitor their movements and determine their destinations. Not all of them are potential bombers — some are traveling as couriers. The Islamists are very familiar with the technical possibilities which the intelligence agencies have at their disposal. Hence important messages are delivered in person.

SPIEGEL: Can you prove direct contacts to al-Qaida?

Uhrlau: We follow them into the inaccessible tribal areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan …

SPIEGEL: … where al-Qaida’s terrorist training camps are located …

Uhrlau: … and we try to find out what they are doing there and with whom they are meeting. A lot of information is due to intensive cooperation with intelligence agencies in countries through which these suspects pass on their way to the Hindu Kush region. Some are briefly detained and questioned for other offences on their way back. But the fact that we are on their tail doesn’t really deter them. They continue undaunted. This doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the construction of a bomb. Some specialize in propaganda, in recruiting other activists or in conveying information.

Read the full interview here.

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