Abdeladim el-Kebir was nothing if not inconspicuous. From a terrorist’s perspective, his behavior was perfect. From the perspective of investigators: his behavior was suspiciously perfect.
He had learned the rules under Al Qaida in Pakistan: Stay in your home as much as possible. Don’t go to mosques. Wear Western clothing. Never leave a data trail that can be traced back to your own terror cell. He switched call shops and Internet cafes three times a day. For weeks on end, el-Kebir stuck to the rules with amazing discipline.
But the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation had been hot on his heels since November 2010. Investigators had focused in on the young Moroccan after they found his computer’s IP address on another computer confiscated in the apartment of a woman who had left Aachen to join the “Holy War” in Pakistan.
Nothing else about his biography seemed to suggest he had been in contact with terrorists. He seemed harmless. 29 years old, Abdeladim el-Kebir had moved to Germany in 2001. He studied mechanical engineering and mechatronics at the University in Bochum. In 2009, he was kicked out of school because he had missed some tests. He was an inconspicuous tenant, sharing an apartment with a friend in Dusseldorf-Bilk.
Bin Laden's heirs in Germany
After staking him out for weeks, investigators couldn’t find anything suspicious about el-Kebir. They started to doubt whether they were on the right track. Was he even worth the effort? They debated whether to suspend their surveillance, but in the end decided to stick to him. Around the clock.
Two months later they would find out: Abdeladim el-Kebir was the mastermind behind a planned terrorist attack. He wanted it to end in a bloodbath.
“Kebir, Abdeladim”: The name has been on one of the most highly classified lists kept in Germany since late 2010.
The list records personal information about and pictures of the most dangerous Islamic terrorist suspects in Germany – and those who have gone missing after living here.
Stern has that list.
It is a “Who’s Who” of extremely dangerous Islamists. Most of them have been ranked by the police as “instigators”: persons they believe would willing to do anything, from a martyr suicide bombing to a mass murder. They are bin Laden’s heirs in Germany.
A number are on Interpol’s Wanted list of potential terrorists.
The investigations cost millions
Others are probably completely unaware that they are being watched as “instigators”. The internal classification is a preemptive police measure to prevent dangerous situations from arising. It allows them to keep someone under surveillance without having concrete evidence supporting the suspicion. As long as there is no evidence to prove Instigators have committed a crime, they cannot be arrested or deported. So they are put under observation, sometimes openly, sometimes covertly.
More than a thousand officers from German state criminal investigation departments and the German State Offices of Internal Intelligence Service are deployed in this case. A few of the suspects are the subject of current investigations. The investigations cost millions.
Stern has spent months researching the biographies and terrorism careers of the Instigators, following their traces in the Internet, and interviewing people who knew some of jihadists who have gone into hiding.
The investigations have enabled the stern team to get an overview of the core of Islamist terrorism in Germany. The image that emerges is this: Only in rare occasions have the people involved come from the uneducated lower class, or been radicalized in a mosque before being sent to Pakistan by Al Qaida to be molded into terrorists.
Many of them have finished upper levels or even college, some of them in foreign countries. This core is made up of financial advisors, shop owners, management consultants and an elementary school teacher.
Roughly 85 of the 130 most dangerous Islamists in Germany live in metropolitan areas
The potential terrorists are living among us.
And most of them have left traces somewhere, even if they are banal: Instigators have played in the upper ranks of the hockey youth league, performed in the Christmas pageant at their school, told stories about their trip to Sardinia on the Internet or have been sought out in Wanted ads: “I can’t forget you!”
They have profiles on social networks like Xing or Facebook and their names appear in video portals, blogs, forums and chatrooms. Roughly 85 of the 130 most dangerous Islamists in Germany live in metropolitan areas with populations of more than a million.
In Berlin and Hamburg alone there are a dozen each, around 10 in the Rhine Main region. Roughly 25 known Instigators live in North-Rhine Westphalia– the majority of whom live in Cologne/Bonn and the Rhine-Ruhr area.
Two-thirds hold a German passport
“It would be wrong to assume that the 130 Instigators are a group or network,” said North-Rhine Westphalia’s head of criminal investigations, Wolfgang Gatzke. “Each of them is an individual with their own contacts and networks. And between these there are connections and crossed paths.”
His so-called “Investigative Team Swamp” has found 176 contact persons connected to the few Instigators in the region of Bonn alone.
According to the state Office of Criminal Investigation they have the potential to be Islamist terrorists. Two-thirds of them hold German passports. Roughly a third of the people listed as fanatical Islamists were born in Germany.
Many were immigrants and became German citizens. Others are from Turkey, the Middle East or North Africa and have permanent residency – or a temporary visa for the duration of their college studies. More and more German converts are also part of the network. Six of the Instigators are women. Two dozen men were trained to use weapons and bombs in terrorist camps in Hindukush and at some point returned to Germany, some of them with real wartime experience.
The Islamist brothers from Bonn
Two of the most dangerous puppet masters are brothers: Munir and Yassin Chouka, 29 and 26 years old. They are originally from Bonn and haven’t lived in Germany for three years. They are stationed in Waziristan, on the Afghan-Pakistan border and from there they have called on the networks to stage attacks. Young radicals in Germany identify with them. They are specialized in Internet propaganda. Through military and martyr videos, the Choukas are trying to stir their followers into action – trying to convince them to kill Germans.
They have direct ties to the top tiers of Al Qaida.
The brother’s path to fanaticism started as a middle-class upbringing in Bonn-Kessenich. They went to parochial Kindergarten, Catholic elementary school and high school.
Yassin finished his upper levels in 2004. His classmates liked him. His graduating class gave him the nickname “Superstar”.
He did his basic military service as an EMT and went on to study electronics in Koblenz.
An "unbelievable adventure"
In 2003, Yassin’s brother Munir started training to be an office communications technician at Bonn’s Federal Agency for Statistics.
But in the second year of his apprenticeship, a transformation occurred. Munir grew out his beard and one day, he showed up to work wearing a long robe.
In 2005, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca. At vocational school, he gave a presentation about Islam – and made it clear that he believed it to be superior.
His brother Yassin also started becoming interested in Islam. Together the two brothers visited seminars of radical Salafists.
Munir Chouka finished his training but quit his job at the Federal Bureau of Statistics a short time later in order to study the Koran. And, he said, to start working at an import-export company in Saudi Arabia. In early 2008, the Chouka brothers left Germany.
A new leading figure
They disappeared off the radar of the authorities for months. Munir changed his name to “Abu Adam” – and Yassin to “Abu Ibrahim”. In Yemen, they made a pilgrimage to the home of the Bin Laden family, in the province of Hadramaut.
There they joined a group with close ties to Al Qaida. In February 2011, Yassin Chouka wrote on the Internet that it was an “unbelievable adventure”.
He also made mention of his “invaluable studies” with Sheik Anwar al-Aulaqi. That raised a red flag at the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation.
Aulaqi is on the international terrorism Most Wanted list. Since Osama bin Laden’s death, the 40 year old is deemed to be the most important leader of organized terror.
On the Internet, the Chouka brothers bragged that Sheik Aulaqi sent the two highly motivated brothers with German passports into the Afghan-Pakistan border region in early 2009.
There they produced threatening videos right before the German parliamentary elections. Their latest work went viral last week. It is called “The Afghan Blitz”. Yassin Chouka explains in the video that a German-Afghani from Essen who went by the name Miqdaad gave it the name. In the video, Miqdaad is excited about his “special assignment to fight against the Germans”. He called the mood “bombastic”.
On March 20th, Miqdaad died under American gunfire, not far from Kundus.
The agents' great advantage
German investigators are following more than 5,700 websites and forums for radical Islamist content: from videos to jihad rap songs and games to directions on how to build a bomb.
While a team of officials is following the Choukas every move on the Internet, another group is trying to monitor the Instigators on German soil. Surveillance is extremely costly and laborious, as in the case of the inconspicuous and incredibly integrated Moroccan Abeladim el-Kebir from Dusseldorf.
But the investigators have something going for them: Based on testimony from radical Islamists in custody, they know the rules taught to terrorists in the training camps. And they know that flying under the radar can be an especially suspicious sign.
Suspects are often near religious about sticking to the rules:
Only use Internet cafes for email correspondence. After receiving certain code words, start a new email account, in order to receive pictures from Al Qaida.
In one of these pictures is hidden the encoding software “Asrar” – which means “Secrets”. This is to be installed on a USB stick.
The messages received are to be saved on another USB stick. The data is then to be decoded and read in a different Internet café. When writing emails, follow the same procedure.
Dress inconspicuously. Only go to the mosque every once in awhile.
Due to these guidelines, it is hard to attain concrete evidence that terrorist attacks are being planned. Frustration is a part of the job for investigators.
Take the case of the German-Syrian Hussam Abdul Qader, who is also on the list of terror suspects. The state Office of Criminal Investigation in Stuttgart had two teams with seven officers each following the 29-year-old and one of his co-conspirators.
Hussam Abdul Qader had apartments in Ulm and in Bonn and was under suspicion of recruiting new members for terrorist group.
When suspects become informants
For six months, agents had him under surveillance in a 24/7 covert operation. In a large-scale raid on May 11th, 30 officers from three states confiscated home computers, CDs and USB sticks. The “digital forensics” followed: Computer experts at the state Office of Criminal Investigation in Stuttgart analyzed the data. But it still wasn’t enough to issue a warrant for his arrest.
Only in rare cases do the investigations lead to a quick and successful end, like in the case of 23-year-old German-Turk Emrah E. He unexpectedly switched sides: the suspect became the informant. He gave officials inside information into a planned attack in Germany, and on November 17, 2010, he set off the most urgent terrorism warning since World War II.
At the beginning of 2010, Emrah E. travelled with other extremists from Germany to jihad in Pakistani tribal areas. His brother Bünyamin followed him – from Wuppertal to Waziristan. In the end Bünyamin spoke of having a martyr’s death – and only lived to be 20 years old. He and seven other people died in a drone strike on October 4th, 2010, in Mir Ali. Emrah only survived because he had left the building just minutes before.
The German-Turk Emrah E.
The brothers were originally from Karliova, a small village in East Anatolia.
Emrah’s grandfather came to Munich in 1972 as a guest worker. Soon he moved to the Ruhr region. Emrah was born in 1988 in Turkey and moved to Germany two years later. He spent a couple of years in jail for violent offenses.
While incarcerated, Emrah turned to Islam. At the end of 2008, he was released. He and his brother started attending the Schabab-an-Nur mosque in Wuppertal-Vohwinkel – listening to the preaching of a radical Salafist. Emrah spoke out in the mosque and in a small magazine about his mixed-up childhood and swarmed about his newfound religious beliefs. But according to a relative in Wuppertal, after the death of his younger brother in Pakistan “everything changed for him”: The holy warrior wanted out.
In November 2010 he placed a call to the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation from the Pakistani terrorist stronghold Mir Ali. He wanted money and security for his family. He had something to offer in exchange: inside information with details about imminent terrorist attacks in Germany. He called the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation a number of times, mentioning a small “Moroccan” cell.
The people in this group had been sent back to Germany, after completing a course in explosives and weapons, to spearhead an attack. There was talk of homemade bombs with cell phone detonators, to be set following email directives from the operative leadership at Al Qaida. The American FBI had also sent out a warning about a group of Moroccans planning a terrorist attack in Germany.
That set off the red alert: Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière issued a terrorism warning. Armed police patrolled in airports and train stations. The top of the parliamentary building was closed for visitors.
To the horror of the German Office of Criminal Investigation, a news magazine published a report giving background about the terrorism warning.
Details about the Federal Office’s informant Emrah E. became public: A former Islamist from Germany looking to defect from the group of armed fighters he had been with for months had last called on November 15th, 2010 and divulged secrets about a terrorist attack planned by the Pakistani Al Qaida. Insiders – and Al Qaida - knew whom they meant: Emrah E., the young “Holy Warrior” from Wuppertal.
Loss of a key witness
That same afternoon, Jörg Ziercke, the president of the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation gave a press conference in Hamburg. He said that media coverage could endanger the bureau’s covert investigations – and its sources. Stern had been cautious not to get in the way of the investigations.
Since the article was published, E. was afraid for his life. Scared to death, he called Germany, speaking once for over 40 minutes.
He said his cover had been blown and that Al Qaida thought he was a traitor. He said he was in danger and needed to get away. Perhaps he demanded too much from the anti-terrorism officials. Whatever the case, he never returned to Germany and never became a direct informant. Investigators lost all trace of him at the Nairobi airport. The German Office of Criminal Investigation lost a key witness and searched the apartments of his followers and friends instead.
Since then, there has been an international warrant out for Emrah E.’s arrest. Security officials believe him to be in Somalia.
The authorities were sure by now
But based on E.’s tips, Germany’s surveillance machine had been on overdrive since November. A special committee was founded to search for the cell Emrah E. had mentioned. Meanwhile, information had come in from the US that the Moroccan living in Dusseldorf, Abdeladim el-Kebir, had visited a terrorist camp in Pakistan in the spring of 2010. There, further investigations had found, he had bonded with the Al Qaida cadre responsible for recruiting personnel for an attack in Germany.
Finally, the investigators knew they were on the right track: Abdeladim el-Kebir, the perfectionist from Dusseldorf, who had been so perfectly inconspicuous. He was the mastermind behind the group preparing a bloodbath in Germany.
The federal investigators bugged his first floor, two-room apartment in the Witzel Street in Dusseldorf-Bilk. They installed spyware on his computer, a Trojan.
El-Kebir seemed nervous. He started wearing a wig when he left his house in the morning. Agents noted that he tried to lose them when he went to the Internet café. Then the suspects within the cell began buying parts for explosives and a bomb, taking professional care to be inconspicuous. The agents heard talk that they would do it “at a bus stop or in a bus”.
Adding new names to the list
April 29, 2011, 6:40 AM. A large-scale commando operation carried out by the elite counter-terrorism unit GSG9 and the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation. El-Kebir and two of his accomplices are arrested. The police search six apartments in Dusseldorf, Bochum and Essen. At a press conference at the end of April, the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation and the federal prosecutor’s office announce this to be the biggest strike against terrorism since the Sauerland terrorism cell was brought down in 2007. The investigative efforts had been worth it. The Office of Criminal Investigation believes it has prevented a mass attack and bloodbath, most likely at a bus stop.
Adbeladim el-Kebir is under arrest. But the list of Instigators is long and new names are constantly being added.
Just recently, Al Qaida made a call for more terrorist attacks in a video message. The speaker said the Muslims living in the West play “an important and decisive role in the jihad”.
In Berlin, there is a palpable feeling of tension in the air. In the next few days, at 10 in the morning, a conference with fifty experts from the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, Germany’s Internal Intelligence Service, German Foreign Intelligence Service, and the State Offices of Criminal Investigation will be meeting at the Joint Terror Defense Center near Treptow Park. They are still searching for the rest of the members of the Dusseldorf cell. A number of el-Kebir’s contacts are on the run. Others are not known by name, only by their computer IP addresses. At the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, officers continue to mull over the puzzle of terrorism, putting it together piece by piece.
By Frank Gerstenberg, Johannes Gunst, Felix Hutt, Nina Plonka, Oliver Schröm, Uli Rauss, Michael Lehmann, Gerd Elendt, Dirk Liedtke and Andreas Mönnich