Just a few days before the sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the German public learned that security services had foiled a large-scale terror attack in the country: three men suspected of planning car bomb attacks in Germany were arrested on September 4, 2007. Press reports suggest that the attacks would have resulted in a higher number of casualties than the Madrid attack (March 2004), which left 191 dead, and the London attacks (July 2005) with 58 victims. Shockingly, the plots were to be carried out by two German converts to Islam: Munich-born Fritz Gelowicz (28), and Daniel Martin Schneider (22) from Neunkirchen in the Saarland. The third man, Adem Yilmaz (29), is a native of Turkey. The men are accused of planning attacks with intention to inflict mass casualties at Frankfurt am Main International Airport, the U.S. military base in Ramstein and caserns in Hanau, as well as schools, discotheques and pubs frequented by U.S. citizens. According to the investigators, at least one of the radical Islamists was willing to die in the planned attacks.
Reports indicate that the men belong to a terror cell formed in winter 2006 affiliated with the international Islamic Jihad-Union (IJU) network of Pakistan, where the presumed terrorists also received training in a terror camp, presumably of the IJU which included the handling of explosive devices. According to the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), the IJU carried out simultaneous bomb attacks on the US Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and the offices of the Uzbek Prosecutor General in Tashkent on July 30, 2004, which left two dead and several wounded. The United States Department of State also holds the IJU accountable for a series of suicide bombings with 47 victims around Tashkent and Bukhara in March and April 2006 - unlike Uzbek officials, who doubt the existence of the previously unknown group. The IJU reportedly has close ties to Al Qa'ida and mainly operates in Central Asia. It is assumed to be a spin-off of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which mainly keeps itself busy with attacks on U.S and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both groups remain committed to their original goals, the overthrow of the secular Uzbekistani regime in order to implement an Islamic state. They have recently developed an explicit anti-Western agenda and focus on the support of global terrorist Islamist insurgency. In 2005, the United States Department of State added the network to its list of foreign terror groups, claiming that it is very likely that the groups will carry out more attacks in the near future. This assessment has been proven by current events, which also emphasize the alignment of the terror networks to concentrate on targets frequented by U.S. military personnel as well as U.S. citizens.
The terrorists would have killed two birds with one stone by striking at U.S. targets located in Germany: had the terror cell been successful, both Germany and the U.S. would have been hit in one blow. Germany is not only involved in Afghanistan by participating in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom but also in the ISAF mission. Because of the upcoming decisions by the German Bundestag with regard to the deployment of German Tornados in Afghanistan and the prolongation of the mandate of the German Federal Armed Forces to participate in the ISAF mission in October, the attacks might also well have been aimed at influencing public opinion on these matters. German advocates of the country’s continuing and expanded involvement in Afghanistan already have a tough time since the public is divided on this issue; half of the German public rejects any such participation. One of the reasons is that the efforts undertaken in Afghanistan are perceived as making Germany a target of Islamist terrorists. German officials had been afraid of that, which is why intelligence agencies had recently been on high alert.
It was Gelowicz' conspicuous behavior that made the security services take interest in the terror cell. He was seen observing a U.S. casern in Hanau a potential target of the attacks in December 2006. Since then, Gelowicz and his companions were placed under surveillance by police in what is the biggest operation in the history of the German Federal Criminal Police. About 300 officials from up to forty different agencies – including the U.S. military intelligence since February 2007 – had been working on the case day and night. During the operation, the investigators noticed - between February and August 2007 - how one of the terror suspects gradually obtained a dozen barrels of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide solution in the Hanover area, weighing 73kg in total. The barrels were temporarily stored in a garage located in the Black Forest close to the town of Freudenstadt, and then moved to the terror group's laboratory which they had set up in a holiday home in the small town of Oberschledorn located in the rural Sauerland-area in the east of North Rhine-Westphalia. In July 2007, the chemicals in the barrels were replaced with a harmless liquid by the German police.
According to Jörg Ziercke, the president of the Federal Criminal Police Office, the Islamists were about to boil down the chemicals – which are legally obtainable – to a mix with an explosive effect similar to 550 kg of Trinitrotoluol (TNT) when the arrests took place. The planned terror attacks had the potential of being much more destructive than the ones in Madrid and London: they would have had an impact twenty times greater than the Madrid bombings. In comparison, the backpack bombers in London had been en route with amounts of the chemicals equaling three to five kilograms of TNT each. The same type of concoction – in a much smaller amount – had also been obtained by two Lebanese men accused of organizing the terror attacks on commuter trains in Cologne, in July 2006, using suitcase bombs. Since the amount of the original chemicals which the cell was in possession of was so high, the chemicals could only be stored for about a week. Due to this, it is assumed that the assaults were intended to be carried out on September 11, 2007 - the sixth anniversary of the terror attacks in New York and Washington D.C. in 2001. All the material needed to complete the explosive devices – including the igniters – had already been gathered.
According to the investigators, the arrests prove the German intelligence agencies’ assessment that Islamist terrorists are following a new strategy. Instead of meeting up in places frequented by Muslims in major German cities, they have started to focus on outlying areas of the country to prepare their attacks, since mosques and other meeting-places are allegedly well observed by security agencies. Given the fact that there are about 2.500 mosques located in Germany, this assessment implies that the number of mosques and other meeting places considered to promote militant Islamist ideologies is either rather small or that only ‘hotspots’ are being watched by security agencies, be they in urban centers or somewhere out in the country. One of these far-flung places being observed by intelligence agencies is the "Islamisches Informationszentrum" (IIZ) in Ulm, a city in Baden-Württemberg which is known for its radical Islamist scene where Fritz Gelowicz was considered to be a leading figure. The IIZ is affiliated with the "Multikulturhaus" (MKH) in the nearby Bavarian town of Neu-Ulm, which was banned in late 2005. Following the banning of the MKH, some of its Islamists transferred their activities to the IIZ, which also preaches strict Wahhabism, or started gathering in private homes. Various activities by militant Islamists with connections to the MKH/IIZ scene have been reported in the past. On June 10 2007, one of the members of the IIZ, German-born Tolga Dürbin, was arrested in Pakistan under the suspicion of being affiliated with terror networks and was subsequently handed over to the German police. Under investigation, he is being held in German custody. Reda Seyam, another frequent IIZ visitor and - according to his father - one of Tolga's friends, is suspected to have planned the terror attacks in Bali in 2002. Furthermore, three German converts from the IIZ and the MKH went to Chechnya a few years ago and died as "martyrs" in the "jihad". One of them, Thomas "Hamza" Fischer, is a co-founder of the IIZ.
It is remarkable how many militant converts to Islam can be found by looking at the MKH/IIZ scene alone. Although there is no reliable information concerning the exact number of converts to Islam, it is clear that they make up only a very small portion of Germany’s total Muslim population. The number of Muslims in Germany is estimated at 2.8-3.2 million, while the entire population of Germany stands at approximately 82 million inhabitants. The Muslim population therefore equals 3.4-3.9 percent. Estimates by renowned Islamic scholars range from between 12.000 and 100.000 German converts to Islam in total; resulting in a 0.01-0.12 percent of the total population. The arrests, together with the results of the investigations on some of German Islamist circles – as mentioned in this article – match other incidents in Western countries concerning the trend that has seen an increase in homegrown, rather than imported, terrorism. The fact that the radical Islamist and Islamist terror scene seems to attract a noticeable number of the young converts to Islam, is especially worrisome. According to Germany's Federal Minister of the Interior, Wolfgang Schäuble, their involvement in terror plots and their commitment to die in Jihad abroad is becoming more and more frequent.
Following the publication of the arrests, it has come to light that Schäuble referred to the ongoing investigations in a statement issued on February 5 2007, when he warned of a possible security threat posed by converts to Islam, who "made him worry". The initial reason for Schäuble's comment on this matter was the leaked figures on the increased number of German converts to Islam between July 2005 and June 2006, taken from a report written by the Zentralinstitut Islam-Archiv Deutschland (ZIIAD) in request of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, a non-profit association dedicated to exploring Islamic life in Germany. The findings of this annual report, the so-called "Frühjahrsumfrage" (Spring Survey), are based on information provided by Islamic communities in Germany as well as interviews with individuals. According to the institute, it has so far not been published because the ministry has not yet approved it for publication. The leaked figures published in German newspapers speak of about 5.000 new German Muslims, a rise of approximately 20 per cent compared to the time before the attacks of September 11, 2001. With regard to the seemingly noticeable participation of converts in the Islamist scene, such a high increase of the conversion rate is certainly giving food for thought on this matter. However, concerning these numbers, two things must be kept in mind: first, as the institute itself admits, many Islamic communities have included converts from a time span well before July 2005, so the figures give distorted information about the actual conversion rate which might not be so high after all. Second, the institute has been criticized for intransparent proceedings and cannot be regarded as an independent organization since it is affiliated to the Islamische Gemeinschaft Milli Görus (IGMG), part of the Turkish Milli Görus movement. Its German branch is observed by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (FOC) because of its Islamist agenda.
The internet with its jihad websites plays an important role in the recruitment of convert would-be fighters. Particularly the role of private chat rooms on the web cannot be underestimated because they provide a space for the spread of militant ideology and the clandestine exchange of information. This was the case for Sonja B., a female convert to Islam from Berlin, whose plans to go to Iraq to become a suicide bomber in spring 2006 were foiled by her arrest in her apartment by the German police. Bert Weingarten, a private investigator who researches the so-called deep internet – which cannot be accessed by search engines – for information of this kind, refers to this internet forum in his archive. Operated from Cologne, the carriers of the forum aimed to recruit female converts to Islam for jihad. Among the entries is also one written by Sonja B., which had tipped off the intelligence agencies and resulted in her arrest. The three men arrested in Oberschledorn had used encrypted emails to communicate with the IJU. They had also been called to take part in jihad using this very same method of communication. To avoid detection, the group showed a certain level of professionalism: its members used public phones and internet cafes and later left one another messages in the draft folders of email accounts.
However, the role of the Islamic community that the convert to Islam turns to – prior, during and after conversion – is presumably more crucial when it comes to the indoctrination of new Muslims, since the sophisticated implementation of various communication methods in order to follow terrorist goals is used based on a pre-existing extremist attitude. The process of the construction of such views can be described as follows: Since the new member of the group is less proficient in religious matters than his comrades, he or she is usually very eager to become acquainted with the rules and customs of his/her future reference group. Therefore, the orientation of the “receiving” community is a major factor in the creation of the convert's prospective conception of Islam. This is why the person's introductive contact often sets the framework for his future (religious) exercise. Radical Islamist groups – active in and around Ulm and Neu-Ulm, where the three men involved in the current terror plot were apparently socialized – take advantage of this fact and are focusing on the recruitment of converts. An example of this is the efforts of the IIZ. Also located in the center is the editorial staff of the online-publication "Denk mal islamisch" (Think Islamic), who also issued a statement in the publication praising the abovementioned Thomas Hamza Fischer for his "martyr"-death in Chechnya. It is addressed directly to converts. Seemingly, this strategy pays off. As the police, the FOC, and the IIZ’s neighbors have noted, more and more Germans who converted to Islam have come to visit the center during the last months.
There is an even more tangible connection between the IIZ and the planned terror attacks foiled on September 4th, 2007. Tolga Dürbin and the head of the excavated terror cell, Fritz Gelowicz., knew each other well. Dürbin had been a trainee in Gelowicz’ parents’ company. Apparently, Gelowicz converted to Islam at the age of 15, and had been under Dürbin's influence for quite some time. One can therefore assume that Dürbin might have introduced Gelowicz to militant Islamism. This is not to say that the eventual radicalization of a convert is solely dependent on the group or individuals he turns to in his search for religious guidance. For a conversion that takes place due to other than merely functional considerations – e.g. conversion to Islam in order to marry a Muslim – the mindset of the convert is just as important. This process of conversion can be thought of as a decision to purchase certain merchandise in the "supermarket of religious goods", as sociologist Thomas Luckmann puts it. Consequently, the nature of the good is most likely very well thought out and the decision to follow a certain religious current is taken rather actively. Most of the time, the individual’s perception of society as egoistic and greedy is fundamental for his feeling of anomie which in effect makes him a (religious) seeker. Confronted with competing ideologies in Western societies, he picks the explanatory system which best meets his needs.
An urgent desire for exact observance and a prevalent religious zeal when it comes to proving one's commitment is characteristic for converts to any religion, making the better part of them religious fundamentalists. Therefore, if they have joined a group offering a radical (militant) interpretation of Islam and are instructed correspondingly, they may undergo a very fast radicalization process and in consequence can indeed pose a serious security threat, as in the case at hand. Coming to the specifics of conversion to Islam, there seem to be three dominant motives behind the decision to convert: the search for a group that provides the convert with stability and social integration, the appreciation of a coherent explanatory system of coordinates from which they can articulate their criticism of Western society and a way of life that allows them to express their crucial views in their everyday routine. All of this makes Islam a holistic alternative to the society which they originate from and of which they disapprove. At the same time, the religion is perceived as having a negative image in non-Islamic countries. Therefore, the individual can easily project his sentiments of rebellion in the political-religious content and structure of Islam. An extreme example of a person actively on the lookout for extreme Islamist groups in order to become a suicide bomber is the case of the German convert Steven Smyrek. He approached Hizballah members in the Braunschweig area, was sent for questioning and training to Beirut and tried to enter Israel to spy out possible terror targets in 1997. Because had been observed by intelligence agencies, he was detained in the airport before he could do any harm.
What makes people like Smyrek or the converts detained in Oberschledorn especially dangerous is the fact that they grew up in the culture area of the society which they later wish to harm. Having national passports at their disposal, and being unobtrusive in physical and behavioral terms, they feature skills and opportunities that exceed those of would-be terrorists coming or originating from foreign countries, e.g. the unrestrained possibility to travel. What must of course be kept in mind is that even if converts to Islam tend to follow a rather fundamentalist interpretation of their religion and to criticize Western societies as a whole, the bulk of them does not approve of violence. As has been pointed out in this paper, the "convert to terror" is only one of the possible outcomes of a conversion process and the sum of an individual's decisions for how to lead his own life. This implies that suggestions – such as that proposed by the Bavarian Minister of the Interior, Günther Beckstein (Christian Social Union) - to observe every conversion to Islam taking place in Germany in order to be able to detect whether the future Muslim will adhere to a liberal or Islamist orientation, is certainly going too far; also because putting converts to Islam in general under suspicion would be against the letter and spirit of Germany's Basic Constitutional Law and against democratic principles in general. Nevertheless, even if only few converts – and Muslims in general – are actually taking part in terror plots, their impact on security matters can be very serious, as proven by the terror plans foiled in Oberschledorn. Therefore, much more attention must be paid to explore this phenomenon, as seemingly not only Osama bin Laden has realized that converts to Islam are "an especially potent weapon."