Ten Islamists were sentenced Thursday for their role in a planned attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg. German secret investigators helped prevent the attack.
The defendants from Algeria and Tunisia received up to 10 years in prison for trying to set off a bomb hidden in a pressure cooker. The fact that the bomb didn’t go off and hurt thousands of people is a success story for Germany’s secret service.
In late 2000, around the time of the planned attack, investigators from several agencies worked together on the case: They all had information about the so-called “Frankfurt cell,” but no agency would have been able to prevent the attack by itself.
Long before the eventual arrests, the German foreign intelligence service (BND) had received information via middlemen about a connection between some of the cell’s members and the terror network of a certain Slimane Khalfaoi. As in most cases, the BND got its information from sources in Afghanistan and in the Arab world, where the agency has maintained good contacts for decades.
Details about the Frankfurt cell were then passed on to Germany’s internal intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), as some of the terrorists returned to Germany from Afghanistan, where they allegedly participated in terror training camps. BfV agents began listening in on cell members’ conversations and alerted Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) as the threat became imminent and the bomb attack was about to take place. BKA agents finally arrested the men — a step neither BfV nor BND agents could have taken.
Questions over intelligence exchange
Masked police officers on the site of German highest court in Karlsruhe on Dec. 4 as three Iraqis, suspected of planning the attack on Allawi, were questioned inside
This cooperation also led to the arrests related to a planned attack on Iraqi Premier Ayad Allawi during his visit to Berlin in December. Police special units and state criminal police agents bugged phones and observed people. BfV agents had led them in the right direction. But according to Bavarian Interior Minister GÃ¼nter Beckstein, investigators had no information from BND or its US counterpart, the CIA, about plans by the Ansar al-Islam organization to assassinate Allawi in Berlin.
But Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, an intelligence expert, said he doubts Beckstein’s statement. According to him BND officials have passed on information about Ansar al-Islam to BKA agents for years.
“I believe that Beckstein deliberately doesn’t reveal information,” he said. “He should be informed better, what happens on the federal level as far as information exchange between intelligence agencies and police is concerned.”
Beckstein rejects a centralization of investigative agencies as proposed by German Interior Minister Otto Schily. Expanding the BKA’s powers is one of the things Schily would like to accomplish by such a centralization.
“No one can explain why the BKA can take action once a crime has been committed, but cannot do anything to prevent it in the first place,” Schily said during the opening of a new center to combat terrorism in Berlin on Tuesday.
The new center is an attempt to combine intelligence forces as special agents of all service branches exchange their information and compile reports together. But a crucial barrier to increased cooperation cannot be overcome by this new institution, either: the constitutionally required division between intelligence services and the police. Because of Germany’s Nazi past, agencies are not allowed to jointly gather information.
That’s why Schmidt-Eenboom opposes Schily’s plans.
“The BKA should not become a secret service without being put under the control of the Bundestag,” he said, adding that Schily seems to plan to turn the BKA into a semi-intelligence agency modelled after the US’s FBI.
An increase in information exchange between German law enforcement agencies also creates problems. The lawyers of the members of the Frankfurt cell claim that their clients wanted to explode the bomb inside a synagogue, which would have posed a threat to a much smaller group of people.
They say that there’s very little evidence for the theory that the bomb was meant to explode in a Christmas market. It’s hard for judges to determine in such cases, whether intelligence reports are true and complete.
The BND in particular does not seem to be interested in letting evidence coming out in the open. But that’s exactly the way things should be handled in the future, according to Schmidt-Eenboom.
“If intelligence agencies deliver information, they also have to back up their claims in a courtroom,” he said, adding that Germany is in need of more cooperation between its existing law enforcement agencies.