Guido Steinberg on German Islamist Terrorism

Trend towards "Individual Jihad"

Guido Steinberg is Germany's foremost specialist on Islamist terrorism in Europe. In this interview with Paul Hockenos, he talks about the specifics of German Islamist terrorism and al-Qaeda's change of strategy

Mr. Steinberg, your book is the first, full, comprehensive account of Islamist terrorism in Germany. Yet there are hundreds of such books in the US and dozens in other countries on terrorism in those countries. Why so?

Guido Steinberg: Part of the reason is that the German Jihadist scene has only developed since 2006. Of course, there was the Hamburg cell which included the mastermind and pilots behind 9/11, but they were foreigners who came here to study. They'd been socialized in their home countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. The emergence of a truly German Jihadist scene happened first in about 2005 when Kurds, Turks and German converts from Germany joined its ranks.

Outside observers would say that Germany is one of the few major Western powers that has been spared terrorist Islamist attacks …

The bus in which the two US soldiers were killed is being inspected (photo: dapd)
A 21-year-old Kosovo Albanian man confessed for killing two US soldiers at Frankfurt Airport in March 2011. So far, all other Islamist terrorist attacks attempted in Germany have been foiled

Guido Steinberg: Well, we did have a single attack by a man who was apparently a lone wolf. In 2011 he shot and killed two U.S. American military personnel at Frankfurt airport. We did have much larger plots but they were all thwarted.

And German Jihadists have played a major role in international networks and attacks, among them 9/11. They've also been very important in new strategies that al-Qaeda developed as of 2010, namely the Europlot, when it sent back European recruits to build new structures and perpetrate attacks in Germany and other countries. This might have been al-Qaeda Central's last effort to survive as an effective terrorist organization. All together, I think the German Jihadist scene has been underrated until recently.

Still, there's been nothing like 9/11 or the bombings in London and Madrid. Is it because German intelligence and counterterrorism is so good?

Guido Steinberg: On the contrary! Although German intelligence is not as bad as some would have it, 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 U.S. 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 radicalizing factor at the time and the underlying reason for the attacks in London 2005 and Madrid 2004. Germans thought they might be spared but in 2006 the German military presence in Afghanistan became more visible to the Jihadists because of the escalating Taliban insurgency. When the insurgency there gained ground, the German presence became an important issue. A growing number of German recruits began joining Jihadist organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan and these organizations realized that there is a major German presence in Afghanistan. That is when al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations started targetimg Germany.

The members of the so-called "Sauerland Group" in court (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
US intelligence helped foil the terrorist attack by the so-called "Sauerland Group". "I think the German public tends to ignore how important American cooperation has been over the last twelve years," says Guido Steiberg

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, planned in 2007 by the so-called Sauerland Group. Was this information gathered through Operation Prism, the surveillance revealed by Robert Snowden and currently so controversial in Europe?

Guido Steinberg: I don't know as I hadn't heard of Prism before the Snowden revelations. But I was told by intelligence officers that the information that ultimately led to thwarting the 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.

I think the German public tends to ignore how important American cooperation has been over the last twelve years. There is more than this one case when American cooperation has helped the German security authorities to foil attacks.

Like the US surveillance programs, the drone strikes of the Bush and Obama administrations are also very controversial here in Europe. Have the drone strikes had an impact on the Jihadist scene in Germany and Europe?

Cover of "German Jihad" by Guido Steiberg (image: Columbia University Press)
"The German Jihadist scene has been underrated until recently": Cover of Guido Steinberg's "German Jihad", recently published by CUP

Guido Steinberg: The drone strikes had great influence on the German Jihadist scene. Most Germans arrived in the tribal areas in Pakistan 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. This scheme has been called the Europlot. With one exception, the case of Mohammed Merah in France, all these attacks were thwarted and many German Jihadists ended up in jail.

Since you finished your book, the biggest terrorist strike has been carried out in the US, in Boston. Does this act say anything relevant for Europeans about the nature of the kind of terrorist groupings and strikes in the future?

Guido Steinberg: There is a trend towards "individual jihad" in the Western world since 2011. When the Europlot failed in 2011, al-Qaeda decided to rely on lone wolfs. In a long video featuring all important al-Qaeda leaders at that time, the organization asked its followers to perpetrate attacks without coming to train with the organization in Pakistan. This was a major shift in al-Qaeda strategy, which was triggered by the weakening of the organization as a result of the drone strikes. As we could see in spring 2011, some Western followers heeded the call and attacked in Boston, London, and Paris.

Your epigraph is dedicated to "our dead soldiers" in Afghanistan. What do you mean by that and why did you choose to dedicate the book to them?

Guido Steinberg: All in all, 54 German soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. I dedicated the book to them because I cherish their dedication to securing their homeland, which I think has not been sufficiently recognized in Germany.

Furthermore, I consider many of them victims of ill-advised Western counterterrorism policies. I analyze the situation in the Kunduz area in one of the chapters and I describe the rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, there.

I think it is tragic that so many have died without our government having met even the most modest aim of the campaign in Afghanistan, namely keeping it from becoming a safe haven for Jihadist groups again.

What's the most difficult aspect of researching and writing about Islamist terrorism in Germany?

Guido Steinberg in an interview for Deutsche Welle TV (photo: DW)
Epigraph for Germany's soldiers killed in Afghanistan: Guido W. Steinberg is one of Germany's leading terrorism experts and works for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) in Berlin. An Islamicist by training, he has previously worked for the German Federal Chancellery as an advisor on international terrorism

Guido Steinberg: Language is 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 Turks and 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, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the Islamic Jihad Union. So it helps if you read this language, which I don't.

This chronology mirrors the development of the whole Jihadist movement, which explains my subtitle "the internationalization of Islamist terrorism". Although the German scene has been small compared to that of some of our neighbours, like in the UK, it can be read as a paradigm for the trajectory of the whole movement.

What's your next project? Is a German Jihad II inevitable?

Guido Steinberg: No, my next project is a larger work on religious authorities in Jihadist networks. It will be an Islamic studies project trying to determine how people within this movement manage to claim religious authority. I hope to win some insight into the development of religious authority in Islam in general in the 21st century.

Interview by Paul Hockenos

© Qantara.de 2013

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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