Europeans could be forgiven for feeling terrified last week after the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert on Oct. 3, leading European countries to raise their own terrorism-threat levels. As information emerges as to what prompted the alert, a suspected German jihadist with links to the same mosque in Hamburg used as a meeting point for the 9/11 hijackers has come to the fore as a key figure in an alleged terrorism plot, putting the spotlight once more on Germany as a potential staging ground for al-Qaeda terrorists. But how credible is the threat in Germany?
According to German intelligence officials, who spoke to TIME anonymously so as to talk more freely about an ongoing investigation, the information about a suspected plot that led to the elevated terrorism alert likely came from Ahmad Siddiqui, a 36-year-old German of Afghan origin. Siddiqui was picked up by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in July and since then has been held at Bagram air base. According to the German officials, Siddiqui was part of an 11-member group of radical Islamic militants who left Hamburg in March 2009 and headed to the Waziristan region of Pakistan to attend terrorist-training camps. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that Siddiqui told U.S. interrogators that in Waziristan he had met a high-level al-Qaeda operative, identified as Younis al-Mauretani, who revealed that Osama bin Laden was planning terrorism attacks in Europe.
There is further worrying evidence surrounding Siddiqui. Hamburg intelligence officials say he is also a close friend of Mounir el-Motassadeq, who was convicted for his role in aiding the 9/11 attackers by a Hamburg court in 2006. The two men have known each other since 1997, they both visited the city's Taiba mosque known as al-Quds until two years ago. (Mohammed Atta and his 9/11 co-conspirators met there in the late 1990s.) And Siddiqui often drove Motassadeq's father on visits to the jail where his son was being held.
The Taiba mosque was shut down by the Hamburg authorities on Aug. 9 amid fears that the prayer house had again become a recruiting ground for Islamic extremists. "Siddiqui was a committed jihadist, but we assumed that when he and the others left Germany in 2009, they would stay and fight against international forces in Afghanistan and weren't planning to carry out attacks in Europe," a Hamburg intelligence officer says. Three members of the jihadist group are now back in Hamburg and another jihadist, identified as Asadullah M., is believed to be still at large in Afghanistan. The other Hamburg jihadists from the 2009 trip are reported to have either been imprisoned or killed.
While Europe was on edge over a possible terrorism attack, the German government hardly batted an eyelash. At least in public, ministers insisted there was no cause for panic. After Pakistani officials reported on Oct. 4 that a U.S. drone attack killed a group of German Islamic extremists, the German Interior Minister was quick to play down the terrorism threat. "There is no reason to be alarmist now," Thomas de Maizière told a news conference in Berlin, adding that the authorities had analyzed intelligence reports and concluded that "there's no concrete evidence of imminent attacks in Germany." The Interior Minister said there was a "high abstract threat" to German interests at home and abroad, but he said there was no need to step up domestic security in public places. As for the report on Fox News that terrorists were plotting Mumbai-style commando attacks on Berlin landmarks such as the Brandenburg Gate or Adlon Hotel, de Maizière dismissively said it was "nothing new."
Rolf Tophoven, director of the Essen-based Institute of Terrorism Research and Security Policy, says that while he believes the U.S. exaggerated the terrorism threat, Germany is still vulnerable to homegrown terrorism because a growing number of young Muslims are becoming radicalized. "German intelligence agencies fear they may have overlooked a sleeping terror cell lone Islamic extremists hiding under the radar," he says. In Hamburg, intelligence officials estimate there are 40 to 50 jihadists who are bent on violence and "who share the al-Qaeda ideology."
And the big picture: Germany is home to more than 400 Islamic militants, 131 of whom are described as "potential instigators," capable of committing offenses "of a considerable magnitude," according to Jörg Ziercke, the head of Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office. In a recent interview with the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, Ziercke said at least 70 Islamic militants had left Germany to undergo terrorist training in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and 40 had gone on to fight against international forces in Afghanistan.
As for the man who triggered the latest flurry of terrorism alerts, German federal prosecutors say Germany is seeking the extradition of Siddiqui on suspicion of being a member of the terrorist group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is believed to have close links with al-Qaeda. And German officials have visited Siddiqui at Bagram. As the latest alleged terrorism plot suggests, intelligence agencies are facing challenges that follow a similar pattern. Says one German intelligence officer: "Al-Qaeda is trying to infiltrate jihadists who come from Europe they can easily move around Europe and carry out their attacks."