Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > The story behind the German terror plot one year on
The story behind the German terror plot one year on
September 4, 2008
THE BOMB PLOT
Terror from the German Heartland
By Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark
09/04/2008 05:58 PM
Exactly one year ago, German investigators arrested three Muslim extremists. They wanted to build a bomb in southern Germany capable of killing as many as possible. The ringleader was born and raised in a German family. But how did he become a terrorist?
Fritz Gelowicz knows exactly what he wants the bomb to look like months before it is actually built. As it takes shape before his eyes, he imagines it as a vision sent from Allah -- a very bloody vision.
"Two hundred kilograms with shrapnel, inshallah, now that'll make a big explosion."
As many casualties as possible, that is the goal of the simple plan that Fritz Gelowicz is discussing on this summer day in July of last year with Adem Yilmaz, his closest confidant and presumed co-conspirator. The two men are driving a rented Ford S-Max from Stuttgart to the town of Freudenstadt in the Black Forest, in south-western Germany. They have three canisters of hydrogen peroxide solution in the trunk, which Gelowicz purchased at a chemical supply shop in Hodenhagen near the northern German city of Hannover.
The hydrogen peroxide is the stuff of Gelowicz's visions. When the solution is boiled down and other ingredients are added, the resulting mixture can be highly explosive. The brew is called "Satan's Mother" in the terrorist community.
The drive to Freudenstadt, where the two men will deposit the hydrogen peroxide in a rented garage, provides deep insights into the mind of Fritz Gelowicz. The rental car is bugged, enabling investigators to listen in on the conversations between the two men.
'Allah Has Blinded Them'
Gelowicz and Yilmaz talk shop about the number of bombs and victims. They expect there to be at least 150 casualties, with the target being someplace big -- a place like Frankfurt Airport. Yilmaz suggests the central German city of Giessen, noting that there are some really big American discos there. He says that he wants "to maximize the impact, Achi, really: another Sept. 11."
The word "Achi" means "my brother" in Arabic. "What I've done, Achi, now that's something they could really lock me up for, Achi," says Yilmaz. "Well, sure, they'd have to lock us all up," Gelowicz replies, and Yilmaz chuckles. "If only they knew," Gelowicz continues, with a note of condescension in his voice. "Allah has blinded them."
In this case, however, Allah was not on the side of Fritz Gelowicz. In fact, Allah had blinded the two Islamists -- and had not blinded the police. By the time of the bugged car trip, the entrances to their apartments had been under video surveillance for some time, the hydrogen peroxide in the garage had been replaced with ordinary water, and the third member of the trio, Daniel Schneider, was also under police observation. In fact, the three men had become part of a cat-and-mouse game between the state and its worst enemies, a game that was being followed with great interest in both Berlin and Washington D.C. Both the German chancellor and the US president had been briefed.
It has now been exactly one year since Germany's Federal Prosecutor's Office exposed the trio in a spectacular raid. On Sept. 4, 2007, at 2:30 p.m., a team from Germany's elite GSG-9 counterterrorism police unit broke down the door of a vacation home in the Sauerland region in western Germany. In the kitchen, the investigators found two stainless steel pots and nine packages of flour, part of the recipe for the "Satan's Mother" bomb. A shopping bag in the living room, wrapped in red tape, contained military detonators, and an opened Casio watch, probably intended as a timer, was lying on a table. A canister of hydrogen peroxide was found under a white caftan in a closet, and a pungent odor was coming from the bathroom. The would-be bomb-builders had already started cooking up a test batch.
The Man in Charge of Logistics
In the indictment prepared by the federal prosecutor's office, which was served on Tuesday, Fritz Gelowicz, 29, Adem Yilmaz, 29 and Daniel Schneider, 22, were charged with membership in a terrorist organization, making preparations for a crime involving explosives and, in Schneider's case, attempted murder.
Gelowicz, who the federal prosecutor's office considers the ringleader, is the most prominent figure in this case. The Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) describes him as being the "coordinator and the man in charge of logistics." According to an internal BKA document, Gelowicz can be "credited with the lion's share of the preparations for a bombing attack in Germany."
The case will be tried before a state superior court in the western city of Dusseldorf, in a high-security wing. It will be one of the biggest and most important cases since the end of the left-wing terror group Red Army Faction in 1993. Today, Fritz and his friends are considered Germany's public enemy number one.
The authorities now know that the men got their marching orders from Pakistan, and that Gelowicz is one of about 50 Islamists from Germany who went to Pakistan to learn how to build bombs in the name of Allah. Some of them are still there.
But what authorities know almost nothing about is how a blonde boy nicknamed "Fritzi," who spent a sheltered childhood in the south-western German region of Swabia, became a fanatic, a man who now calls himself "Abdullah," or "Servant of God," and is so "filled with hate," as August Hanning, Deputy Secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Interior, has said.
In the years after Sept. 11, 2001, Germany sought new ways to fight Islamist terrorists. The country now has a counterterrorism center, a counterterrorism database and counterterrorism laws. Should that prove to be insufficient, the Germans can always rely on big brother in Washington D.C., who, as in the Gelowicz case, is more than happy to intercept e-mails between southern Germany and the Pakistani mountains and to give German authorities a heads up that a state enemy is in their midst. But what motivates Islamists like Gelowicz remains a mystery.
Gelowicz, whose father sells solar panels and whose mother is a doctor, was neither an especially good nor an especially poor student. Gelowicz himself studied industrial engineering at the Neu-Ulm University of Applied Science. He is now incarcerated at Stammheim, a prison outside of Stuttgart, but by converting to radical Islam, Gelowicz planted the seed of Islamist terrorism into the very center of German society. But why? Why does someone like Gelowicz contemptuously refer to the Germans as "Kuffar," or infidels, as people "who don't think the way we do, you know? We don't care about anything, you know what I mean?"
No. We don't know what he means. How does he think? What is the source of his profound hatred of society?
The search for answers to these questions takes us to a provincial city in southern Germany, of all places, to what appears to be safe-and-sound world, a place where people are not out of work and where the sidewalks are kept neatly swept. It takes us to a landscape of rolling hills bisected by the Danube River, with the Bavarian town of Neu-Ulm on one side and the city of Ulm in the state of Baden-Württemberg on the other.
Fritz Martin Gelowicz was born in Munich, the younger of two boys, and grew up on the left bank of the Danube, in Ulm. His father was originally from Poland. The family seemed to be the epitome of middle-class harmony, but then religion became a factor. Its impact was underestimated at first.
As a teenager in high school, Fritz struck up a friendship with a Turkish boy named Tolga D., whose father was an energetic and conservative Muslim. Tolga was drawn to Salafism, the faith of the "pious ancestors" who adhered strictly to the original text of the Koran. The two boys became best friends, which was apparently the first important factor in determining the future course of Gelowicz's life.
Fritz's father would later tell the police that it was Tolga who converted his son to Islam -- in 1995, when Fritz was only 15. Until then, his interests were much the same as those of many of his contemporaries. He listened to American hip-hop, had his first experiences with alcohol and smoked the occasional joint. Three years earlier, when Fritz was just entering puberty, his parents' marriage failed, which affected him deeply. In a letter he later wrote, he described his family life as "disturbed" and complained that it had "affected him greatly, both emotionally and physically." But Tolga's family, and those of other Turkish friends, offered Fritz a view of a different world, one in which the extended family provided a sense of security, during everything from family meals to visits to the mosque, where clear rules were taught and where there was only one authority: Allah.
An 'Intelligent Kid' Turns to Radical Islam
This was attractive to Fritz, who until then had been what the BKA called "abstinent to religion," and he decided to become a Muslim. Fritz's older brother also converted to Islam, changing his name to "Muaz." The parents now had two Muslim sons -- they were both raised by their father. When Fritz turned 18, the parents were surprised to learn that he had himself circumcised.
If there was anyone at the beginning who attracted attention for the dogmatic way they practiced their faith, it was Tolga and Fritz's older brother, whose wedding is still talked about today at the city hall in Ulm. The groom arrived in room 113, the first door on the right on the second floor, wearing a long beard and Arab knee-length trousers. His fiancée was heavily veiled. "Muaz" refused to shake hands with the female registrars, and they felt that he avoided looking at them directly. In the same room, Fritz would later marry a young German woman of Turkish descent.
The second role model, Tolga, who worked as a clerk in the senior Gelowicz's business, attracted the attention of law enforcement early on. They considered him a threat, and he was arrested by Pakistani border guards in the summer of 2007. Tolga told officials at the German Embassy in Islamabad that he had been on his way to Chechnya, to join the jihad.
Few people noticed at first that Fritz had converted to Islam, not even his 9th-grade ethics teacher at Ulrich von Ensingen High School, Werner Brüker, who described Fritz as an "intelligent kid." Gelowicz's father would later tell the police that if there was one thing he regretted, it was the decision to sign up his son for the ethics class. According to the father, the class did not convey a positive philosophy about life.
'I Would Have Noticed'
Brüker, a passionate educator, feels that the father's criticism is directed at him and can merely shake his head at first. Then he says that his class is about tolerance and prejudice, and about peaceful coexistence. Fritz did not discuss Islam, says Brüker, who insists: "I would have noticed."
On the other hand, Gelowicz was already driven by a desire to provoke others. "Fritz," says Brüker, "was someone who wanted to be noticed, who liked to get into arguments with other teachers and deliberately sought confrontation." Klaus Maier, his former homeroom teacher, describes him as a "ringleader type, someone who always had to be the center of attention and needed a platform." Fritz had many entries in the class register, and he was given the lowest passing grade in the "behavior" category.
Gelowicz was apparently frustrated for not having made the grade to qualify for the higher "Gymnasium" level in the German secondary school system. He refused to be integrated into the lower-level "Realschule," even though many of his fellow students thought that the rebellious Fritz, who was so fond of confronting his teachers, was cool. "He had his followers," says homeroom teacher Maier.
There is a photograph from those days that depicts the 9th grade in its second-floor classroom with a view of the cathedral in Ulm. In the photo, Fritz Gelowicz, wearing his hair cut short and parted in the middle, along with a navy blue Nike sweatshirt, looks like a jock from the 1980s. As Maier recalls, Gelowicz was "more pro-American than anything else" at the time. He admired the US lifestyle, played on an American Football team called the "Barracudas" as was selected as one of the best players in Bavaria.
In the next 10 years, the Americans would change from role models to enemies for Gelowicz, enemies against whom anything was permitted. In the summer of 2007, Gelowicz would say, coldly and militantly: "American targets are the most important; everything depends on those targets." He also said that one ought to "punch every American in the face."
There was one important incident that revealed a lot about his character. It revolved around consistency, solidarity and a sense of justice, but also the inability to stop something from escalating before it was too late. There was a math teacher at Gelowicz's school who sported a goatee and was called "Goat." Fritz and "Goat" were like oil and water, and in the summer of 1996, at the end of the 9th grade, Fritz and his closest school friend decided to play a prank on the unpopular teacher.
Baffling Even to Experienced Investigators
They spat on the math teacher's Honda, from top to bottom, but they were caught and had to apologize to "Goat" and his wife by presenting them with a bouquet of flowers. The form of the apology was the teacher's idea. A former school friend says that Fritz "felt that it was incredibly humiliating." Fritz's friend, who had accompanied him when he left the "Gymnasium" for the "Realschule," received a more severe punishment: he was expelled. Their fellow students recall that Fritz immediately took up his friend's cause, threatening to leave the school if his friend was to be expelled. And so he did.
The two renegades gave their class teacher, Maier, who, like his fellow teacher Brüker, was fond of Fritz, a gold-framed photograph of themselves, "as a reminder of your most horrible students," as they said sarcastically. The teacher still keeps the photograph on his desk today.
The special police commission investigating Gelowicz would encounter his radical and deeply consistent attitude again and again. It was baffling even to experienced investigators, and it apparently resulted in Gelowicz ignoring all warning signals. He knew that he had become a known entity to domestic intelligence after the night of Dec. 31, 2006, when he and two friends drove past the US military barracks in Hanau near Frankfurt at such a suspiciously slow pace that they were stopped by the police and his apartment was searched a week later.
But instead of questioning his plan, he became even more conspiratorial, driving slowly through residential neighborhoods to find Internet access that was not password-protected. He used at least 14 different e-mail accounts, changed his license plates and used a radio scanner to listen in on police radio. He knew that he had already attracted the attention of various government agencies, but he kept on going, just as he had done in 2001.
Martin Schulz is someone who experienced Gelowicz's determination first-hand. Sometimes Schultz thinks of him at night, when his shoulder happens to be hurting. Schultz, a physician, is often in pain, especially when he lies on right side. And when patients stare at his deformed left wrist, Dr. Schultz remembers the boy who changed his life so unexpectedly.
Schultz is 55, a handsome man with grayish-white hair, an anesthesiologist by trade, and generally a calm man. It takes a lot to ruffle his feathers. It takes someone like Fritz Gelowicz. After the night of April 3, 2001, Schultz says quietly, he even felt something like hatred.
On that spring evening the doctor and his wife, together with a few friends, were sitting in the Museumscafé on Ulm's market square. When they left the café at 10:45 p.m. and were saying their goodbyes on the square outside, they suddenly saw a Peugeot driving toward them at a high speed. The car came to a stop only a few centimeters in front of the group.
A young man shouted at Schultz from his open window: "What the hell are you looking at? Do you want me to get out of the car?" The young man was Fritz Gelowicz.
As Schultz recalls, one of his friends said something like "Shut up!," which prompted Gelowicz to jump out of his car. "Get back in!" Schultz, furious by then, barked at the young man. Gelowicz turned and stared at the doctor, and then he began punching him in the face with his fist. "It was like a barrage; he was unbelievably relentless," Schultz recalls. "I thought: This guy is a fighting machine. I'm done for." Schultz lost consciousness and fell to the ground.
When he came to, he saw Gelowicz calming leaning against the hood of the Peugeot, waiting for the police to get there. And when the officers arrived, Gelowicz said coolly: "I'm pressing charges against him. He punched me." It was the same cockiness he had demonstrated once before in school. But did he really think that he would get away with it?
Gelowicz's chutzpah had served him well in the past. He managed to get out of civilian service with the Bavarian Red Cross, which he was performing in lieu of military service, by claiming: "I faint whenever I see an open wound or fresh blood." But he was less squeamish when it came to others. Schultz, for example, sustained multiple fractures and contusions. In addition to his shoulder pain, he has been hard of hearing since the attack.
Joining the Jihad
"Gelowicz is about as tough and forceful as anyone I have ever met," says Schultz. In the ensuing lawsuit, he rejected all settlement offers, refusing to solicit his attacker's apology. The case went all the way to the German Federal Court of Justice, and in the end the anesthesiologist was awarded €25,000 ($36,000) in damages for pain and suffering -- money which he has never been able to collect. Gelowicz had submitted a sworn affidavit early on stating that he had no assets. And by 2004, when Schultz was still waiting for his money, Gelowicz's attention had long moved elsewhere.
He told his friend Adem that by late 2003, he had already reached the decision to join the jihad. He described it as an epiphany. He was sitting in front of a kebab restaurant enjoying his meal when he suddenly realized that he was wasting his time. Other fellow Islamists had already joined the jihad, Gelowicz said. That was when he thought to himself that he too, inshallah, had to join the jihad at some point.
This happened at a time when the Islamist community in and around Ulm was at a turning point. In 2003, a convert from Ulm was killed fighting in Chechnya. The next year Yehia Yousif, an elderly man with glasses and silver-gray hair, and a former informant for the state intelligence office, went underground. Yousif was a sect leader and honorary chairman of the local Islamist community, which had found a home in a commercial building on Zeppelinstrasse known as the Multicultural House.
"Yousif had assembled a group of young students, to whom he provided instruction every week, and Fritz was one of them," says Reda Seyam, one of Germany's best-known Islamists and himself a target of German intelligence scrutiny. The group published a radical little magazine called "Let's Think Islamic!" Gelowicz and his friend Attila Selek, who would later be one of the four suspects in the bombing plot and is now in prison in Turkey, as well as Tolga, who was the deputy chairman of the Multicultural House for a period of time, helped distribute the publication.
By then Gelowicz was studying industrial engineering at the Neu-Ulm University of Applied Science. At the suggestion of his former teachers, Brüker and Maier, he went to night school, where he earned his high-school diploma, receiving an overall grade of 3.0 ("satisfactory"), a grade of 2.0 ("good") in Politics and a grade of 4.0 ("adequate") in Physics. In July 2004, he applied for temporary removal from the register of students, "because I do not expect to be able to attend classes for one semester," he said.
It was time for Gelowicz to get serious, and he did so at breakneck speed.
He began to travel frequently. He went to Turkey in August 2004 and made a pilgrimage to Mecca in early 2005, where he and his friends, wearing white robes, stayed in a pilgrim hostel. As one of his friends said, they were now very close to Allah. Attila Selek was a member of the group completing the Hajj that year.
It was at that time that Yehia Yousif, their spiritual mentor at home in Ulm, suddenly disappeared. The police later searched the Multicultural House and a dozen apartments. A case was brought against Yousif, and two of the defendants in the trial were the two friends, Gelowicz and Selek.
They were the next generation of Islamists, and as they sat in the Multicultural House, drinking tea, they realized that it was time to make a decision: Would they let themselves be intimidated and simply return to middle-class life? Or would they emerge from Yousif's shadow and assume the leadership of the group, for Allah's sake?
Investigators conclude, based on the wire-tapped conversations, that the final decision to bring the jihad to Germany was made in a Pakistani training camp in 2006. During the car trip to the Black Forest, Gelowicz told his friend that he and his friends hadn't wanted to return from Pakistan at all, that they had "in fact, wanted something different." The investigators believe that he was referring to the armed conflict in Afghanistan or Pakistan. "But," Gelowicz said, "Allah showed us the way."
The Will of Allah
Allah, Gelowicz told Yilmaz, has a task for everyone. It's called Qadr. Perhaps fulfilling one's Qadr and surrendering responsibility to a higher power makes life easier, Gelowicz said. In the end, he said, one's own decision was no longer important. The important thing was the will of Allah. We can attribute many things to the will of Allah, Gelowicz said, "as long as we remain on the path."
Today, Reda Seyam believes that banning the Multicultural House was a big mistake. From then on, says Seyam, "everyone acted on his own" and the community became dispersed. "This kind of pressure doesn't make us give up our religion," Seyam claims. "It only makes us believe more deeply."
And that was apparently the case with Gelowicz. He is alleged to have used a computer owned by Yousif's son Omar to print "Let's Think Islamic!" It was as if a relay runner had passed on the baton to the next racer on his team. Now it was Fritz's and Attila's Qadr. The police caught the two men, on a winter night in 2004, as they tried to destroy evidence by burning a book. They were also found with one of Yousif's propaganda CDs.
By the end of 2004, Gelowicz's parents realized that perhaps it was already too late. In an attempt to save his son, the father even went to the police, in the spring of 2005. It was an appeal for help. He told the authorities that his son was in danger, because he was "under the influence of such groups."
But Fritz Gelowicz refused to talk to the police. When they tried to question him in 2005, as one of the defendants in the Yousif trial, he laughed at them while still on the phone, telling them that he had no intention of testifying. Was he truly that hard-nosed?
On a January evening in 2007, after his apartment had been searched, he submitted a written statement at a police station in Ulm. "I am innocent," he wrote. "I have neither planned nor have I committed a crime. Furthermore, I wish to state that I have not understood exactly what it is that I am being accused of" -- remarkably brazen words for someone who had only returned from a Pakistani training camp three months earlier.
'A Big Thing'
When Gelowicz was arrested on Sep. 4, 2007, he was flown to the south-western city of Karlsruhe in a helicopter. He seemed shaken and nervous, and yet he still had enough energy for one of his rhetorical little games. He asked the agents whether they were from the BKA or the State Office of Criminal Investigation. The BKA, the agents responded.
That was "interesting," said Gelowicz, because the BKA doesn't waste its time with minor criminals. In that case, he said, it had to be "a big thing."
In fact, this "big thing" had apparently been planned for October 2007, to coincide with a vote in the German parliament, the Bundestag, on whether to extend the German military's mandate as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. That, at least, was what the investigators concluded after finding a notebook in the vacation home in which the date 10/13/2007 was noted, with a question mark next to it. Gelowicz also mentioned the date in a conversation, knowing that it coincided with the expiration of the military's mandate, and added that there would be enough time, God willing. Gelowicz was opposed to choosing the period around Sept. 11 for the planned attack, arguing that it would be too close to the beginning of Ramadan.
The start date for Gelowicz's trial has not yet been set, but it is already clear that it will not happen until at least the end of the year. The central charges are difficult to deny: the purchase of bomb-making equipment, the taped conversations about possible targets and the attempt to concentrate hydrogen peroxide solution. But there are still unanswered questions.
Were the three men truly part of an international terrorist organization, as the federal prosecutor's office argues? Did they find their own way to the Pakistani camps, or were other, as yet unknown, middlemen involved? Could they have brought their bombing plans to fruition, plans for which the BKA estimates they spent about €9,000 ($13,000)? And would the death machines they were planning to build have even worked? According to a BKA report, most of the 26 detonators the would-be attackers procured were "not suitable for initiating explosives." Apparently the detonators had gotten wet.
Gelowicz is, for the most part, kept in isolation in prison. He even spends his one-hour weekday walk in the prison yard alone, in a specially roofed inner courtyard. He is never alone with his family, and a pane of glass separates him from his visitors.
For an Eternity
Both Gelowicz and Yilmaz know that they planned to commit a crime of diabolical and inhuman proportions. In fact, they talked about in that taped conversation on July 20, 2007, as they were driving to the Black Forest together.
"Achi, you know what? If they catch us, you know what we'll say? Nothing at all. It's much better that way," Yilmaz suggested. "I say: No, I regret nothing. All I regret that I didn't succeed, Achi." The two men talked about what would happen to them if they were caught, where they would be taken and for how long they would be incarcerated. "Definitely Guantanamo," said Yilmaz. And then Gelowicz said: "For an eternity, forever."
And how are they dealing with things now that they have been caught? Now that they were unable to execute Allah's supposed wishes? Fritz Gelowicz is apparently looking for answers in a familiar place. Shortly after being incarcerated, he asked for a Koran.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
RELATED SPIEGEL ONLINE LINKS:
The Fourth Man: Suspect in German Bomb Plot Tells His Story (11/15/2007)
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