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Calls for German spy vetting after Islamist terror plot is uncovered

German intelligence agents spotted an unusual user in a digital haven for Islamic militants a fortnight ago. The man claiming to be one of them, said he was a German spy. He offered to help Islamists infiltrate Germany's defences to stage a terrorist strike.

Published: December 1, 2016, 6:41 am

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    The spy was soon identified, and the 51-year-old was arrested by agents the next day.

    The German citizen of Spanish descent confessed to converting to Islam in 2014. He told investigators that he had converted in 2014, after telephone conversations with somebody in Austria who went by the name Mohammed. Mohammed Mahmoud, in Austria, joined the Islamic State and had previously run a website where he translated speeches of al-Qaeda leaders.

    Authorities on Tuesday said they had arrested him on suspicion of preparing to commit a violent act and for violating state secrecy laws. His arrest was first reported by the German weekly Der Spiegel.

    News of the case elicited little interest in Germany, even as critics said it raised questions about the country’s domestic spy agency, known as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).

    German security officials have been credited with foiling plots. But they also have failed — including in the case of Jaber al-Bakr, a Syrian who was arrested last month on suspicion of planning an attack and who managed to kill himself while on a 24-hour suicide watch in a Leipzig jail cell.

    “It’s not only a rather bizarre, but also a quite scary, story that an agency, whose central role it is to engage in counterespionage, hired an Islamist who potentially had access to classified information, who might have even tried to spread Islamist propaganda and to recruit others to let themselves be hired by and possibly launch an attack” against the domestic intelligence agency, said Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of the Parliamentary Control Committee that oversees the work of the German intelligence services.

    The agency “needs to tell us immediately what exactly happened and how it could happen that somebody like this was hired,” he said.

    One senior BfV official, who discussed the matter with the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media defended the agency, said it was virtually impossible to protect against a breach like this.

    “How should anyone have known this? He had acted under different names and identities online,” he said. “Not his real name. One has to say that we were able to find out about all this very quickly and also actions were taken fast.”

    But in hindsight, officials in Germany were asking how such a lapse was possible.

    “With all the information coming out about this individual, the question has to be raised: how he was able to end up in the intelligence service and was able to hide all this from his workplace but also his family,” said the senior law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case.

    In April 2016, the man began working for the BfV, charged with monitoring potentially violent Islamists in Germany. The ranks of Salafists — an ultraconservative sect of Islam — have been rapidly growing. In September, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the domestic spy agency, estimated that there are at least 9 200 in Germany, up from 5 500 three years ago.

    German politicians charged with overseeing the domestic spy agency’s work were calling for a review of its vetting procedures.

    “One can be grateful that this came out,” said André Hahn, a member of the agency’s parliamentary control committee from the Left Party. “But it appears to have been rather a coincidence. It could also have happened that he would have worked there for years.”

    karin@praag.org

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