Online Courses for Terror Acts

How close has Germany recently escaped an attack on a synagogue, again on Yom Kippur, the highest Jewish holiday, on which an assassin struck two years ago in Halle an der Saale? In Hagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, a 16-year-old Syrian is currently in custody who is said to have prepared a bomb attack on the synagogue there. His name is Oday J. More than 50 special police investigators have worked on his case, and a judge from the local district court also looked at the matter last week.

The case is extraordinary. The 16-year-old, that much is certain, had no weapons and no bombs built. He hadn’t even bought the ingredients for explosives, everything was going on in his head and in virtual space, as it seems. But at least from the point of view of the investigators and the judge, it was enough for a serious suspicion: preparation of a serious, state-endangering act of violence.

On the cell phone of the suspect, immigrated as a refugee as part of a family reunification, the officers have now found large amounts of propaganda material. Islamic State terrorist militia pamphlets, including decapitation videos. Via Whatsapp, the accused has apparently taken part in an online course on building bombs, “unconventional explosive devices and incendiary devices,” as the investigators call them. This is a dialogue that deserves special attention.

Because it raises the question of whether Islamists in Germany and Europe are just starting again with the kind of violence that rocked the Norwegian city of Kongsberg on Wednesday evening – in a coordinated and planned manner.

August 17th, the leader of the online course, who calls himself Abu Harb, asks the 16-year-old in Arabic what he needs a bomb for. What does he want with that? 11.41 a.m. He replies: His goal is a synagogue. And a few seconds later: the front of the synagogue is being guarded by the police. But at the back it was different, he could place the explosive device there.

That could be just talk. A teenager who wants to be important. This is what the defense attorney portrays. Out of sheer curiosity, the 16-year-old took part in such chats and obtained instructions for building bombs. He wanted to try out how far he could get with it, like a gruesome computer game. It’s often difficult to tell what’s behind radical chats online. Only very few actually take action in the consequence.

Investigators also admit that not much has happened. However, they point out what was still found on the suspect’s mobile phone: a large number of photos of the Hagen synagogue. And the length of his chats over several weeks as well as the variety of topics and channels through which he exchanged his terror fantasies would suggest that it was long since more than a game for him.

In any case, the online instructor is very real, determined and obviously extremely dangerous. Investigators now consider him to be an explosives expert for the terrorist IS, possibly based in Iraq, having also an Instagram profile. Among the contacts there, the investigators found seven other people who are connected to the IS. Earlier Islamist attacks had already shown that the terrorists had been recruited, incited, and sometimes even guided step by step by such backers online. It’s a pattern. That was the case with the attack on a wine festival in Ansbach five years ago, and that was the case with the attack on Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. This pattern is also said to have existed in the attack in Vienna last November.

Apparently, the IS is trying to recruit new people in Germany, even younger ones. A foreign secret service became aware of the current case of the 16-year-old Syrian in Hagen, and it was only thanks to his tip that the German authorities even noticed. On September 16, special forces from the North Rhine-Westphalian police arrested the youth in Hagen. They picked him up when he went to the bus in the morning to go to school.

Particularly worrying: The instructor has already attracted attention at least twice with such attempts, once in a foreign country and most recently only a few weeks ago in another case in Germany. In August, the police arrested a 16-year-old in the Schmargendorf district of Berlin. He, too, had chatted with the IS ideologist, and investigators had also identified the young after a tip from a foreign secret service. Unlike in Hagen, the young man from Berlin had apparently not yet considered a possible target for an attack, but had already bought various substances, such as motor oil and ice packs. Some of them can be used to make bombs. Preparing for a state-endangering act of violence is also the accusation here.

So is IS increasing its efforts to commission attacks again? This is linked to the question of whether the online terrorist is again acting on behalf of the IS or is acting on his own initiative. How many such cases are there possibly that the security authorities are unaware of?

The 16-year-old in Hagen refused to reveal the password for his cell phone to the investigators. They had to crack it first to read his chats. The final analysis of the data, now said four weeks later, is still a long way from being through.

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