Signs of Bigger Islamic State Cell in Germany Emerge

Man detained in France testified to being part of a terror cell of between 10 and 20 people, officials say

By Ruth Bender in Berlin and Matthew Dalton in Paris 

 A terror suspect was brought to court in the German city of Karlsruhe last week after being arrested with two other alleged Islamic State members in Germany. Photo: Zuma Press

A man who was detained in France and exposed an Islamic State terror cell in Germany told authorities that the cell contained many more people than the three arrested last week, according to officials familiar with his testimony.

The revelations, part of new details emerging about the arrested suspects, add to concerns that the extremist group could be poised to strike again in Europe.

Authorities in France, Germany and the Netherlands are examining testimony from Saleh A., who walked into a police station in the north of Paris in February claiming that he was part of an Islamic State sleeper cell of between 10 and 20 people, officials familiar with the investigation said. Based on his testimony, German police last week arrested three suspected Islamic State members who arrived in the country among Syrian asylum seekers on suspicion of preparing an attack in the western Germany city of Düsseldorf.

“Saleh A.’s statements are central” to the investigation, one German official familiar with the investigation said. German and French authorities have worked closely together on the case, the person said, adding that German investigators had been able to question Saleh A.

Saleh A. told French police that his terror cell was awaiting instructions from a certain Abu Doujana Al Tunisi, supposedly the head of foreign fighters for Islamic State, and that around 20 people were members of the cell, according to a French official. Another official familiar with the probe said Saleh A. had told investigators about 10 people would participate in the attack in Düsseldorf.

The incomplete dismantling of a cell could be a hazard in itself. Belgian police, for instance, say there is evidence the March arrest of Salah Abdeslam—the sole surviving member of the group that attacked Paris on Nov. 13—in Brussels persuaded his still-at-large accomplices to accelerate their plans for an attack. 

Those accomplices had been preparing to strike France again, but when authorities published several of their names, they decided the risk of traveling to France was too great, according to testimony provided by one of Mr. Abdeslam’s accomplices. Days later, they set off bombs at Brussels Airport and in the Brussels metro, leaving 32 people dead.

Last week’s arrests have heightened concerns—once dismissed as unlikely by German security officials—that Islamic State could have smuggled hundreds of fighters among the 1.2 million refugees who have arrived in Germany since the start of last year, and that some could have Europe’s most populous country in their sight.

At least three of the alleged members of the cell had been living in migrant shelters in different states.

Saleh A. had been registered in a refugee camp in Kaarst, a small town near Düsseldorf, since late March 2015, said Stephan Adams, who runs the office of the town’s mayor. His file shows he wasn’t always present in the housing block he shared with other refugees, Mr. Adams said.

His request for asylum was still being processed, he added.

At least two of the suspects arrested in Germany last week had also lived in migrant shelters. One of them, Mahood B., had lived in a refugee shelter in a quiet middle-class neighborhood of Mülheim in western Germany, a German official said. The man, identified as a 25-year-old Syrian national, had been registered in this shelter since late 2015, the person said.

The other, 27-year-old Hamza C., had lived in a migrant shelter in the small eastern German town Bliesdorf.

Another suspect named Abd Arahman A.K., a 31-year-old who according to the prosecutor had built explosive vests already in 2013 back in Syria, had been living in a privately rented apartment in the southwest German town of Leimen, according to the town’s mayor Wolfgang Ernst. The prosecutor’s office said he had come to Germany in October 2014. It was unclear whether he had requested asylum.

The German prosecutor last week said Saleh A. and Hamza C. had joined Islamic State in Syria in the spring of 2014. There, they received the order from the organization’s leadership to carry out an attack in the pedestrian zone of Düsseldorf, the prosecutor said. After receiving the orders, both traveled to Turkey and then separately to Germany via Greece, the office said.

The two men allegedly planned for two suicide bombers to blow themselves up on one of the main streets in the center of the city. “Further attackers” were supposed to “kill as many passersby as possible with guns and further explosives,” the prosecutor’s office said in its release last week. The German prosecutor’s office added that there was no indication the suspects had already begun concrete preparations for their plan.

Even after the arrests, questions remain about the identity of some of the presumed attackers.

The nationality of Hamza C., who according to the prosecutor is Syrian and had arrived at a migrant shelter an hour outside Berlin in September, was marked as “undetermined” in his file, the country’s migration commissioner Thomas Berendt said. Another German official said that two of the suspects are thought to have used fake identities but declined to say which ones.

German officials have warned for months that the chaotic situation under which thousands of migrants were let into the country without any background checks during the peak of the migrant crisis meant authorities were in the dark about who many of the new arrivals were.

Authorities in the Netherlands say they are also investigating Saleh A.’s disclosure that some members of the suspected Islamic State sleeper cell were staying at a refugee camp in Nijmegen, a city close to the German border.

“We cannot rule out that terrorists, despite our precautions, succeed in abusing the Dutch asylum procedure or refugee stream,” Dutch Justice Minister Ard van der Steur said Tuesday in a parliamentary session. “This case underscores concerns about the travel movement of terrorists.”

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