In my recent posting A Flurry of Activity Around Europe I wrote a short paragraph about some arrests in Germany in the aftermath of the Brussels attacks. Since then, I’ve been able to dig a little more into the targets of these arrests, although information is still hard to come by.
In the city of Gießen, north of Frankfurt in the state of Hessen, a 28-year-old Moroccan was arrested at the train station at 1:45am on the Thursday morning after the attack. Another train was not due to leave the station for another 2.5 hours. The man was approached by police and then taken to the local police station when he was unable to produce a valid identification. Authorities were eventually able to determine that the man had a litany of illegal and suspect activities attached to him: the use of various aliases on the territory of the Federal Republic in the past; a rejected 2014 attempt to obtain asylum in the country, multiple encounters with Italian police; papers in his possession showing that he had recently made stops in the vicinity of Brussels; and a lookout for him in the Schengen system. It could not be determined yet if the man had been living in Gießen or simply passing through.
News reports at the outset pointed to a possible connection between the man and the Brussels attackers. Authorities found two suspicious text messages on his mobile phone from the day of the Brussels attacks. The first text message mentioned Khalid El Bakraoui, and the second contained only the word “fin” – French for “the end” – and was sent at 9:08 a.m. The broadcaster RBB has since cited security officials backtracking the information about the text messages. Apparently, the man has a friend with a strikingly similar name to that of the Maelbeek station bomber. The word “fin” has been ascribed to a transliteration of the Arabic for “where”. If this is so, I’m guessing it’s a transliteration of “ayn”, which would look like “3in” in the Arabic chat alphabet. I suppose that could be mistaken for “fin” but to be generous, it seems sort of flimsy.
The second individual arrested has been partially identified as Samir E. Try as I might, I have not yet been able to determine his full name. He is from the city of Düsseldorf, district of Bilk, in the Merowingerstraße. Through images of the police raid, I determined the raid took place at number 124. Authorities revealed that the impetus behind the raid was the fear that Samir E. was associated with Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the Zaventem airport bombers. Although he is better known for his work as a local thief, Samir also has connections to the Düsseldorfer Salafi scene. This summer, Samir was detained by Turkish authorities who believed him to be attempting entry into Syria. He was placed on a flight to Amsterdam, his last point of departure before arrival in Turkey. It just so happens that El Bakraoui had also been detained at that time and was being returned to Amsterdam on the same flight as Samir. Nothing was reported found in a search of the apartment, but authorities are conducting a search of the man’s electronic devices.
The Rheinische Post named two of the individuals in the Salafi scene who are known associates of Samir: Kerim Marc Bakker and Sascha Alessandro Boettcher. Bakker is the son of a Dutch father and Moroccan mother but identified explicitly with the religion of his mother. He became embroiled with radical Salafists in town and eventually departed the country for Syria in March 2013. He fought with an Islamic State unit headed by a Bosnian while in Syria, but returned after a year and a half and is now answering for his deeds before a German court.
Boettcher is an old friend of Bakker and was involved with him in a 2012 incident with the police. Boettcher was arrested 6 years ago in Mombasa, Kenya allegedly seeking to join the jihad with al-Shabaab. Even so, a Bild report from May 2013 lists him as disappeared with the presumption that he may have gone to Syria.
I’ve noticed a number of news stories in the German press that use the line “[insert city here] is not a focal point of the Salafist scene in Germany,” when describing the arrest of a suspected jihadist in that city. Düsseldorf is one of those. It’s hard to tell how true this is, because only a few full names and a handful of partially identified individuals have been written about. Yet one report I read stated that there were a suspected 200-250 Salafists in the city, and that is not insignificant—especially if one takes into account the collective numbers that exist in the other cities of the Ruhr.
So while these arrests may turn out to have no connection to the events in Brussels, they are important in their own right. One shows that European authorities are still struggling with preventing restricted individuals from gaining access to the Schengen area. The second shows that, like the El Bakraoui brothers, individuals normally associated with purely criminal activities are being attracted to the Salafist ideology, making them potential recruits for groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.