MUNICH — It began nearly a year ago, on the weekend after Christmas. On Saturday night, unidentified individuals broke into a church in the Cologne district of Porz-Urbach. They broke open the safe in the sacristy and got hold of the key to the church. They ended up stealing money from the collection boxes, liturgical vessels, bowls and a monstrance. They weren’t able to get their hands on the Christmas collect because it had already been removed from the church.

In the following months, numerous churches in the greater Cologne area were broken into. Sometimes the thieves stole money and all manner of valuable objects in broad daylight. The police investigated and clues pointed to the possible involvement of Salafists who intended to use valuable holy objects from the churches to financially support jihad in Iraq and Syria. The suspicion was later confirmed by undercover investigations.

On Wednesday morning, the state prosecutor in Cologne and the federal public prosecutor’s office in Karlsruhe gave the signal: more than 240 officials mainly in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, but also in Lower Saxony and Bavaria began a spectacular raid.

In the North Rhine-Westphalia cities of Cologne, Siegen, Bergisch-Gladbach, Kreuztal and Netphen, they arrested a total of nine suspects, eight Germans: Mustapha A., 25, Kais B. O., 31, Lazhar B. O., 22, Sofien B. O., 35, Omar B. O., 25, Anoaur J., 25, Ali Ö., 23, and Usman A., 29, as well as a Pakistani citizen, Mirza Tamoor B., 58. The apartments of a further 20 persons on the Salafist scene were searched. 

Burkhard Freier speaks of a "swamp" that investigators and the police "drained."

"It’s not the only swamp, but it’s a big one," says the head of North Rhine-Westphalia intelligence. It was a "successful day."

Capturing the 'commuters'

For about a year and a half the state prosecution’s "Reise" investigating group working in tandem with the federal prosecution in Karlsruhe has had 44 people on their radar, all of whom are "Salafist extremists" according to Freier. They are known to both national intelligence and police and some of them are already on the wrong side of the law. The 44 persons of interest are mainly German citizens. "The arrests and searches show that security officials are on the ball and are using all legal means to fight extremist Salafists," said North Rhine-Westphalia’s Minister of the Interior Ralf Jäger.

The federal prosecution in Karlsruhe was involved in the strike against the Salafists, and for its part issued two arrest warrants. The authorities are accusing Kais B. O. and Mirza Tamoor B. of supporting terrorist organizations – the ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham and Junud al-Sham – and of having recruited for the ISIS in Germany.

Mirza Tamoor B. allegedly turned over to ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham a total of 3200 euros and a transport vehicle. Investigators are working on the assumption that Kais B. O. recruited at least three men from Germany for terrorist jihad in Syria.

According the North Rhine Westphalia intelligence chief, approximately one-third of these persons of interest are so-called commuters who travel between Germany and the war zones bringing goods and money. The suspects didn’t only break into churches and schools. They also raise money supposedly for humanitarian causes directly from clueless German citizens.

At monthly charity benefits that draw hundreds they raise sums up to six figures, says intelligence boss Freier. "We have to assume they’ve collected hundreds of thousands of euros and sent them on, he says.

In North Rhine Westphalia alone intelligence knows of some 40 extreme Salafist scenes, small groups that work in secret and are under observation. They are known as "loose networks." A soon as members start doing anything more than proselytizing and there is the danger that they will commit criminal acts then the observation goes undercover.

The most difficult thing is identifying individuals who get radicalized outside the framework of these groups, says Freier. "At the moment we don’t have any concrete indications that an attack is planned in Germany, but we need to stay on the alert because ever more men are joining the Salafist scene," he adds.