Germany's top spy told a German magazine that 700 Muslim extremists are under surveillance and that jihadist activity in North Africa ranks as a top national security concern.
Ernst Uhrlau, the president of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, revealed this to Der Spiegel in an interview published today.
Of the 700 possible jihadists under watch, more than a dozen, including German converts, have traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in search of "like-minded people" while German intelligence has tracked individuals traveling into areas where al Qaeda training camps are known to exist.
Another area that worries German intelligence is North Africa, said Uhrlau:
... we are watching the activities of al-Qaida in North Africa with great concern. A handful of groups have become ensconced there, largely unobserved, and are strengthening (terrorist leader Osama) bin Laden's terrorist network. What is evolving there brings a completely new quality to the jihad on our doorstep.
The interview also described a radicalization process for young Muslims that mirrors what's occurring throughout Europe more generally. Muslims feel alienated from, and mistrusted by, the larger German public, 98 percent of whom associate Islam with violence, according to a survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute in 2006. As Uhrlau explains, "The generalization that Islam and Muslims are dangerous does indeed tend to have more of an alienating and radicalizing effect than a de-escalating effect."
However, Uhrlau said German Muslims are a diverse group and that German intelligence focuses much of its attention on adherents to the radical Sunni sect of Islam known as Wahhabism. When asked whether this focus was too narrow in light of radical Shiaism, Uhrlau responded:
Given the dimensions of the potential threat, if you believe that everything is possible then you can no longer use the tools of observation and information-gathering in a targeted manner. Based on my past experience working for the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, I know that not all left-wing extremists are terrorists, for example. Differentiation is crucial to targeted information gathering.
Uhrlau also said online surveillance, controversial in Germany, would enable the BND to break into secure forums, a treasure trove of materials for would-be jihadists that range from attack videos to bomb instruction manuals.
He underlined the real world threat these forums pose, referencing the 2006 plot where two Lebanese men tried to detonate suitcase bombs built from downloaded instruction manuals on trains in Cologne.