Over the past few months, several German-speaking jihadists have appeared in propaganda videos emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bekkay Harrach (aka Abu Talha al-Almani), who was recently featured in a production by al-Qaida’s official media arm al-Sahab, is only the most recent example. As described in this article, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its offshoot, the Islamic Jihadi Union (IJU), also boast Germans in their ranks, and have actively used them in their media productions. Meanwhile, a suicide bomber, believed to be from the Taliban, attacked the German embassy in Kabul on 17 January 2009. All of this has been interpreted as a sign that Germany is being targeted by al-Qaida.
The German focus is indeed intriguing. But what I find even more interesting are the differences between these productions and what they tell us about the landscape of jihadi groups in Afghanistan. Too often, groups like al-Qaida, IMU and IJU are looked upon as one and the same organization. There are certainly links and cooperation. But do they, in fact have a unified strategy against, let’s say, Germany?
Let us start with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, believed to be led by the Uzbek Tahir Yuldashev, a long-time affiliate of Osama bin Laden. A video produced by Jundullah (a media company associated with the IMU) dated September 2008 features several German-speaking jihadists (see English transcript here). They address German-speaking Muslims and urge them to come and fight in Afghanistan. One of the speakers encourages potential recruits to bring their families along, pointing out that “this has become a very family-friendly place”, with possibilities to live ”far away from the front” and with ”hospitals, pharmacies, doctors, and schools”. They do not, however, lash out against the German government or threaten with attacks inside Germany. Rather, the message is more in line with Abdallah Azzam-style “classical jihadism” where Muslims are encouraged to go and fight directly in the “occupied” Muslim lands, in this case Afghanistan.
This is in contrast to the propaganda produced by the Islamic Jihad Union, a group thought to have split from the IMU in 2002, and established itself under the protection of the Haqqani network in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The IJU claims to have several German members, and has been targeting Germany for a while now, both through propaganda and also with operations. In an IJU production from October 2008 entitled “A Call from Hindukush”, the German convert Eric Breininger (aka Abdulgaffar al-Almani) states that Germany’s policies towards Muslims, including its military engagement in Afghanistan, is “increasing the risk of attacks on German soil”. He also encourages the German people to ”approach their own government if they want to be spared from the attacks of Muslims in Germany”. Unlike the IMU, the Islamic Jihad Union has also shown a willingness and capability to actually support terrorist attacks in Europe. Last year the group was linked to the so-called Sauerland cell, whose members were arrested in the fall of 2007 suspected of planning attacks against targets in Germany. The IJU even took responsibility for the failed operation in Germany (see the article by Petter Nesser in this issue of the CTC Sentinel).
IJU’s local hosts, the Haqqani network, do not seem to share their foreign guests’ interest in targeting Europe. Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the top commanders in the network, stated in an interview with the Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yousufzai in August 2008 that ”we are busy in our own war here in Afghanistan and it is not our policy to attack or carry out acts of sabotage in other countries”. They seem to have so far turned a blind eye to IJU’s international activities, possibly because the IJU are also active supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan (including an attack against a US guard post in March 2008 carried out by the Turkish-German jihadist Cueneyt Ciftci, described as “Germany’s first suicide bomber”). In combining international terrorism with local guerrilla warfare, the IJU’s approach is similar to that of the rest of the al-Qaida network in Afghanistan.
Finally, it has been reported that a German citizen named Bekkay Harrach (31) has risen to high ranks within “al-Qaida Central”. The news emerged after Harrach appeared in a propaganda video entitled “Rescue Package for Germany”. Harrach’s words largely echoed those of the abovementioned Eric Breininger. Harrach warned that if Germany continues its military engagement in Afghanistan, it will not “get away with it for free”, and therefore, the German people should “stand up and be reasonable” in the September 2009 Parliamentary elections. In other words: vote for someone who will pull the German troops out of Afghanistan, or face the consequences. It is not the first time that al-Qaida has threatened European countries engaged in Afghanistan, or encouraged Europeans to put pressure on their governments (see for example this bin Laden message from 2004, or this one from 2007). It is, however, the first time al-Sahab has tailored a message specifically to Germans. By using a German citizen to address Germans, al-Sahab strengthens the image of al-Qaida as a truly global organization. As we know, al-Qaida already has an American convert in their ranks: Adam Gadahn (aka Azzam al-Amriki), who has been featured in several al-Sahab productions.
However, the differences in IMU’s propaganda on the one hand, and that of IJU and al-Qaida on the other, seem to indicate that there is still no unified strategy among al-Qaida and their affiliates with regards to how to target Germany and other coalition members. The legality of targeting German troops inside Afghanistan, on the other hand, seems to be undisputed.
Document (English): 01-12-09-imu-video
Document (Turkish): 10-21-08-call-from-hindukush
Document (Arabic): 01-19-09-rescue-package-for-germany
For two other reports on the IJU, see Ronald Sandee, “The Islamic Jihad Union” , and Guido Steinberg, “A Turkish al-Qaeda: The Islamic Jihad Union and the Internationalization of Uzbek Jihadism”