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A 'Jihadist Autobahn' Runs Through Germany, Says Report

Some experts say it's only a matter of time before the heart of the European Union sees tragedy.

German police at the scene of a knife attack earlier this week in the town of Grafing. Andreas Gebert/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Early Tuesday morning, a 27-year-old stabbed another man to death and injured three others at the train station in Grafing, Germany, a small town 20 miles east of Munich. The attack was probably the result of serious drug and mental health issues on part of the assailant, but thanks to early accounts that the attacker was screaming "Allahu Akbar," many major news outlets speculated this was a jihadi strike—a vague specter that's been looming heavy in the global zeitgeist of late.

So far, Germany has avoided mass Islamic State–inspired terrorist attacks like those that recently hit France and Belgium. But a survey late last year showed two-thirds of Germans expect to see one before the end of 2016. These fears are only amplified by recent reports that some 260 of 800 German jihadis who traveled to Islamic State territories have returned home, and that there are believed to be more than 1,000 jihadi backers in the country.

For all the focus this much-feared fifth column has received, many observers remain unsure of where these faceless German jihads are, how they're organized, and, of course, exactly what they have planned. But a new report out this week from the US-based Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC) called "From Europe to Syria, and Back: The Jihadists' Underground Autobahn," sheds some light on these mysterious networks and what we can expect from them in the future.

Authored in response to mentions of Germany in a wave of post-Brussels Islamic State propaganda, the report compiles bits of intelligence gleaned from three years of jihadi chatter and propaganda, official documents, and regional news. It contains a primer on Islamic State rhetoric about the country, as well as on 191 individuals from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland with alleged jihadi ties or sympathies—over half of whom have traveled to (or have tried to travel to) Iraq or Syria.

To be sure, the report and its authors acknowledge it's not a comprehensive account of jihadi or even pro–Islamic State sentiment in Germany. But by mapping out trends in its limited pool of jihadis and their sympathizers, it offers insight into a few big players, as well as some of the broader dynamics at play in the epicenter of the European project.

Many components of the report mirror findings by TRAC and other observers on the dynamics of jihadi networks in general, and especially those being uncovered in France. Rather than being recruited at random or via exposure to internet propaganda, many German jihadis seem to emerge from hotspot mosques or communities hosting imams espousing radical ideas. Some are also apparently swayed to the cause by close relatives or trusted community members, yielding clusters and cliques of varied size and intensity across the nation.

While there appears to be communication between many Germanic jihadi nodes, the report only notes one potential connection to Islamic State–linked networks in France: Hüseyn D, a man with ties to alleged Paris attacks orchestrator Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Veryan Khan, one of the TRAC report's co-authors, credits this divide to segregation within the Islamic State. "When you get over [to their territory], you're separated by language," she tells VICE, limiting potential Franco-German coordination.

And while many jihadis in Germany today might have some sympathy for the Islamic State, the report highlights numerous factions that predate the notorious caliphate, some by decades. But some long-established groups, like those associated with a Chechen jihadi diaspora, have turned their skills to helping move people into Islamic State territory. Others seem to be communicating with pro-ISIS cliques, but focusing their attention outside of Iraq and Syria, pointing to both longevity and diversity in the German jihadi space.

"I always thought [fundamentalist Muslim groups] were more entrenched in Germany than they were in France," Khan tells me. But she suspects France has faced greater terror because "the French [radical Muslims] had more of a bone to pick with how they were treated in society than the Germans."

Germany's numerous jihadi cells have also likely wrought less local damage at least in part because the nation's police force appears to be more vigilant and effective than, say, their Belgian counterparts. "They can crack down pretty easily, rounding up the usual suspects readily," Khan says.

But the report's authors fear the country's relative calm may not hold given the escalating focus on Germany in Islamic State propaganda. Khan, for one, worries about the number of returnees from Iraq and Syria who are out on bail and awaiting justice in what she describes as backlogged German courts. And the rising tide of right-wing sentiment in the country may also be increasing the attractiveness of an attack for ISIS and local affiliates.

"The Islamic State is very aware that the right wing hates the Islamic population and most of all hates the refugees," Khan says. "It would behoove them to have even a small attack in Germany just to spark [an] extreme overreaction," polarizing society, as they love to do.

Jeffrey Bale, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and an expert on jihadi cells in Europe, cautions against making bold assessments without reliable insider informants and intensive surveillance records. But he acknowledges there are "definitely organized jihadists operating within Germany, including some who have inserted themselves within the stream of refugees and a number who have returned from fighting in Syria or in other jihadi battle fronts."

And Bale believes fears of an impending attack in Germany are valid.

"It is only a question of time before Germany experiences a successful mass casualty jihadist attack, in addition to more smaller scale acts," he tells me.

So the TRAC report might not offer a perfect window into the inner workings of German jihadis. But it is one more piece of evidence that tacitly legitimizes renewed dread of the Islamic State in the country. The hope is that the competence of domestic police and intelligence forces will allow the place to continue to stand out as a relative bastion of security on a troubled continent.

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