Train station in Dusseldorf, Germany, where members of an al Qaeda cell were arrested. (Photo by Andrey Belenko, available at Flickr)

April 29, 2011

Dusseldorf al Qaeda Cell

The arrest of a militant Islamist cell in Germany on April 29 demonstrated the significance of safe havens for the al Qaeda network. German officials announced that they arrested three alleged al Qaeda-linked operatives who constituted a “concrete, immediate threat.” The details surrounding the activities of the cell and the nature of a potential plot are still raw, but the following information has been reported by German media sources: the cell had attempted to purchase chemicals from pharmacies, had tested explosives, and was arrested with a significant amount of explosives; the cell was possibly targeting “public transport in a big city”; the three operatives, identified as Abdeladim K., Jamil S., Ahmed Sh., are Germans of Moroccan descent; the alleged leader of the cell, Abdeladim K., had attended a terrorist training camp in Pakistan’s Waziristan region and had made contact with al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.[1]

The cell leader’s reported link to al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan is part of a long-recurring pattern in al Qaeda’s operations against the West. The 2010 bombing attempt in New York City and numerous other plots documented by AEI’s Critical Threats Project have been traced back to Pakistan’s tribal regions.  In 2010, U.S. and European intelligence agencies uncovered an al Qaeda plot in Europe modeled on the 2008 Mumbai attacks launched by Pakistan-based militant Islamist group Lashkar-e Taiba. The intelligence that foiled that plot was gleaned from interrogations of a German of Afghan descent, Ahmad Siddiqi, captured by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. Siddiqi told investigators that he met senior al Qaeda figures in North Waziristan, Pakistan, and received support and funding for the plot; he also indicated that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had authorized the plot.[2]

The capture of the Dusseldorf Cell is a testament to the relentless efforts of Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies involved in counter-terrorist operations at home.  But, as the cell leader’s travel destination again demonstrates, the threat from al Qaeda originates from foreign sanctuaries, such as those in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Tools that facilitate al Qaeda operations, such as the availability of the Internet, do not serve as a substitute for safe havens. As Charlie Szrom and Chris Harnisch wrote in a recent CTP report:

Terrorists, like most people, particularly those engaged in dangerous undertakings, rely on tight human networks and support groups that cannot be formed or even adequately maintained over the Internet. Safe havens give recruits the chance to be part of a group of like-minded people with whom they can form emotional bonds. Safe havens also allow recruits to earn the trust and respect of radical Islamist leaders—who are not, by nature, very trusting people. After forming such bonds, potential terrorists can receive clear orders while located in safe havens.

Safe havens serve as the al Qaeda network’s key asset. The sustained campaign of pressure against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan—currently being conducted through U.S. and allied counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations—remains central to rolling back the militant Islamist threat to the West.

[1] A summary of reports from Bild, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Der Spiegel, Die Welt, and Rheinische Post are summarized in “Germany detains three ‘Al-Qaeda members,’” AFP, April 29, 2011, See also, “CIA Part of Investigation of ‘Dusseldorf Cell,’” April 29, 2011,,1518,759852,00.html.
[2] Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank, “Sources: Senior al Qaeda leader directed Europe plot,” CNN, October 6, 2010,; “Bin Laden Said to Have Financed European Terror Plot,” Der Spiegel, October 2, 2010,,1518,720879,00.html.
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