Abu Walaa’s Islamic State Network and Germany’s Counter-Terrorism Prosecutions

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 9

(source: dw.com)

A German court sentenced on February 24 the alleged “Islamic State leader of Germany” to a lengthy prison sentence. The trial against Salafist preacher Ahmad Abdelaziz Abdullah Abdullah, better known as Abu Walaa, lasted three-and-a-half-years and provides insights into radicalization and Islamic State (IS) recruitment in Germany in the years from 2012 to 2016. This article’s insights on Abu Walaa and his network are based on his recent court verdict and the memoirs of “VP-01,” Germany’s top police informant, who successfully spied on Abu Walaa and his network. In addition, this article illustrates how Germany’s security authorities and justice system continue to face challenges in bringing terrorism suspects to justice.

Abu Walaa’s Network from Germany to IS in Syria and Iraq

Born in Iraq and an ethnic Kurd from Kirkuk, Abu Walaa arrived in Germany in 2000 as a refugee and originally settled with his family, including two wives and seven children, in the town of Tönisvorst in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Subsequently, Abu Walaa established himself as one of the most influential Salafists in Germany while preaching as the imam of Deutschsprachige Islamkreis mosque, which was established in 2012 in Hildesheim in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony. The mosque became a hotspot of the Salafist scene in Germany and Abu Walaa was known for his fiery sermons both at his now-banned Deutschsprachige Islamkreis mosque and online, where he was called “the preacher without a face” due to his habit of preaching with his back to the camera, leaving his features hidden from view. Abu Walaa was successful in building a strong social media following that at one point amounted to as many as 25,000 fans on Facebook and included followers from across Europe (Stern.de, September 26, 2017; Deutsche Welle, December 11, 2018).

The German security authorities kept a close watch on Abu Walaa after it became clear that several jihadists who left Germany to join IS in Syria and Iraq had regularly visited his mosque before their departure. In addition, Abu Walaa’s network was linked to several terrorist plots in Germany, including the bombing of a Sikh-temple in Essen on April 16, 2016, in which three individuals were wounded. The perpetrators, Yusuf T., Mohamed B., and Tolga I., were suspected to have been radicalized by the Abu Walaa and his close associates. [1]

In the summer of 2015, the German police directed one of their key human sources, known only as “VP-01” or his undercover name, “Mustafa Cem”, to attend the mosque. “VP-01” was able to confirm to German authorities that Abu Walaa and his close associates were vetting and recruiting individuals to join IS in Syria and Iraq and that the mosque had become a key meeting point for Salafist-jihadists in Germany. [2]

On July 28, 2016, German police conducted a search of Abu Walaa’s mosque, although no arrests were made at that point. However, Abu Walaa was alarmed by the searches and became aware that he had been spied on and suspected “VP-01” of working for German security authorities. Abu Walaa posted on September 16, 2016 an audio message to his followers to denounce “VP-01” as a spy and called for his “destruction.” This forced “VP-01” to enter a witness protection program. [3] However, as a result of information provided by “VP-01”, on November 8, 2016, Abu Walaa and four other leading individuals of his network, Boban Simeonovic, Hasan Celenk and Mahmoud O, were arrested on suspicion of establishing a terrorist network to recruit fighters for IS within Germany (Generalbundesanwaltschaft Press Release, November 8, 2016).

Authorities believed that Abu Walaa had designated his associates, the German-Serbian national Boban Simeonovic and Turkish national Hasan Celenk, as his regional leaders in the cities of Dortmund and Duisburg in North-Rhine Westphalia, where they taught Arabic and ideologically prepared new recruits to join IS, including by showing them IS propaganda videos. Abu Walaa, for his part, was the final gatekeeper before they joined IS and had the authority to decide which duties were given to individuals when they joined the group. Abu Walaa was, for example, able to direct German foreign fighters to serve in the IS Intelligence units and IS medical service. The fact that Abu Walaa’s influence reached to the IS administration in Syria and Iraq demonstrated how closely connected his network was with the organization (Oberlandesgericht Celle Press Release, February 24).

The investigation into Abu Walaa gained even more attention six weeks after his arrest when Germany suffered its most devastating jihadist attack to date. On December 19, 2016, a Tunisian refugee, Anis Amri, rammed a truck he had hijacked into the Berlin Breitscheidplatz Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding dozens. Amri was able to flee to Italy, where he subsequently died after a firefight with the police. The investigation into his contacts in Germany led the authorities again to Abu Walaa and his network. [4]

The number of people the Abu Walaa network successfully recruited for IS remains unknown. However, it is believed that more than 20 jihadists who traveled to IS in Syria and Iraq from Germany can be traced to his network. These reportedly also include the 24-year-old twins Kevin and Mark Knop, who committed suicide bombings for IS in Iraq in 2015. [5]

Abu Walaa’s Trial

The trial against Abu Walaa and his associates began in 2017. Prosecutors sought sentences ranging from three-and-a-half to 11-and-a-half-years in prison for the men. Key to the prosecution was not only information provided by “VP-01,” but also the testimony of Anil O., who was one of the individuals Abu Walaa recruited and sent to IS. Anil O. and his wife had left Germany in the summer of 2015 and, with the support of Abu Walaa’s network, successfully traveled via Turkey to IS-controlled territory in Syria. However, after only spending a few months in IS territory, Anil O. and his wife attempted to return to Turkey because they realized the “true nature” of IS and allegedly also after he had been offered a 10-year-old sex-slave. [6]

Their escape attempt failed and IS imprisoned Anil O. in Raqqa. However, Abu Walaa intervened on Anil O.’s behalf and he was freed. Another escape attempt in early 2016 succeeded and Anil O. and his wife were able to cross back to Turkey, where Anil O. entered a plea-bargaining deal with German authorities and agreed to testify against Abu Walaa and his network in exchange for a lighter sentence. He testified that Abu Walaa had been the “number one IS leader in Germany” and provided details on the Abu Walaa network’s internal workings (Oberlandesgericht Celle Press Release, February 24). [7]

After a lengthy process lasting 243 days that included more than 120 witnesses and expert hearings, the Oberlandesgericht Celle, which in Germany’s federal system is the province (state)-level Higher Regional Court, sentenced Abu Walaa to a ten-and-a-half-year prison term. His associates were also found guilty and sentenced, including Boban Simeonovic for eight years, Hassan Celenk for six-and-a-half-years, and Mahmoud O. for four years (Oberlandesgericht Celle Press Release, February 24).

Germany’s Criminal Justice System and Terrorism Trends

The court trial of Abu Walaa and his network has shown that Germany’s justice system is able to successfully prosecute complex terrorism cases. However, criticism has been voiced about the fact that it took German security authorities too long for the leaders of Abu Walaa’s network to be arrested because police had to rely on an IS defector to get the necessary proof for arrest warrants. In addition, the court process lasted more than three years before a verdict was reached, and cost German taxpayers around 10 million euros (NDR.de, November 8, 2020).

While the threat from far-right terrorism has gained significant attention in Germany, jihadist terrorism continues to present a threat to the country as well. Underlining the transnational nature of the jihadist threat, in February 2021, security authorities in Germany and Denmark arrested three Syrian brothers, aged 33, 36 and 40, on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack. In subsequent searches in Denmark and Germany, police officers found chemicals suitable for building explosives and a picture of an IS flag on one suspect’s mobile phone. However, the potential target of the bomb plot remains unclear (Tagesschau, February 11).

Even after the conclusion of the Abu Walaa network trials, the German justice system continues to face a significant caseload of terrorism offences. Alone in the first three months of 2021, the German state prosecutor opened criminal investigations and prosecutions for nine separate terrorism offences, ranging from membership in a foreign terrorist group, including IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Tabka and Jund al-Sham, to terrorism financing and attack plotting. [8] German authorities have assessed that in total over 1,070 individuals left Germany and travelled to Syria and Iraq in IS’s heyday. However, only for approximately half of these cases do German authorities have actual proof that individuals joined a terrorist group or at least provided support to one (Deutsche Welle, July 27, 2020). Moreover, at least 450 Germans are still abroad and continue to represent a potential counter-terrorism risk for Germany and a legal challenge for the German justice system if they are arrested.


[1] Diehl. Jörg, Lehberger, Roman, Schmid, Fidelius: Undercover. Ein V-Mann packt aus. DVA Spiegel Buchverlag, May 2020. The Book is based on interviews with “VP-01” (also uses the pseudonym “Mustafa Cem”) and his career as a police informant.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For more on Amri’s relationship with the Abu Walaa network, see George Heil, CTC Sentinel February 2017: https://ctc.usma.edu/the-berlin-attack-and-the-abu-walaa-islamic-state-recruitment-network/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Diehl. Jörg, Lehberger, Roman, Schmid, Fidelius: Undercover. Ein V-Mann packt aus. DVA Spiegel Buchverlag, May 2020. The Book is based on interviews with “VP-01” (also uses the pseudonym “Mustafa Cem”) and his career as a police informant.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See, for example: https://www.generalbundesanwalt.de/DE/Presse/Aktuelle_Pressemitteilungen/Aktuelle_Pressemitteilungen_node.html