Islam convert tests German terror laws
WUPPERTAL — Fundamentalist Islamic preacher Sven Lau claims he has a simple test to separate undercover officers from passers-by. He gives them the finger. If they don’t respond, he said, “they’re intelligence agents.”
German authorities have spent at least eight years monitoring Mr Lau, a 34-year-old ex-firefighter from a Catholic family who now practices a strict form of Islam known as Salafism.
Officials say Mr Lau is one of the most prominent Islamic preachers in Germany, with a charismatic message that lures young Germans into radical Muslim circles. The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency called Mr Lau one of the country’s “best-known propa- gandists.”
Authorities allege Mr Lau inspired some of his followers to join Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, and fear they will eventually spawn terror attacks in Germany and the West.
Mr Lau, who has delivered sermons to hundreds of listeners across Germany, denies the allegation. Despite wiretaps and searches of his home and computers by authorities, he remains free.
He denied any ties to terrorism or the extremist group Islamic State — “I’m not pro-is,” he said — and described his past trips to Syria as humanitarian work.
The standoff between Mr Lau and German security agents illustrates the difficulty of drawing a clear line between opinion and sedition at a time when European authorities face growing numbers of disaffected Muslims, some of them taking on radical views.
Security officials say they monitor a wide range of Islamist proselytizing but only a small minority pass the threshold for prosecution on charges of supporting terrorism.
“He continues to radicalise young people and creates fertile soil for future violence,” said Burkhard Freier, the domestic intelligence chief in Mr Lau’s home state of North-rhine Westphalia.
“To prove this under the rule of law with means that will stand up in court is, well, difficult.”
In February, authorities arrested Mr Lau after he returned from Syr- ia on suspicion of recruiting for a foreign armed force and preparing a “serious act of violent subversion.”
“They described him as an “ideological link of well-known, superregional Salafist networks.”
Authorities also alleged Mr Lau helped raise money for an ambulance and persuaded two men to drive it, along with thousands of euros, to Syria in February — destined for a jihadist group.
Mr Lau denies the allegations. He also denies supporting jihadists, preparing violent acts or encouraging other Germans to join militants.
His lawyer, Mutlu Günal, said wiretapped phone conversations of his client by German authorities showed “the money was meant for a hospital in Aleppo.” Mr. Günal and court officials declined to release records of the conversations.
In the continuing public relations battle with authorities, Mr Lau’s arrest greatly boosted his profile among Islamic fundamentalists.
German officials see a rise in home-grown Islamic extremism, among immigrants as well as ethnic Germans.
Domestic intelligence officials say Salafis now make up the country’s fastest-growing Islamist movement: More than 6 300 compared with 4 500 in 2012.
While most are peaceful, German intelligence officials said, nearly all the Islamist terrorist networks found in Germany had ties to Salafis. — WSJ