Quem é o Terrorista?

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Blogging Against Surveillance
Segurança Digital para Ativistas
Coletivo Riseup

Anne Roth <annalist[at]riseup.net>


On July 31 of 2007, at seven in the morning, armed police stormed into the apartment I share with my partner, Andrej Holm, and our two children. We learned that day that Andrej was a terrorism suspect and that an investigation had been going on for almost a year. Andrej was arrested and flown to Germany’s Court of Justice the next day. The search of our apartment lasted fifteen hours. I was forced to wake my children, dress them and make them eat breakfast with an armed policeman watching us. That day my new life started, a life as the partner of one of Germany’s top terrorists.

Andrej spent three weeks in investigative detention. The details of how the arrest warrant was issued caused a public outcry, not only in Germany but also in many other countries. Open letters were sent to the court that were signed by several thousand people protesting the arrests. Among the signatures were those of David Harvey, Mike Davis, Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett and Peter Marcuse.

What had happened?

Hours before Germany’s federal police came to our home, three men were arrested near Berlin who were said to have tried to set fire to several army vehicles. The original investigation was started against four other men, of whom Andrej is one, who are suspected of being the authors of texts written by a group called “militante gruppe” (mg, militant group). The group is known in Germany for damaging property for years, but never using violence against people. The texts are claiming responsibility for arson attacks against cars and buildings since 2001. German anti-terror law x129a of the penal code was used to start an anti-terror investigation against the four. All of them write and publish online. Andrej works as a sociologist on issues such as gentrification and the situation of tenants. Outside academia he is actively involved in tenant organizations and movements that deal with gentrification and city development. Since ‘militant group’ uses words such as ‘gentrification’, ‘marxist-leninist’, ‘precarisation’ or ‘reproduction’ and Andrej also uses terms like these in his research papers, the state considered this sufficient evidence to justify complete surveillance (a subsequent linguistic analysis by the Federal Police later showed its most unlikely Andrej wrote these texts). As we later learned from Andrej’s files, the profile for the ‘militant group’ was based on several assumptions. Members of the ‘militant group’ are assumed to: have close ties within the group (all four have been good friends for years); be leftist political activists; have no prior police record; use ‘conspiratorial behavior’, such as encrypting email and using anonymous mail addresses (not made of proper first and last names); be critical researchers and as such have access to libraries and a variety of daily papers; and have profound political and historical knowledge.

The initial suspicion, which was based on internet research for similarities in writing and vocabulary, led to surveillance of several forms: phone tapping, video cameras pointed at living spaces, emails and internet traffic being monitored, bugging devices in cars, bugging operations on people’s conversations, etc. None of these produced valid evidence and so every two or three months surveillance measures were expanded. Anti-terror investigations, according to 129a of the penal code, are known and infamous for the fact that they are being carried out secretly and that less than 5% ever produce enough evidence to lead to actual court cases. The vast majority entail lengthy investigations, during which huge amounts of data (mostly on activists) are collected, and after years of activity the case is dropped without anyone ever knowing about it.

The ‘terrorist’ deeds themselves are not being prosecuted, but rather membership in or support of the named terrorist organization. Therefore, investigations focus on ‘who knows who and why.’ At this moment we know of four such cases carried out against 40 activists in Germany last year. Participation in protests against the G8 played a prominent role, but not the only one. In all four cases the names of more than 2000 people were found in the files that were handed over to the defendants: a good indicator of what these investigations are really good for.

In our case it is likely that all people who had any kind of interaction with Andrej during 2006-7 were checked by the police. As a result, they discovered two meetings that allegedly took place in February and April of 2007 with someone who was later included in the investigation as a fifth suspect, and then two other individuals who were in touch with this ‘No. 5’. The two meetings took place under “highly conspiratorial circumstances”: no mobile phones were taken along, the meeting had been arranged using so-called anonymous mail accounts, and, during the meeting—a walk outside—the two turned around several times.

The three who were included in the investigation are the same three who were arrested after the alleged arson attempt. Some hours later special police forces stormed our home and Andrej was dubbed ‘the brain behind the militant group.’ My identity changed to that of ‘the terrorist’s partner.’

What to do?

I was in shock. Berlin was on summer break. The few of us who were not away got together to gather the little we understood about the accusations. The media rejoiced with headlines such as ‘Federal Police finally succeed in arresting long-searched-for terror group’ and we had to deal with media inquiries, talk to lawyers, talk to relatives, talk to friends, colleagues, neighbors and our children. We had to learn about life in prison, start a campaign for donations to pay for lawyers, create a website, agree on how to proceed with a rather heterogeneous group of suspects and an even more heterogeneous network of friends and supporters, and discuss how to deal with the media.

I slowly realized that my children and I were the collateral damage in this case. My computer was confiscated, items were taken from my desk, all of my belongings searched. My kids (2 and 5 years old last summer) lived through two searches conducted by armed police. Their father was kidnapped and was not returned for weeks.

Being a political activist myself, I am of course aware of the fact that phones can be tapped and that this is used extensively against activists. In Germany close to 40,000 phones (including mobiles) are tapped each year we have a total population of 80 million. To realize and later to read on paper that this concerns you is entirely different from the somewhat abstract idea that you may be subjected to it.

When Andrej was released on bail after three weeks, the Federal Prosecutor of Germany filed a complaint and wanted him back in detention right away, based on the idea that he might flee the country or that there was danger of repetition. How do you repeat membership in a terrorist organization? One of the many mysteries inside the prosecutors mind. The complaint was not granted right away but instead Germany’s Court of Justice decided it needed time to reflect thoroughly on the details of the arrest warrant (which was the origin of the huge wave of solidarity that was widely covered in the media), the question of whether the so-called group actually qualified as ‘terrorist’ and whether the presented evidence justified detention.

It was impossible to miss the fact that Andrej was the focus of police observation. Our phones went crazy—more than once people tried to call Andrej’s mobile number but ended up on my phone instead. When I tried to call him, I got my own mailbox talking to me. Our TV behaved funny (as a result of silent or stealth pings that were sent to Andrej’s mobile phone regularly to locate him). Emails disappeared.

At some point in the middle of this I considered starting a weblog. To my knowledge nobody had ever written a blog about living under anti-terror surveillance. It was not an easy decision: were people going to believe me? Would I be portrayed as crazy or paranoid? On the other hand, unlike many other people I knew for sure that surveillance was taking place, so why not write about what it felt like? Germany had a major debate about data retention last summer—the law had just passed and was to go into effect 2008. A new anti-terror federal police law was discussed in parliament and a public debate about data protection grew to dimensions nobody had thought possible some months before. The War on Terror serves to justify more repressive laws here as well. A blog about the consequences of an investigation into a family that is admittedly interested in politics (and actively involved), but otherwise not exactly the typical terrorist stereotype, could open many eyes.

Initially, I did not like the idea of blogging, precisely because I am quite fond of my privacy. Why present my personal daily life to a largely anonymous public? Absurd. But now, after my privacy had been violated beyond imagination, why not talk about what it feels like to people who are more sympathetic than the Federal Prosecutor? Why not talk about how ridiculous the ‘facts’ to prove the case really are? And there are so many amazingly strange interpretations of how we live our life, of what Andrej said on the phone, of what my mother said on the phone, that I thought nobody would believe these details just some months later.

And so I started blogging. Mostly in German, primarily because I didn’t find the time to translate more, but also because I thought that interested readers would mostly be German. You can find some texts in English there, too, however.

I wasn’t familiar with the world of blogs, and probably still am not. I didn’t have time to find out how to ‘make your blog popular’ and was not particularly interested in doing so. I wasn’t really sure how much attention I’d like. I started by publishing in the blog the same things I had emailed to people interested in the development of the case and in how we were doing personally. I only told people I knew about it. It took about three weeks before some of the more popular political German blogs picked it up and wrote about us, and then the number of visits exploded. In the beginning people wondered whether this, and I, ‘was real.’ The blog received lots of comments and it was obvious that many people were completely shocked about what was happening. They compared the investigation to what they imagined having taken place in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, East Germany, but not ‘here’, in a Western democracy, a constitutional state. Another group consisted of people who wanted to help us secure our privacy. They explained email encryption, switching SIM cards in mobile phones and the like, not realizing that at least in the first months we actively avoided anything that could make it seem like we wanted to behave in a conspiratorial manner, as this was one of the reasons Andrej became a suspect to begin with.

I thought it was pretty funny that because I was ‘the sociologist’s wife’ (we are not married), people seemed to assume that Linux or encryption were things I’d never heard of. Many people expressed fear that by reading my blog or commenting on it they might endanger themselves. I was glad they did anyway. Others expressed admiration for our choice to be so public about the case. All of this was great and very important support that made it much easier to deal with the ongoing stress and tension that comes with the threat of being tried as a terrorist.

Fortunately, the Court of Justice made several decisions that were very favorable for Andrej. First, two months after the prosecutor’s complaint about his release on bail, the court decided not only to deny the complaint but also to completely withdraw the arrest warrant, arguing that ‘pure assumptions are not sufficient.’ This decision was perceived by many journalists as a ‘slap in the face’ to Germany’s Federal Prosecutor . One month later the same court decided against the ‘militant group’ being considered a ‘terrorist organization.’. The German definition for terrorism demands that a terrorist act be intended and able to shake the state to its very foundations, or else to terrify the population as such. Germany’s minister of justice, Brigitte Zypries, was asked about the case against the alleged members of the ‘militant group’ in an interview with Der Spiegel, one of the biggest political weekly magazines, and she said that she thought that the September 11 attacks were a terrible tragedy, but not a terrorist act by her definition as they didn’t manage to endanger the American state. We were rather surprised by this, to say the least. In November the Court of Justice decided that the ‘militant group’ can’t be considered terrorist and ordered that the other three people arrested be released on bail. Now the investigation is being carried out under x129 (instead of x129a), which prosecutes criminal instead of terrorist organizations, with possible sentences up to five, instead of ten, years.

When Andrej was arrested for ‘being a terrorist’, on the grounds of being intelligent, knowing many people from different spheres of society, accessing libraries, and publishing texts, it felt possible that they’d sentence him to a prison term. But after months of public support and with more details of the investigation becoming public, I, like many others, starting believing that this nightmare was terminal, that the case would have to be dropped eventually. Most people don’t realize that the investigation is actually still going on. All of our phone calls are still being listened to, our emails read, Andrej’s every step is being watched. Germany discusses online searches of computers and using hidden cameras in people’s living spaces to detect terrorists and we know that the secret service is using what the police only dream of.

It’s been an extremely straining life for almost a year now, but I am convinced that a better way of surviving something like this, something that terrorized us, our children, our families and friends, is not to go into hiding. I understand very well the feeling of wanting to stay still until it’s all over, to not provoke any (legal) action when you’re the focus of this kind of attention. But I also deeply believe that public attention and protest saved us and that, for me personally, the best thing I could do was to not keep all my fear inside but instead to share and raise awareness of what the war on terror looks like in detail.

More information:


Segurança Digital para Ativistas
Se o movimento não tem nada a esconder Quem é o Terrorista? Bandwagons & Buzzwords


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