German prosecutors filed charges against the suspected leader of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Germany and four of his associates Thursday. Abu Walaa was charged in connection with his alleged leadership of a jihadi recruitment ring believed to be linked to the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market in 2016.
Walaa is known as the “preacher without a face” because of his video appearances in which he was draped in black robes, his face hidden from the camera’s view.
An unidentified, returning German ISIS fighter gave evidence to German authorities that implicated Walaa as the effective leader of ISIS in Germany, recruiting and radicalizing young German Muslims to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
His full name is Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A. German police arrested the 33-year-old Iraqi national in the small northern city of Hildesheim in Lower Saxony on November 8.
Others charged with terrorism offenses were 51-year-old Turkish citizen Hasan C. and 37-year-old German-Serbian citizen Boban S., both of whom are alleged to have spread “radical Islamic content” to the network’s members. The final two to be charged were 28-year-old German citizen, Mahmoud O., and a man identified as Ahmed F.Y., a 27-year-old from Cameroon. All of their last names are concealed in accordance with German privacy laws.
Prosecutors believe the network paid for several fighters to travel to Syria, at least two of whom they think committed suicide bombings against Syrian soldiers.
Authorities suspect that Walaa had ties to Anis Amri, the Tunisian national who plowed a 25-ton truck into a Christmas market in central Berlin on December 19, killing 12 people and injuring 48.
Officials say the two were in regular contact, according to German media reports. He also attended the mosque of 36-year-old Boban S., a suspected member of Walaa’s network also charged on Thursday, in the city of Dortmund. He also stayed in touch with the network through the encrypted messaging platform Telegram.
German security experts previously told Newsweek that authorities only sought to prosecute suspected ISIS fighters returning from Iraq and Syria—not their recruiters. With the arrest of the network and subsequent charges, something is changing, they say.
Germany suffered three ISIS-inspired attacks last year, including the Berlin attack. The others were a suicide bombing in southern town of Ansbach by a Syrian national and an ax attack near the city of Wurzburg by an Afghan national. Both did not kill any one targeted.
Authorities believe there are now more than 9,000 radical Islamists in Germany (compared to 3,800 in 2011) and 550 of them are considered capable of carrying out attacks. More than 900 Germans have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria, according to authorities, and they expect many to return as the jihadi group loses control of its key population centers in the Middle East, such as Mosul and Raqqa, which is now under siege by a U.S.-backed Arab-Kurdish coalition.