Raids against a criminal gang of suspected money smugglers took place in 23 cities in North Rhine-Westphalia on Wednesday. Ten suspects are now in pre-trial detention, including some known radical jihadists.
“Sometimes it’s lucky coincidences that put the police on the trail of a really big story.”
These are the words of an investigator on the case, who spoke to German public-broadcasting institution WDR.
In this story, it was a “gym bag” that helped the investigators to reveal a large crime chain that has raised strong suspicions of terror-financing coming from Germany to Turkey and to the jihadist organisations that fight as paid mercenaries of Turkey in North East Syria.
On Wednesday morning, more than 1,400 German police, public prosecutors and tax investigators raided more than 80 addresses in three federal states of Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony and Bremen.
“We have stopped an extremely productive money tap to terror financing today. But we have also put an end to the unlawful gaining of personal profit of the perpetrators,” Peter Biesenbach, North Rhine-Westphalia Minister of Justice, said after the operation.
During the large-scale raid, 800,000 euros and 500,000 euros in cash were seized, the Düsseldorf public prosecutor’s office announced.
Other items, such as luxury cars among many others, seized by the police had an included value of around 5-million euros.
Investigators arrested 11 suspects, but they focused on a total of 67 suspects, who are allegedly members of an international money laundering and “hawala” network that has been operating since 2016. Hawala, a type of underground banking, is a way to transmit money without any currency actually moving.
Among other things, they are accused of predatory extortion, drug trafficking, money laundering, terror- financing, fraud and illegal financial transactions.
One suspect is accused of “membership of a terrorist organisation” abroad. Two of the suspects are considered “Islamist threats” and four others are attributed to organisations on the Islamist spectrum, WDR reported.
According to the information WDR gathered, the police were able to arrest two men, Halid A. and Manfred T, who had triggered the investigation that lead them to the terrorist organisations by chance in May 2020.
On 28 May 2020 when patrol police wanted to help two injured man in a small car crash, they realised something was wrong with them and as they took a closer look in the car, they discovered a gym bag with about 300,000 euros in the car. Allegedly, it was drug money from the Netherlands, according to investigators. The money was supposed to be brought abroad via an illegal banking system, the so-called “hawala banking”.
One of the two men in the car that day was Syrian Halid A, who is said to have supported DAESH fighters in the Syrian province of Idlib, according to WDR.
After that incident of Halid A. and his friend that day in the car, Manfred T. has been in the sight of German investigators, who have discovered that both suspects are apparently part of a larger group that collects money from refugees in Germany, among others, in order to transfer it to Turkey or Syria. Some refugees apparently want to support their families with it. Halid A. and his group also collect a commission for the money transfers.
Investigators believe that about 140 million euros were transferred to Syria and Turkey by a shadowy banking system called hawala banking system.
There are “deposit points” in Germany and the Netherlands and withdrawal points in Syria and Turkey. The money transfer takes only a few minutes. After the customers in Germany have deposited their money, the disbursement office is instructed via WhatsApp to disburse the money to the customers there. This is apparently how tens of thousands of euros were routinely transferred to Syria and Turkey, according to the investigators who shared their suspicions with the WDR.
With Wednesday’s operations, these two men, who have been closely monitored by the German authorities regarding suspicions of terror financing since 2020, were arrested for the first time with enough evidence against them to secure a conviction.
How exactly the money is used to support jihadist gangs fighting as Turkey’s paid proxies in North East Syria has not yet been conclusively clarified, but is still part of the ongoing investigations, according to WDR. However, investigators say they have sufficient evidence for the offences of money laundering, fraud and illegal banking transactions.