Much as this June's failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow focused attention on the participation of doctors and other professionals in jihadist terror, the plot disrupted in Germany this week seems certain to put the spotlight on another key group within violent Islamism: converts.
We don't know much thus far about Fritz Gelowicz or Daniel Martin Schneider, the two German converts who were apprehended earlier this week along with Adem Yilmaz, who has been identified as a Turk. Another seven conspirators, about whom very little has been released, are also being hunted. But the hundreds of gallons of concentrated hydrogen peroxide—useful for bomb-building—they acquired, and the fact that, according to German officials, they had managed to train with the pros in Pakistan suggest that these operatives were, as one U.S. official put it, "the real deal."
That may surprise people who have viewed the converts as being the oddest of the oddballs inside al-Qaida's big tent. There have been grounds for such thinking: Among the most famous are Richard Reid, the oafish would-be shoe bomber, and Jose Padilla, the former fast-food chicken flipper whose ability to construct a dirty bomb, as touted by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, was never proved. But to write them all off as misguided dullards would be a mistake. That there are so many of them tells us something important about the movement, because some are highly competent and have real operational advantages compared with other radicals.
Their numbers are indeed astonishing. Converts have been involved in jihadist activity since before al-Qaida was fully formed. The "TERRSTOP" conspiracy to blow up landmarks and tunnels in New York City in the mid-1990s included two converts, Clement Hampton-El, an African-American who had been to Afghanistan, and Victor Alvarez, a dimwitted janitor turned gofer for the cell. (Though that conspiracy landed the "Blind Sheikh," Omar Abdel Rahman, in jail, a connection to al-Qaida was never asserted.) In Osama Bin Laden's empire, converts have always been well-represented. Wadih el-Hage, the Saudi's personal assistant and, later, the architect of the East Africa cells that carried out the 1998 embassy bombings, came from a Lebanese Maronite family. The American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, certainly had no problems being accepted in al-Qaida circles. More recently, Californian Adam Gadahn, aka Adam Pearlman, aka Azzam the American, has become a blogosphere celebrity as the English-language voice of al-Qaida.
Well before the German bust, converts were turning up regularly in European terrorist operations. In the 1990s, several French converts, including brothers David and Jerome Courtailler, fought in Bosnia and later turned up in jihadist activities. A German, Christian Ganczarski, became a significant al-Qaida operative and was linked to a 2002 bombing on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The Walters brothers, Jason and Jermaine, sons of a U.S. serviceman and Dutch mother, were members of the Hofstad gang, which included Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-Moroccan assassin of film director Theo van Gogh in 2004. Jamaican-born, English-raised Germaine Lindsay was one of the four members of the cell that carried out the Tube attacks in London in 2005. In November 2005, Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian baker's assistant and former Catholic, became the first female Muslim suicide bomber from Europe when she attacked a U.S. patrol in Iraq, wounding one soldier.