AMSTERDAM — There is a grim symmetry about the allegations made against a gang of thieves in Germany—a Muslim-led group of thugs who targeted a Christian church for their biggest heist, although whether that was their profane purpose or just a matter of opportunity is not entirely clear.
What’s known is that eight Islamists went on trial a little over a week ago in the regional court of Cologne, Germany, and “they are accused of breaking into schools and churches to send the money they stole to Syria, in support of a religious state of ISIS,” Judge Achim Hengstenberg, the court spokesman, tells The Daily Beast.
According to the general prosecutor’s office, the alleged thieves range in age between 23 and 59, and the group includes four siblings. The putative ringleader, the eldest, is identified by the court as Mirza Tamoor B. and is a German citizen of Pakistani origin. His alleged accomplices Kais, Lazhar, Leila, and Omar B. O. are also German citizens, while Mohammed D. is Pakistani.
Mirza allegedly collected hundreds of thousands of euros for an ostensible charity supporting victims of the Syrian war by putting up websites featuring pictures of children apparently killed in the fighting. He then assembled the much younger members of his gang. It is not clear whether he met some of them on social media while waging his earlier campaign, or knew them through other connections, but their common purpose was allegedly both larceny and jihad.
It is not unusual for would-be holy warriors to use petty crime to support themselves and their operations. Al Qaeda used to instruct its recruits in credit card fraud, for instance. Some jihadists in Europe, dating back at least to the early 1990s, tried to support their operations through armed robbery. But outright burglary is not part of the usual curriculum, because the risks can be high and the rewards fairly low.
In this case, the break-ins, which took place between July 2013 and August 2014, proved to be more symbolic than profitable, as the zealous burglars managed to grab a relatively modest €19,000 (about $21,000).
“Altogether we are talking about nine break-ins, of which some are shops, two or three schools and three churches,” says Hengstenberg. “In most cases it was money being stolen. In one church €30 was taken.” But at St. Augustine Keppel Catholic Church in Hilchenbach-Dahlbruch they broke in two days before Christmas to take chalices and other sacred objects worth an estimated €10,000.
That didn’t work out too well for the thieves. They caused extensive damage and tried to make off with the vault containing €10,000 (about $11,000) worth of church treasures, but they couldn’t get it open and had to leave it behind. The court is charging them with theft of the whole amount, but at the time, in fact, the hapless criminals only netted €100 euros from a church cashbox.
When asked about the break-in by the local newspaper Der Westen, Father Friedhelm Rusche said, “That kind of thing touches everyone in a church community. The culprits lack a respect for religion.”
“Their goal was to use the loot to support persons who in Syria are participating in combat operations,” said Hengstenberg, and the so-called Islamic State was not the first or only intended beneficiary. According to the court, the accused wanted to support Salafi Muslims fighting anyone who did not follow their line of preaching (in jihadist jargon they were takfiris), and also to disrupt the Assad government in Damascus in order to replace it with an Islamic religious state.
The court list of the organizations intended to receive the larcenous largesse includes ISIS as well as other Salafi and Takfiri groups, including some believed to get support from U.S. allies in the gulf: Ahrar al-Sham and Junud al-Sham. All of which suggests just how fluid labels and alliances can be in the Syrian conflict.
And the trial in Cologne, according to Hengstenberg, is just for the low-life types at the bottom of the jihadist food chain. “Three of the eight men are accused of supporting terrorist organizations,” he said. Their case is being heard in Dusseldorf, where four others have been indicted as well. “The charges brought against the men here in Cologne are the minor charges.”
One of the accused in Dusseldort, named as Mustafa A., is standing trial for propagating and recruiting for jihad. He is alleged to have posted a video called “Until the Head Flies,” in which he called for participation in armed jihad. (ISIS is infamous for its decapitations.) He also had himself photographed in front of the so-called German House in the Syrian border region wearing military dress at the end of 2013.
The charges in this case are: 1) Preparation of an act of violence seriously endangering the state; and 2) Being taught to use arms, and the acquisition of a weapon in preparation of a state-endangering act of violence.
They are accused of having financed jihadists traveling to Syria so they could participate in acts of war, and building a network in order to realize this goal.
Stealing from churches might just have been a means to that end, but, then again, these are would-be members of ISIS, a group that treats apostates and infidels with unparalleled savagery, and stealing holy vessels from a church must have given them at least a little thrill. Crucifixions on the Syrian battlefield, a favorite ISIS form of execution and entertainment, could come later.