Murat Cem enjoyed a career as one of Germany’s most important police informants, tracking down a number of the country’s leading Islamist extremists, including the future Berlin Christmas market attacker Anis Amri, who he tried to thwart. “We could have stopped him,” he says looking back. “But we didn’t.”
On the morning of Dec. 21, 2016, Murat Cem was sitting in his living room and watching TV. Two days prior, a man shot and killed a Polish man, stole the semi-truck he had been driving and rammed it into crowded Berlin Christmas market, killing another 11 people and injuring dozens more. The news broadcast Cem was watching reported that the perpetrator was on the run.
Cem’s mobile phone rang.
In his 20 years of working for the German police, Cem had stopped providing his name over the phone. He was afraid he might otherwise give himself away.
On the other end was a policeman whom Cem had known for a long time. He said one thing: “It was Anis Amri.”
Cem says when he heard that, his breath caught in his throat and his eyes welled up with tears. The policeman on the phone said Amri was on the run and that any clue could be decisive in catching him. Cem stammered: France maybe, or Italy. He didn’t think Amri would let himself be arrested, he said. “I think he’d rather be shot than thrown in jail.” He reminded them just how dangerous Amri was. Then the two hung up.
Amri’s photo appeared on TV soon after, and Cem was overcome with sadness. The feeling still haunts him to this day.
Cem knew Anis Amri better than any other police officer. He probably knew him better than most of his fellow Islamists. “There were days,” Cem says, “when I put Amri to bed at night and picked him up again in the morning.”
Cem had warned the police about Amri, first in the fall of 2015, and then again and again. On that Wednesday after the attack, as he sat at home, he wondered: Had he failed as a police informant? As a spy? Or had the police failed because they hadn’t taken his warnings seriously enough?
A Trusted Individual
Two and a half years later, in the summer of 2019, Cem sits in a restaurant in a German university town, struggling with the large cheese pizza in front of him. He takes a deep breath. “Many people curse the day they met me,” he says. “I curse the day I met Anis Amri.”
Cem is in his early 40s, medium height, corpulent. He has a full beard and wears a baseball cap. He doesn’t have a Facebook profile and there are no photos of him available publicly. Murat Cem isn’t his real name either — it was his alias as a police informant. His true identity is only known to a select circle of officials and DER SPIEGEL. In the case files from his most important operation, he is referred to only as “VP01.” VP is a German acronym for “Vertrauensperson,” or “trusted individual,” as secret informants are known in police parlance.
For many years, Cem worked undercover in the fight against dangerous criminals and terrorists. His work led to the arrest of drug dealers, arms dealers and murderers. In the fall of 2015, the police dispatched him to spy on the Islamist cell that was centered around the preacher Abu Walaa, once considered the Islamic State’s “No. 1” man in Germany. They also set Cem loose on Osama bin Laden’s alleged ex-bodyguard, Sami A., who lived in Germany for a long time and was deported in 2018.
Cem also spied on the attackers who carried out the bombing of a Sikh temple in the German city of Essen in spring 2016. And he provided information that resulted in charges being filed against several accused terrorists. Once he even prevented an attack by a young Islamist on a shopping center in Essen.
Most importantly, Cem is the spy who brought Anis Amri to the attention of investigators, who gathered intelligence on him and warned the authorities about him repeatedly. For the parliamentary committees in Berlin and Düsseldorf investigating the 2016 Christmas market attack, the issue of the informant “VP01” is very politically charged. Members of parliament desperately want to question him. Reporters have tried to track him down. His enemies would like to see him dead. So far, though, Cem has managed to protect his true identity and live undetected. The interior minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia prevented him from being called before the committees or in court. Such an appearance would be too dangerous for the informant, he said. For years, Cem has lived under a new identity at an undisclosed location.
In March 2019, Cem approached DER SPIEGEL. He wanted to tell his side of the story and talk about Anis Amri and the case that he says ultimately broke him. After the attack in Berlin, the police stopped working with Cem. Once the authorities’ top informant, Cem is now living on welfare.
The Dubious Work of Informants
A team of reporters from DER SPIEGEL met with Cem multiple times in recent months. They spent hundreds of hours talking to him, traveled with him to places where he worked and evaluated tens of thousands of pages of files on cases in which he was involved. They also spoke with police investigators, Cem’s acquaintances and his relatives. Officials who have known Cem for a long time say Germany has “never before” had a spy quite like him. He was the best. He was a natural, and he was likely the most important police informant in the country. This spring, a book about Cem’s life and the cases he worked on will be published by DER SPIEGEL.
His story provides unique insights into the work of Germany’s security apparatus. Never before have journalists in this country had such intimate access to such an important police informant. Cem’s life led him right into the heart of the sensitive and often dangerous cooperation between investigators and their spies.
The work informants do is dodgy by nature. They are spies in criminal or extremist circles who have been secretly recruited by the state. They’re often criminals themselves who change sides from bad to good. The police pay them in cash, they leave few traces in case files and, if necessary, they’re cut loose very quickly.
Ever since the string of racist murders committed by the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in Germany between 2000 and 2007, there have been legal regulations in place guiding the use of informants by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is charged with monitoring extremism in the country. Many police informants, however, still operate in legal gray areas.
Cem’s case demonstrates just how much the police stretch the limits of those guidelines when it serves them. It shows that there are systemic weaknesses that are consciously accepted and at times exploited. The ends often justify the means.
An informant’s work is schizophrenic by nature. They have to credibly act the part so as not to alert criminals to their actual mission. Sometimes this means committing crimes. They have been known to overshoot their mark and have instigated the very crimes they then report to the police.
“The use of informants in criminal proceedings still has no legal basis of its own,” says the Cologne-based legal expert and lawyer Nikolaos Gazeas. “It’s unconstitutional.”
North Rhine-Westphalia’s Interior Minister Herbert Reul told DER SPIEGEL that improvements might be necessary. He said he was open to a “possible optimization of the system.” But, Reul added, “The police’s ability to act must not be impeded. This is important.”
The Valley of the Long Knives
Germany has had its share of debacles with confidential informants. A petition to ban the far-right extremist National Democratic Party (NPD) of Germany failed because the organization was riddled with so many police informants that it was no longer possible to tell which unconstitutional behavior had been carried out by members of the NPD and which had been carried out by the informants. There was also the fact that despite having so many eyes and ears in the milieu to which the NSU belonged, the police were unable to prevent even one of the 10 murders ascribed to the group.
The police in North Rhine-Westphalia did not respond to inquiries from DER SPIEGEL about Cem. Instead, they cited a policy of “official secrecy” when dealing with informant operations. In general, they said, spies are a “legitimate means of criminal prosecution” and are subject to judicial oversight.
Cem, for his part, was never terribly interested in such legal intricacies. He lived for the “action,” as he puts it today — the feeling of adventure and the elation he felt when a police SWAT team burst into a room and forced everyone to the ground. For Cem, working with the police was both his profession and his purpose in life. “If anyone had asked me: Do you love your family or the police? I would have said: ‘I love the police.'”
Investigators made Cem their man in the late 1990s, when he was about to go to prison. They were his salvation. He became their tool. It was a good deal, he thought.
A son of Turkish parents who had immigrated to Germany as guest workers, Cem grew up in a depressed urban area in North Rhine-Westphalia. It was known to locals as the “Valley of the Long Knives.” There, 10 members of Cem’s family and he shared a four-room apartment in a high-rise building. His father died when he was young.
At school, Cem was teased for his girlish penmanship. He was regarded as smart and hard-working. He graduated from high school and received vocational training to become an electrician. But he remained a product of his depressed urban surroundings. He drove without a license. He took drugs. He committed assault and battery in conjunction with insults and threats. Cem’s rap sheet grew quickly. Meanwhile, he has been convicted 12 times. He was given his last suspended sentence only recently — for theft. “Either I hunt down criminals,” says Cem, “or I commit crimes.” There’s no in-between.
At the age of 19, Cem and his best friend got deeply involved in the drug trade. For more than two years, they smuggled hashish from the Netherlands to Germany. It must have been dozens of kilos. When they were finally caught, Cem says he only saw two possibilities: He could either come clean and tell the police everything and betray his best friend, or he could go away to prison for a very long time. Cem betrayed his best friend.
He quickly developed a taste for working with the police. At first, he gave the cops occasional tips, then he started regularly providing them with information. Finally, Cem became an official informant for the Krefeld police. He was good, and word quickly got around. Soon, police departments throughout North Rhine-Westphalia began requesting his services.
The job was perfect for Cem. He continued to move in criminal circles, where he was already familiar with the language, customs and rules. He snooped in brothels, homeless shelters and mosques. The thrill he grew to love as a drug dealer stayed with him. But now, he was one of the good guys. Since he was working for the state, he was no longer in danger of going to prison. Instead, the police praised the work he did. He could feel how dependent they were on him. He was no longer a nobody. He was a somebody — and he got paid for it. It was less than he would have earned as a drug dealer, around 100 euros ($114) for a day’s work, but there were bonuses for big successes. And everything was paid in cash. But for Cem, the most important part was that it was honest work. On the side, he still received welfare. The job center was none the wiser about the work he did on the side for the police.
One of his first assignments landed Cem at the center of one of the most spectacular murders of 2002. A 15-year-old girl named Rebecca had been murdered in Cologne. Two months after her death, some kids found her decomposed body on the grounds of a former glass factory. The police had a suspect, Guido S., a young man who knew the victim. But they didn’t have any hard evidence against him.
Exposing Rebecca’s Killer
Cem’s mission was to befriend S. and elicit a confession. He was given an apartment, a bicycle and plenty of time. For weeks, Cem loitered around the area.
Cem made his first move in front of a kiosk, when he appeared to run into S. by chance. He bought hashish from a friend of S.’s — and stayed close by. Soon Cem and the suspect were best friends. But as far as the murder was concerned, S. didn’t say a word.
Cem had an idea. He invited his new buddy to Pascha, a large brothel in Cologne. Sex on the taxpayer’s dime. On the way home, Guido S. confessed to having murdered Rebecca.
Cem thought he had accomplished his task, but investigators weren’t satisfied. They wanted S. to confess on tape, so that his confession could be used in court. But how were they going to pull something like this off? With a little act of theater.
The police bugged the apartment they had given Cem for the operation. Then they made a show of arresting him out in public for appearances’ sake. Out of ostensible desperation, Cem gave Guido S. the key to his apartment and told him to wait for him there. Soon the undercover informant returned home from the police station. In S.’s eyes, Cem must have seemed even more trustworthy. They played games on the PlayStation and Cem again asked what had happened with Rebecca. Then S. confessed to the murder a second time. He wanted to have sex with her, he said, but she had refused. So, he tied her up and raped her. And “then I took the knife and — zap,” S. told Cem. All this could be heard later in the recording.
As the men left the apartment, a squad of policemen rushed up to them. The officers threw Guido S. to the ground and handcuffed him. Cem ran toward S. and kicked him. “You pig! You son of a bitch!” he says he yelled. One of the officers pulled him away.
He still remembers the case today. It stands out from the roughly 60 missions he has completed for the police because it was one of the first in his career. And because it involved a teenager. Cem now has a daughter of his own who is around the same age as Rebecca at the time of her murder.
The Life of a Criminal
For nearly 20 years, Cem’s professional life looked something like this: The police would show him photos of his target and provide him with locations where he could meet them. More often than not, Cem was able to quickly establish trust and get close to them. Cem likes people. And people like Cem.
Of course, sometimes he would fail, and sometimes he would put himself in mortal danger. Once drug dealers found some papers with Cem’s real name on them and grimly escorted him away. He thought they were going to kill him, but they only brought him to his car.
Another time he spent weeks going to brothels with a pimp from Cologne who had been shot at. Cem’s job was to find out more about the crime. What followed were excesses with prostitutes, alcohol and cocaine. Cem paid for everything on principle. When he ran out of money, he called his police handlers and got more. Today, Cem says he didn’t tell the cops at the time that he was spending their money on drugs. But they didn’t ask him either, he adds. They likely suspected that their informant wouldn’t be taking a pimp on a wholesome excursion to the zoo.
At one point, the officer in charge complained that she was tired of paying for Cem to “fuck his way around.” The mission continued despite her protestations before being aborted months later without any results.
Cem led the life of a criminal. That’s how the state wanted it, too, because Cem was good at what he did.
With his help, the police were able to apprehend dozens of serious criminals. Once, he even tracked down pieces of art that had been stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad during the Iraq war.
Legal Guidelines for Informants
Germany’s federal and state governments have long known that the use of secret police informants is legally problematic. A commission of experts at the German Justice Ministry recommended “the creation of a legal basis for authorizing the use of informants” as early as 2015. They wrote that informants encroached on citizens’ fundamental rights. And to base such violations on the police’s so-called “general investigative clause” alone, they concluded, was insufficient.
With this, the legal experts effectively ruled that the issue was a matter for lawmakers. So far, though, legislators haven’t taken up the call. “It is beneath a constitutional democracy to not standardize important investigative instruments by law,” says Gazeas, the legal expert from Cologne. In his opinion, it must be regulated that informants not be allowed to commit crimes themselves and that anyone who has committed a crime may not be an informant. “Investigators are wary of such a law, because then they wouldn’t be allowed to use many sources,” Gazeas says.
Irene Mihalic, the Green Party spokeswoman for domestic policy in the German parliament, the Bundestag, herself works as a police officer in North Rhine-Westphalia. She shares the view that there can’t be a “gray area for the use of informants that has been created deliberately.”
One judge in Berlin, Anna Luise Decker, goes even further. In her doctoral thesis, she concluded that the decades-old practice was unconstitutional. “Informants are highly effective, highly dangerous sources of evidence,” Decker wrote. They can infringe on suspects’ privacy without any regulation or effective oversight and aren’t required to show any qualification for the tasks at hand. At the same time, their statements are hardly verifiable by police or the courts, Decker added.
In contrast to undercover cops, informants aren’t public servants and aren’t employed by the state. To that end, most informants “aren’t choir boys,” says Interior Minister Reul. “If you want to fly with the hawks, you can’t be a dove.” Or as Cem puts it: “Who would ever be an informant besides criminals and crazies?”
But Cem was different. There was something special about him that wasn’t common among those in his line of work. He was dependable. One German court even ruled that his years of “intensive and comprehensive gathering of evidence” in the case of Abu Walaa, IS’ “No. 1” man in Germany, had “not shown any indication that any of the evidence provided by VP01 could be incorrect.” In addition, Cem’s police handlers described him as someone who always told the truth and who complied with prior arrangements. They had “no doubt” about Cem’s “personal integrity.”
Protecting Their Source
Cem was a jewel, a stroke of luck for the police because he possessed divergent qualities: He was criminal enough to handle himself well in the scene, yet a decent enough human being to work with the authorities. His police handlers knew this about him and protected him wherever they could — at all costs.
In the files of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the German city of Bochum, there’s a ruling by a regional court in 2011. The case involved a gang of Kurdish heroin dealers that Cem had exposed after months of undercover work. In order to highlight the informant’s credibility, the verdict included a description of him. It was based on testimony from his police handlers.
The verdict stated that the informant had “minor prior convictions, though he had never been in jail.” The fact that Murat had already been convicted eight times by that point — once for smuggling and selling drugs on a large scale — was something the officers chose not to inform the court about. They also played down the amount of work he had done for the police.
Cem had worked for the police “roughly since mid-1999,” the verdict said, “and had been given up to one assignment per year.” This was far from the truth. At the time, the police had already begun relying on Cem way more than once a year.
It’s possible that the officers didn’t want to give the drug dealers’ lawyers any negative fodder with which to attack their informant. Because even if Cem had done good work, the mere appearance that an informant was untrustworthy could endanger the outcome of a trial.
Cem the Salafist
It wasn’t until 2008 that Cem first came into contact with Islamists, entering the milieu in which his most famous case would play out years later. An acquaintance of his was interested in Islam, Cem says. The man attended lectures by the radical Salafist preachers Pierre Vogel and Sven Lau, who are popular among young people. He asked Cem to accompany him.
Cem wasn’t particularly interested, with his passions lying more with committing crimes, things like selling drugs and weapons, for example. His handlers, though, were extremely interested: Good informants in the scene were extremely uncommon.
So over the period of several months, Cem attended Friday prayers in Mönchengladbach, where Lau played a leading role in a group that went by the name “Invitation to Paradise.” Because he didn’t learn much of consequence, the mission came to a relatively rapid end.
But five years later, Cem’s handlers sent their best informant back into the Islamist scene. In 2013, police in Bochum began Operation Neptune, which had as its primary target Sami A., a Salafist cleric whom the authorities considered to be potentially dangerous. Because of his alleged membership in Osama bin Laden’s garde as the terror mastermind’s “bodyguard,” he had gained a certain degree of notoriety. In Germany, Sami A. was thought to maintain contact with the “Düsseldorf Cell,” a group thought to be close to al-Qaida and which had planned a bomb attack.
Cem was tasked with getting as close to Sami A. as possible, to scout his network and to figure out what exactly his intentions were.
At the time, a significant number of Islamists from Germany had set off for Syria to fight in the civil war there. Security officials were concerned but didn’t know much about the scene. Cem was supposed to change that. But how?
To provide entry into the scene, Cem says his handlers recommended he approach a stand in Bochum that was part of the “Lies!” — or “Read!” — campaign. Islamists used such stands at the time to distribute free copies of the Koran to passersby and to engage them in conversation. But Cem was unable to find the stand.
Ultimately, he headed for a conservative mosque, where he claimed that he wanted to learn more about his own faith. He was immediately welcomed and Cem established friendships and went to Islam seminars. One day, he was invited to a special prayer session. The cleric leading the prayers was Sami A., his target.
These days, there is nothing to indicate that the building in the Langendreer district of Bochum was once one of Germany’s most important meeting sites for Salafists. Out front are two benches and the windows are covered with lace curtains. The windowsills are covered with figurines of porcelain and plastic. In 2018, Sami A. was deported to Tunisia following questionable legal proceedings. His mosque was turned into an apartment.
On a recent morning with the streets calm and the birds chirping, Cem sat down on one of the benches. “Sheikh Sami was radical, but also a nice person,” he says. “The Koran he taught me wasn’t wrong.” Cem still uses the respectful title “sheikh” when speaking of Sami A., even though he spied on the cleric. Cem says the two of them became something like friends.
For his stay in Bochum, Cem exchanged his normal street clothes for the jalabiya, Arab-style robes. He grew a beard and traveled with his new friends from one Salafist gathering to the next. He was older than most of them, which is why they called him “Abi,” which is Turkish for “big brother.”
In front of Sami A., Cem acted the loyal and eager student. They would go to karate training together and to the sauna. And when Sami A. once wanted to leave Bochum, which he wasn’t allowed to do as a rejected asylum-seeker, Cem drove him in his car.
He reported all this to the police, and much more besides. He told them about the exorcist who had come to visit Sami A.’s mosque. He described how Sami would preach to his congregation about virgins and unlimited virility in paradise. One time, says Cem, one of the faithful asked what would happen if he wanted a Ferrari in paradise. “You can have a Ferrari made of gold,” Sami A. responded, according to Cem.
Yet despite the information provided by Cem, the authorities were merely able to learn that Sami A. was an important figure in the Islamist scene. It wasn’t enough to launch criminal proceedings.
Still, Cem had advanced deep into Germany’s Salafist scene and got to know some of the milieu’s most important figures. He met Hasan C. from Duisburg, who showed young men propaganda videos from IS inside his travel agency. And he met Boban S., whose Koran study school in Dortmund became a hotspot for Islamists.
And Cem met Ahmad A., alias Abu Walaa, Islamic State’s man in Germany from the city of Hildesheim. He was known as the “preacher without a face,” because he was meticulous in ensuring that there were no pictures showing him from the front.
Under Abu Walaa, the German-Speaking Islam Circle (DIK) became one of the most radical mosques in the country. Fanatics from all over Germany gathered in the winding rooms on the ground floor of the red-brick corner building that housed it.
Cem became a permanent fixture. “I thought I lived there,” he says today. He would spend the night at the mosque, often without a blanket or pillow, and exercise in the fitness room.
Cem’s work enabled Germany’s federal prosecutor general to ultimately initiate proceedings against Germany’s most prominent Salafist hate preacher. The trial against Abu Walaa and his supporters is still ongoing at a regional high court in the city of Celle in the state of Lower Saxony.
Cem also uncovered how young men and women linked to the preacher were disappearing in droves to Syria and Iraq. He provided the police with names and dates, allowing them to prevent some of those journeys from happening.
During that time, the police’s No. 1 informant lived exclusively for the security and safety of Germany. It was his life 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without any vacation. Cem drove all around the Ruhr region with the Toyota Corolla that criminal investigators in Düsseldorf had rented for him. He visited cities like Bochum, Dortmund, Duisburg and Hildesheim. There were always some Salafists meeting up somewhere.
Cem says he was obsessed with his mission. The more Islamists he met, the more it pleased his handlers. Hunting for radicals was like an addiction, but it sapped Cem’s strength. He was constantly tired and slept little. He would leave the house without telling his wife when he was coming back. She had long since given up asking questions. He wouldn’t have given her a proper answer anyway, she says today.
The strain was enormous, but Cem couldn’t stop. He longed for validation from his handlers and the adrenaline kick his job gave him. The money didn’t hurt either. The police also took advantage of Cem’s eagerness to help. They flattered Cem because they needed him. There was no one else who could be deployed as flexibly. Besides, he never even considered refusing an assignment.
“You Become Like Them”
It took a long time for Cem to notice how much effort he was putting into this double game. “You have to pretend all the time,” he would later say. “It’s a constant mindfuck.” But he never received any professional care during the time he was active as an informant because he was a hired hand, not a police officer.
There were other perils that came from spending so much time in the Islamist milieu. When Cem was at home, he would notice how the Islamists’ radical thoughts had also infiltrated his own thinking. At one point, he ordered his wife to stop listening to any music and to dress properly. She told him he was losing it. “You go crazy on a mission like that,” Cem says today. “You have to look like them, talk like them and learn what they learn. At some point you become like them.”
He wasn’t just immersed in the scene. He had long since become a part of it, surrounded by people not only talking about Allah all the time, but also of their desire to kill. The police pressed Cem to get even closer to the men. “It was my job to get these people out of commission,” he says of his assignment. “I had to get rid of them. So, I had to get them to trust me more, to tell me even more.”
The Geismühle rest stop is located on highway A57 between Düsseldorf and Krefeld. Cem sits down at one of the wooden tables under the trees. It’s where he once waited for his handlers so that he could report back to them. Being there also forced him to rest, if only for a few minutes.
“At times, I thought to myself: What’s the point?” Cem says. He sometimes pondered what it might be like if he were to just go over to the other side and become one of the Islamists. The stress would have been gone, he says. He wouldn’t have had to tell lies anymore or worry about falling asleep at the wheel from exhaustion. He would have been free, perhaps even himself.
His handlers usually managed to pull him out of those troubling thoughts. Cem would report to them in as much detail as he could muster. He tried not to leave anything out, even stuff that seemed unimportant to him. The conversations had a cleansing effect. He says they always made clear to him what side he was on. His handlers were like older brothers to him, the kinds of true friends Cem hadn’t had for a long time.
A Tip-Off and Arrests
On Nov. 13, 2015, the informant spoke with an Islamist from Abu Walaa’s group in Hildesheim about possible attacks. The man told him that a plan had already been in the works for a long time. He spoke of attacks against police stations using hand grenades and of making fake emergency calls to lure the officers into an ambush so they could shoot them. He told Cem they already had silencers for their weapons and that it was now time to “do something with guns.” Things could begin “in one or two weeks,” the man said. Police records show that Cem and the Islamist from Hildesheim parted ways at 8 p.m.
A good hour later in Paris, an IS terrorist detonated a bomb in front of the Stade de France stadium, where the German and French national football teams were playing. A short while later, the man’s accomplices went on a murder spree, massacring 130 people.
Cem reported the conversation he had had that evening in Hildesheim to his handlers the next day. The protocol of his testimony was quickly passed on to the highest levels of the German government. It was included in a classified situation report provided to then-Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, who received the information three days later, on Nov. 17. The politician had a difficult decision to make that night.
The German national football team had a friendly match scheduled that night in Hannover. The French intelligence services had warned the German authorities of a possible terrorist attack at the game. This came on top of reports from informant Cem that sounded like real threats.
The interior minister ultimately flew to Hannover and cancelled the international match, though he kept the exact reasoning to himself. “Some of these answers would unsettle the public,” de Maizière said at the time. It was a puzzling statement that did more to spur fears than to assuage them.
What de Maizière likely meant was that there was an Islamist cell in the middle of Germany that the police thought could carry out an attack like the one in Paris. “They immediately arrested the suspects at the time,” Cem says. “But they couldn’t prove anything against them. Nothing at all.”
Amri “Wants to Do Something Here”
On the evening of the cancelled football match, Cem met Amri, the Islamist, for the first time. The informant drove him by car from Duisburg’s central train station to Boban S.’s mosque in Dortmund. Bilal Ö. of Dinslaken was also there.
But Cem had little opportunity to talk to Amri, as he told his handlers. The Tunisian pretty much only converse in Arabic, which Cem couldn’t speak. He needed Bilal Ö. as a translator. Amri “wants to do something here,” Ö. said. Cem looked at Amri and the Tunisian nodded in agreement. Cem informed his handler of the meeting, who wrote a report about it.
A week later, the three were sitting in Cem’s Toyota again. This time they used a translation app on one of their phones to communicate. Cem wanted to get the two to talk, so he mumbled that he, too, absolutely “wanted to do something in Germany.” That’s how he remembers the drive.
To establish his credibility among the extremists, Cem had to show that he would be “prepared to attack at any time.” That’s what the police had assigned him to do. But in order to keep him from crossing the thin line of instigating a criminal offense, the officers suggested using the following language: That he was fundamentally prepared to do something in Germany in the service of Allah. Cem complained that it was too complicated and felt contrived. So he improvised, and Amri took the bait.
The Tunisian spoke candidly of how he could get a “Russian made” Kalashnikov “for 1,500 euros in Naples.” He said that if Murat had the money, they could go to Italy straightaway. “Let me think about it, but why not?” Cem answered. But he also wanted to buy time so that he could discuss the delicate mission with his handlers.
He reported to the officials: “Anis gives me the impression that he’s very radical, that he’s determined to fight for his faith.” That was on Nov. 24, 2015, not even two weeks after the attacks in Paris and a full year before Amri went on to kill in Berlin.
A week later, they were sitting in the spy’s car again. Amri held a blue passport up to Cem — that’s how the informant remembers it today, and it’s also in the testimony he provided at the time. He says Amri told him that he would use the ID to travel to France to get the Kalashnikovs. That he wanted to carry out attacks in Germany in the name of Allah. Amri said they could travel to Paris together and that he knew brothers there who could procure weapons for them.
Suddenly, Cem grew very alert. Was this finally the chance to bust the Tunisian, a potential terrorist? Could he also use a method that he had used frequently as an informant — the fake purchase of illegal goods? Once again, Cem needed to buy time — preparations would need to be made.
The Bigger Catch
He spoke to his handlers about it, but the police didn’t go along with his request, saying it was all too risky and that other laws would apply given that it would take place in another country. They also reminded Cem that the man they were really interested in was Abu Walaa, the suspected IS man, and not Anis Amri.
“I told them: Come on, let’s do it — let me go and buy the weapons with Amri,” he says. “But they didn’t want that.” Investigators in North Rhine-Westphalia at the State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) did at least put in a request for Anis Amri’s telephone communications to be surveilled from that point on.
At the same time, a change could be detected in the relationship between the informant and the radical Tunisian. Via a messenger program, Amri suddenly asked his new acquaintance if he was a police informant. Had Cem’s cover been blown? Panic and fear broke out and the police considered pulling him out of the scene. But Cem managed to quickly dispel the suspicion against him.
The police were uncertain how to deal with Amri. If they actively pursued him, they feared they might blow their informant’s cover. And the security authorities absolutely needed Cem for what they hoped would be major legal proceedings against Abu Walaa and his followers.
The LKA and Germany’s federal prosecutor general decided on a compromise. In order to protect their valuable informant, they asked the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution to write up a special document used in cases where people are under observation. It was intended to disguise any trace of VP01, while at the same time underlining how dangerous they felt Amri to be.
The paper stated that the Federal Office had “unconfirmed indications” of the following scenario: Anis Amri was “actively trying to win over persons as participants in Islamist-motivated attacks in Germany. He intends to arm himself with AK-47 automatic rifles, which he can obtain from contacts in the French Islamist scene.”
Meanwhile, Anis Amri was now spending a lot of time in Berlin. But the public prosecutor’s office there refused to investigate him, claiming that the document from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution was too thin for prosecutors.
At the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), officials were also skeptical. They assessed that the scenario with the Kalashnikov purchases “could probably be ruled out.” This would ultimately prove to be a correct assessment, given that it wasn’t a machine gun that Amri used to kill in 2016, but a pistol and a semi-truck, a threat that the BKA hadn’t foreseen. It was only after the Berlin attack that the agency reformed its analysis methods in order to better assess Islamists’ threat potential.
It appeared that officials at the BKA fundamentally distrusted the warnings from their state-level colleagues in Düsseldorf. Amri’s “attack plans, as described by the informant,” could not be corroborated “in any other way so far,” according to a memorandum classified as “secret” dating back to Feb. 4, 2016. It also noted the language barrier between the informant and the Islamist, which meant their communication “might not be entirely free of interpretation by the informant.”
But the assessments of the LKA in North Rhine-Westphalia and the federal prosecutor general were altogether different — both had complete faith in their informant VP01. In one document, officials in Düsseldorf stated that “even after intensive examination, no plausible reasons could be identified that could lead the source to tell untruths.”
There were also strategic considerations behind those statements. Cem’s testimonies would be invaluable in preliminary proceedings against Abu Walaa and his hate-preaching followers. If the BKA officially declared the LKA’s informant a storyteller, it would have been a disaster for their case.
In order to eliminate any doubts about Cem’s credibility, the BKA suggested the informant be wired to record all conversations. Cem agreed, but his handlers in North Rhine-Westphalia refused, saying it was too dangerous, that Cem’s life was on the line.
The dispute escalated over how dangerous Amri really was and how credible the informant who had met him was. A crisis meeting was held in Karlsruhe on Feb. 23, 2016. Representatives of the federal prosecutor general were present, along with officials from the LKA in North Rhine-Westphalia, the BKA and an investigator from the state of Lower Saxony. Several participants described the discussion as “heated” and “loud.”
In the end, federal prosecutors and the LKA prevailed. One memo referred to “the absolute trustworthiness of VP01.” Now, Cem’s statements had been officially assessed as plausible.
The Calm Before the Storm
There was also growing evidence that Amri was ready to attack. The Tunisian had visited jihadi sites and visited internet pages with instructions on how to build pipe bombs.
It was clear to investigators in Düsseldorf that Amri had a plan. They wrote to federal prosecutors and suggested the initiation of legal proceedings against Amri for preparing a serious act of violence that endangered the state.
The federal prosecutor general in Karlsruhe handed the case over to the Berlin public prosecutor’s office, which initiated proceedings for involvement in a planned homicide. But the investigation by police in Berlin didn’t go anywhere, and soon they stopped surveilling Amri. In a disastrous miscalculation, officials viewed him as an average drug dealer rather than a potential terrorist. The warnings that had been provided by Cem faded into obscurity.
Cem and Amri had grown closer over the months. They stayed overnight in the Dortmund mosque, back to back, head to head, in a small room. Cem also drove with Amri to Abu Walaa’s mosque in Hildesheim. In February 2016, he noticed how taciturn the Tunisian had become. Amri seemed introverted. He listened to nasheeds, or Islamic chants, and watched preachers on YouTube.
Was this the quiet before the storm? Was Amri preparing his attack? “He is only thinking about Allah and himself. It seems as if he wants to make sure he gets to heaven,” Cem warned his handlers. He also reported that Amri intended to travel to Berlin in the coming days.
Officials in Düsseldorf alerted their colleagues in Berlin. They requested that Amri be monitored, but warned that he should not be stopped and checked. The concern being that Amri might get suspicious and think that Cem, his supposed friend, had snitched on him about the trip.
Amri had barely stepped off of the bus he had taken to Berlin on Feb. 18, 2016, when Berlin officials addressed him by name and conducted a check. For Amri, there could be no doubt about it: The police had been waiting for him. They gave him a warning, and he immediately alerted his fellow believers back in Dortmund. At this point, things could have become dangerous for Cem.
His handlers met their informant inside a McDonald’s restaurant located near the LKA in Düsseldorf. He was unable to recall later the exact terms the officials used in describing how they felt about their colleagues in Berlin, but he says he’s pretty sure words like “idiots” and “shit” were used.
“I Can Talk My Way Out of Anything”
A police officer told Cem he was now in great danger. The informant had, after all, called Amri to ask when he would be in Berlin just before the police stopped and checked him. The Tunisian was likely convinced now that Cem was working with the authorities. The informant tried not to think about it. Besides, he says, he was convinced: “I can talk my way out of anything.”
But Anis Amri had other things on his mind. The Berlin police had taken Amri’s mobile phone from him. He asked Cem to get him a new one. The informant was happy to help — and provided the police with information about the new phone so they could continue tapping Amri’s calls. And far from showing any signs of distrust, the friendship between the two men grew.
On the night of Feb. 23, 2016, Cem even drove his “brother” to Berlin. They left late at night, after evening prayers at the Dortmund mosque. Cem drove and Amri, who had a black backpack with him, sat in the passenger seat.
After taking a coffee break at a rest stop, Amri grumbled about Salafist preacher Ibrahim Abou-Nagie and his “Read!” project. Amri told him you can’t convert infidels — you should never even speak to them. He said they killed Muslims every day, so he had to kill them.
Amri pulled a black cloth over his head, leaving only the area around his eyes free. It made him look like an IS fighter. Cem cringed, but he remained silent. They arrived at their destination early the next morning, the Fussilet mosque in Berlin’s Moabit district. The prayer room on Perleberger Strasse was a notorious meeting place for Islamist extremists in the capital.
The door wasn’t locked and the two disappeared inside the building, where they tried to get some sleep. Later, Cem went outside to smoke a cigarette. When he returned, Amri had put on the traditional robe of an imam. He was now leading the prayers.
What a bizarre scene, too: At 6 a.m. that morning, the man who would commit the worst Islamist attack in German history that same year and the undercover agent who wanted to prevent any Islamist attack, were performing morning prayers together. Then they had breakfast.
The End of VPO1’s Mission
By this point, it was already spring of 2016. The North Rhine-Westphalia LKA had failed in its effort to get the Anis Amri problem under control. Nothing had worked — neither the attempt to deport the Tunisian nor efforts to take him into custody for fraud against the social welfare system.
When Amri began spending more time in Berlin, Cem suggested the idea of moving to the capital city to his handlers, saying he wanted to stay close to Amri. Cem considered the Tunisian to be highly dangerous, but above all determined. The informant also says that Amri asked him to move. But the police were against it and reminded the agent once again that he had a more important assignment — that of spying on Abu Walaa and the people surrounding him. The officials said that Amri was now Berlin’s problem.
Ultimately, it was Cem himself who terminated his relationship with Amri. Amri contacted him on April 30, 2016, and asked if they could talk. “I have something very important for you,” Amri wrote via Telegram. “Something good?” Cem asked. He added a smiley to his message. “Why are you laughing? Piece of shit!” Amri wrote in response. The age-old accusation followed: That Cem was a police informant, a hypocrite. “Why do you say that?” the informant wrote back. “What happened? What the hell?” He added that Amri was a hypocrite himself. “You’re the asshole.”
Amri had apparently heard that Cem, in a moment of weakness, had gossiped with another Salafist about the Tunisian’s aggression and lack of a plan. “You’re a fucking hypocrite!” Amri raged. “If I see you, I’ll slaughter you, you understand? I curse your mother!” he wrote to Cem. “Son of a bitch, bastard, pig. You’re a pig. Come meet me in Dortmund. I’m in Dortmund. Come here if you’re a man!”
The two never saw each other again.
That was also the point at which the police lost contact with Amri. For Cem, his time among the Islamists had come to an end.
On Aug. 10, 2016, the police searched the mosque and apartment of preacher Abu Walaa. They had withdrawn informant VP01 from his mission in the scene the day before.
It very quickly became clear to Abu Walaa who had betrayed him. In a Telegram channel, he called for Cem’s murder. “I want to inform you today about a spy who sold out his religion for a few euros,” he wrote.
The police placed Cem and his family in a witness protection program, which to them felt more like being put in a cage. They were placed in a small town they didn’t know, where there wasn’t a whole lot to do. “You’re taking my life away,” Cem told the officials. He then slowly lost contact with the police. In September 2016, he called his former handler. The official was now working in preventative national security in Krefeld and he said he was working on the Amri case now. “Watch out for him,” Cem said, before repeating what had become his constant mantra. “He’s really dangerous.”
“We Could Have Stopped Him”
Cem still blames himself for what happened today. “We could have stopped him,” he says, “but we didn’t.” Perhaps he should have gone to Berlin with Amri on his own, against all orders?
Cem feels abandoned in the witness protection program today. “At first it was okay, the officials cared me and my family,” says Cem. But he says he didn’t get any help when he had problems or things weren’t going well for him. He says there were more and more arguments. Cem says his handlers in the witness protection program told him he “wasn’t a prince.” He says he risked his life for the police. “And this is the thanks I get?”
Cem says the reports from his former Islamist buddies and their lawyers, calling him an “agent provocateur,” a man who provoked crimes on behalf of the government, are also hurtful.
Little is left of the 50,000 euros he was to be given as a reward for his efforts to help get the Islamists. The officers with the witness protection program used the money to pay off Cem’s debts.
In 2018, he began having problems again. A shipping company and the owner of a parcel service accused him of stealing from them. At issue were thousands of liters of diesel fuel and an e-bike that had disappeared. Cem admitted the thefts in court and got off with a suspended sentence. As in earlier days, he was back in the “Valley of the Long Knives.” Cem, the petty criminal.
The prospect of German passports that had once apparently been dangled in front of Cem and his wife suddenly disappeared. The two now live in a provincial part of Germany as Turkish nationals whose residency here is tolerated by the German government. “At the moment, my life is pretty much a disaster,” he says.
Cem understands that he will probably never get to work as an informant for the police again. But it’s hard for him to get used to the idea. “At some point, I’d like to meet the man who decided to ruin my life,” Cem says.
But the man doesn’t exist. His time as a spy ended because VP01 became a political hot potato after Anis Amri’s attack, with parliamentary investigative committees wanting access to him and the media also trying to track him down. Cem was simply too hot of an issue — and no agency wanted to get burned.
On days when Cem is feeling good, he still holds out hope that he might yet be able to work as an informant again — somewhere, someday. Hunting down criminals was the best thing that had ever happened to him.