A court in Gelsenkirchen has ruled that deporting a self-declared Islamist — suspected of being a bodyguard of the former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — was "grossly unlawful" and ordered him returned to Germany.
The case has cast a spotlight on the dysfunctional nature of Germany's deportation system, as well as on Germany's politicized judicial system, which on human rights grounds is making it nearly impossible to expel illegal migrants, including those who pose security threats.
The 42-year-old failed asylum seeker from Tunisia — identified by German authorities as Sami A., but known in his native country as Sami Aidoudi — had been living in Germany since 1997. Aidoudi, a Salafist Islamist, is believed by German authorities to have spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan before the al-Qaeda attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. Since then, he was under surveillance by German intelligence for propagating Islamist teachings and attempting to radicalize young Muslims. He had "far reaching" relationships with Salafist and jihadist networks, according to an official report leaked to the German newsmagazine, Focus.
Aidoudi's asylum request was rejected in 2007 after allegations surfaced that he had undergone military training at an al-Qaeda jihadi camp in Afghanistan between 1999 and 2000. During his training, he had allegedly worked as a bodyguard for Osama bin-Laden. Aidoudi denied the charges and claimed to have been studying during that time in Karachi, Pakistan.
Despite rejecting Aidoudi's asylum application, German courts repeatedly blocked his deportation out of fears that he could be tortured or mistreated in his homeland.
In April 2017, for instance, a court in Münster ruled that Aidoudi faced "the considerable likelihood" of "torture and inhumane or degrading treatment" if he returned to Tunisia.
In April 2018, Aidoudi's continued presence in Germany sparked public outrage when it emerged that he had been living in Bochum for more than a decade with his German wife and their four children — at taxpayer expense — even though German intelligence agencies had classified him as a security threat.
In response to an inquiry from the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), the government in North Rhine-Westphalia confirmed that for years Aidoudi had been receiving €1,168 ($1,400) each month in welfare and child-support payments.
In May 2018, Germany's Constitutional Court ruled that another Tunisian jihadi — identified only as 37-year-old Heikel S., accused of involvement in the March 2015 jihadi attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis — could be deported to his homeland.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer seized on this ruling and called on immigration authorities to make Aidoudi's case a top priority. "My goal is to achieve deportation," he said.
On June 25, Aidoudi was detained after Seehofer ordered immigration authorities to expedite deportation proceedings.
A few weeks later, on July 13, before dawn, Aidoudi, escorted by four federal police officers and a doctor, was placed on a specially chartered Learjet and flown from Düsseldorf to Tunisia. Aidoudi's deportation cost German taxpayers nearly €80,000 ($95,000), according to Focus magazine.
Although the Gelsenkirchen Administrative Court had blocked Aidoudi's deportation the night before, the decision was not passed on to immigration authorities until the next morning — after the plane was already airborne.
When the court learned of Aidoudi's deportation, it demanded that he be returned to Germany. The court said that Aidoudi's deportation had infringed upon "fundamental principles of the rule of law." The judges, apparently sensing that they had been duped, complained that German immigration authorities had failed to reveal to them the time of Aidoudi's flight and implied that those authorities had "knowingly" defied the court's order.
The next day, on July 14, Tunisian authorities added fuel to the fire by saying that they had no plans to return Aidoudi to Germany. "We have a sovereign justice system that is investigating him," a spokesperson for Tunisia's public prosecutor's office, Sofiene Sliti, told the DPA German news agency.
On July 17, Aidoudi claimed that his deportation was "pure racism" and implied that he would file a lawsuit against the German government. In an interview with Bild, he said:
"I was kidnapped from Germany. At three o'clock in the morning they simply took me away. I told the police: 'This is not possible. A court has blocked my deportation.' But they said the order had come from the top and that I could not do anything about it. I was not even allowed to see my lawyer. They also prevented me from contacting my wife and children."
Seehofer blamed the deportation on a "communication failure" but his critics accused him of knowingly trying to out-maneuver the German courts.
Justice Minister Katarina Barley, a Social Democrat, said:
"What independent courts decide, must apply. When the authorities choose which judicial decisions they will follow and which they will not, that is the end of the rule of law."
In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Greens leader Robert Habeck said:
"Either it is absolutely embarrassing chaos, or it stinks to high heaven, because the authorities at the interior ministry wanted to make an example [of Sami A].
"First and foremost, we need to clarify whether Interior Minister Horst Seehofer personally tried to circumvent the court's decision.
"In any event, the damage that has now been done is much greater than waiting for the court decision. The authorities are weak and stupid, especially in times when trust in institutions is dwindling."
By contrast, critics of Germany's deportation system called for changes to the existing laws. The CDU/CSU parliamentary group member Axel Fischer said that under the current system, "The personal rights of Islamists are given more weight than the security interests of the German people." He added that current legislation "gives the impression that it is virtually impossible to deport Islamist perpetrators to countries such as Tunisia, regardless of how dangerous they are."
In an editorial published before Idoudi's expulsion, the newspaper Bild commented on Germany's dysfunctional deportation system:
"The deportation lunacy of ex-bin Laden bodyguard Sami A. is never-ending. German authorities still see no way to send the top Salafist back to his homeland — even though Tunisia's Minister for Human Rights, Mehdi Ben Gharbia, assured Bild that there is NO risk of torture in Tunisia.
"Since 2006, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia have been trying in vain to get rid of the former confidant of the mass murderer Osama bin Laden.
"Although the al-Qaeda man (living in Bochum since 1997) is classified by the constitutional protection as a 'dangerous preacher,' he continues to be tolerated in Germany, and collects 1,100 euros in monthly support.
"In the words of Alexander Dobrindt, a Member of the German Bundestag, 'Salafists such as Sami A. have no business in Germany and should be deported. Germany should not be a retirement retreat for jihadists.'"