Arid Uka was a typical product of Frankfurt, a city where a third of the population is not originally from Germany. An ethnic Albanian born in Kosovo and raised Muslim, he grew up in a middle-class family in Germany and lived with his parents and siblings. It was only recently that he turned to radical Islam, apparently connecting with extremists on Facebook and online jihadi forums.
On Wednesday, Mr. Uka became the first person to successfully carry out a terrorist attack in Germany since 9/11. He has been charged with killing two US airmen and wounding two others at the Frankfurt airport in an act that German prosecutors say Uka carried out on his own. In court Thursday, he confessed to the killings and said he shot the four men because he felt America was at war with Islam.
"We have a new ... perpetrator of terrorism, the lone wolf," says Bernd Georg Thamm, a security expert based in Berlin. "Terrorism experts have dreaded this for a while, and now it’s happened. And it won’t be the last case."
While Uka may have been acting alone, he appeared to be prepared for the attack when he approached a bus full of American airmen in front of the Frankfurt airport's terminal two. The Blue Bird bus carrying about a dozen members of the US Air Force pulled up just outside where Uka worked as a mail sorter at the airport postal service.
The airmen had just arrived from England, landing at Frankfurt airport, one of Europe's busiest and a major connecting point for America’s 75,000 soldiers in Europe. They were to be driven to Ramstein Air Base, which is often used as a logistical hub for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. From there, they were going to be deployed to Afghanistan.
Prosecutors say that before opening fire on the airmen, Uka yelled "Allah Akbar" ("God is greatest"), an Arabic phrase that is used to express all kinds of emotion but is often used as a jihadi battle cry. After the shooting, officials say, he dropped the gun, ran into the terminal, and was captured.
The Internet seemed to have provided Uka's path to radicalism. On his Facebook wall, he linked to jihadist songs, talked about "kuffar" (infidels), and railed against Americans and Jews.
Indeed, radical Islamists have found many converts through the Web and online message boards. Over the past decade, the number of extremist sites has skyrocketed, rising from about a dozen after 9/11 to thousands today, say experts. They are forums for recruitment and for dispersing Al Qaeda's violent ideology.
"Website activity has become a much more important platform for those groups," says Petter Nesser, a specialist on jihadism in Western Europe at the Defense Research Establishment in Norway. "But even if they use the Internet to recruit, at some point there will be some face-to-face interaction."
German prosecutors have said they believe that Uka had made ties with radical Islamic groups online even though there does not appear to be any evidence yet that any one group inspired or instructed him to carry out the attack.
The shooting, says Mr. Nesser, shows that Jihadist networks "are still able to address, affect, and recruit young Muslims in Europe despite – and sometimes partly because of – increasing counterterrorism measures and the ongoing war in Afghanistan."
Thamm says the Internet has transformed the jihadi movement. These aren't just "military organization anymore, today it’s a movement, and whoever shares the ideology on the Internet belongs to the Al Qaeda organization," he says.
For instance, he says, the British citizens of Pakistani origin accused of plotting the London subway attack in 2005 were apparently radicalized through the Internet.
Some experts doubt that Uka acted completely on his own. "Terrorism is never completely homegrown," argues Nesser. "Terror cells are almost always a group phenomenon."
Kosavar community shocked
Uka appeared to have done little to attract the attention of German authorities before this week's shooting. His family had settled in Frankfurt amid the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In his home village of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, his grandfather had been a religious leader. In Germany, his family settled in Sosssenheim, an unassuming middle-class and multiethnic neighborhood in Frankfurt.
News of the shooting shocked Uka’s family and many Kosovo Albanians. "To do that to Americans? They’ve helped us enough," says Turan Sailu, who heads a Kosovar cultural center in the industrial city of Duisburg.
Kosovo has been among the most pro-America countries in the world since the US-led NATO air war in 1998 helped squelch the Serbian crackdown on Kosovars. Today, Pristina’s main streets are named for presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton.
"This is not something you’d expect from an Albanian. There is really no political context for this," says Florian Bieber, an expert on the Balkans at the University of Gras. "The source of the radicalization must have been the German context."