German police said yesterday they had dismantled a nationwide network suspected of acting as a logistical base for Islamist terrorist groups in the country.
In a series of dawn raids, police and prosecutors searched apartments, offices and prayer halls across five German states, detaining 22 people, of whom 11 were formally placed under arrest.
Prosecutors said the mainly north-African suspects, who had been under observation for more than a year, had ties to the Ansar-Al-Islam and Al Tawid terror groups. Although the group is not believed to have been planning terrorist attacks, police said it was forging travel documents and raising funds through fraud. Members are also suspected of smuggling jihadist fighters in and out of Germany, and of recruiting sympathisers in Germany's Muslim community. Some of them, the police said, had visited terrorist training camps in Pakistan.
GŁnther Beckstein, the Bavarian interior minister, described the operation, which involved the co-operation of regional security forces throughout Germany, as "an important success" in the fight against terrorism.
Security experts have long warned that underground groups were providing a logistical infrastructure for jihadist terrorists.
"These people create an organisational belt around the terrorists proper," said Kai Hirschmann, deputy director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Essen. "They support, fund, help and move fighters around, while contributing to the spread of the ideology."
German intelligence services estimate there are 300-400 jihadists in Germany with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and up to 4,000 supporters.
Also detained were Egyptian, Libyan, Palestinian, Moroccan, Bulgarian and German nationals, including five women.
Raids on mosques broke terror network, claim German police
By Tony Paterson in Berlin
13 January 2005
Mosques across Germany were raided yesterday as police arrested 22 Islamic radicals suspected of aiding terrorism through money laundering and issuing fake documents.
State prosecutors in Munich said that the long-planned sweep had disrupted a major supply network that would have provided logistical support to terrorist groups. Those arrested included men and women from the Middle East, North Africa, Bulgaria and Germany, all of whom were suspected of being linked to Islamic extremist organisations including al-Qa'ida.
They said that, in an operation involving more than 800 officers, police had raided 50 addresses across Germany and confiscated faked passports, computer data and militant Islamic propaganda that called for recruits to join a holy war or jihad against the West. The bulk of arrests were made in the cities of Ulm and Neu Ulm in southern Germany.
"The network raised funds to pursue their ideological goals and equipped people with false documents to facilitate illegal residency in Germany," a state prosecutor's statement said. "Those detained are also accused of spreading racial hatred and recruiting people for a jihad," it added.
The chief state prosecutor, August Stern, said several of those arrested were linked to the militant extremist organisations Asnar-el-Islam and El Tauhid and that one of those detained had been trained at an al-Qa'ida camp in Pakistan. "We suspect those arrested to be members of a criminal organisation with international contacts," he said.
But police said they had found no evidence indicating that the group planned to carry out a terrorist attack. Mr Stern said the objective of the raids had been to destroy the logistical base of the network.
Police said that the raids focused on mosques that the group had used as a cover for its operations and on a series of call centres, where it was possible to telephone abroad at cheap rates. They said another chief target was an Islamic information centre in the southern city of Ulm which had been under police surveillance for more than three years.
Yesterday's raids followed a police operation in December which is alleged to have thwarted an attempt to assassinate Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, during a brief visit to Berlin.
Germany stepped up its attempts to clamp down on Islamic extremism after the 11 September hijackers were found to have organised their attacks on New York and Washington while living undetected for years in Hamburg where they were regarded as mere students. The Germans' failure to identify the al-Qa'ida cell invoked criticism from America.
Last year, Otto Shily, the Interior Minister, announced that the fight against Islamic terrorism was at the top of the government's security agenda. Germany subsequently extradited the Islamic militant, Metin Kaplan to Turkey after he was found guilty of disseminating fundamentalist propaganda during his sermons. Mr Kaplan had lived for decades in Cologne. German federal prosecutors said that one of those arrested in yesterday's raids was a Libyan citizen accused of supporting an al Tauhid terrorist cell in Germany which had planned attacks on Jewish premises in the country. The Libyan was suspected of having supplied the cell with a pistol.
Matthew Schofield Knight Ridder Newspapers Jan. 13, 2005 12:00 AM
BERLIN - German police stormed mosques, shops and homes across the country Wednesday, arresting 22 people suspected of financing and providing illegal documents to terrorists.
The arrests mark an intensification of Germany's battle against terror amid growing concerns that Islamic groups in Germany are linked to international terrorists.
German officials, citing privacy laws, refused to identify those arrested or to say what group or groups they belong to. Those arrested included German citizens as well as people from Bulgaria, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt.
German terrorism experts and media reports have said that intelligence officials believe money leaving Germany is being routed through Syria to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian whom U.S. and Iraqi officials accuse of masterminding a terror campaign in Iraq. In early December, German police arrested three alleged members of the Iraq-based Ansar al-Islam terrorist group, saying they were plotting to assassinate visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
"This year will be full of similar raids and arrests," predicted Udo Ulfkotte, a Frankfurt-based terrorism expert. "Germany is central to terror issues in Europe, and for years, too little has been done."
German officials have recently toughened their approach to terrorism. Last month, the government established an anti-terror command headquarters at a secret location in Berlin. On Jan. 1, a law went into effect requiring detailed background checks for every immigrant applying for residency and permitting the deportation of "Islamic hate-preachers."
This weekend, the interior minister of Bavaria, Guenther Beckstein, warned in a speech that more than 500 Islamic extremists in Germany "must be considered extremely dangerous." He said Germany was home to "several thousand other highly fanatic" Muslims.
The investigation that led to Wednesday's arrests was begun by Bavarian authorities. Targets included a mosque in Frankfurt and homes in Berlin, Munich and Ulm.
A spokesman for the Bavarian Bureau of Investigation, Detlef Puchelt, said the raids targeted those who "provide logistical support, financial support and recruiting others who do carry out attacks." Police said blank passports and visa stamps were recovered.
Eleven individuals were initially sought in the raids, but another 11 were arrested when they were found at the targeted locations, Puchelt said. More than 700 police officers took part in the raids.
Police believe those arrested were involved in making false passports, visas and residency documents for terrorists. Germany was used as a base for those plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Ulfkotte said some German officials suspect Muslim extremists may use pilgrimages to Mecca as a cover for taking large amounts of money out of Germany. Once out, money is more easily passed on to representatives of terror groups.
Ulfkotte said records indicate that as much as $100,000 a month leaves Germany headed toward terrorists attacking American soldiers in Iraq.
In an article two weeks ago, the magazine Der Spiegel said German officials are becoming increasingly concerned about unflattering references to Germany on Web sites frequented by radical Muslims.
The magazine said Germany is often lumped with the United States, Britain and Israel on the Web sites because of its toughened anti-terror laws, its stance on the reconstruction of Iraq and for being a leader in military action in Afghanistan.