BERLIN – Islamic terror groups are becoming increasingly active in Germany (search) and coordinating with militants across Europe to recruit fighters to join the insurgency in Iraq, equipping them with fake passports, money and medical supplies, security officials say.
One of the best examples of the cross-continent cooperation involves an Algerian man arrested in Germany and now on trial in Italy for allegedly helping Muslims from Somalia (search), Egypt, Iraq and Morocco recruit some 200 militants from around Europe to fight in Iraq (search).
Many in Germany's Islamic communities have shown sympathy for Muslims fighting jihad, or holy war, in places like Chechnya or Bosnia, but authorities say a growing number of sympathizers are taking an active role themselves since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
"The war in Iraq has somehow mobilized this scene so that people who before just had some sort of contact or sympathies with extremist groups now think they have to do something," Manfred Murck, deputy head of the Hamburg government agency that tracks extremists, told The Associated Press.
"It's a main topic that brings people to action that they otherwise might not have taken. In past years they were talking about jihad, but not doing anything."
Ansar al-Islam, a group with links to al Qaeda and Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is leading attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces in Iraq, has been under scrutiny for its efforts to channel money and fighters to Iraq from Germany and other European countries.
Though most German attention immediately following al Qaeda's Sept. 11 attacks was on Hamburg — where three of the four suicide hijackers had lived and studied — recent efforts have broadened across the country and continent.
In December, three suspected members of Ansar al-Islam were arrested in Berlin on charges of plotting to assassinate interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi during a visit to Berlin in what authorities believe was a spontaneous plan based on opportunity.
Lokman Armin Mohammed, an Iraqi, was indicted last year in Munich on charges he provided logistical, financial and recruiting support for Ansar al-Islam, allegedly organizing medical equipment for insurgents and the passage of men to join the fight. Still awaiting trial after his 2003 arrest, Mohammed also is accused of being responsible for secretly bringing seriously injured insurgents back through Italy and across France for treatment in Britain.
"The Islamist scene in Germany is very well-connected, and not only in Germany," a senior German intelligence official told AP on condition of anonymity. "Muslim activities are more globalist — more pan-European — than Europeans are."
Murck, the Hamburg official, cited the example of Algerian Abderrazak Mahdjoub as an indication of cross-border connections at work within Ansar al-Islam. He was arrested in Hamburg in November 2003 on an Italian warrant and extradited to Milan in March 2004.
Mahdjoub went on trial in Milan in February on charges he collaborated with Somali Ciise Maxamed Cabdullaah, Egyptian El Ayashi Radi, Moroccan Housni Jamal and Iraqi Amin Mostafa Mohamed to recruit some 200 militants from around Europe to fight in Iraq for Ansar al-Islam.
Mahdjoub was arrested in Syria days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and deported back to Germany, where he was investigated. However, charges were never brought for lack of evidence.
"He tried to go to Iraq and we assumed he was intending to fight there, but then other investigations, especially in Italy, found out he was part of a structure recruiting for Iraq," Murck said.
Murck said he had no solid numbers for how many people might have gone from Germany to fight in Iraq, but added that it did not appear to be many.
"If you look at Hamburg, you can count them on two hands — those who have gone or who tried to go," he said.
European anti-terrorist officials have estimated that perhaps a few hundred militants have gone to Iraq as a result of recruiting efforts on the continent, mostly Muslims whose families immigrated from the Middle East or North Africa.
In another major German case, 15 suspects — some connected with Ansar al-Islam and Al-Tawhid, another terror group linked to al-Zarqawi — were picked up in nationwide raids in mid-January centering on the southern twin cities of Ulm and Neu-Ulm. The suspects included nationals of Germany, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Bulgaria.
Authorities alleged the network raised an unspecified amount of money, produced fake passports and recruited people for jihad.
At the end of January, two other suspected al Qaeda members were arrested in Mainz and Bonn on allegations they were plotting an attack in Iraq. The pair were identified only as Ibrahim Mohamed K., a 29-year-old Iraqi, and Yasser Abu S., a 31-year-old Palestinian.
The Iraqi allegedly trained at Usama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and fought American forces there. He is accused of recruiting suicide attackers in Germany — including the Palestinian — and providing logistical help to al Qaeda.
"Germany is not the main target of militant Islamist operations — today's line goes from Germany or other European countries to Iraq," said Rolf Tophoven, an expert at the Essen-based Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Issues.
"They try to recruit and bring potential suiciders — potential terrorists — together and they will send them from Germany to Iraq to fight against the allied forces under the leadership of the United States."
There's only sketchy evidence that any of the recruited radicals have returned to Europe from fighting in Iraq, but that remains a top fear, Tophoven said.
"The big threat is that they will eventually come back to European countries and they will come back with an image, with a reputation as heroes who fought the unbelievers, as it was in the war against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan," he said.
"If they do, they come back from Iraq trained, they know how to fight, they know how to do an ambush, how to make a bomb, and so on, and intelligence is afraid of these developments."