MUNICH, Germany – A German court convicted an Iraqi Kurd of aiding Al Qaeda-linked militants who carried out suicide bombings in his home country and sentenced him Thursday to seven years in prison.
The case is one of several in Germany and elsewhere exploring how Islamic radicals attract volunteers and financial support from a network of sympathizers across Europe.
It also is a first test for new German counterterrorism laws toughened after it emerged that three of the Sept. 11 hijackers had lived undetected in Hamburg. Mohamed was the first person tried for membership in a foreign terrorist group.
Mohamed, who came to Germany as an asylum seeker in 2000, has acknowledged smuggling at least eight volunteers from Europe to Iraq before his December 2003 arrest in Munich. One of those volunteers died while carrying out a suicide car-bombing.
The court said Mohamed helped others travel in the opposite direction, including an alleged bomb-maker who went to Britain for medical treatment, and supplied funds and equipment, such as radios and computers, to Ansar al-Islam in Iraq.
Presiding judge Bernd von Heintschel-Heinegg said he gave Mohamed a sentence three years below the maximum because of his confession during closed-door sessions and his appeal during the trial for militants to stop suicide attacks.
The judge also said Mohamed was willing to help authorities pursue other Ansar al-Islam suspects and that the court accepted that Mohamed acted on his fundamentalist Islamic faith.
"It wasn't against the Americans, it was for the implementation of his religious convictions," Heintschel-Heinegg said.
Mohamed showed little emotion while listening to the judge, occasionally fiddling with his beard or yawning. His lawyers said the defendant was not surprised by the outcome.
"I think my client can live with this verdict," attorney Rolf Grabow said, although he did not rule out lodging an appeal.
The court said there was no doubt that Ansar al-Islam and its successor, Ansar al-Sunna, were terrorist groups, given their threats to kill "infidels," including civilians.
It said they were responsible for a string of bloody suicide bombings and other attacks targeting rival Iraqi groups, police, foreign diplomats and the Red Cross.
The judges dismissed defense suggestions the groups were freedom fighters putting up legitimate resistance.
Rather than liberate the country, the radicals wanted a strict religious state "in line with their own ideas — Little Talibanistan," Heintschel-Heinegg said.
He also said Mohamed's contention that he never formally joined the group was irrelevant, given that he "gave more support to Ansar al-Islam than ordinary members" and took instructions from its top leaders.
Ansar al-Islam was formed in the Kurdish parts of Iraq and is believed to include Arab Al Qaeda members who fled the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Its bases along the Iranian-Iraqi border were bombed at the start of the Iraq war.
The German court said it reformed and expanded across Iraq in 2003 as Arab volunteers flocked to Iraq to join the fight against U.S. and Iraqi government forces.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, is believed to have played a role in the group after fleeing Afghanistan.
Prosecutor Ulrich Boeter said the guilty verdict would be "important" for future cases against Ansar al-Islam, including three more that have been opened in Germany alone.
The judge coupled his verdict with an appeal for a European-wide database on militant activities to make it easier also for courts to combat them.