BERLIN (Reuters) - German police and security experts believe radical Muslim communities like a Hamburg mosque linked to the 2001 attacks on the United States have produced up to 100 trained militants who now pose a major security threat.
Reports of eight German militants killed in a suspected U.S. drone attack in Pakistan put a spotlight on a growing number of trained, battle-hardened jihadists from Germany who are back in Europe and could take part in attacks.
While the German government has played down the latest U.S. and British warnings of a heightened risk of terrorist attacks in Europe, dismissing them as “alarmist,” police see a growing threat from militants trained on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
With papers picturing Berlin landmarks named as potential targets, including the Brandenburg Gate and the Fernsehturm (TV tower) that dominates the skyline, the head of the main German police union warned: “We should expect attacks.”
“The number of dangerous Islamists (in Germany) lies at more than 100,” Konrad Freiberg, chairman of the union, told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper, adding that about 40 had explosives training. “This is very dangerous for us.”
European and American counter-terrorism officials have also said that concerns about a group of about 100 German Islamists who had travelled between Germany and tribal border areas of Pakistan contributed to the latest security alert in Europe.
Security services have long kept an eye on the militant Islamist scene in Germany, especially a mosque in Hamburg which was frequented by Mohammed Atta — the leader of the group that carried out the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
In August, German police shut down the Taiba Mosque, which was previously known as the Al-Quds Mosque, saying it had links with armed groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Germany is also highly sensitive for historic reasons about showing any sign of prejudice against its Muslim community of about 4 million people, most of whom are of Turkish origin.
But, while the police union may have an interest in playing up the risks and Freiberg said monitoring such people around the clock was “impossible due to a personnel shortage,” a similar warning came from a more senior source early in September.
The head of the BKA Federal Crime Office, Joerg Ziercke, told Tagespiegel newspaper on September 5 that he put the number of militants living in Germany much higher at 400, some of whom had
battle experience from Afghanistan.
Police had seen an increase “in travel and attempted travel from members of violence-prone Islamist circles” since 2009 and Germany classified 131 people “as potential instigators” who could carry out attacks “of a considerable magnitude,” he said.
One such German Islamist held by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and interrogated since July is widely reported to have revealed details of planned attacks on targets in Germany and Europe. The government in Berlin said on Monday it had been in contact with him and that he would now be questioned by German intelligence.
The media identifies him as Ahmed Siddiqi, a German of Afghan descent, though the German government would not confirm this nor reports that he was behind the U.S. security alert about Europe.
Terrorism expert Guido Steinberg said German security services had identified militants they called the “Hamburg Travel Group” including 11 people who left Germany in March 2009 to fight against the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Steinberg told Reuters there were other groups from Bonn and Berlin who also left Germany between 2008 and 2011, some joining the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and travelling to Waziristan on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan.
The IMU emerged from the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and has also fought in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, with the aim of establishing an Islamic Caliphate.
Steinberg said such people were “definitely” implicated in the latest plot reports though it was not clear to what extent.
“The conclusion, if the Hamburg cell is central, is that it’s an IMU plot, at least in part,” he said.
Additional reporting by William MacLean in London and Brian Rohan, Thomas Seythal and Michelle Martin in Berlin; writing by Stephen Brown; editing by Myra MacDonald