HAMBURG (Reuters) - Radical Islamists from a shut down Hamburg mosque linked to the September 11 attacks on the United States are now trying to infiltrate other mosques in and around the German city, according to officials and Muslim leaders.
Small groups of radicals have turned up at several mosques trying to establish a new meeting place since the Taiba Mosque, where the 9/11 leader Mohammad Atta once prayed, was raided and closed by police in August, they told Reuters.
With radicals no longer grouped around one mosque near the city’s main train station, security services have stepped up their observation of Islamists around the city and Muslim associations are on the lookout for suspicious newcomers.
“There are small groups of 3 to 5 people from the former Taiba Mosque who have gone to other mosques,” said Ralf Kunz, internal affairs spokesman for the city government.
Individual radicals have turned up “at lots of mosques, both in Hamburg and the surrounding region,” he said. “They have not been able to assemble at any mosque.”
Hamburg police shut down the Taiba Mosque, formerly known as the Al Quds Mosque, in August, saying it had links with armed Islamist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
A so-called “Hamburg Travel Group” of 11 radicals linked to the mosque left Germany in March 2009 to fight against the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Muslim organizations in the city said they had stepped up their vigilance. Schura, Hamburg’s largest Muslim group, said it had no evidence of any problem at its mosques.
But Schura head Mustafa Yoldas, referring to an ultra-conservative brand of Islam, added: “The salafis are trying to get a foothold in some other congregations. I know of two mosques where they meet and give lectures... They are and will remain a fringe group, they will never be mainstream here.”
At DITIB, a German-Turkish association linked to Ankara’s Religious Affairs Ministry, regional chairman Zekeriya Altug said his group’s structure made it harder to infiltrate.
“I know that the (Taiba Mosque) congregation has been split up and is seeking refuge elsewhere,” he said. “Our imams are university graduates who are competent to counter them.”
Radicals trying to infiltrate a congregation usually seek out small mosques with weak leadership and start meeting and preaching there, hoping to attract young Muslims.
Norbert Mueller, a German convert on Schura’s board, said weakly managed mosques did not always notice what was happening.
“These young people don’t come wearing a label saying ‘I‘m from the Taiba Mosque’,” he said. “They say they want to start a youth group. But their thinking becomes obvious after a while and one realises where they come from.”
Recent reports of planned al Qaeda attacks on landmark targets in Europe have turned the spotlight back on Hamburg, a major port city where 27 percent of the population is foreign or has an immigrant background.
One member of the “travel group” was seized by U.S. troops in Afghanistan this summer and has revealed details of the planned attacks, intelligence sources say. That prompted the U.S., Britain and France to issue travel warnings in Europe.
Kunz said the “travel group” consisted of 9 men and 2 women, who he said had little to do with the men’s radical activities. Three were now back in Hamburg under police observation, one was jailed here and one in U.S. custody.
Some others were apparently killed in a U.S. drone attack, but their identities have not yet been confirmed, Kunz said.
“The travel group has been broken up,” he said.
Kunz gave no details of new security measures against mosque infiltration but said: “It has created a lot more work for us.”
He said Hamburg authorities had expected Islamists to fan out to other mosques if they closed the Taiba Mosque, but shut it down anyway because it had become a magnet for radicals.
“The Taiba Mosque had a cult status,” he said. “People came from all over Germany and from abroad to pray there. We wanted to stop that.”
Editing by Charles Dick