Germany's security forces remain on high alert amid a flood of reports about a possible new attack by the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. But Interior Minister Otto Schily says the threat is vague and that the government has no hard information that attacks are planned. Italy and Austria have also been alerted by the United States to be on guard against possible terrorist actions.
Munich, 27 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's latest statement on a possible terrorist threat came last week in a report by the internal security agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, about the country's security situation last year.
Interior Minister Otto Schily quoted the report as saying that at least 12 Islamic extremist groups were active in Germany in 2001. It estimated the groups -- including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbollah, and the Algerian FIS and GIA -- had a total of some 3,100 supporters in the country.
Heinz Fromm, the head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, told reporters these groups represented what he called a "very dangerous phenomenon" because at least some of them are believed to have links with Al-Qaeda.
Fromm and Interior Minister Schily declined to give any information about the groups' activities in Germany, but Schily said the fact they are under constant surveillance is proof the threat of terrorism remains real. "Despite the successes in Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism, there remains a clear threat of Islamic terrorism," Schily said. "We have to remain alert and undertake extensive efforts to combat this threat -- but at the same time we should not panic."
The interior minister said the threat from extremist Islamic groups applies to all European Union countries, including Germany. At the same time, he emphasized that there was no concrete information that a terrorist attack was planned for the immediate future: "There is a general danger for Germany, as for all other member states of the European Union. However, we have no concrete knowledge that there will be an attack in the immediate future."
Schily said European intelligence services and Interpol were investigating reports that some members of the Al-Qaeda movement might have been smuggled into Europe. However, he said he would not comment until the investigation was complete.
Some German newspapers reported last week that as many as 30 members of the Al-Qaeda group and the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan may have made their way to Europe to prepare new terrorist actions. The newspapers said the German authorities had sent the warning to police forces about two months ago.
Schily said it is well-known that international gangs had smuggled Afghan refugees into Europe for money, but he said links with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had not been proven.
The interior minister also said that in addition to the Islamic extremist groups listed in the report, Turkey's Milli Gorus organization is causing concern among German authorities. Milli Gorus is the largest Muslim organization in Germany, with about 27,500 members. Schily said the group aims to spread its religious-based political views throughout Europe.
Guenther Beckstein, interior minister of the German state of Bavaria, told reporters in Munich he is also concerned about Milli Gorus. Beckstein said the group should be banned because it wants to impose Islamic Sharia law on Muslims living in Germany.
The comments in Germany followed a series of warnings in the United States last week that new Al-Qaeda attacks could be expected. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said the probability of a new attack was "very, very concrete." However he added that the information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies was not clear as to where or when the attacks might take place. Similar warnings came from the FBI and other U.S. security groups.
The U.S. has alerted European governments several times this year about possible terrorist attacks. Some of the information is believed to be based on intelligence coming from Al-Qaeda members captured in Afghanistan.
Near Easter weekend (30-31 March), the U.S. told Italy it had received information of a possible terrorist attack on major tourist centers, particularly Rome, Florence, Venice, and Verona. Thousands of extra police officers were placed on alert. No attack took place but security officials said it was important that precautions be taken.
A spokesman for the Austrian Agency for Public Security, Rudolf Gollia, said the U.S. Embassy in Vienna last week passed on a warning from American security authorities about the possibility of a terrorist attack in that country. "The information was general and not specific about what sort of attack might be contemplated," Gollia told reporters. He said security had been strengthened at the Vienna airport and at the United Nations complex in the Austrian capital.
Anton Stenitzer, director of public security in the Austrian border city of Salzburg, said that as a result of the U.S. warning, extra security checks are being carried out at the airport and on suspicious travelers crossing into Germany.
Last month, German police arrested nine alleged members of a Palestinian group, Al-Tawhid (Divine Unity), on suspicion of forming a terrorist organization. Those arrested included Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Iraqis. Most had been living in Germany for several years.
The men are still under investigation and it is unclear when details of the accusations against them will be made public. Federal prosecutor Kay Nehm said at the time of the arrests he believed the security services had lifted the lid on an international network: "We don't speak of a network without cause, and we have now uncovered part of this network. What exactly they are doing is still unclear."
The deputy head of Germany's Federal Criminal Office, Bernhard Falk, said that in recent months Germany's security officials have received what he calls a "flood" of reports about possible terrorist plots, not only from the U.S. but also from domestic security services.
He said it is always difficult to test the veracity of such information but that Germany takes every report seriously. Falk said Germany never forgot that those responsible for the 11 September attacks lived quietly in Germany for years without arousing the suspicions of security authorities. "We never want that situation to arise again," Falk said. "It is possible that there are still would-be terrorists hiding in Germany -- so-called 'sleepers' -- but we never want to be taken by surprise again."
Several other alleged terrorist groups have been uncovered in Europe since the beginning of the year. Four men were held in the Netherlands on suspicion of belonging to an Algerian group connected to Al-Qaeda. And in Spain, two Syrians were detained on suspicion of raising funds for the group.