German police and antiterrorist commandos arrested 13 men this week on suspicion of forming a terrorist group. German officials describe the arrests as a "sanitary operation" that had eliminated the possibility of a terrorist attack. Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm said Germany has learned not to tolerate such activity after the experience of the 11 September attacks on the United States, which were committed by men who had lived undisturbed in Germany for years. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich.
Munich, 26 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm said in Berlin this week that since 11 September, the country has had to accept the fact that those who killed some 3,000 people in New York and Washington had first lived quietly in Hamburg and other German cities for years without arousing the suspicions of the authorities.
"It is better to break up such a group early than to wait until their planning for a terrorist attack is fully advanced," Nehm said.
With that sentiment in mind, German police and antiterrorist commandos arrested 13 men earlier this week in seven cities across Germany. The 13 were charged with forming a terrorist organization. They are alleged to be members of a radical Palestinian group called Al-Tawhid (Divine Unity), based in Jordan. Four of the men were later released for lack of evidence.
Bernhard Falk, who is deputy head of the Federal Criminal Office, described Al-Tawhid today as a "militant and fundamentalist" organization that preaches a worldwide holy war against unbelievers. Its spiritual leader, Abu Qutadah, lived in Britain until earlier this year when he slipped out of the country. A military court in Jordan convicted Qutadah in absentia in 2000 on charges of attempting to attack U.S. and Israeli targets.
Al Tawhid is believed to be at least partly financed by the Al-Qaeda terrorist group, headed by suspected 11 September mastermind Osama bin Laden. Some of the men arrested this week are said to have undergone military training in Afghanistan.
Among those arrested is the suspected leader of the German group, a 36-year-old Palestinian identified only as Yaser H., who has lived in Essen for several years. The others -- aged between 25 and 38 -- include Jordanians, Egyptians, Iraqis, and Palestinians. Most have lived in Germany for several years.
German authorities say there is no apparent link between the arrests they made and those of other suspected terrorists elsewhere in Europe this week. In the Netherlands, four men were detained on Wednesday on suspicion of belonging to an Algerian group connected to Al-Qaeda. In Spain, two Syrians were detained on suspicion of using a real-estate company as a cover to finance Al-Qaeda operations.
Germany's Interior Minister Otto Schily described eight of the men arrested in Germany this week as dangerous and said they had been under surveillance for some time. He said they had been seized at the right moment but did not elaborate. A ninth man arrested with them is wanted for other, unrelated crimes.
Other German officials say the raids were expedited when it was learned that some members of the group were about to leave Germany and it was feared an operation was being carried out. "This is a dangerous group, and it was a good thing that we had such a success. We have been on the trail of this group for a long time, and this was the right moment to move."
Federal Prosecutor Nehm said the eight are also accused of forging travel documents and helping smuggle Islamic fighters from Afghanistan into Germany.
Nehm described the possibility of a terrorist act as -- in his words -- an "abstract danger." He said no explosives or materials for making them were found in the men's German apartments. The only weapon discovered was a handgun.
However, he said that "based on current investigations, there are indications that the [terrorist] cell had begun to plan attacks." Nehm said it is unclear whether any specific targets had been chosen.
"With this police action, we managed to destroy a cell which -- apart from forging passports and smuggling people, mostly from Afghanistan -- was on the edge of preparing an attack in Germany against the background of the serious conflict in the Middle East. We believe we managed to stop what was in preparation," Nehm said.
He said the Federal Criminal Office believes other terrorist cells exist in Germany and that authorities remain vigilant. But, he said, "We don't have them all under control yet."
The Federal Criminal Office emphasized to RFE/RL today that most of the 3.5 million Muslims living in Germany are peaceful. However, the office estimates that about 31,000 are followers of extremist Islamic groups. It said many are Kurds from Turkey or Iraq, but that an estimated 3,000 belong to Arab groups from Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and other countries.
Germany's concerns about radical Islamic terrorism were heightened in the last week by evidence given at the trial in the western German city of Frankfurt am Main of four men accused of planning a bomb attack on a synagogue in the French city of Strasbourg early last year.
One of the accused, Aeurobui Beandali, an Algerian, told the court that he had spent nine months in a military training camp in Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000. However, he denied having any contact with the Al-Qaeda group led by bin Laden.