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German Raid Targets Islamic Group

Europe: Police arrest 11 suspected militants. Prosecutors say group falsified passports and recruited fighters for a 'worldwide jihad.'

April 24, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Police arrested 11 suspected Islamic militants in raids across Germany on Tuesday, executing a crackdown on what authorities described as an extremist brotherhood active in Europe that recruits, trains and bankrolls fighters for a worldwide holy war.

Federal prosecutor Kay Nehm's announcement of a sweep against the Sunni Muslim and Palestinian movement known as Al Tawhid, or the Divine Unity, made no immediate claims of a connection to Osama bin Laden's terrorist empire or the suicide hijackers thought to have plotted the Sept. 11 U.S. attacks from Hamburg, in northern Germany.

But Nehm emphasized that the investigation has just begun into the computer records, forged documents and other evidence seized in searches of 19 sites in Berlin, the industrialized Ruhr River area and several cities in the southern state of Bavaria. His description of the group's operations evoked comparisons to those purportedly used by the Hamburg terror suspects and their accomplices, who were reportedly part of an international network of Bin Laden foot soldiers providing military training, refuge and falsified documents to those wanting to attack Western targets.

The move against Al Tawhid, which is said to be headed by a 36-year-old Palestinian living in Essen, Germany, coincides with Germany's first prosecution of terror suspects in recent years. Five Algerians accused of plotting an attack in Strasbourg, France, are now on trial in Frankfurt.

The Frankfurt defendants deny any connection with Al Qaeda. But one of the accused's testimony Tuesday provided a window into the pockets of extremism that thrive in democratic European countries committed to broad individual freedoms.

German authorities have arrested only one man in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, a young Moroccan thought to be a peripheral figure in the Hamburg cell. In a sign that Germans plan to stick by their respect for civil liberties, investigators conceded that some of the 11 Al Tawhid suspects could be released unless police uncover more incriminating evidence.

But the coordinated raids on Al Tawhid--along with Interior Minister Otto Schily's insistence on an aggressive investigation of an April 11 attack on a Tunisian synagogue that killed 11 German tourists--indicate that authorities here are taking more concerted action against suspected terrorists.

Tuesday's arrests followed months of surveillance of the alleged Palestinian ringleader and his contacts, ARD television reported, citing unnamed sources involved in the investigation. The news report also said that several of those arrested had undergone military training in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban, a fundamentalist movement allied with Bin Laden--as had members of the Hamburg group accused in the Sept. 11 hijackings.

The Al Tawhid members were involved in falsifying passports and other documents, gathering and distributing donations, and recruiting fighters for "a worldwide jihad of all brothers in faith," Nehm said.

Authorities moved to break up the group when they concluded that its members were planning attacks in Germany, the prosecutor said.

At Tuesday's session of the Algerians' trial in Frankfurt, 26-year-old Aeurobui Beandali said in a statement read by his lawyers that he had helped plan a bomb attack on a synagogue in Strasbourg early last year. But Beandali denied any connection between his group and Al Qaeda.

The attack, never carried out, was intended to damage French-Israeli relations rather than hurt innocent bystanders, he insisted in a contrite account of his deeds. The bombing was to be staged after Sabbath services on a Saturday in January or February 2001, and a videotape of the damaged building was to be sent to French TV stations. Beandali said the group's aim was to avenge what the members see as French support for Algerian government repression of Islamic fundamentalists.

Prosecutors say that the five defendants were associated with Al Qaeda and that the group's attack was to have taken place in the crowded Christmas market outside Strasbourg's cathedral in December 2000.

Beandali, who admitted that he spent a year in Afghanistan and Pakistan before becoming involved in the Strasbourg plot, expressed sympathy for the Sept. 11 victims and called the date "a dark day in the history of the Islamic world."

"The death of innocents such as those in America is just as bad as those of innocents in Palestine or Algeria," he said in his statement.

Beandali and three others are charged with belonging to a terrorist organization and conspiracy to commit murder, which carry sentences of up to 10 years. A fifth suspect is accused only of the lesser offense of belonging to a terrorist group. The trial is expected to last as long as a year.

Tuesday's testimony by Beandali followed the German government's confirmation Monday that the April 11 explosion of a gas-laden truck at a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba was deliberate. In addition to the 11 Germans, five others were killed in the blast. It was deemed "a tragic accident" by Tunisian authorities until Schily objected to what Berlin considered a premature ruling.

Schily, an attorney who defended Red Army Faction terrorism suspects in the 1970s and '80s, traveled to Tunis and Djerba last weekend for a firsthand investigation.

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Special correspondent Dirk Laabs in Frankfurt contributed to this report.

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