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Germany to Tighten Security

Nation's link to suspect in Madrid blasts raises concern about keeping tabs on extremists.

March 27, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — The aftershocks of the Madrid bombings reverberated through German politics this week as investigators searched the former apartment of a Moroccan suspect and lawmakers called for tougher legislation on immigrants and asylum seekers.

This nation is particularly sensitive about Islamic terrorists. Members of the Al Qaeda network that planned the Sept. 11 attacks lived in Hamburg before moving to the United States. Revelations this week that at least one suspect in the Madrid plot reportedly sought to enroll at a Darmstadt university before moving to Spain raised questions about Germany's ability to monitor potential extremists.

Facing pressure from conservative politicians, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said this week that he would support measures to close what his administration described as security gaps in law enforcement and immigration policies. "This relates to issuing visas and deporting foreigners who represent a danger for our security," Schroeder said.

Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm -- seeking to downplay media speculation of a German link to the March 11 train attacks in Madrid, which killed 190 people -- announced Friday that a 28-year-old Moroccan suspect now held in Spain had registered to live in the city of Darmstadt last October. Nehm's office said the suspect stayed only a few days in the country, adding that investigators have found "no confirmation" that the Madrid bombings were planned in the city, which is in Hesse state.

Much of the nation's press wanted to make a bigger leap. Friday's headline in the Berliner Zeitung read: "The trail leads from Madrid to Germany: Were the March 11 attacks planned in Hesse?" Die Welt reported that one of the Madrid suspects was an Islamic radical known to German intelligence authorities. Germany monitors the movements of about 200 Islamic extremists, many of whom at various times have been arrested for a few days and released.

The uneasiness in Germany underscores the tension across much of the continent. The Madrid bombings are stoking European security fears much the same way anxieties rose in the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks. With train stations now viewed as easy targets, Europeans feel increasingly vulnerable and are struggling to balance vigilant law enforcement and protection of civil rights. This comes as the 15-member European Union prepares to admit 10 more nations and borders become more porous.

"One thing must be clear," Schroeder said in a speech this week before the German Parliament. "There can be no civil rights without security, but there is also no security without civil rights. In the fight against terrorism, the priority has to be [that] security is a civil right."

The EU this week appointed former Dutch Deputy Interior Minister Gijs de Vries as the continent's first counter-terrorism commissioner. EU members have promised to move beyond their reluctance to share intelligence and to create teams of investigators from different nations that would compile databases on potential terrorists.

"The attacks in Madrid have demonstrated that we are now once again faced with a genuine European problem," De Vries told the BBC on Friday. "We have to work together and make sure we do better. But I must confess it will be difficult. People should not put their expectations too high in the sense that they expect absolute security can ever be provided."

The threat of terrorism has jolted politicians of all persuasions in Germany. Berlin has begun to reorganize the domestic intelligence service -- a bureaucratic holdover from the Cold War that has been struggling to keep pace in the new era of global terrorism.

Guenther Beckstein, the conservative interior secretary of Bavaria state, renewed his calls for the possible deportation of 1,000 to 3,000 suspected radicals.

Guido Westerwelle, leader of the Free Democrats, urged the federal government to hire more police and intelligence agents and to present a report next week on Germany's security concerns.

"You can have the sharpest laws, but they are useless if you don't have the officers to enforce them," Westerwelle said.

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