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Taps in German case allegedly an earful

September 08, 2007|Dirk Laabs and Sebastian Rotella | Special to The Times

NEU-ULM, GERMANY — In the final days, the Turkish Muslim and the two German converts are said to have schemed and ranted like men on the verge of exploding.

During clandestine meetings, including ones at the mountain village hide-out where they allegedly began assembling bombs, Adem Yilmaz, Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider talked nearly nonstop about potential bombing targets and suicide attack scenarios, German law enforcement officials say. A small army of police listened in through wiretaps, poised to swoop in as the talk got uglier, according to the officials, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

"They were basically throwing out ideas, what about this target, what about that one," said one investigator.

"They became almost megalomaniacal," said another.

The trio's arrest this week for allegedly plotting car bomb attacks on Americans in Germany ended an odyssey into fanaticism, officials say. The journey, they say, led from the radical Islamic underworld of gray German towns to fundamentalist Koranic schools in the Middle East to a Turkish-Central Asian nexus in Pakistani training camps aligned with Al Qaeda.

The alleged leader of the militant cell, the wavy-haired Gelowicz, 28, is married to a woman of Turkish descent who wears a burka. He and a dozen other suspects who remain free, mostly Turks or converts radicalized in Turkish circles, allegedly belonged to the Islamic Jihad Union, or IJU, an Uzbek-dominated terrorist group that is said to have directed their activities from Pakistan.

The alleged connection stokes fears of a growth of radicalism in Germany's large Turkish immigrant population.

Germany has approximately 2 million residents of Turkish descent, a community long seen as hard-working and religiously moderate. The Turkish government has tried to keep fundamentalism in check among Turkish immigrants by training imams to serve in diaspora mosques. Far fewer Turks have been involved in terrorism cases in Germany and elsewhere than Arabs from the Middle East of North Africa.

But the alleged plot to commit Europe's bloodiest attacks reflects the kind of extremism that afflicts South Asian communities in Britain and North African groups in France. Experts are concerned about Germany becoming an enticing target for Al Qaeda's efforts to recruit European-based extremists to strike the West.

"We are especially worried about the Turks and the Turkish Germans in this case," an investigator said. "It seems like the propaganda effort is working. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there is more and more Turkish jihad propaganda material on the Internet."

Turkey's proximity to and influence in Central Asia make it a natural geographic gateway for militant networks in the region or for passing through the former Soviet republics to Pakistan or Afghanistan. Turks feel linguistic, religious and ethnic affinities with Uzbeks and others in the region, analysts say.

"A lot of the Turkish Islamists don't fit in with Arab groups," said Zeyno Baran, an expert on Islamic extremism based at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "You can find Turkish fighters more in Albania, Bosnia and Central Asia. The [Uzbek networks] have had strong support in Turkey.

"It's not the same language," she said. "But there are so many similarities, a sense of comfort. There is familiarity with the Uzbeks, who as Muslims are often also less strict in their personal lives, but very strict ideologically."

The radicalization of Gelowicz and others started, officials say, in a fundamentalist mosque in this city of 52,000, a mix of historic neighborhoods and bleak industrial areas on the Danube River about 45 miles southeast of prosperous Stuttgart.

Gelowicz reportedly began attending the Islamic center at age 15 after his parents, an engineer and a doctor, divorced. Founded in the mid-'90s, it was led by a charismatic Egyptian imam, Yehia Yousif, who preached hatred while working as an informant for spy services, investigators say. The worshipers were Turks, Arabs and converts of German origin, they say.

Authorities say Gelowicz threw himself into extremism with reckless ferocity. One of his prime influences, they say, was Tolga Duerbin, a German of Turkish descent who was a trainee at a solar engineering company owned by Gelowicz's father, Manfred. The two young men would become militant leaders bringing together fellow extremists in three cities, officials say.

In a brief interview Friday, Manfred Gelowicz said he had been estranged from his son for some time. He said authorities had played cat and mouse with Fritz for too long after identifying him as an extremist as early as 2004.

"The services could have stopped my son earlier," said the weary-looking Gelowicz. "They knew all about him."

In 2005, police shut down the mosque because of extremist activity, and questioned Fritz Gelowicz about ties to an extremist friend who had trained in Pakistan.

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