Germans Feel The Clutch Of Terrorist Threat

Germans feel the clutch of terrorist threat
61% surveyed believe Islamic extremists are targeting nation

San Francisco Chronicle
Eric Geiger, Chronicle Foreign Service

Thursday, October 26, 2006

(10-26) 04:00 PST Munich, Germany — Early this month, Ibrahim R, an Iraqi who has lived in Germany since 1996, became the first person to be arrested for allegedly disseminating propaganda over the Internet for a foreign terrorist group.

The 36-year-old immigrant posted videos and tape recordings of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri threatening the West in an online chat room. German officials have pledged to monitor more Islamic Web sites and make more arrests.

In years past, the harsh response by officials in Lower Saxony state might have spurred criticism of state violation of privacy laws. But many Germans no longer see the war on terror as a British-American problem over Iraq.

“The case of that Iraqi suspect just proves we are not living in a safe island anymore,” said Heinz Bruckmoser, a retired mechanical engineer from Duesseldorf. “It ties in with that failed train attack.”

In July, Islamic extremists tried but failed to blow up two trains in northern Germany. If successful, they could have killed hundreds of people. The plot not only triggered a heated debate on national security but also sparked an upsurge of fear in a nation with some 3.5 million Muslims residents.

“We are threatened by terrorism, and that threat has never been so close,” Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said after the attempted train attacks. “This time we were lucky.”

According to a survey this month by the Demoskopie Institute, the nation's leading pollster, 61 percent now believe Germany is a target for Islamic militants.

Such fears lay behind the Berlin Opera House's cancellation of Mozart's opera, “Idomeneo” after an anonymous threat over a scene that included the severed head of the prophet Muhammad. In less publicized, seemingly absurd reactions, a local school in the central German town of Dillenberg ordered a gymnasium to be darkened when Muslim girls work out there, while law enforcement officials in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia ordered a woman to change the name of her horse from “Muhammad” to “Momi.”

False bomb alerts have become an almost daily routine at many train stations. Sprawling railroad terminals in major cities, including Hamburg, Bonn, Koblenz and Mannheim, have been temporarily sealed off.

“We keep getting calls from worried citizens about what they presume to be terrorist activities,” said a Hamburg police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with department policy.

Last month, a two-year dialogue program initiated by the interior minister to integrate German Muslims into mainstream society began between prominent Muslims and government officials

But anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be growing. “We are already beginning to knuckle under to Islam,” said a recent headline in Bildzeitung, Germany's largest-circulation newspaper, protesting the number of mosques being built in the downtowns of German cities.

Two Lebanese students studying at German universities were identified in August as the main suspects in the failed train attacks. Yousef Mohammed El Hajdid, 21, was arrested in the northern town of Kiel, while 19-year-old Jihad Mamad was detained in Lebanon. Both were identified by video cameras installed at all train stations.

No formal charges have been filed, but investigators say both harbored deep hatred toward Israel, and the West.

And while authorities stress that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim population opposes violence, the domestic intelligence agency Verfassungsschutz, or Guardians of the Constitution, has classified 32,000 Muslims as “Islamic radicals,” including 4,000 described as “violence prone.”

Manfred Murck, a top official of the agency in Hamburg, recently said that 30 of Hamburg's 100 mosques are being monitored for “suspicious activity,” including the Al-Khuds mosque where Mohammed Atta and his Hamburg cell met daily before the Sept. 11 attacks. These mosques serve as meeting places for “clandestine agencies for Islamic extremist networks,” Murck said.

Elmer Thevessen, a senior editor at ZDF national television network who has worked on numerous documentaries on terrorism, says the most likely converts to radical Islam in Germany are, like elsewhere in Europe, young, second-generation Muslims.

“They often feel isolated, don't know where they really belong, and often feel contempt for their immigrant parents, accusing them of being interested only in earning a decent living and adapting to German life,” Thevessen said.

Thevessen says they are influenced by radical ideas spread on the Internet and Arabic language satellite TV networks such as Al-Manar, operated in Lebanon by Hezbollah.

“Thanks to Al-Manar, we know all about the horrible crimes committed by Israeli soldiers in Lebanon — the murders of small babies and old sick people — and the massacres by American soldiers of pregnant woman in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said a young man who gave his name only as Mustafa as he played soccer in a parking lot in Freilassing, a commercial center in southern Bavaria.

Norbert Schneider, head of the Broadcasting Regulation Authority in North Rhine-Westphalia state, said he finds Al-Manar's programs “sordid” and “very alarming.” While Al-Manar is banned in the United States and from a French-based satellite distribution network, there is no legal basis to stop its programs being broadcast in Germany. “They operate in a lawless sphere, and there is nothing we can do about it,” said Schneider.