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The recent U.S. terror alert for Americans traveling to Europe has focused attention on Islamist militants originating in Germany. A German national was captured this summer in Afghanistan and it was his interrogation that led authorities to believe that militants with roots in northern Germany were planning to return to Europe to stage attacks.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports now from Hamburg on efforts to address the threat of homegrown terrorism and why those efforts don't sit well with some Germans.
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ERIC WESTERVELT: More than 1,200 men pack into the ornately-tiled prayer room at Hamburg's largest mosque. These German faithful are almost all of Turkish descent. The Sunni Muslims who worship here have a reputation for being apolitical, and they worry the terror alerts and renewed attention on Islamists from Hamburg will further distort the image of their faith and their city.
Ahmet Yazici prays with his 13-year-old son. The burly director of a sausage company also serves as a director of the Alliance for Islamic Communities in Northern Germany. He says radicals from the now-shuttered Taiba mosque across town were a fringe group with a twisted view of Islam. He says the vast majority of the estimated 150,000 Muslims in Hamburg reject extremism.
Mr. AHMET YAZICI (Director, Alliance for Islamic Communities in northern Germany): I think to have 30 people who are crazy is not a problem of the others. It's a problem of the security, and they must solve them. They must catch them. They must bring them to the jail, and they must solve the problem. We have not perverted the religion.
WESTERVELT: Indeed, a senior intelligence official in Hamburg's interior ministry, speaking on background, said: We're a big city, and we have a few more fundamentalists than other cities, but Hamburg is not the center of worldwide jihad.
The official said that while an estimated 2,000 Hamburg Muslims adhere to an extremist ideology, the authorities are really only concerned about 30 to 40 militants who are German citizens or legal German residents who've attended a terrorist camp.
In August, authorities here closed the notorious Taiba mosque. That's where members of the 9/11 Hamburg cell once prayed, including ringleader Mohammed Atta. It had become a magnet for would-be jihadists. They wanted to pray where Atta prayed, the intelligence official said.
He said in March 2009, 11 German nationals who all met at that mosque left Hamburg for Pakistan to join the Islamist jihad against U.S. and coalition forces. But these 11, says Andreas Ulrich, a senior editor at the news magazine Der Spiegel, were hardly top-tier terrorists.
Mr. ANDREAS ULRICH (Senior Editor, Der Spiegel): Criminals, drug users, they are looking for Islam or jihad as a kind of kick or to give their failed lives a new sense, a new impact. I don't want to underestimate the danger, but I think, if I look at them, they have not the intellectual power to be really a danger for the Western countries.
WESTERVELT: It's been reported, although not confirmed by German officials here, that several from that group were killed in the recent U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.
Rolf Tophoven, who directs the Institute for Terrorism Research in Essen, says the three dozen radicals that German intelligence is tracking are not the ones he worries about.
Mr. ROLF TOPHOVEN (Director, Institute for Terrorism Research): They know the travelers going to Pakistan, Afghanistan. But the great concern of the intelligence community is that they overlooked a sleeping terror network in Germany. That's the terrorist who don't visit a mosque.
WESTERVELT: There are now calls to change German law to make it easier for authorities to detain and arrest militants they do know about. Right now, the legal bar is pretty high.
For example, today, if one of the suspected Hamburg militants tried to return to Germany from an al-Qaida training camp, they could not be arrested or prosecuted unless authorities had proof they planned to use that training for a specific attack. Tophoven says that needs to change.
Mr. TOPHOVEN: What are they doing in the training camp? They want to be trained not to be in a post office. A harder, new regulation, a new law, must be written down that any visit to a terrorist camp must be forbidden.
WESTERVELT: But given Germany's history, any attempt to strengthen the powers of the police or the intelligence services is sure to spark some opposition.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Hamburg.
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