New laws aid German security
Thursday, German police arrested a Moroccan suspected of helping the Sept. 11 hijackers.
BERLIN — Just over a year after the terrorist attacks on the United States, tougher security laws and broader knowledge of the Islamic community in Germany are helping authorities crack down on the people who allegedly played a supporting role on Sept. 11.
One of them is Abdelghani Mzoudi, a stocky 29-year-old man, whom authorities have suspected of providing key logistical support for the group of hijackers that made up the Al Qaeda cell in Hamburg. Mr. Mzoudi had close ties to three of the four hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He acted as a witness when Mohammad Atta, believed to be the leader of the group, signed his own will. His name was on a list of suspects that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation published within 24 hours of the Sept. 11 strikes.
But although Mzoudi had been under surveillance and was even detained briefly in July, Germany's federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, faced a dilemma: Unless Mr. Mzoudi broke a law in Germany, he couldn't be arrested. And investigators didn't have sufficient evidence to put him in jail.
Until now. A new law that took effect last month makes it a crime to support a terrorist organization, and gives Mr. Nehm what he needs to take action. Police arrested Mzoudi yesterday on the "strong suspicion of supporting a terrorist organization," the federal prosecutor said.
Mzoudi was an electrical engineering student at Hamburg's Technical University, where other cell members studied, from 1995-1997. He has been enrolled in a similar program at Hamburg's School for Applied Sciences since 1998.
His arrest shows that Germany is still far from putting together all the pieces of the puzzle that has engaged investigators for the past year. In the aftermath of the attacks, German authorities were stunned to learn that the hijackers lived disguised as students in the northern port city of Hamburg. Unnoticed by police, their true intentions went undetected until it was too late.
"In Germany, we can't just arrest someone on the basis of a general suspicion," says Ursula Spuler-Stegemann, Islamic expert at Marburg University who has written extensively about Muslims in Germany. "But now, with better laws in hand, it is possible to take much more vigorous action."
Indeed, German authorities have known a lot about Mzoudi and the tightknit group of men that surrounded Atta. Mzoudi is the second member of the group to have been arrested. The other is Mounir el Motassadeq, who is set to stand trial in Hamburg later this month. Motassadeq also witnessed Atta signing his will.
Mzoudi rented the apartment at Marienstrasse 54 in Hamburg, where Atta had lived. Prosecutors said he was close to Motassadeq, Zakariya Essabar, and Ramzi Binalshibh. Mr. Essabar is still at large and sought by police. Mr. Binalshibh, who authorities believe was the main contact between the Hamburg group and Al Qaeda, was recently arrested in Pakistan and is now in US custody.
Prosecutors said they now have evidence that Mzoudi, Essabar, and Motassadeq visited Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan together in the summer of 2000. Mzoudi, the German prosecutor said, also helped to cover up the whereabouts of Marwan al-Shehhi, one of the three hijackers who had lived in Hamburg. Mzoudi found a room in a student dormitory for al-Shehhi in the final weeks before he departed with Atta and Ziad Jarrah to begin flight training in the US in May 2000.
Mzoudi also financed Essabar's planned flight training in the US. Essabar had been foreseen as a pilot to replace Binalshibh, who failed to get a visa but he was unable to get a visa.
Germany's federal prosecutor said Mzoudi is "accused of having supported the members of the cell around Mohammad Atta that played a substantial role in the terrorist attacks on the United States of America on September 11, 2001."
The details released by prosecutors in light of Mzoudi's arrest show that more than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, authorities are still learning about the extent of the Al Qaeda network in Germany.
"The problem is far from solved," says Herbert Mueller, head of the Islamic investigation division at the Office of the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence, in the southwestern state of Baden Wuerttemberg. "We have learned a lot, but every time we learn something new, it leads us to more information in a new direction. We are still puzzled by the entire structure and how it functions."
Germany has stepped up efforts to crack down on Islamic groups. Last weekend police raided 11 homes and offices of people suspected of planning terrorist strikes in Germany, including the US military base Spangdahlem in Rhineland Palatinate.
The investigation was leaked to the weekly Focus magazine, which carried an article. The publication prompted police to interrupt their investigation and detain the suspects in Cottbus in eastern Germany, as well as in homes in the western states Hesse and Baden Wuerttemberg, the federal prosecutor said.
The prosecutor said five people based in Cottbus had formed a cell with the intention to carry out attacks "with the aim of spreading Islamic values." Nevertheless, the prosecutor said the evidence gathered was not strong enough to arrest any of the five and they were released.
German authorities are making progress uncovering the al Qaeda links, but it is still often difficult for police to penetrate the militant Islamic subculture. There are some 3.3 million Muslims in Germany. Around 1 percent of them are believed to be militant, according to the domestic intelligence service.
"We have a very clear problem that the organizations in this Islamic subculture are massively networked and it is difficult to separate the militants from the rest," says Ms. Spuler-Stegemann.