FRANKFURT, Germany German investigators have been hunting terrorist “sleepers” since September 11.
It appears they have found one. Late last month, officials said they had caught a Turkish university student as he was leaving the country. In his bags were detonators, a CD-ROM with instructions for conducting an Islamic “holy war,” and a protective suit against chemical and biological weapons, prosecutors said.
This success came as Germany introduced new measures including computer profiling to spy on the large numbers of Muslims living within its borders.
U.S. and German officials announced in Washington on Oct. 23 that they had identified three reputed al Qaeda operatives from Germany believed to have been associated with three of the September 11 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta. The three suspects Said Bahaji, thought to be a Moroccan; Ramsi Binalshibh of Yemen; and Moroccan Zakariya Essabar, 24 became targets of an international manhunt.
Meanwhile, questions were raised over how German authorities failed to see signs of the terrorist cell that was developing in Hamburg before the attacks on America.
“We were completely naive,” said Gerhard Vogler, head of one of Germany’s largest police unions.
Since September 11, Germany’s rusty and underfunded interior security system has been playing catch-up, reopening investigations of suspected Islamic extremists and keeping close track of religious groups suspected of “extremist tendencies.”
The arrest of the Turkish student at Frankfurt airport came as investigators continued tracking the intricate terrorist cell in Hamburg, where it was believed the September 11 attacks might have been planned.
So-called “sleeper” agents of such cells live unobtrusively until they receive a signal to activate an assigned plan.
Mr. Vogler said the German intelligence system had been cut back after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With no communists to surveil, politicians saw no real need for an active intelligence system and began trimming funds. Law enforcement authorities had to reassign or dismiss many of the officers involved in spying.
In the meantime, Muslim extremist groups took advantage of Germany’s favorable immigration rules, large Muslim population and tough information-protection laws, and found a way to hide, say security specialists.
“They found a heterogeneous population with a big Muslim diaspora,” said Kai Hirschmann, a terrorism researcher at the Federal College for Security Studies. “Of course, 99 percent of the Muslim population is like you and me, but there is always a percentage you can describe as extremist.”
Up until September 11, authorities had categorized 3,250 persons in Germany as Muslim extremists. But they had little idea of the extent and density of the network that lay behind those people.
Mr. Hirschmann said little in Germany’s past experience with terrorism including a Palestinian group’s attack during the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the political assassinations carried out by the leftist Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 1980s could have prepared it for the complexity of the al Qaeda network.
“This was no small operation, like in the past,” said Mr. Hirschmann. Al Qaeda is like Terror Inc., he added, comparing Osama bin Laden’s network to a multinational corporation. “It’s a fight that we’ve had absolutely no experience in.”
Government and security specialists said measures such as computer-aided profiling, which was reinstituted by Germany’s 16 state governments on Oct. 1, were increasingly necessary for weeding out Islamic extremists.
Investigators have indicated that they are scrutinizing primarily Muslim men of Arab descent who are financially independent, study some technical or professional trade, and make frequent trips out of the country. Other criteria are kept secret. State and federal German police are also tight-lipped about whether anyone has been brought in for questioning as a result of the method.
Faud Zaidan and other Muslim students at Darmstadt’s Technical University, just south of Frankfurt, say the increased vigilance unfairly targets them. “It’s a form of racism,” Mr. Zaidan said.
The university was compelled by a court order to give all of Mr. Zaidan’s personal data to the state police. Investigators now will run that information, and the information of close to 200,000 Muslims studying at German universities, through their computers hoping to ferret out terrorist suspects.
Authorities “should not forget that there are 400 Muslims who died in New York,” said Mr. Zaidan, leader of the Darmstadt school’s Islamic Student Organization. “We are also victims of the attack.”
Germany is considering additional counterterrorism measures.
Last month, German Interior Minister Otto Schily introduced his second package of proposals to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. He proposed enlarging the country’s border guard to include a new aircraft-protection unit akin to U.S. sky marshals, and giving new powers to the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation so that it can undertake investigations without being required to show probable cause.
Mr. Schily also has recommended changes to the national identification card to include features such as the cardholder’s fingerprints. He also wants to make it easier to ban extremist groups that operate under the guise of religious groups, and make it easier to deport extremists or violent foreign nationals.