Saturday, January 8, 2005

BERLIN — Islamist extremists accused of plotting to kill Iraq’s prime minister in Germany are smuggling battle-hardened fighters from Iraq to Europe, raising a potential new terrorist threat on the Continent, German officials said.

More than 20 reputed supporters of Ansar al-Islam have been arrested in Europe in the past year as authorities move against the group that has links with al Qaeda and Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, who’s been leading bloody attacks against U.S. forces and domestic security forces in Iraq.

Ansar al-Islam is suspected of spiriting dozens of fired-up young Muslims to Iraq to join the insurgency, but the latest raids in Germany — the most spectacular yet against the group — heightened concerns that the organization also could pose a menace outside Iraq.

Acting on intelligence suggesting the group planned to attack Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in Berlin, police on Dec. 3 arrested three Iraqis believed to be Ansar al-Islam members.

Arrest warrants for the three plot suspects — identified only as Ata R., Mazen H. and Rafik Y. — were based on wiretaps and intelligence that one of them apparently cased Berlin locales on Mr. Allawi’s itinerary. But investigators have turned up no weapons or bomb-making materials, and Mr. Allawi’s name was never mentioned in the men’s coded telephone conversations.

About 100 Ansar al-Islam supporters are in Germany alone, officials say. Mullah Krekar, the group’s spiritual leader, has lived for years as a refugee in Norway, and investigators believe the group also has recruited volunteers in Italy and Britain. Estimates of its total membership range from about 500 to 1,000.

“It’s right up there on the list of threats,” said Michael Ziegler, a spokesman for Bavarian security authorities. “The foiled attack on Allawi shows that this group must be considered dangerous also for Europe.”

Germany’s pre-emptive action to protect Mr. Allawi contrasts with the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, and the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States: A key Madrid suspect had been under surveillance long before the train bombings, and three of the four September 11 suicide pilots — including lead hijacker Mohamed Atta — lived and studied in Hamburg, undetected by authorities.

“The security agencies are generally acting a bit earlier now, even at the risk of weaker evidence,” said Kai Hirschmann, deputy head of the Institute for Terrorism Research in Essen.

“The problem all over Europe is that they can only do something when there’s specific evidence of an attack,” he said. “If people just sit around and talk about jihad, there’s relatively little you can do.”

Europe’s openness to refugees and civil-rights guarantees often make it hard for authorities to crack down on terror suspects. But they have stepped up pressure on Ansar al-Islam over the past year, leading to the string of arrests in Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey and Sweden.

How many Europe-based volunteers have gone to fight in Iraq is unknown, but authorities already are tracking the threat of Islamic fighters returning to Europe with experience in waging holy war in Iraq — much the way others in the past returned hardened from fighting in Chechnya.

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