HAMBURG (Reuters) - Islamist radicals who once attended a Hamburg mosque linked to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks have moved on to other mosques since last year when German police closed it due to renewed security concerns, a German intelligence official said.
About 20 former worshippers at the Taiba mosque, where the 9/11 leader Mohammad Atta once prayed, have now regrouped at the al-Taqwa mosque in the southern district of Harburg, said Manfred Murck, head of the Hamburg branch of Germany’s domestic intelligence service.
About 20 to 30 others use other centres in more central districts, Murck, Head of the Hamburg State Office for the Protection of the Constitution, told Reuters, adding that the 40 or 50 were an ethnically varied group of north and west Africans, Arabs and Asians, among others.
Taiba drew fresh concern in mid-2010 when U.S. intelligence picked up signs of a plot to stage attacks in Europe involving members of a group of 11 former worshippers at the mosque. They had left Hamburg in 2009 to fight against the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
“We still have an eye on them,” Murck said of the Islamists at Taiba who had since moved on to other mosques in Hamburg, a major port city where 27 percent of the population is foreign or has an immigrant background.
“We have to -- we think they are people who are still in favour of jihad,” he said in an interview, adding he hoped that some in time would become “mainstream, normal Muslims and will give up being jihadists”.
“Within a few months we noticed that one mosque in Harburg, in the southern part of Hamburg, is a place where we think less than half of them meet more or less every week,” he said.
“There are about 20 of them meeting at the Taqwa mosque and another 20 to 30 are somewhere else.”
Approached for comment, a man who emerged from Friday prayers at al-Taqwa, a small, ground floor prayer room on a quiet tree-lined street, angrily told Reuters there was nothing improper going on, he had nothing to say to journalists and would not answer questions. He did not give his name.
Hamburg residents said the mosque tended to be frequented by Salafis, followers of an ultra-conservative brand of Islam influenced by the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi strain of the religion.
Salafis are a minority among Germany’s 4 million Muslims, but are becoming more assertive, sometimes straining ties with other Muslim communities seeking to integrate in Germany.
Germany has heightened surveillance on Islamist radicals since it emerged that three of the suicide hijackers who led the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States had lived for years in the northern city of Hamburg.
German authorities say they are still worried about what they see as potential for a rise in militant activity, pointing to Islamist commentators who cite Germany’s military presence in Afghanistan as an incitement to Muslims.
In Hamburg, where Muslims make up about 5 percent of the 1.7 million population, authorities beefed up security in July 2010, when a member of the 11-strong so-called “Hamburg Travel Group” held by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July 2010 revealed details of planned attacks on targets in Europe.
Hamburg police shut down Taiba, formerly known as the Al Quds Mosque, the following month, saying it had links with armed Islamist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Of the 11, only eight ever made it to Pakistan. Two were believed killed in a drone attack. The others are variously detained, living at liberty but under surveillance by the authorities in Germany, or have disappeared from view.
Germany has not suffered an attack by transnational jihadis but it has disrupted plots with overseas ties. There have also been attacks by militants apparently acting on their own.
On Wednesday, a 21-year-old Kosovo Albanian man confessed to shooting dead two U.S. airmen and wounding two more at Frankfurt airport in March, telling a court he was swayed by Islamist lies and could not undo what he had done.
Murck said he had no “concrete hints” a militant attack was in the offing but he was studying whether plotters were planning an attack to take revenge for the killing by U.S. forces in May of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“We don’t see this as an important question for (Islamist) people in Hamburg. A different question is what do some guys in Afghanistan or maybe Yemen think? Will they try to attack Germany or Hamburg because of this? That might be possible.”
“One of the scenarios we have of a possible terrorist act in Germany has to do with people coming from the outside, perhaps with supporters in Germany. At the moment we don’t have concrete hints that something like this is going on in the short term.”
Reporting by William Maclean; Editing by Alistair Lyon