The recent U.S. terrorism alert for Europe has focused attention on Islamist militants originating in Germany. U.S. interrogation of a German national captured in Afghanistan suggested that some militants with roots in northern Germany were planning to return to Europe to stage attacks.
But while some have warned of the dangers of homegrown terrorism in Germany, others see the alert as alarmist.
On a recent day, 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 at the mosque have a reputation for being apolitical. They worry the terrorism 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 deputy head 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.
"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 and they must bring them to the jail and they must solve the problem. We have not perverted the religion," Yazici says.
Closing Mohamed Atta's Mosque
Indeed, a senior intelligence official in Hamburg's Interior Ministry, speaking on background, said, "Hamburg is 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 concerned about only 30 to 40 militants who are German citizens or legal German residents and who've attended a terrorist camp.
In August, authorities in Hamburg closed the notorious Taiba mosque. That's where members of the Sept. 11 Hamburg cell -- including ringleader Mohamed Atta -- once prayed. 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.
He says they were criminals and 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 to the Western countries," Ulrich says.
Stronger Powers To Arrest And Detain Needed
It has been reported -- although not confirmed by German officials -- that several men from that group were killed in the recent U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.
Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Essen, says the three dozen radicals that German intelligence is tracking are not the ones he worries about.
"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 [doesn't] visit a mosque," he says.
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 fairly high. For example, 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 that they planned to use that training for a specific attack.
Tophoven says that needs to change.
"A harder, new regulation, a new law, must be written that any visit to a terrorist camp must be forbidden," he says.
But given Germany's history, any attempt to strengthen the powers of the police or the intelligence services is sure to spark opposition.