In shadow of 9/11, Hamburg tracks Atta contacts
HAMBURG: The balding young man with the black beard raised his hands to cover his face as three visitors entered the room. Abdelghani Mzoudi is no stranger to the world’s front pages and television screens after a six-month trial that saw him acquitted this year of aiding and abetting the Sept 11 attacks on the United States. But he does not like to be recognised, still less to speak to the press.
In a drab canteen at Hamburg’s Al Quds mosque, housed in an anonymous grey-tiled building with a fitness club on the ground floor, the 31-year-old Moroccan whiles away the afternoon with three friends while waiting for five o’clock prayers. But not for much longer, if Hamburg’s interior minister Udo Nagel has his way. Nagel has launched legal proceedings to expel both Mzoudi and a fellow-Moroccan, Mounir El Motassadeq, who is currently on trial for the second time in connection with Sept 11.
“My goal is that both of them should leave the Federal Republic by, or during, 2005,” Nagel said in an interview.
Even if “M & M”, as he jokingly calls them, are acquitted by the courts, he wants them kicked out of Germany on the basis of evidence at their trials that both attended al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and were therefore supporters of a “foreign terrorist group”.
Motassadeq has admitted undergoing such training, but Mzoudi has remained silent. The two men were close friends of lead hijacker Mohamed Atta. They both signed his will as witnesses, but they deny any knowledge of the 9/11 plot.
Their lawyers say they will fight the deportations. Officials say “M & M” are among up to 20 or so suspected radicals in Atta’s circle of contacts who are still living in Hamburg under the close watch of the authorities. Keen to get rid of such individuals, Nagel bemoans the fact that deportations typically drag on for months or years while defendants exhaust various avenues of appeal. Only one suspect from Hamburg has been expelled so far.
Nagel also cites a “damned complex” parallel case involving Mzoudi. A court last month ruled that the Moroccan could resume his college studies under German education law, but the Hamburg authorities then banned him under the law on foreigners, again citing alleged terrorist links.
Frustrated by the Hamburg cases and others, the federal government is making it easier to expel foreign extremists under a new immigration law which takes effect from Jan. 1. Even then, foreigners will have a good chance of resisting deportation if they are permanent residents. Several prominent suspects, in Hamburg or elsewhere in Germany, acquired such rights as refugees or by marrying local women. Parallel to the Hamburg authorities’ efforts to prosecute or expel suspects are surveillance operations, focused on around 200 individuals they consider “Islamist extremists”. Many frequent the eastern St Georg district of town and worship at various local mosques.
One of them is Al Quds, several hundred metres (yards) down Steindamm street from Hamburg’s main railway station, past sex shops, grocery stores and ethnic cafes and restaurants. Above the “Olympic Fitness und Bodybuilding Club”, whose iron-pumping clientele can be glimpsed through the open door, a poorly lit staircase leads to the first-floor prayer room once frequented by Atta and others in the “Hamburg cell”.
Some of the men inside greet reporters politely, while others are suspicious. One checks a tape recorder in a journalist’s bag to make sure it is not running. No, the imam is not here; come back later.
At another nearby mosque, imam Zulhajrat Fejzulali says he knows the authorities are watching and is happy for them to keep an eye on potential trouble-makers. “We know we’re under observation,” said Fejzulali, a member of the council of the Muslim community in Hamburg. “We try to behave well and legally. We want peace and security.”
Of the estimated 200 people they consider extremists, security officials class around 20 as dangerous, but they say they cannot shadow their every move.
“We are not able to keep an eye on each of them 24 hours a day. We know we just can have a kind of general overview, concentrating from time to time on certain persons or issues,” Manfred Murck, deputy head of Hamburg’s domestic intelligence agency, said in an interview.
It would take 20 agents to follow a single individual round the clock, he said. With 137 staff, he has to be highly selective in deciding where to send his observation teams and whose telephones to tap.
“It’s always a kind of bad feeling in your stomach. You hope it’s enough and that you have the right guy.”
Three years after the Sept 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and the shocking revelation for Germans that Arab students based in Hamburg had led them, the authorities here believe they are better placed now to detect potential threats.
For all that, minister Nagel was careful not to claim that radical Islamist structures have been smashed. “I wouldn’t go that far. We know them, and they know that we know them,” he said. “As far as possible, we are trying to expel them and get them out of the country.” reuters