Monday, October 4, 2010

Hamburg cell at heart of terrorist plot against Europe

Hamburg, Germany (CNN) -- A group of jihadists from the German city of Hamburg are alleged to be at the heart of the recent al Qaeda plot to launch co-ordinated terrorist attacks against European cities, according to European intelligence officials.

The plan prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a Europe-wide security advisory for Americans traveling in Europe.

Western intelligence officials say they learned about the plot when Ahmed Sidiqi, a German citizen of Afghan descent was arrested in Afghanistan in July and taken to the U.S. Airbase at Bagram for questioning. He has not been charged and intelligence sources in Germany say he is co-operating with the investigation.

In early 2009 Sidiqi and ten others left Hamburg for the tribal areas of Pakistan -- where most joined a jihadist group fighting U.S. and coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan, according to German intelligence officials.

Sidiqi told American interrogators that at least one member of his travel group was to be a "foot-soldier" in the plot, with other members of the group helping to plan the attacks, a European counter-terrorism official told CNN.

Sidiqi has been fully cooperating with American authorities, German intelligence sources say. Every day, they say, information emerges from Sidiqi which provides a "new piece to the puzzle." German authorities expect to be given access to Sidiqi in the next few days, according to the sources, and until they do so will not be able to verify his claims.

Over the weekend CNN spoke to Sidiqi's sister in Hamburg. She said his family were shocked by the allegations against him. She said that in 2009 Sidiqi told his family he was traveling to Afghanistan to start a new life there with his wife. They say they last heard from him shortly before his arrest when he phoned to tell them that he would soon be coming home because he missed his family, said his sister, who described him as a devout family loving man.

German officials say the Hamburg group were all recruited from the Taiba mosque in Hamburg. In the 1990s the same mosque -- then called Al Quds - was attended by the lead hijacker in the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed Atta.

A friend of Atta from those days has emerged as a crucial figure in the new plot, European intelligence officials tell CNN. Naamen Meziche, 40, a French citizen of Algerian descent, worked to persuade a number of young men praying at the Taiba mosque to fight Jihad, according to the officials. His whereabouts are unknown; he is thought to be in the Afghan/Pakistan border area. Meziche's wife told CNN that he was overseas.

According to a European counter-terrorism official, Meziche had longstanding connections to al Qaeda dating back to the 1990s, which he was able to rekindle once he arrived in Pakistan's tribal areas.

The group coalesced late in 2008, and most of them had left for Pakistan before authorities had a chance to prevent them, according to German intelligence officials, despite constant surveillance of suspected militants at the Taiba mosque.

The group used several different travel routes to get to Pakistan, some traveling overland through Iran and some traveling by air via the Gulf. Managing the logistics, according to German intelligence officials, was a man known as Asadullah M., 52, a Hamburg resident of Afghan origin. He is also thought to be in the Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Eight members of the travel group, including two wives of the militants, eventually made it to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where they joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an Uzbek militant group with strong ties to al Qaeda, according to German intelligence officials.

One member of the group was Rami Makanesi, 25, a German of Syrian descent. Another was Shahab Dashti, a German citizen of Iranian descent. Late in 2009 he appeared in an IMU video. Wielding a knife and gun, he urged other Germans to join in the jihad against American forces in Afghanistan. Several other Germans appeared in the video and were filmed firing weapons in what appeared to be live fire exercises. Several scenes featured what appeared to be the group storming enemy positions with rockets and guns, the type of combat skills which Western counter-terrorism officials fear could be used in Western cities in a "Mumbai-style" attack.

In November 2008, an assault on hotels and other "soft targets" in Mumbai by members of Lashkar e Tayyiba -- a terror group based in Pakistan -- killed more than 160 people.

One European counter-terrorism official says Sidiqi told his interrogators that Meziche assumed a planning role in the new plot - assisted by Asadullah M - which Osama Bin Laden himself approved. Sidiqi said that Dashti, who appeared in the IMU video, was tasked to be a "foot-soldier" in the plot against Europe, a European counter-terrorism told CNN. German intelligence officials believe Dashti is still at large in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Dashti, who previously had a Westernized lifestyle, started to attend the Taiba mosque in Hamburg after converting from Shia to Sunni Islam, in part, German intelligence officials believe, to distance himself from a domineering father. Family members reached by CNN over the weekend believe he was "fooled and tricked" by extremists into going to Pakistan. His wife traveled with him to Pakistan and is still believed to be in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.

The Imam of the Taiba mosque in Hamburg is Mamoun Darkazanli, a German businessman originally from Syria. The 9/11 Commission identified him as having links to al Qaeda financiers. In 2003 he was charged with membership of al Qaeda by Spanish authorities, but as a German citizen was not extradited. He faces no charges in Germany. Repeated attempts by CNN to reach Darkazanli for a response on the latest plot have been unsuccessful.

In the years after 9/11 the Taiba mosque became a magnet for al Qaeda sympathizers across Europe.

"They all wanted to come and pray where Mohammed Atta prayed," a German intelligence official told CNN. Hamburg authorities shut down the mosque a few weeks after Sidiqi was arrested.

The decision to shut the mosque was a difficult one, say officials in Hamburg, because the presence in one place of so many militants made it easier to monitor their activities. But they say the mosque had become a recruiting center for jihadists across Europe.

Several militants now back in Germany who failed to make it to Pakistan's tribal areas are of continuing concern to German intelligence services, who have kept them under observation.

"Their greatest enemy is the United States," a German intelligence official told CNN.

A recent report by Hamburg's intelligence services stated that 45 jihadists lived freely and openly in the city, from where they actively supported al Qaeda. High evidence thresholds under the German legal system have made it very difficult for authorities to make arrests, German officials told CNN. In addition to those actively supporting al Qaeda. another 200 Islamists living in the city are described as having "violent tendencies."

German intelligence officials told CNN that like many European cities, Hamburg faces a challenge from Islamist extremists, but that some cities, like London, face greater challenges. They say they are increasing resources to confront the problem of Islamist extremism. They say that radicalization is on the rise because of the growth of German-language extremist websites and the revolution in social media.

A senior German counter-terrorism source told CNN thats some 200 individuals have left the country since 9/11 to receive training with militant groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and that dozens have returned. According to German intelligence officials, the uptick in U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan has not staunched the enthusiasm of German militants wishing to travel there.

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