By Björn Hengst and Christoph Scheuermann in Hamburg
The name of the mosque is a striking exaggeration. Masjid Taiba, which means "beautiful mosque," is located in a plain building on a street in the seedy St. Georg district of Hamburg, right next door to a fitness studio. To get to the prayer rooms one has to walk into a poorly-lit foyer and up some stone steps. The carpet in the prayer room is worn and, in winter, condensation drips down the panes of the poorly insulated windows.
Nevertheless, 250 Muslims crowded into the mosque for Friday prayers -- Moroccans, Bosnians, Russians and many Germans. They included some elderly people, but most of them were young men. Many of them had converted to Islam or had returned to the religion after years away from it, and in a lot of cases, these men were radical in their beliefs.
At around 6 a.m. on Monday, the Hamburg police raided the mosque as well as the Arab-German Cultural Society attached to it, and the homes of society members. The mosque was closed with immediate effect, the society was banned and its assets and documents were confiscated.
Extremists Met in Mosque, Authorities Say
Hamburg Interior Minister Christoph Ahlhaus described the mosque as "a focal point for the jihadist scene." The Taiba society had "spread an ideology that was hostile to democracy" in sermons, courses, seminars and via the Internet, Ahlhaus said.
The mosque claimed to represent the original and only true form of Islam, unadulterated by the temptations of the modern world. That is why many worshippers who prayed there didn't mind being called Islamists and fundamentalists. After all, they argued, this was where the foundations of Islam were being taught.
Many of them are convinced that most Islamic countries are ruled by tyrants. A caliphate, like the one the Taliban had established in Afghanistan before 2001, is the only truly Islamic form of government, they said. Many visitors approved of the "Islamic resistance" now being waged against foreign forces, including German troops, in Afghanistan.
Under Close Scrutiny
Every Muslim visitor must have known that he was under close scrutiny from police authorities as soon as he set foot in the building. In fact, it proved quite helpful for the Hamburg intelligence service because all the city's Islamists would congregate here. That might explain why the deputy head of the service, Manfred Murck, didn't express delight at its closure at a news conference on Monday.
The mosque had been watched closely since immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks because some of the suicide pilots, including Mohammed Atta, had frequented it. It attracted heightened attention last year after a group of 10 Hamburg jihadists traveled to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, apparently in order to gain terrorist training there. One of them, an Iranian called Shahab D., joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) there and appeared in a video under the name Abu Askar in which he called on German Muslims to join the armed struggle.
Legal proceedings to ban the Taiba society lasted months until July 30, when the Hamburg senior administrative court ruled that the ban could go ahead. After Sept. 11, the mosque had become a "symbolic place for jihadists," Murck said on Monday.
Hamburg's intelligence service estimates that some 45 jihadists live in Hamburg. The scene has good contacts with like-minded Islamists in other German cities including Frankfurt, Berlin, Bonn and Bielefeld. Murck said there was a strong sense that the Hamburg members wanted to contribute to jihad. "They want to become heroes," he said. But he added that there were no concrete indications at present of any planned attacks.
Authorities say the Taiba society has 20 to 30 members and that between 200 and 250 people attended Friday prayers there. Occasionally, sermons were held by Mamoun Darkazanli, a German-Syrian businessman who has long been on the radar of German authorities because of his alleged association with the suicide pilots of Sept. 11.
But investigators never found evidence that he had provided support for al-Qaida. Darkazanli is on the European Union's terror list. He is not permitted to open a bank account or run a business.
Lothar Bergmann, departmental head for public safety in the Hamburg Interior Ministry, described him as a "hate preacher" on Monday. Spain has filed a request for his extradition on terrorism charges but Germany won't extradite him. Authorities say he lives off state benefits.
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