You couldn't exactly say that they were impolite. They solemnly handed new visitors a Koran in German translation. They smiled. They didn't even mind being called Islamists. One of them took a dictionary down from the shelf and pointed with his finger at the definition of "Islamist": Someone who studies Islam as a scholar. Which, of course, is not inaccurate.
They studied the Koran attentively and thoroughly at the Taiba mosque in Hamburg, just a few hundred meters from the city's main train station. Police shut down the mosque last week. The Hamburg official in charge of interior affairs said it had become a center of radicalization and a meeting point for jihadists. The main door is now sealed shut.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Hamburg mosque became known worldwide as the Al-Quds Mosque. Three of the 9/11 hijackers had frequently attended prayers there: Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi. The building on Steindamm Street remained under surveillance for the next nine years. It was probably the most closely observed building in the city.
It isn't quite clear why Christoph Ahlhaus, the interior minister of the city-state of Hamburg, decided to close the mosque at this particular time. The reasons he gave are not new. Besides, the organization that operated the mosque was having financial problems and it was quite possible that the Islamists would have vacated the building on their own before long.
Nothing But a Person Who Devotes Himself to Allah
The Taiba mosque had no minaret and its entrance at Steindamm 103, between a Vietnamese restaurant and a gym, was easy to overlook. It was reached by walking through a neighborhood of sex shops, arcades, junkies and prostitutes behind Hamburg's main station. The supporting association had rented the second and third floors of the building, which consisted of 380 square meters of floor space (about 4,100 square feet) on each floor, enough for two prayer rooms, a barber shop, a kitchen, tables, chairs and a grocery.
Islam signifies devotion, the faithful claimed when the mosque's doors were still open. They insisted that a Muslim is nothing but a person who devotes himself to Allah, and to the will of the almighty creator, ruler and preserver of all existence. A special form of devotion is fundamentalism, which can lead to violence if left unchecked. But no one at Steindamm 103 mentioned violence.
Three types of believers visited the mosque. First, there were the old people, with their stiff knees and hips, who sat on plastic chairs in the first row, directly at the window, during the Chutba, or Friday prayers. They had emigrated from Morocco and had prayed there for years.
Then there were the younger men, most of them under 30. Many looked back on a life of drugs, alcohol and violence, or at least that was what they claimed. In their search for truth, they plunged eagerly into what they believed undiluted Islam to be: the world's strongest replacement drug. They wore light-colored robes and white crocheted caps, and they included Germans, Persians, Russians, Bosnians, Moroccans and men from other African countries. They were converts and reverts, people who had fallen, been reformed and now believed that they were enlightened.
They were also searchers who came to the mosque to connect with like-minded people, brothers who would embrace each other, overjoyed to have found a community where life suddenly made sense again. "A non-believer cannot understand how much this religion can capture the heart," said one.
Keeping an Eye on the Mosque
Finally, there were the oddballs who wandered into the mosque from Steindamm Street, babbled about Allah and, by the next day, were back on the street corner smoking cigarettes.
The authorities focused most of their attention on the second group.
Many intelligence agencies were interested in the mosque after the 9/11 attacks. They noted that some of the men who repeatedly went there to pray were people who had attracted attention with their radical pronouncements. They wondered about the connection between the mosque and these seemingly radical individuals.
For years the Hamburg branch of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, had been keeping an eye on the mosque "with every tool of intelligence at our disposal," as the agency disclosed after the mosque was shut down. The two floors were completely bugged. The Hamburg police was apparently trying to recruit informants, and the BfV was also interested. The mosque also appealed to Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, which would surreptitiously place its agents in the mosque, thereby enhancing their reputation as radicals before they were deployed abroad.
Visitors to the mosque suspected they were under observation. Mamoun Darkazanli, who led Friday prayers until recently and whose congregation called him Abu Ilyas, was probably also aware of the extent of the surveillance. Hardly anyone seemed to mind the bugs, the informants and the agents at first. In fact, the boys in the mosque were even proud of the fact that they were being watched; it made them feel important and reinforced their belief that they were special. They reflected on who might be a spy. When one man spoke Arabic without an accent, they suspected he worked for Egyptian intelligence, and they were also convinced that the CIA was watching them, and that perhaps the Moroccans were, as well. They also believed that the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, had to be involved.
Nevertheless, the faithful came together every Friday on the carpet in front of the wooden pedestal on the second floor -- 150 men in socks, 200 on a good day. The women prayed in the next room. Abu Ilyas, who gave his sermons in Arabic, spoke about the foundations of faith, the methods of prayer and the many tricks and ruses employed by the "Shaitan," or Satan, to lure righteous Muslims away from their faith.
Abu Ilyas stood on his small pedestal before the faithful. He never shouted. Instead, his voice undulated -- he spoke even more quietly during the parts of the sermon he believed were important. The men who sat at his feet and couldn't speak Arabic followed the movements of his lips and his gestures. During his sermon, he would grip a wooden railing or a rolled-up piece of paper with his hand. Sometimes he would bring together the fingertips of his right hand to make a point and then, at the next word, spread them apart as if to imitate fireworks. He reportedly knew the Koran by heart. The faithful looked up to him.
Abu Ilyas, or Mamoun Darkazanli, is 52, comes from Syria and has a German passport. After the 9/11 attacks in the United States, his name appeared on a United Nations list of suspected terrorists, and there is still a warrant out for his arrest in Spain. The Spanish authorities accuse him of having provided logistical support to an al-Qaida cell there. He denies the allegations.
Spain petitioned for his extradition in 2003. In November 2004, he was already waiting on the runway at a Berlin airport, about to be flown to Madrid, when Germany's Federal Constitutional Court issued an order blocking his extradition due to a formality. Darkazanli was released after nine months.
Out of the Mosque, Into the Basement
Years later, he gave private lessons at the mosque on Steindamm Street to those who were hungry for knowledge. He squatted on the carpet, surrounded by a half dozen of his acolytes, who were permitted to ask him questions. At the same time, a burly man named Bashir translated the sermon into rough German in a room behind the prayer room.
Bashir wears a dense beard that covers all of his lower face, except the space between his upper lip and his large nose. Like most of the others in the mosque, he believed that the Koran could not be reinterpreted and read from a modern perspective, and that the text ought to be taken literally. Bashir had a reputation at the mosque for being a good-natured fellow who, nevertheless, could be more rigid and inflexible than almost anyone else. He lived at the mosque because he had no apartment of his own. His wife also lived there.
Bashir, sitting in the back room, crossed his legs. The Shaitan is trying to persuade you, he said, the Shaitan whispers things into your ear that seem harmless to you. That's because the Shaitan's goal is to seduce you in tiny steps, but in the end you will sin if you don't resist his whispered words. The bearded Bashir may have seemed like a storyteller putting the fear of God into the children, but he was dead serious.
In early March 2009, nine men and two women, taking various routes, set off from Hamburg to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some of them were converts to Islam, and three were younger than 30. They had reportedly met at the Taiba mosque. The Hamburg branch of the BfV suspects that the group was on its way to visit military training camps -- a group trip to jihad. But despite the informants and agents who were practically stepping on each other's feet in the mosque, and despite the intense surveillance, no one seemed capable of stopping the group.
Enormous Black Knife
German authorities did revoke the passport of one of the men, and two were detained in Pakistan and sent back to Hamburg. A fourth man, who called himself Abu Askar, joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and subsequently appeared on videos, holding an enormous black knife in his hand. A Syrian-born German citizen named Rami M. was arrested in Pakistan, where the authorities accuse him of having attended a special training program in building explosives. He is expected to return to Germany in late summer.
The two young men who were detained in Pakistan were soon back at the Taiba mosque for Friday prayers. Michael W., now 25, is from Kazakhstan, and Alexander J., a Chechen, is 30. Michael W. seemed to be the more devout of the two. He had a thick beard, usually wore a white robe and during prayers sat close to the pedestal on which Abu Ilyas stood to give his sermon. After the sermon, he walked up to the third floor to join his Muslim brothers for a meal of soup and bread. He had a faraway look in his eyes and didn't seem angry that he had been stopped shortly before his destination. He took two lists of "Rules of Behavior for Jihad" with him on his trip to Pakistan, which included instructions like: "Be calm in battle. Don't shout. Don't desecrate any corpses."
There was never any talk of jihad in the mosque. When some of the young men began using the computers on the third floor, which were available to all visitors, to download videos from the Internet, the board of the mosque association had the computers removed as a precaution.
'Myths, Lies, Half-Truths'
The board would have liked to chase away the past like some annoying insect. Generous donors were hesitant to give to the mosque, and its management was determined to shed its reputation as a supporter of terrorists and advocate of hate. On July 20, 2008, the supporting association changed its name from "Hamburg Arab Cultural Association Masjid al-Quds" to "Taiba, Arab-German Cultural Association." The young men urged the older members to be more open, so that "a causal relationship is not established between us and terrorism." On their website, they began responding more frequently to newspaper articles and television reports. One section of the website was titled "Myths, Lies, Half-truths."
The association published a description of its activities, in which it stated, that it has "an education mission" and is pursuing a "Renaissance of the true Islam." It was an attempt to unite the moderates and the fundamentalists, but the fundamentalists remained skeptical. They were uninterested in compromise.
There are about 20 prayer rooms in the Steindamm vicinity, but many believers at the Taiba mosque saw themselves as the ones who had understood their religion better than anyone else. They were the serious believers, the defenders of the sole truth, Allah's elites.
Most of them supported the fight against the international troops in Afghanistan, "the resistance," as they called it. They rejected democratic elections because, as they argued, politicians make laws that could be against the will of God. They believed that Islamic Sharia law is the only law for a Muslim. After prayers, the younger members of the mosque went online to discuss whether it was their duty to aggressively confront all non-believers, including their parents.
When the association started having financial problems in the summer of 2009, it collected donations to move to a smaller building, but it was unable to find a property. In a letter to the landlord, the association asked for a rent reduction because of its "growing mountain of debt" and managed to negotiate the rent down to €5,000 ($6,400). The term of the new lease was to end on Dec. 31, 2010.
In May, the Hamburg interior ministry petitioned a Hamburg administrative court for a warrant to search the mosque association's premises. The request included quotations from Abu Ilya's sermons and Bashir's lessons. The court rejected the request, arguing that the evidence was too vague. It was only after the authorities had provided more material that a senior administrative court granted the petition. After the association's premises had been searched, Hamburg's interior minister said that the episode had finally been brought to a close.
The Islamists from the Taiba mosque are now roaming Steindamm Street aimlessly. "We are like gypsies," one of them says. Last week, six of them were standing together in the basement of a house, in a prayer room lit by fluorescent lights. Ramadan had begun. A scholar from Egypt was giving a talk, and the mood was relaxed. The men in the group looked around. Their new space wasn't half bad.