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German authorities arrest 22 people for allegedly aiding terrorists

BERLIN—German police stormed mosques, shops and homes across the country Wednesday, arresting 22 people suspected of financing and providing illegal documents to terrorists.

The arrests mark an intensification of Germany's battle against terror amid growing concerns that Islamic groups in Germany are linked to international terrorists.

German officials, citing privacy laws, refused to identify those arrested or to say what group or groups they belong to. Those arrested included German citizens as well as people from Bulgaria, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, officials said.

German terrorism experts and media reports have said that intelligence officials believe money leaving Germany is being routed through Syria to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian whom U.S. and Iraqi officials accuse of masterminding a terror campaign in Iraq. In early December, German police arrested three alleged members of the Iraq-based Ansar al-Islam terrorist group, saying they were plotting to assassinate visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

"This year will be full of similar raids and arrests," predicted Udo Ulfkotte, a Frankfurt-based terrorism expert. "Germany is central to terror issues in Europe, and for years, too little has been done."

German officials have recently toughened their approach to terrorism. Last month, the government established an anti-terror command headquarters at a secret location in Berlin. On Jan. 1, a law went into effect requiring detailed background checks for every immigrant applying for residency and permitting the deportation of "Islamic hate-preachers."

This past weekend, the interior minister of Bavaria, Guenther Beckstein, warned in a speech that more than 500 Islamic extremists living in Germany "must be considered extremely dangerous." He said Germany was home to "several thousand other highly fanatic" Muslims.

The investigation that led to Wednesday's arrests was begun by Bavarian authorities, who directed the raids in five German states. Targets in the raids included a mosque in Frankfurt and homes in Berlin, Munich and Ulm.

A spokesman for the Bavarian Bureau of Investigation, Detlef Puchelt, said the raids targeted those who "provide logistical support, financial support and recruiting others who do carry out attacks." Police said blank passports and official visa stamps were recovered.

Eleven individuals were initially sought in the raids, but another 11 were arrested when they were found at the targeted locations, Puchelt said. More than 700 police officers took part in the raids.

Police believe those arrested were involved in making false passports, visas and residency documents for terrorists. Germany was used as a base for those plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Ulfkotte said some German officials suspect that Muslim extremists may use pilgrimages to Mecca as a cover for taking large amounts of money out of Germany. Once out, money is more easily passed on to representatives of terror groups.

Ulfkotte said records indicate that as much as $100,000 a month leaves Germany headed toward terrorists attacking American soldiers in Iraq.

In an article two weeks ago, the magazine Der Spiegel said German security officials are becoming increasingly concerned about unflattering references to Germany on Web sites frequented by radical Muslims.

The magazine said Germany is often lumped with the United States, Britain and Israel on the Web sites because of its toughened anti-terror laws, its stance on the reconstruction of Iraq and for being a leader in continuing military action in Afghanistan.

Last month, German Interior Minister Otto Schily warned that "Islamic terrorism is a threat to our existence, and that threat might be rising."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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