Germany applies lessons from Hamburg 9/11 trauma

HAMBURG, Germany, Sept 10 (Reuters) - Six years after three Hamburg-based Arab students led the Sept. 11 attacks on America, German security officials say militant Islamists still pose a serious threat but they are now better placed to detect them.

German police last week mounted their biggest operation for 30 years, arresting three men suspected of a major bomb plot against U.S.-linked targets in Germany.

"Our chances of knowing and intervening when people have been radicalised or want to commit terrorist acts, have grown," said Manfred Murck, head of Hamburg's domestic intelligence service.

Germany reeled at the news that the 2001 attacks on the United States were planned by an al Qaeda cell in Hamburg.

Three of the 19 hijackers lived here, studied and visited the Al Quds mosque, a prayer room upstairs from a fitness and bodybuilding club near Hamburg station, set in a neighbourhood of sex shops, grocery stores and restaurants.

"I think the authorities have more foresight now, they try to understand the ideas behind terrorism and there are more laws to prevent attacks," said Kurdish shopkeeper Ernesto Miro.

"The problem is that the extremists, who have these unbelievable, inhuman ideas, use the freedom of democracy to do bad things. There need to be even more ways to prevent them."


Mohamed Atta, who studied urban planning in Hamburg, launched the attacks when he flew the first hijacked plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

The south tower was attacked by Marwan al-Shehhi, who occasionally attended naval construction classes in Hamburg. Ziad Jarrah piloted a third flight which crashed after passengers and crew fought with hijackers. A fourth plane hit the Pentagon in Washington.

Germany responded with a raft of anti-terrorism laws, giving authorities new powers to access suspects' bank, travel and telephone records. For the first time, it was also made illegal to be a member of a foreign-based terrorist organisation.

It established a counter-terrorism coordination centre in Berlin and made great strides in linking the work of its dozens of security bodies.

Security analyst Berndt Georg Thamm said the newest and most worrying development was the emergence of "home-grown terrorists", unlike the foreigners behind 9/11. Of the three men arrested in last week's operation, two were Germans who had converted to Islam and the other was a Turk.

Home-grown militants "are a large group, they are throughout Europe, they are possible in every country," Thamm said.

"We now ask: why? Why are young people becoming radicalised in their new homeland, or elsewhere, and wanting to carry out deadly explosions?" he said.

Inside the mosaic-covered prayer room of Hamburg's Imam Ali mosque, Iranian Nasrollr Assadi called for better communication.

"We need to know that all people are the same -- Germans are people like us, Muslims and Buddhists. We need to understand each other better. I think it is happening but we need to do even more."