Life and Death of a Radical Mosque

Al-Quds, the Hamburg mosque that hosted several of the 9/11 attackers, has been closed down. The only question now is: Why on Earth did it take 10 years?

This week's closing of one of Europe's most notorious mosques, Masjid Taiba, formerly known as the al-Quds mosque in Hamburg, Germany, has significance beyond the continuing saga of a place where several of the 9/11 terrorists were radicalized. It also helps counter a myth surrounding radical Islam: the notion that mosques don't matter.

When experts are pressed on why young Muslims turn to terrorism, they usually give one of two answers. The first is the socioeconomic argument -- that poverty or discrimination caused the turn to violence. We heard this most recently in the aftermath of the failed bombing in New York's Times Square: The perpetrator was said to have been a victim of the economic crash, which caused him to lose his home and, supposedly, turn to violence.

The second answer is that radicalization takes place via the Internet, where preachers of hate circulate videos and writing that corrupts receptive minds. Terrorists, so goes this argument, become what they are through the spread of new media -- not person-to-person contact.

These two arguments, however, miss the full picture. Most terrorists come from fairly prosperous backgrounds, and though the Internet does help disseminate hate, a close look at terrorism shows that, almost invariably, a necessary step in the process to radicalization occurs in a place of worship. This doesn't mean that all mosques are bad, of course, but it does mean that some have played an important role in the West's decades-long struggle with radical Islam.

The mosque that was closed on Aug. 9 is a good example. It's better known around the world by its old name, al-Quds, where Mohamed Atta and two other of the 9/11 pilots worshipped. (It was renamed in 2008.) When the attacks took place in 2001, I went to Hamburg along with many other journalists and tried to talk to the people who ran it and worshipped there. Everyone we met said that they didn't know the plotters and that their radicalization must have taken place elsewhere.

That turned out to be exactly wrong, as police investigations later showed. In 1998, in fact, the al-Quds mosque showed up in a German police investigation. A Sudanese man, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, had been arrested in a Munich suburb, charged with conspiring to build an al Qaeda network in Germany.

Salim's visit to Munich wasn't a coincidence. He was visiting men who frequented the Islamic Center of Munich, which since its founding in 1958 has been a linchpin in the Muslim Brotherhood's worldwide network of mosques. The Brotherhood is the ur-Islamist organization, helping to spread the ideology that underpins the terrorist mindset.

After Salim was deported to the United States -- and eventually sent to jail -- German police began investigating his contacts. They noticed that he had a business relationship with Mamoun Darkazanli, a Syrian-born trader who had signing rights over Salim's bank accounts. Darkazanli was a member of the al-Quds mosque, and police began to observe it. They noted he spent time with one man in particular, Said Bahaji.

Around this time, Bahaji moved into Marienstrasse 54, the home of Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, the other pilot whose plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Police followed the group of young men but couldn't figure out what they were doing. In prior investigations, most terrorists who had ended up in Germany were trying to procure the components for bombs or weapons of mass destruction. But these men didn't seem to be doing this, and so police dropped the case. In the late 1990s, no one guessed that ideology was more dangerous than tactics.

Atta, Shehhi, Bahaji, and others ended up in Afghanistan, where they learned the nuts and bolts of their trade. But what is clear is that the milieu where they felt at home was these mosques, such as al-Quds. But the connections they made at al-Quds ended up being almost as central to the mission as the skills learned in al Qaeda training camps. Interviews with mosque regulars revealed that the mosque often hosted radical speakers who urged young people to take up jihad. Recruiters also frequented the mosque, including one man suspected of sending the attackers to Afghanistan for advanced training.

When I visited the al-Quds mosque in 2001, it was clear to me that it was a special place. The mosque itself is unremarkable, little more than a prayer room and a few offices in a nondescript building near Hamburg's red-light district. But it was distributing literature promoting a xenophobic worldview in which Muslims are seen as victims of unremitting discrimination. One brochure talked about the "genocide" going on in Palestine, while another bemoaned the role of Jews in the world. Almost all the worshippers were immigrants from Arab countries, and they clearly hadn't left their conspiracy-theory-ridden politics back at home.

A year later, I revisited the mosque and talked to one of its stalwarts, Riad Barakat. He praised his one-time congregationist, Atta, saying, "He was a true martyr," because after the 9/11 attacks 71,000 people allegedly converted to Islam.

Such views were hardly unique at the time. One of Atta's roommates on Marienstrasse, Abdelghani Mzoudi, said on tape after the attacks that he wished "to die a martyr's death." He later got this wish blessed by an imam in the al-Quds mosque, according to a police tape made there.

Over the past decade, police found again and again that Muslims in al-Quds mosque were being fed a steady diet of militant Islam. The mosque still hosted a steady parade of radical speakers and recruiters. But nothing was done, as the police preferred to keep the mosque open in order to observe the radicals.

This is the law-enforcement variant of the libertarian argument that if you close a radical mosque (or brothel or drug den), people will just find some other place to carry out their illicit activities. But besides the moral problem inherent in this argument -- capitulation -- such a laissez-faire attitude has a practical problem as well. If the state tolerates radical mosques, young Muslims might think it is acceptable.

So why close it this week? Most likely, Germany has finally realized that the tactic of keeping it open for observation isn't working. Over the past few years, the media in Germany has been awash with stories of young men being drawn into the jihadi scene, many radicalized, yet again, at al-Quds mosque. Of course, one might think the original 9/11 attacks would be enough to recommend closing al-Quds -- but perhaps it took the threat of serious homegrown terrorism for Germany to finally come around.

For Americans, too, the story is about more than just a religious building. Currently, the United States is splintered by debates over whether a mosque should be built near the site of the World Trade Center. If there's anything we've learned from al-Quds mosque, it's this: When deciding whether a mosque should exist on public property, simply look at the people involved, figure out what they've done, and look into where the money comes from. Radicals leave a trail, and it really isn't that hard to find it. The hard part is acting when you find the evidence.

Bodo Marks/AFP/Getty Images


Resetting Georgia

Amid Obama's foreign-policy woes, his subtle handling of Russia’s Tbilisi policy represents a bright spot.

TBILISI — Young couples sip wine in sidewalk cafes and children play in fountains, seeking relief from the searing heat. Elsewhere, elderly men play chess on park benches and traders hawk their wares from makeshift kiosks. It's another summer in Georgia's scruffy, chaotic, but charming capital. But there's one change this season: For the first time in years, there are no rumors of war.

The calm contrasts sharply with the tension that gripped the city during the sweltering summer of 2008. Two years ago this week, brinkmanship between Moscow and Tbilisi culminated in Russia's invasion of Georgia. That invasion resulted in the Russian takeover of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, setting up a tense standoff between Moscow and Tbilisi. Georgians were jittery again last summer when fresh saber rattling in Moscow led politicians and pundits to predict -- incorrectly, it turned out -- that armed conflict would break out again.

The fact that Georgians aren't living in fear of a Russian invasion for the first time in years is an unexpected fringe benefit of U.S. President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Moscow. It also runs counter to allegations by Obama's critics that countries on Russia's periphery such as Georgia would suffer from Washington's rapprochement with Moscow. These concerns have not merely been limited to Obama's partisan rivals: Eastern European luminaries, including former Czech and Polish presidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, as well as domestic critics such as former State Department official David Kramer, have raised concerns that Obama's Russia policy would leave former Soviet states at Moscow's mercy.

But after initially expressing similar anxieties, Georgian officials now say that closer ties between the former superpower rivals have allowed Washington to exert quiet, yet effective, influence over Moscow and enhance Tbilisi's security in the process.

Among those praising Obama is Giga Bokeria, Georgia's deputy foreign minister and a close confidant of President Mikheil Saakashvili. "The immediate danger of a large-scale attack by Russia has been -- if not completely eradicated -- significantly reduced by a very active position by the U.S. administration," Bokeria told me recently.

He credits Obama's "very concentrated effort" to make Washington's position on Georgia clear to the Kremlin during his first presidential visit to Russia in July 2009. At the time, Obama said he had "a frank discussion" with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, during which he expressed his "firm belief that Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected."

Senior Georgian officials say the U.S. president was even tougher behind the scenes. They claim Obama warned Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that Washington wouldn't stand on the sidelines if Russia launched another attack against Georgia. The White House would neither confirm nor deny that account, but people in Tbilisi say whatever was said appears to have had an effect.

U.S. policy toward Russia has functioned not just with sticks, but with carrots, too. Giga Zedania, a political scientist at Tbilisi's Ilia State University, says Russia "should have something to lose" if it attacks Georgia. "One of the problems with the Bush administration was that it had no leverage over Russia, because there was no cooperation," she said. "When these links are established...Russia will have more incentive to think twice before it does something like it did in 2008."

Medvedev's visit to the United States in June, seeking U.S. support for Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organization, offered a prime example of what Russia now has to lose. The president also visited Silicon Valley to court investors for an ambitious plan to modernize Russia's high-tech sector. Moscow knows it can kiss such goodies goodbye if it misbehaves in Georgia, or elsewhere.

Despite the U.S. engagement, relations are still fraught on the Russia-Georgia border. Russian troops are increasingly entrenched in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with some troops stationed just 20 miles from Tbilisi. The official policy of the Kremlin, which has long been uncomfortable with Georgian sovereignty, also still calls for regime change in Tbilisi.

But the tense atmosphere of Cold War-style conflict, in which Georgia served as a proxy battleground for the United States and Russia, is clearly fading. And these days, Georgians are asking themselves whether Obama's reset could go even further, facilitating rapprochement, or at least détente, between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Irakli Alasania thinks it can. Georgia's former ambassador to the United Nations, now a leading opposition figure, won widespread praise for his calm and reassuring manner during the Russia-Georgia war two years ago. He told me that if U.S.-Russia relations continue to improve, "it will only benefit Georgia" by facilitating an eventual normalization of relations between Tbilisi and Moscow.

"At this point what we can do is to not solicit any more aggressive behavior from Russia, to keep things quiet," Alasania says. "[W]e need strong partners. And we need our strongest strategic partner to have a good relationship with the Russian Federation."

Saakashvili, whose political brand is bound up with his confrontational stance toward Russia, has been publicly supportive of Obama's reset with Russia, though officials say that, in private, he still has reservations. "We welcome holding of a dialogue between Russia and the United States," the Georgian president said in June shortly before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Tbilisi. "The fact [is] that, under conditions of this dialogue, the United States remains committed to its principled position" on Georgia's territorial integrity.

The Obama administration must remain vigilant in defending Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. It should also continue to show Moscow that it has much more to gain by respecting its neighbors -- and much to lose by threatening them.

Whether this proves sufficient in the long run is still uncertain. But speaking softly and carrying a big carrot has so far proved to be an effective policy in the volatile South Caucasus.