Dispatch

The view from the ground.

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?

Bodo Marks/AFP/Getty Images
Bodo Marks/AFP/Getty Images
Bodo Marks/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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.

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer-winning Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China. This piece is excerpted from A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.