Accessibility links

Germany Tracks bin Laden's Agents - 2001-09-21

German intelligence has Thursday revealed that there may be as many as 100 so-called sleeper agents linked to Osama bin Laden who have been living apparently normal lives in the country. The authorities are returning to some controversial methods to try and track them down.

Intelligence authorities in Germany moved swiftly to trace potential terrorists ever since they discovered that at least two of those involved in last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been living and studying in the port city of Hamburg.

Now, the interior minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Fritz Behrens, has revealed that investigators believe there may be about 100 people living and working in Germany who have trained in military camps linked to Osama bin Laden, the man U.S. officials have named as the prime suspect in last week's attacks in the United States. The investigators describe these people as so-called sleeper agents. They live unobtrusively in German cities, indistinguishable from thousands of others in their neighborhoods. But they are waiting for the call to take part in an act of terror somewhere in the world.

Mr. Behrens gave no hint about how the estimate was reached. But he did say intelligence agents now think they know who some of the sleepers may be. He also said that in investigating last week's terrorist attacks, Germany may be able to decode how the sleepers are activated.

The case of Said Behaji, wanted by the German authorities in connection with the New York attacks, demonstrates how well these sleepers blend in. A German citizen of Moroccan descent, he served in the German army for four weeks in 1999 before being discharged on medical grounds.

In their search for other possible suspects, the German authorities are now reviving computer aided profiling techniques which have their origins in the search for the Red Army Faction urban guerillas, who terrorized the nation in the 1970s.

Such searches can include scanning city registers, tenant lists and even electricity bill payments. But under new guidelines proposed by the German cabinet this week investigators will also have ready access to immigration files, visa applications as well as other information that has not been revealed.

Civil libertarians have voiced concerns, but the commissioner for data protection says the government already has more access to data than most people realize in the fight against terrorist crime.