By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 15, 2007
BERLIN -- Religious converts are playing an increasingly influential role in Islamic militant networks, having transformed themselves in recent years from curiosities to key players in terrorist cells in Europe, according to counterterrorism officials and analysts.
The arrests this month of two German converts to Islam -- Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider -- on suspicions that they were plotting to bomb American targets are just one example of terrorism cases in Europe in which converts to Islam have figured prominently.
In Copenhagen, a convert is among four defendants who went on trial this month for plotting to blow up political targets. In Sweden, a webmaster who changed his name from Ralf Wadman to Abu Usama el-Swede was arrested last year on suspicion of recruiting fighters on the Internet. In Britain, three converts -- including the son of a British politician -- are awaiting trial on charges of participating in last year's transatlantic airline plot.
"The number of converts, it seems, is definitely on the rise," said Michael Taarnby, a terrorism researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. "We've reached a point where I think al-Qaeda and other groups recognize the value of converts, not just from an operational viewpoint but from a cultural one as well."
Religious converts are sometimes more prone to radicalization because of their zeal to prove their newfound faith, analysts said. They are also less likely to attract police scrutiny in Europe, where investigators often rely on outdated demographic profiles in terrorism cases.
Converts are a tiny subset of the Muslim population in Europe, but their numbers are growing in some countries. In Germany, government officials estimated that 4,000 people converted to Islam last year, compared with an annual average of 300 in the late 1990s. Less than 1 percent of Germany's 3.3 million Muslims are converts.
While religious leaders emphasize that most converts are law-abiding citizens who often promote interfaith understanding, the recent arrests in Germany prompted some lawmakers to suggest that police should keep converts under surveillance.
"Of course not all converts are problematic, but some are particularly dangerous because they want to demonstrate through extreme fanaticism that they are particularly good Muslims," Guenther Beckstein, interior minister for the state of Bavaria, said last week.
The trend is not limited to Europe. In Florida, U.S. citizen and convert Jose Padilla was convicted last month on conspiracy charges for participating in an al-Qaeda support cell. In March, David M. Hicks, an Australian convert, became the first prisoner at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be convicted on terrorism charges.
Converts have joined militant groups, including al-Qaeda, for years. Wadih el-Hage, a Lebanese Christian who converted to Islam and became a U.S. citizen, served as an aide to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and was convicted for his role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa.
But counterterrorist analysts and officials said they have become much more common and are now playing leadership roles. They said there is also evidence that militant groups, which used to eye converts suspiciously as potential infiltrators, are now encouraging them to join.
In May, al-Qaeda deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahiri released a videotape in which he repeatedly praised Muslim leader Malcolm X and urged African American soldiers to stop fighting in Iraq and embrace Islam.
"I am hurt when I find a black American fighting the Muslims under the American flag," Zawahiri said, according to a translation of the speech by the SITE Institute, a terrorism research group. "Why is he fighting us when the racist Crusader regime in America is persecuting him like it persecutes us?"
This month, bin Laden released a rare videotape in which he called upon all Americans to convert to Islam. Analysts said bin Laden's remarks, though theological in nature, were probably not intended as a direct recruiting pitch for al-Qaeda. But they said his speech likely was influenced by Adam Gadahn, a U.S. citizen from California who converted to Islam as a teenager and is a media adviser for al-Qaeda. He was indicted in the United States on treason charges last year.
"This has the language and hallmarks of Adam Gadahn and is very reminiscent of his own messages in terms of style and content," said M.J. Gohel, chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based security studies organization. "Gadahn, whenever he has appeared in an al-Qaeda video, has always used the opportunity to encourage others to convert to Islam."
Analysts said European converts sometimes are drawn to mosques or organizations at home that have a radical bent but profess nonviolence. After spending time in those circles, however, some seek to deepen their involvement by attending religious schools, or madrassas, in Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
Once there, it is easy for spotters from al-Qaeda and other militant groups to recruit potential followers, said Ashraf Ali, a researcher at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan. "That's the point where these new converts fall in the hands of jihadi organizations and they go for military training," he said.
One fundamentalist network that has attracted hundreds of converts in Europe is Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary sect based in Pakistan that characterizes itself as peaceful but is criticized by some authorities as a training ground for extremists. Another is al-Muhajiroun, a movement founded by a radical cleric in London that officially disbanded in 2004 but reorganized into an assortment of splinter groups.
Maulana Muhammad Qasim, a member of the Pakistani National Assembly from the Mardan district who is active in Tablighi Jamaat, said the organization has no links to terrorism or politics.
"It is not the policy of the Tablighi Jamaat to send people for military training or jihad," he said. "But if someone starts off with us and ends up as a militant, that's an individual's decision and has nothing to do with the manifesto of the group."
In Germany, investigators are still trying to determine how the three men arrested Sept. 4 became radicalized and how they came into contact with the Islamic Jihad Union, a South Asian network that has asserted responsibility for the plot to attack American targets in Germany.
Gelowicz, whom investigators have identified as the ringleader of the cell, struggled academically in high school and converted to Islam when he was 18. He was active in radical circles in the southern city of Ulm, home to an Islamic cultural center and other institutions that have long been under police surveillance.
In an interview with the German magazine Stern in July, two months before his arrest, Gelowicz described his introduction to Islam. "I had a good friend who was a Muslim," he said. "At some point, you start to ask questions like, 'Why do you fast?' 'Why don't you eat pork?' You keep asking. At some point you realize that God sent a prophet to fulfill all revelations."
Many Germans have been stunned by news of the alleged plot, and religious leaders said they were trying to counter what they described as a public backlash and heightened suspicion about converts.
Gerhard Isa Moldenhauer, a board member at the Central Institute of the Islam Archive, the oldest Muslim organization in Germany, blamed panicky lawmakers for stirring up distrust.
"The German politicians tell us almost daily that all converts are terrorists," said Moldenhauer, 58, himself a convert. "It is truly sad when politicians have no trust in their citizens."
Special correspondents Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.