BERLIN — German police in 60 cities staged sweeping raids early Tuesday targeting an Islamist missionary group on accusations that it recruits for the Islamic State, as authorities intensified a crackdown on religious extremists.
Authorities have launched hundreds of raids in recent months as they grapple with a heightened threat of terrorism after a spate of attacks in Germany and neighboring countries as well as elevated fears of homegrown radicalization.
Police searched 190 mosques, apartments and offices connected to True Religion, an ultraconservative Muslim organization that is ubiquitous in Germany, with members setting up highly visible welcome tables on busy streets. The Salafist group — also known as Read! — distributes free translated copies of the Koran and attempts to spread the faith.
But what on the surface seemed like a legitimate religious organization was also a recruiting operation for the Islamic State, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said Tuesday. He added that 140 people affiliated with the group had gone on to fight in Syria.
De Maizière announced that the group would be banned in Germany for inciting hate and spreading extremism. “Today’s measure is a clear signal we are taking decisive and comprehensive action against all efforts directed against our freedom and our fundamental values,” he said.
Germany has been expanding its counterterrorism operations. Last week, authorities arrested five men who allegedly raised money and aided in the recruitment of fighters for the Islamic State.
On Tuesday, de Maizière sought to make clear that Germany is not targeting freedom of religion. “Today’s ban does not target the promotion, practice or propagation of the Islamic faith in general. Muslim life has a permanent and secure place in Germany and in our society,” he said.
In the raids, police carted away documents and computers. Officials said the operation was aimed at seizing evidence to back up the ban and that no arrests were made.
Palestinian-born Ibrahim Abou-Nagie leads True Religion, founded in 2005. German media outlets reported that the organization has distributed about 3.5 million copies of the Koran in German city centers.
But German security officials accuse the group of using the Koran campaign as a cover for a several-hundred-strong network promoting radical Islamist ideology. Abou-Nagie has previously been charged with incitement. But, thus far, his only conviction is for fraud relating to illegally received social benefits worth more than 50,000 euros ($53,600). He served a 13-month suspended sentence.
The Facebook page and the website of True Religion were down Tuesday. But via Twitter, it condemned the raids, saying: “Dear brothers and sisters, the Quran has been banned in Germany. We brought Allah’s message to everyone. Allah u Akbar.”
Later, the group tweeted a link to what appeared to be the Facebook page of its branch in Britain.
Peter Beuth, the interior minister in the state of Hesse, said in a statement, “We do not tolerate any fanatics in our city centers who are trying to radicalize young people and send them on jihad.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.