How a Mosque for Ex-Nazis Became Center of Radical Islam

The Beachhead

How a Mosque for Ex-Nazis Became Center of Radical Islam

Documents Reveal Triumph
By Muslim Brotherhood
In Postwar Munich
A CIA Plan to Fight Soviets

The Wall Street Journal
July 12, 2005
Page A1


MUNICH, Germany — North of this prosperous city of engineers and auto
makers is an elegant mosque with a slender minaret and a turquoise
dome. A stand of pines shields it from a busy street. In a country of
more than three million Muslims, it looks unremarkable, another place
of prayer for Europe’s fastest-growing religion.

The Mosque’s history, however, tells a more-tumultuous story. Buried
in government and private archives are hundreds of documents that
trace the battle to control the Islamic Center of Munich. Never before
made public, the material shows how radical Islam established one of
its first and most important beachheads in the West when a group of
ex-Nazi soldiers decided to build a mosque.

The soldiers’ presence in Munich was part of a nearly forgotten
subplot to World War II: the decision by tens of thousands of Muslims
in the Soviet Red Army to switch sides and fight for Hitler. After the
war, thousands sought refuge in West Germany, building one of the
largest Muslim communities in 1950s Europe. When the Cold War heated
up, they were a coveted prize for their language skills and contacts
back in the Soviet Union. For more than a decade, U.S., West German,
Soviet and British intelligence agencies vied for control of them in
the new battle of democracy versus communism.

Yet the victor wasn’t any of these Cold War combatants. Instead, it
was a movement with an equally powerful ideology: the Muslim
Brotherhood. Founded in 1920s Egypt as a social-reform movement, the
Brotherhood became the fountainhead of political Islam, which calls
for the Muslim religion to dominate all aspects of life. A powerful
force for political change throughout the Muslim world, the
Brotherhood also inspired some of the deadliest terrorist movements of
the past quarter century, including Hamas and al Qaeda.

The story of how the Brotherhood exported its creed to the heart of
Europe highlights a recurring error by Western democracies. For
decades, countries have tried to cut deals with political Islam —
backing it in order to defeat another enemy, especially communism.
Most famously, the U.S. and its allies built up mujahadeen holy
warriors in 1980s Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union — paving the
way for the rise of Osama bin Laden, who quickly turned on his
U.S. allies in the 1990s.

Munich was a momentous early example of this dubious
strategy. Documents and interviews show how the Muslim Brotherhood
formed a working arrangement with U.S. intelligence organizations,
outmaneuvering German agencies for control of the former Nazi soldiers
and their mosque. But the U.S. lost its hold on the movement, and in
short order conservative, arch-Catholic Bavaria had become host to a
center of radical Islam.

The Islamic Center of Munich, seen here at right, sits gently tucked
away in a quiet suburb. Bottom, the city where Ghaleb Himmat was said
to have run the Munich mosque. Top left, the Islamic Center of

“If you want to understand the structure of political Islam, you have
to look at what happened in Munich,” says Stefan Meining, a
Munich-based historian who is studying the Islamic center. “Munich is
the origin of a network that now reaches around the world.”

Political and social groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood now
dominate organized Islamic life across a broad swath of Western
Europe. These connections are frequently little known, even by the
intelligence services and police agencies of these countries.

While these groups renounce terrorism and officially advocate
assimilation, the upshot of their message is that Europe’s Muslims —
now representing between 5% and 10% of the continent’s population —
need to be walled off2 from Western culture. This in turn has helped
create fertile ground for violent ideas. Islamic terrorists have
increasingly used Europe as a launching pad for their attacks, from
the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. to last year’s bombing of trains in

These current tensions are embedded in the events of half a century
ago. Postwar Munich was a ruined city packed with Muslim emigres
fleeing persecution. While the West tried to observe and control them
as valuable pawns in the Cold War, they encountered formidable rivals
seeking their own power bases in Europe’s burgeoning Muslim world.

Over the next few decades, four men would try successively to control
the Munich mosque: a brilliant professor of Turkic studies, an imam in
Hitler’s SS, a charismatic Muslim writer with a world-wide following
and a hard-nosed Muslim financier now under investigation for backing
terrorism. Most favored some sort of accommodation with the West. But
the victor had a bolder vision: a global Islam opposed to the ideals
of secular democracy.

The Scholar

Gerhard von Mende’s interest in Muslims originated in 1919, when his
father was murdered. The family had lived in Riga, part of a
once-large German minority in Latvia. When the tiny land was invaded
by the Red Army at the end of World War I, members of the bourgeoisie
were rounded up and sent on a forced march. Mr. von Mende’s father, a
banker, was pulled out of the line and shot dead. [ ]

That awakened in the 14-year-old a loathing of things Russian. After
fleeing with his mother and six siblings to Germany, he chose to study
other people who were oppressed by Russian rule — the Muslims of
Central Asia. A blizzard of papers and books brought him academic
prominence. Linguistically gifted, he spoke fluent Russian, Latvian
and French, as well as passable Turkish and Arabic. When he married a
Norwegian, he picked up her native tongue as well.

The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 put a premium on people
like Mr. von Mende, who understood something about the lands that
Germany’s blitzkrieg was overrunning. He kept his job at Berlin
University but was seconded to the new Imperial Ministry for Occupied
Eastern Territories — or Ostministerium — to head a department
overseeing the Caucasus.

Germany’s initial victories left it with staggering numbers of Soviet
prisoners — five million in all. Due in part to the efforts of
Mr. von Mende and the Ostministerium, Hitler agreed to free prisoners
who would take up arms against the Soviets. The Nazis set up
“Ostlegionen” — Eastern Legions — made up primarily of non-Russian
minorities eager to pay Moscow back for decades of oppression. Up to a
million soldiers took up Hitler’s offer.

As the war progressed, Mr. von Mende became one of the chief
architects of the Nazi policy toward Soviet minorities. He was dubbed
their “lord-protector,” establishing national committees of Tatars,
Turks, Georgians, Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Desperate for soldiers,
the Nazis viewed these committees as little more than a way to keep
their turncoat allies in the war. But for the people involved, they
were like governments-in-exile, a taste of independence for which they
were grateful to Mr. von Mende.

Colleagues from this era describe Mr. von Mende as a well-dressed,
regal man with a wry smile, who used his personal charm to win over
the exiles — especially his favorites, the Turkic Muslims of Central
Asia. He opened his home in Berlin to them for long dinners with the
conversation flowing in Russian, Turkish and German. In the last
months of the war, he cemented their loyalty through an act of
bureaucratic genius: With Germany’s infrastructure bombed to a pulp,
he managed to get thousands of “his” Turks transferred to the western
front — Greece, Italy, Denmark and Belgium — figuring it would be
better if they ended up in British or American prisoner-of-war camps
than Soviet. Those who fell into Soviet hands were shot as traitors.

By the late 1940s, hundreds of Muslim ex-soldiers were stranded in the
U.S. zone of occupation in Munich. Mr. von Mende, whose Nazi past
left him with limited job prospects, decided to devote himself to
looking out for them.

That decision would prove beneficial — both for the Muslims and for
Mr. von Mende. It was the beginning of the Cold War and Western
intelligence agencies were desperate for anyone who could provide a
glimpse behind the Iron Curtain. They needed people to analyze
documents, broadcast anti-Soviet propaganda and recruit spies.

In October 1945, Mr. von Mende wrote a letter to a “Major Morrison” in
the British Army, according to a letter in his private papers that his
family made available. He laid out the Ostministerium’s unique source
of knowledge about the Soviet peoples. He explained who worked for it
and in which POW or Displaced Persons camp they were being held. It
was the beginning of his intelligence career.

Mr. von Mende settled in the British-occupied sector of Germany, in
the commercial center of Düsseldorf. Although he was no longer an
academic, he called his office the “Eastern European Research
Service.” His staff was made up of ex-Ostministerium employees —
basically a re-creation of the Nazi apparatus that oversaw the Muslims
during the war. Funding came from British occupation forces initially,
then a variety of West German agencies, including the national
domestic intelligence agency and the German foreign ministry,
according to foreign-ministry documents and Mr. von Mende’s private

Mr. von Mende spent enormous amounts of time helping the Muslims who
used to work for him in the Ostministerium. He wrung money out of the
West German bureaucracy for them to be fed, clothed and housed —
conditions were appalling and even a decade after the war’s end many
were still living in barracks.

But at heart, his task was simple: keep tabs on the emigres and
prevent them from falling into another country’s control. The main
threat was the Soviet Union, which wanted to stop the emigres from
making anti-communist propaganda. Some emigre leaders in West Germany
were murdered. Many carried weapons in defense against KGB assassins.

CIA vs. Nazi Imam

By 1956, a rival emerged to threaten Mr. von Mende’s control over the
Muslim ex-soldiers of Munich: the American Committee for Liberation
from Bolshevism, widely known as Amcomlib. Set up as a U.S.
nongovernmental organization to run Radio Free Europe and Radio
Liberty, Amcomlib was in fact a thinly disguised front for the Central
Intelligence Agency. CIA funding lasted until 1971 when Congress cut
Amcomlib’s ties to the intelligence agency.

During the 1950s, the head of Amcomlib’s political organization was
Isaac Patch, who is now 95 and living in retirement in New
Hampshire. Reached by telephone, Mr. Patch defended Amcomlib’s
strategy of using Muslims to fight the Soviets. “Islam was an
important factor, no question about it,” Mr. Patch said. “They were
strong believers and strong anti-communists.”

Amcomlib forged ties with Ibrahim Gacaoglu, a former Nazi soldier from
the Caucasus who, like Mr. von Mende, was looking after Muslim
soldiers stranded in Germany. Mr. Gacaoglu controlled food packages
from the U.S., which he doled out to his followers, according to his
organization’s documents. Mr. Gacaoglu also did propaganda work for
Radio Free Europe. In 1957, for example, he held a news conference
with another former German political officer, Garip Sultan, who headed
Radio Liberty’s Tatar service, according to documents and Mr. Sultan.
The two decried Stalin’s abuses in Chechnya. Mr. Sultan, now 81 years
old, said in an interview that he wrote Mr. Gacaoglu’s speeches and a
pamphlet for him on the situation of Muslims.

For Mr. von Mende and his colleagues, Mr. Gacaoglu’s CIA connections
were a problem. West Germany and the U.S. were on the same side of the
Cold War, but Mr. von Mende didn’t appreciate foreign agencies trying
to influence German residents. As one informant had put it in a report
to his boss: “Germany is a gate that no one controls because there
doesn’t seem to be a gatekeeper. Everyone comes and does what he

Mr. von Mende decided that Germany’s Muslims needed a leader he could
trust. He turned to a friend from the war: Nurredin Nakibhodscha

Mr. Namangani had come from a long line of imams in his native land,
modern-day Uzbekistan. But his religious service had mostly been in an
unholy organization: Hitler’s infamous SS. According to an
autobiographical sketch he gave German authorities, he had been
arrested by Stalin’s security forces in 1941 and soon after liberated
by the invading German army. He served as imam in various capacities,
ending as imam for an SS division. He won some of Germany’s highest
commendations, including the Iron Cross.

Mr. Namangani arrived in Munich in 1956 to an uproar. Opponents such
as Mr. Gacaoglu charged Mr. Namangani with having participated in
wartime atrocities. Mr. Namangani’s unit reportedly helped put down
the 1944 Warsaw uprising of Polish partisans against the Nazis, but
any personal role in atrocities is not evident in German war records.

Mr. von Mende beat back the attacks, persuading the federal government
in Bonn to accept Mr. Namangani as the “Hauptimam” or “chief imam” of
Germany’s Muslims, on the West German payroll.

In late 1958, Mr. Namangani came up with a plan to rally the ex-Muslim
soldiers behind him: a “Mosque Construction Commission.” At the time,
Germany had only a couple of mosques. Munich’s mosque would be
different: bigger and dedicated not to traders and visitors but to
Germany’s first permanent Muslim population of any note.

“For 13 years, Muslims haven’t had a fixed place for their services
and have had to hold them in various places,” Mr. Namangani told the
assembled 50 or so Muslims, including some Muslim students from the
Middle East. Once, Muslims had been forced to hold services even in a
brewery, other times in a museum, according to minutes of the mosque
commission. Now, he told the group, Munich would be a center for
Muslims and the Bavarian state government would certainly help out,
according to the minutes.

It was a big event, so big in fact that someone special was on hand:
Said Ramadan, the Geneva-based secretary general of the World Islamic
Congress, a group that wanted to unite Muslims around the world. The
rest of those assembled donated 125 marks in total (about $275 in
today’s money) for the mosque’s construction. Mr. Ramadan himself gave
1,000 marks.

Mr. von Mende quickly put out feelers for information on the
well-heeled visitor. Soon, his index of people to watch contained a
new entry:

“Said Ramadan, Geneva. Circa 36 years old, 3 children. Since 1956
drives an expensive Cadillac, gift of the Saudi Arabian
government. R.S. [sic] is supposed to be a member of the Muslim

The Brotherhood Arrives

Said Ramadan’s arrival in Europe was the result of a clash of ideas
that continues to tear at Islamic societies. At heart, the problem is
how to reconcile Islam with the modern nation-state. Like many
religions, Islam is all-embracing, prescribing behavior in many
spheres, politics included. But when taken literally, these
requirements can clash with today’s liberal democracies, which promote
individual freedom.

In 1920s Egypt, a young schoolteacher named Hasan al-Banna came down
firmly on the side of orthodoxy. Troubled by what he saw as the
immorality of a rapidly modernizing Egypt, he set up an organization
called the Muslim Brotherhood. His plan was to re-Islamicize society
by teaching the fundamentals of Islam in the everyday language of the
coffee shop, not the classical Arabic of mosques. He set up welfare
organizations and was famous for his commitment to social justice.

But this collided with other visions of Egypt, especially those
imported from the West, such as socialism and fascism. Heavily
involved in the turbulent politics of postwar Egypt, Mr. Banna was
assassinated in 1949. A few years later, a military coup brought in a
socialist government that banned the group in 1954.

Many members were thrown in jail and some were executed. Mr. Ramadan
was the most prominent member to flee abroad. He was Mr. Banna’s
son-in-law and was famous for having helped organize Jerusalem’s
defense against the new state of Israel in 1948. Few countries in the
region wanted to shield Mr. Ramadan; Egypt was a regional powerhouse
and its neighbors were wary of antagonizing it. After stops in Syria,
Lebanon, Jordan and Pakistan, he arrived in Geneva in the summer of
1958 on a Jordanian diplomatic pass, accredited to the U.N. and also
neighboring West Germany.

While in Germany, he set out his ideas in a doctoral thesis called
“Islamic Law: Its Scope and Equity.” It was published as a book and
became a classic of modern Islamist thinking.

“He was decent and intelligent,” says his doctoral adviser at Cologne
University, Gerhard Kegel, now 93, “if a little fanatical.”

Not fanatical in the sense of advocating violence, Mr. Kegel says,
but in his view of a world in which Islam guides all laws and there is
no distinction between religion and state. Mr. Ramadan also published
a magazine, Al-Muslimoon, which surveyed events in the Muslim world
and criticized secularism.

Mr. Ramadan, like others in the Muslim Brotherhood, strongly opposed
communism for rejecting religion. During the Cold War, that made him
a natural ally of the U.S. But Mr. Ramadan also opposed the U.S. and
other Western countries for their interference in Mideastern
affairs. Then as now, that put people like Mr. Ramadan in a tough
position: They needed to cooperate with the West but didn’t want to be
Western collaborators.

Historical evidence suggests that Mr. Ramadan worked with the CIA. At
the time, America was locked in a power struggle with the Soviet
Union, which was supporting Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. As Nasser’s
enemy, the Brotherhood seemed like a good ally for the U.S.

A document from the German foreign intelligence service, known by its
initials BND, says the U.S. had helped persuade Jordan to issue
Mr. Ramadan a passport and that “his expenditures are financed by the
American side.” Swiss diplomats concurred that the U.S. and
Mr. Ramadan were close. According to a 1967 diplomatic report in the
Swiss federal archives: “Said Ramadan is, among others, an information
agent of the British and Americans.”

When the Swiss newspaper Le Temps reported the contents of the
diplomatic report last year, the Ramadan family responded in a letter
to the editor that read in part: “Our father never collaborated with
American or English intelligence services. He was, on the contrary,
the subject of permanent surveillance for numerous years.”

Members of the Ramadan family refused to comment. They include two
sons, the popular Muslim intellectual Tariq and his brother, Hani, who
heads an Islamic center in Geneva that his father set up.

A Fateful Alliance

Although he was fortunate to have escaped the Middle East,
Mr. Ramadan’s Swiss exile cut him off from his base of support. He
began to look around for allies, according to colleagues who knew him
then. Soon, an opportunity presented itself: He was contacted in 1958
by some Arab students in Munich eager to build a new mosque.

The students had come to Germany to study medicine, engineering and
other disciplines in which German education excelled. Many had been
involved with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and were also using the
chance to escape persecution. Mr. Ramadan “was a gifted orator and we
all respected him,” says Mohamad Ali El-Mahgary, who now heads an
organization affiliated with the Munich mosque, the Islamic Center of

The students quickly united in wanting to get rid of Mr. Namangani,
the former SS imam. Fired up by Muslim Brotherhood ideology, they saw
the Uzbek as a throwback to an earlier era, one where, for example,
local traditions allowed for drinking alcohol when this was expressly
forbidden in the Quran. Over the next three years, Mr. Ramadan and the
Brotherhood showed their political mettle — first sidelining the
soldiers and their German allies, then striking out on their own.

First Mr. Ramadan teamed up with Amcomlib to undermine
Mr. Namangani. In 1959, he organized the “European Muslim Congress” in
Munich, which Mr. von Mende’s informants reported was co-financed by
Amcomlib, according to German foreign-ministry archives and Mr. von
Mende’s personal letters. The goal: marginalize Mr. Namangani by
making Munich’s mosque a European-wide center, not just for Munich’s
Muslims. For the U.S., this would help strengthen their man,
Mr. Gacaoglu, and limit the West Germans’ influence over the emigres.

In 1960, Mr. Ramadan took formal control of the mosque-construction
commission, with the students convincing the former soldiers that only
Mr. Ramadan could raise the money needed for a mosque, according to
interviews. Mr. Ramadan was elected chairman and Mr. Namangani
relegated to deputy.

Flummoxed, Mr. von Mende tried to figure out what Mr. Ramadan’s goals
were. His reports show that he was convinced that Mr. Ramadan was
working with the U.S. But he needed confirmation and so turned to
Germany’s foreign-intelligence service. In a private letter to a
former colleague in the Ostministerium, Mr. von Mende asked for
information on Mr. Ramadan and suggested stealing files from his
office in Geneva. He even estimated how much the operation would cost,
bribes and travel costs included. Mr. von Mende’s BND contact
confirmed that Mr. Ramadan was backed by the U.S. As for stealing his
files, the colleague advised against it: Mr. Ramadan was “much too
careful” to leave valuable information in them.

Adding to Mr. von Mende’s worries was that the CIA was now openly
backing Mr. Ramadan. In May of 1961, a CIA agent attached to Amcomlib
in Munich, Robert Dreher, brought Mr. Ramadan to Mr. von Mende’s
office in Düsseldorf for a meeting to propose a joint propaganda
effort against the Soviet Union, according to Mr. von Mende’s personal
papers and interviews with contemporaries of the men. Mr. von Mende
quickly turned them down.

Mr. von Mende decided he had to use Mr. Namangani to engineer
Mr. Ramadan’s removal. At first, it appeared the two had succeeded. In
late 1961, Mr. Namangani called a meeting of the mosque
commission. Mr. Ramadan was accused of financial irregularities. The
soldiers put forward a new candidate and in a close vote won a simple
majority. In memos to each other, German officials crowed that
Mr. Ramadan was gone and with him the plans for a “monumental mosque.”

But a sharp-eyed city government official noted that the commission’s
by-laws had required that Mr. Namangani’s candidate win a two-thirds
majority. The simple majority hadn’t been enough. Once again Mr.
Ramadan’s ability to mobilize had been decisive: His students had
turned out in force, unlike Mr. Namangani’s more-numerous
soldiers. Mr. Ramadan was still in charge of the mosque commission.

Discouraged, the soldiers began to leave the commission. Mr. Namangani
remained head of the West German organization that oversaw the former
soldiers’ spiritual needs, but had nothing more to do with the
mosque. In a seven-page letter to German officials that is now in the
Bavarian state archives, Mr. Namangani explained he was tired of
fighting Mr. Ramadan. “The Mosque Construction Commission has drifted
far from its original goal and there is the danger that it will become
a center for those engaged in politics,” he wrote.

The emigres’ departure from the mosque commission slowed its progress
but didn’t hurt it. The German bureaucracy, packed with many former
Nazis, was still sympathetic to the idea of building a mosque, memos
among officials show. They apparently didn’t know that their former
comrades-in-arms had left the commission. The West German bureaucracy
even gave the mosque project, now firmly under Muslim Brotherhood
control, tax-exempt status, which would be worth millions over the
next decades.

Mr. von Mende, though, realized that his Turks were left in the
political wilderness. In memos to the German foreign ministry, he said
the federal government must do everything possible to block Mr.
Ramadan, whom he saw as a foreign-backed outsider. Whether Mr. von
Mende could have stopped Mr. Ramadan is unknown: In December 1963,
while sitting at his desk in Düsseldorf, Mr. von Mende had a
massive heart attack and died immediately. He was 58 years old.

A few months later, his Eastern European Research Service was closed
and Mr. von Mende’s network of informants dried up. It would only be
decades later, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., that
Germany would seriously focus domestic intelligence on the
Brotherhood’s Munich operations.

The Banker’s Vision

Cloaked from outside scrutiny, the mosque had less and less to do with
the needs of Munich’s Muslims. And around this time, evidence of the
CIA’s involvement dried up. Instead, control eventually passed to an
unlikely location: Campione d’Italia, a swath of mansions and
millionaires in the Swiss Alps. Here, from a terraced villa
overlooking Lake Lugano, one of Mr. Ramadan’s trusted lieutenants,
Ghaleb Himmat, ran the Munich mosque and influenced the network that
grew out of it.

Of all the characters in the mosque’s history, Mr. Himmat is the most
enigmatic, although he is one of the few still alive. A Syrian, he
went to Munich in the 1950s to study but ended up amassing wealth as a
merchant. Now under investigation by several countries for links to
terrorism, he normally shuns publicity. He agreed to comment briefly
on the telephone for this article.

Contemporaries and archival records indicate that Mr. Himmat was a
driving force behind the mosque. In 1958, members of the mosque
commission say, he led the movement to invite Mr. Ramadan to
Munich. Documents show that the two worked closely together. They went
on fund-raising trips abroad and Mr. Himmat stood in for Mr. Ramadan
when the older man was back in Geneva.

Mr. von Mende’s death should have left Mr. Ramadan firmly in charge of
the project. But over the next few years, he lost control to
Mr. Himmat. The exact nature of their split isn’t clear, but close
associates say it had to do with their different nationalities. Mr.
Himmat denies this, saying he does not know why Mr. Ramadan left.

At the same time, Mr. Ramadan was losing the support of his Saudi
backers. Short of money, he stopped publishing his magazine in
1967. Over the last quarter century until his death in 1995,
Mr. Ramadan’s influence waned. His son Tariq describes him in a book
as prone to “long silences sunk in memory and thoughts, and, often, in

Mr. Himmat assumed control of the mosque just before it opened in
August of 1973. Under his leadership, the mosque grew in importance,
functioning as the Muslim Brotherhood’s de facto European embassy. As
its influence grew, its name changed. From Mosque Construction
Commission, the group became the Islamic Community of Southern Germany
and, today, the Islamic Community of Germany. It is now one of the
country’s most important Islamic organizations, representing 60
mosques and Islamic centers nationwide.

The group also became a cornerstone in a network of organizations that
have promoted across Europe the Muslim Brotherhood way of
thinking. The Islamic Community of Germany, for example, helped found
the U.K.-based Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, which
unites groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood and lobbies the European

Mr. Himmat says the mosque has always been open to all Muslims but
that the Brotherhood came to dominate it because its members are the
most active. “If the Muslim Brotherhood considers me one of them, it
is an honor for me,” Mr. Himmat said in the telephone interview. “They
are nonviolent. They are for interreligious discussion. They are
active for freedom.”

For decades, German authorities paid little attention to the
activities in Munich, viewing them as unconnected to German
society. They were slow to grasp the warning signs. In 1993, after a
car-bomb attack on the World Trade Center in New York killed six and
injured 1,000, investigators discovered that one of the organizers was
Mahmoud Abouhalima, who had frequented the mosque. He was tried in the
U.S. and in 1994 was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
German domestic intelligence began to observe the mosque, intelligence
officials say, but dropped their efforts after a short while when no
links to terrorism appeared.

The Sept. 11 attacks changed that. Three of the four lead hijackers
had studied in Germany, as did another key organizer. As German and
U.S. law enforcement searched for clues, some, it is only now becoming
apparent, led back to the Munich mosque.

Mr. Himmat, it turned out, was one of the founders of Bank al-Taqwa, a
Bahamas-based institution whose shareholder list is a who’s who of
people associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. The bank has
been identified by investigators in several Western countries as
having links to terrorism. Investigators believe the bank helped
channel money to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and may have
transferred money for al Qaeda operatives.

In 2001, the U.S. issued a list of “designated” terrorists that
included Mr. Himmat and a fellow shareholder, Youssef Nada. The
Treasury Department froze their U.S. assets. Last month, Swiss
authorities dropped their own investigation, citing lack of
evidence. The men’s money, however, remains frozen and the U.S. has
indicated that it is continuing its investigation.

Messrs. Himmat and Nada deny any involvement in terrorism. A longtime
member of the Munich mosque, Mr. Nada said in an interview that he no
longer attends it or its board meetings. He said the mosque wasn’t a
formal headquarters for the Brotherhood because the group is no longer
a formal organization. Now, he says, it has become something
different: a matrix of ideas. “There is no form you sign,” Mr. Nada
said. “We are not an economic and political organization. We are a way
of thinking.”

The U.S. terror-funding investigation was enough to end Mr. Himmat’s
career at the Islamic Community of Germany. In 2002, he resigned, he
said, because by being put on the terrorism watch list he was no
longer able to sign checks for the community, meaning it couldn’t pay
its staff. He says the organization is doing well on its own and he
doesn’t contemplate returning to it. “It is running,” he said. “There
is no need.”

In April, German police raided the mosque, claiming that it was
involved with money laundering and spreading intolerant material, a
crime in Germany. Police carted off computers and files from the
offices. That was one of several raids on the center, although none
have resulted in charges.

Mosque officials say the organization’s days as a focal point of
political Islam are long over. “This center has developed from a
center that was important in Germany and internationally to a local
institution,” says Ahmad von Denffer, a leader of the mosque. The
Islamic Community of Germany has since moved its operations to
Cologne, where its current president resides.

Inside the world of political Islam, though, the Islamic Center of
Munich remains something special. Some of the ideology’s top leaders
have served or spoken there. And the Muslim Brotherhood’s current
murshid, or “supreme guide,” Mahdy Akef, headed the center.

Mr. Akef fondly remembers his time in Munich from 1984 to 1987. A
short, friendly man with an elfish smile and big glasses, Mr. Akef
says the center is now one of several belonging to the Muslim
Brotherhood in Europe. During his stay there, he says, visiting
statesmen from the Muslim world visited the Munich mosque to pay
respects to the world’s most powerful Islamic organization. The mosque
was so important that when he was arrested in Egypt in the 1990s on
allegations that he had tried to form an Islamic political party, one
of the charges against him was that he headed the center.

The Muslim Brotherhood is still formally banned in Egypt but a tiny
office in Cairo is tolerated. Sitting on a sofa under a map of the
world with Muslim nations colored green, Mr. Akef says the Brotherhood
did indeed spread out from Munich to others cities in Germany and
Europe. Mr. Akef is a controversial figure who has spoken
sympathetically about suicide bombers in Iraq. But he avoids answering
questions about terrorism or fundamentalism. Instead, he prefers to
talk about the community work the mosque did in Munich, helping to
beautify a nearby landfill and plant pines in the mosque grounds.

“We made this dump beautiful and now it’s full of trees,” he
says. “It’s one of the most beautiful parts of Germany.”

Almut Schoenfeld in Berlin contributed to this article.

Write to Ian Johnson at [email protected]

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