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Germany outlaws group that officials say recruited for Islamic State

Police officers carry confiscated material to a car after raiding an apartment building in Bonn on Nov. 15.
(Oliver Berg AFP/Getty Images)

German police stormed 190 mosques, apartments, offices and storage facilities in 60 cities early Tuesday in attempt to shut down an organization calling itself True Religion that authorities accuse of radicalizing young people and recruiting fighters for Islamic State.

The pre-dawn crackdown marked the sixth time since 2012 that Germany has outlawed an Islamist group, and was the biggest such raid in 15 years. Police seized computers and documents but made no arrests.

The group, which had been under surveillance for a year, had recruited about 140 people to join militants in Syria and Iraq, the German interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, told a news conference later in the day. In all, about 500 people in Germany are believed to have some connection to the organization.

Its members have been a familiar sight, handing out German-language copies of the Koran on the streets and in shopping centers across the country since 2011. The group has also posted propaganda videos on the Internet promoting violence, officials said.

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“The reality is that this is an extremist ideology,” De Maiziere said. “The action we took today is a clear sign that we’re determined to do whatever it takes to stand up against those who want to undermine our freedom and basic values. The Koran translations were passed out together with a message of hatred. Teenagers have been radicalized by the group.”

In all, about 820 people have left Germany to fight for Islamic State, according to authorities.

Many are Salafi Muslims, adherents of an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam that advocates for a government based on Islamic law and has been of growing concern to German authorities. In September, the country’s intelligence chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, warned that over the last three years the number of Salafi Muslims has climbed from 5,500 to 9,200.

They include many members of True Religion.

“This ban on True Religion should have happened a long time ago,” one senior German police investigator told the Bild newspaper. “We’ve been following the close connections between preachers of hatred and terrorism for quite some time.”

“It’s certainly true that not every Salafist turns out to be a terrorist,” the investigator said. “But at the same time it can be said that every terrorist started out as a Salafist. True Religion was working a recruiting agency for jihadists.”

Germany has faced three relatively minor incidents of terror this year: a knife attack against a police officer, an ax attack against tourists on a train and a bungled suicide bombing.

Worries of attacks such as those that have occurred over the last year in France and Belgium have fueled opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government’s policy of taking in war refugees. The fear is that terrorists could be hiding among the more than 1 million Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who have arrived over the last 14 months.

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Support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party has surged to record highs in several state elections this year. Its growing strength — 15% in national polls — could dampen Merkel’s hopes of winning a fourth term in elections next fall.

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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