German Police Battle Extremist Spelling | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 28.05.2004
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German Police Battle Extremist Spelling

Terrorists often try to hide their identities from the authorities, but apparently the German police have been helping out: Confused by various spellings of Arabic names, many extremists have gotten lost in the database.


Was that Mohammed, Muhammad or Muhamed?

But a pilot program in Bavaria is helping the police better track Islamic extremists by using a computer to compare multiple spellings of common Arabic names in order to cut the number of duplicated entries. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, after one year of limited use on the Bavarian AKIS criminal database, the files on suspected Arab radicals were reduced by 20 percent.

For example, Hassan Muhamad Qaddafi, Hassain Muhammad Qaddafi, and Husan Mohammed Kadafi may have been booked for three separate crimes over a few years and the police would never realize they were perpetrated by the same man.

"Each case seems harmless at first, but if we can follow all three offenses to the same man then he would certainly become much more interesting to us," Petra Sandles, director of criminal investigation for the Bavarian Interior Ministry, told the newspaper.

Germany has been at the forefront of investigations into Islamic terrorist networks ever since it became known several of the men involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States lived in the northern German city of Hamburg for years.

That the inconsistent spelling of Arab names was making it harder for the police to spot connections and potentially dangerous networks did not go lost on Christiane Nischler, a Bavarian computer specialist and Arabic expert. It was she who developed the new computer program to help collate and simplify the names of Arab extremists.

Thirteen ways to spell Mohammed

The program takes the 100 most common Arabic names and boils them down to one standard. Hence from 13 different versions of one name are simplified to just Mohammed. The program also recognizes 99 frequently used appendages to Arabic names.

Sifting through all the doubled entries has meant that not only are there fewer suspects, those in the databank have likely committed more crimes. And that makes it easier for the police to piece together the trail left by extremist groups.

"We've made astonishing findings about Islamist structures," Bavarian Interior Minister Günther Beckstein said. "It's now much easier for us to recognize networks."

Beckstein pointed to one case involving a man who had ties to the extremist group Ansar al Islam. Under another spelling of his name, police had noticed that he had once made inquiries about purchasing explosives. Beckstein said the program had been so successful that he planned to introduce it officially at a state interior ministers' conference in July.

Eventually the name simplification process could be expanded to other institutions, including Germany's federal police as well as its domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. Cooperating beyond Germany's borders on Arabic names could be more difficult, however, as different countries and languages all have their own preferred spellings.

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