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Germany mulls placing DITIB under surveillance

Chase Winter
September 21, 2018

German intelligence is reportedly examining whether to put the Turkish-Islamic umbrella group DITIB under surveillance. The Turkish-state backed DITIB has been at the center of multiple controversies.

Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Meissner

Germany's domestic intelligence agency is deciding whether to put the country's largest Islamic umbrella group under official surveillance, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and public broadcasters NDR and WDR reported on Thursday.

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) has sent a confidential dossier to each of Germany's 16 states on the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), which has been at the center of a series of controversies.

Read more: German government under fire over Maassen spy chief scandal

The states were reportedly asked to provide material and comments to establish whether DITIB's activities meet strict requirements to put it under observation. The issue is to be discussed at a meeting between the BfV and its state security agencies in November.

DITIB runs more than 900 mosques tied to the Turkish government's Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, which provides financing and imams to the mosques.

The possible move against DITIB comes a week before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Germany for an official state visit. During the two-day visit, Erdogan will officially open DITIB's new central mosque at its headquarters in the western city of Cologne.

In the wake of the failed 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan, DITIB has been accused of acting as the long arm of the Turkish state in Germany.

Last year, German authorities investigated 19 imams alleged to have acted on the orders of Turkish diplomatic posts to spy on followers of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara blames for the coup bid.

Read more: Turkey's Gulen movement on the rise in Germany  

In another scandal, DITIB imams in January reportedly called on worshippers to pray for a Turkish military victory during its offensive against Syrian Kurds in Afrin. DITIB again came under fire in April for holding a World War I military re-enactment involving Turkish flags and fake guns handed to child "martyrs." Last year, DITIB stirred controversy by refusing to take part in an anti-terrorism march in Cologne.

DITIB has repeatedly stated that it is apolitical and that any errant acts were those of individual imams, not the whole mosque association.

The Interior Ministry in Berlin did not comment on the details of the media report. However, it told the news outlets that the BfV had determined that in connection with the Turkish military operation in Afrin, "that persons tied to individual Ditib mosques congregation developed anti-constitutional nationalist-religious activities and made corresponding statements."

The Islamism Department of the BfV reportedly believes there is a need to review whether DITIB should fall under surveillance. The focal point is the Cologne headquarters of the mosque association.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, the state of DITIB headquarters, the state BfV office said Turkish-nationalistic activities are "a danger to the internal peace" and being watched with concern.

"They are driving a wedge into the Turkish community and boosting Islamophobic tendencies," a spokesperson told the media outlets.

Some states are cautioning against putting DITIB under surveillance.

"We strongly advise against it," said one state security official, adding that the political risks would be enormous if DITIB were labeled an enemy of the constitutional order.

The Foreign Ministry is reportedly "not enthusiastic" about the idea.

Under Germany's decentralized security structure, the observation of mosques in the federal states is the responsibility of the BfV state offices. In 2016, the BfV said that around 90 "predominately Arabic-speaking" mosques across the country were under surveillance.

A BfV determination to classify DITIB as a "suspected case" or a target to put under surveillance would allow for the use of advanced intelligence methods, including recruiting agents, covert surveillance and communication interception.

For many years, DITIB was a partner in many government-supported counter-extremism and integration projects. Last month, the Interior Ministry announced it had stopped funding projects with DITIB.

DITIB is a member of the German Islamic Conference, a body designed to promote dialogue between the state and Muslims living in the country.

If DITIB were placed under BfV surveillance, it would have to leave the body.