On a clear, chilly October morning, Mahmoud Abdelwahab leads a group of about 200 Muslim parents as they march on Bonn's city hall to protest efforts to shut down their school, the King Fahd Academy. German counterterrorism and local government officials claim that the academy promotes a radical brand of Islam, and that people affiliated with the school are linked to terrorism. Abdelwahab, 44, a spokesman for parents whose children attend the academy, says that's nonsense. He stops in front of city hall's pink Baroque façade and launches into an angry speech against the city's attempt to close the school. Then he turns to a group of Muslim children huddled together at the front of the crowd. "Are children terrorists?" he asks. "No," the children meekly reply. "Say it again! Are children terrorists?" "No!" the children shout back.
The tussle over the King Fahd Academy is emblematic of the fear and suspicion that have existed between Muslims and some of their neighbors since Sept. 11. German counterterrorism investigators are still smarting over revelations that some of the al-Qaeda operatives involved in those attacks masqueraded for years as foreign students in Hamburg. They're determined not to let the same thing happen again. "The lesson of Sept. 11 is that we didn't look close enough," says Jürgen Roters, president of the Greater Cologne Regional Government, which supervises Bonn schools. "We have evidence that fundamentalist Islamic doctrine is being spread [at King Fahd], that violence is being promoted, and that there are activists associated with the school who have contacts to terrorist groups."
But parents claim the terrorism allegations are a mask for the government's real motive: to stop the influx of Muslims, especially Arabs, into Bonn. "We are deeply offended," says Mohamad Ayesh Abul-Ola, 52, a Palestinian who has lived in Germany for more than 20 years and sends his kids to King Fahd. "People just want to be able to send their children to an Arab school to have contact with Arabian culture."
The King Fahd Academy is a Saudi-run school established in 1995, when Bonn was still the seat of the government, to educate the children of Arab diplomats. Over the past two years, some 200 Arab families have moved to Bonn from around Germany to send their children to the school. Classes are taught in Arabic and, as in Saudi schools, the curriculum is based on Wahhabism, a rigorous brand of Islam that accepts the Koran as literal truth. Concerns about the academy peaked in early October when Panorama, a popular tele-vision program, aired a video purporting to show the school's Imam and teacher, Anas Bayram, telling parents how to train their children in spear throwing, swimming and horseback riding in order to prepare for jihad. Bayram denies that he was urging violence, saying he only meant to encourage parents to ensure that their children are physically fit. The Panorama documentary contained some distortions. The program quotes an essay from an Islamic student praising the destruction of the World Trade Center, but the essay is not from a student at the King Fahd Academy. Nevertheless, under pressure from municipal officials, the academy suspended Bayram.
Police are concerned about more than just potentially radical sermons. "We have 10 to 15 people under surveillance who are associated with the academy, who have children at the school or who meet at the mosque," a senior investigator involved with the King Fahd Academy case told TIME. In May, police arrested an Arab man who moved from southern Germany to Bonn to send his children to the school. He was suspected of credit-card fraud, but while searching his apartment police found bomb-making instructions, household materials that could be used to make explosives, and a handwritten will. But Alfred Stoffel, the prosecutor handling the case, declined to press charges. "What we found wasn't sufficient to take to court," he says. The senior investigator dismisses Stoffel's decision, saying: "We believe we had concrete clues."
Investigators say that some of the people who frequent the mosque at the academy have had direct or indirect contact with al-Qaeda. Abdelwahab, though not charged with any crime, is one such person. He came to Germany in 1986, and in 1995 completed a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Duisburg-Essen. He moved to Bonn in 2000. While in Duisburg, Abdelwahab led an Islamic study group, one member of which was Christian Ganczarski, a German convert to Islam who is in police custody in France and has admitted ties to al-Qaeda. Abdelwahab admits to knowing Ganczarski, but "Does that mean I'm a terrorist?" he asks. "Then why don't [the German authorities] charge us? They don't charge us with anything, but they make our lives difficult."
Norman Ali Khalaf, 41, a chubby man with a goatee, is a biology teacher at the school and head of the local Muslim political party FAKT. His Egyptian wife, Ola, dons neither a veil nor a head scarf. She serves guests sweet Arabic tea and fresh dates from Saudi Arabia. The couple's 5-year-old daughter, Nora, bounces around the room speaking perfect German and watching American cartoons on TV. Khalaf says municipal authorities are exaggerating the problem. He was born in Saarbrücken to a Palestinian father and German mother and likes to compare the rigorous nature of Wahhabism to his mother's Catholicism. "The Catholics are very strict," he says. "And the nuns also cover their bodies and heads. Where is the difference?" But Khalaf acknowledges that the combination of fundamentalist religion and the concentration of Muslims in Bonn could make the area attractive to a few Islamic radicals. The city now sports a pharmacy where Arabic is spoken, an Arab travel agent that books trips to Mecca and an Arab realtor. "There is an infrastructure here in Bonn that attracts people who want a strong connection to Arab culture," he says. "If you were an Islamic fundamentalist, this is the place you would want to be." Last week, the battle over the King Fahd Academy reached a tentative climax. Roters, the city official seeking the school's closure, flew to Berlin to meet the chargé d'affaires at the Saudi embassy and a representative from the German Foreign Ministry. The Saudis opposed closing the school, which was proving legally difficult anyway, so the Foreign Ministry in Berlin suggested a deal that satisfied both sides: the academy would stay open, but the Saudis would prohibit attendance by Muslims who are German citizens, since the school was originally intended only for the children of diplomats; and the mosque, previously open to the public, would be restricted to those with a connection to the school.