Read this AP story. By TONY CZUCZKA, Associated Press Writer BERLIN - Islamic extremists accused of plotting to kill Iraq (news - web sites)'s prime minister in Germany are smuggling battle-hardened fighters from Iraq to Europe, raising a potential new terrorist threat on the continent, according to German officials. More than 20 alleged supporters of Ansar al-Islam have been arrested in Europe in the past year as authorities move against the group that has links with al-Qaida and Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who's been leading bloody attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. Ansar al-Islam is suspected of spiriting dozens of fired-up young Muslims to Iraq to join the insurgency, but the latest raids in Germany â the most spectacular yet against the group â heightened concerns that the organization also could pose a menace outside Iraq, too. Acting on intelligence suggesting the group planned to attack Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in Berlin, police on Dec. 3 arrested three Iraqis believed to be Ansar al-Islam members. Arrest warrants for the three plot suspects â identified only as Ata R., Mazen H. and Rafik Y. â were based on wiretaps and intelligence that one of them apparently cased Berlin locales on Allawi's itinerary. But investigators have turned up no weapons or bomb-making materials, and Allawi's name was never mentioned in the men's coded telephone conversations. A top security official in Hamburg, Heino Vahldieck, said German authorities were right to strike quickly despite what appears to be the lack of hard evidence. Prosecutors are preparing charges of belonging to a terrorist group against the three men. "You can wind up waiting too long once too often," Vahldieck told The Associated Press. About 100 Ansar al-Islam supporters are in Germany alone, officials say. Mullah Krekar, the group's spiritual head, has lived for years as a refugee in Norway, and investigators believe that the group has also recruited volunteers in Italy and Britain. Estimates of its total membership range between about 500 and 1,000. "It's right up there on the list of threats," said Michael Ziegler, a spokesman for Bavarian security authorities. "The foiled attack on Allawi shows that this group must be considered dangerous also for Europe." Germany's pre-emptive action to protect Allawi contrasts with the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, Spain, and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States: A key Madrid suspect had been under surveillance long before, and three of the four Sept. 11 suicide pilots â including lead hijacker Mohamed Atta â lived and studied in Hamburg undetected by authorities. "The security agencies are generally acting a bit earlier now, even at the risk of weaker evidence," said Kai Hirschmann, deputy head of the Institute for Terrorism Research in Essen. "The problem all over Europe is that they can only do something when there's specific evidence of an attack," he said. "If people just sit around and talk about jihad, there's relatively little you can do." Ansar al-Islam was formed in the Kurdish parts of Iraq and is believed to include Arab al-Qaida members who fled the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan (news - web sites) in late 2001. Its bases along the Iranian-Iraqi border were bombed at the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq that began in March 2003 and the group's members scattered, some to Europe, authorities believe. Al-Zarqawi, whose followers in Iraq have claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings and beheadings of foreigners, is believed to have played a key role in the group after fleeing Afghanistan, where he studied explosives and other skills in al-Qaida camps. Europe's openness to refugees and civil-rights guarantees often make it hard for authorities to crack down on terror suspects. But they have stepped up pressure on Ansar al-Islam over the past year, leading to the string of arrests in Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey and Sweden. How many Europe-based volunteers have gone to fight in Iraq is unclear, but authorities already are tracking the threat of Islamic fighters returning to Europe with experience in waging holy war in Iraq â much the way others in the past returned hardened from Chechnya (news - web sites). "If someone is involved in an attack in Iraq, I am virtually 100 percent convinced that he'll also carry out an attack over here if ordered to do so," Guenter Beckstein, the top state security official in Bavaria, said in a telephone interview. European security officials have given little hard evidence about militants returning from Iraq. But there are a few known cases of recruiting. One suspected Iraqi recruiter, Amin Lokman Mohammed, is expected to go on trial in Germany next year, charged with organizing trips to Iraq for at least a dozen possible suicide bombing missions against U.S. troops.