BERLIN (Reuters) - The head of Germany's military intelligence says he fears its armed forces could be infiltrated by Islamist militants to obtain weapons training for use in fighting in Syria and Iraq for insurgent groups like Islamic State.
"If a moderately intelligent Islamist turns up who conceals the motives for his interest, it would be difficult to prevent him from being recruited," Christof Gramm, head of the intelligence service known by its acronym MAD, told the German daily Die Welt in an interview.
No serving members of the Bundeswehr armed forces are among the estimated 600 German citizens who have joined the jihadists, Gramm said, "but we have identified over 20 former German soldiers who are known to have traveled to the conflict zone".
The MAD chief said he wants to introduce background checks on potential recruits, adding that it was routine for people who are going to work with secret documents or in sensitive areas of the economic infrastructure, "but for people who are going to be trained in weapons of war, there are no prior checks".
Germany is one of various Western states that are concerned about citizens, often with Islamic immigrant backgrounds, joining jihadist insurgencies and have cracked down to reduce the risk of returning fighters posing a security threat at home.
Commenting on the interview, Defence Ministry spokesman Ingo Gerhartz said 20 ex-soldiers fighting with Islamic State should be seen in the context of "about 25,000-30,000 part-time and full-time soldiers who leave the armed forces each year". However, he added, "each case is one too many".
Gerhartz defended the military's selection process, which he said already includes backgrounds check by the police for any criminal record which would rule out recruitment.
The military intelligence chief said espionage by Russia and China remained the main challenge for the MAD, adding that both countries had "huge" interest in all aspects of the Bundeswehr.
Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Mark Heinrich