German police arrest 3 in terrorist plot

Posted in Terrorism | 07-Sep-07 | Author: Mark Landler| Source: International Herald Tribune

A German police car stands in front of the Islamic Information Centre during a raid in Ulm.

The article was reported by Mark Landler, Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet, and written by Landler.

FRANKFURT, Sept. 5 — The German police have arrested three Islamic militants suspected of planning large-scale terrorist attacks against several sites frequented by Americans, including discos, bars, airports, and military installations.

Those arrested — two German citizens and a Turkish resident of Germany — were in advanced stages of plotting bomb attacks that could have been deadlier than the terrorist strikes that killed dozens in London and Madrid, police and security officials said Wednesday. At least five lesser figures were still being pursued, they said.

"They were planning massive attacks," the German federal prosecutor, Monika Harms, said at a news conference Wednesday, outlining an intense six-month investigation. She said the suspects had amassed large amounts of hydrogen peroxide, the main chemical used to manufacture the explosives used in the suicide bombings in London in July 2005.

Information that surfaced from the investigation, which included monitoring phone calls and tracking suspects' movements, led the authorities to conclude that among the targets under consideration, were the Ramstein air base, an important transportation hub for the American military, and Frankfurt International Airport.

Harms said the two German suspects were converts to Islam who had trained in terrorist camps in Pakistan. She said the three suspects had military-grade detonators and some 1,500 pounds of hydrogen peroxide, which they had hidden and were preparing to move by van when they were arrested in a out-of-the-way village in southern Germany on Tuesday afternoon.

The hydrogen peroxide, when mixed with other chemicals, could produce a bomb with a force equivalent to 1,200 pounds of TNT, officials said.

"This would have enabled them to make bombs with more explosive power than the ones used in the London and Madrid bombings," said Jörg Ziercke, head of the German Federal Crime Office.

Ziercke said the men belong to a terrorist group that police suspect has "close ties" to Al Qaeda, though he did not offer evidence of those links. Counterterrorism experts here expressed wariness, noting that in almost every major terrorist attack or suspected plot since the Sept. 11 attacks, the role of Al Qaeda has been raised, but rarely substantiated.

The German defense minister, Franz Josef Jung, said on state television, "There was an imminent security threat." Some officials said the attacks could have come within days, noting that the German Parliament would soon take up a politically fraught debate about extending the deployment of German troops in Afghanistan. Next week is also the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

German officials, who had publicly warned for months about a potential terrorist attack here, were visibly relieved by the arrests — the fruits of an elaborate investigation involving more than 300 people. On Wednesday, police officers raided 41 houses and apartments across Germany, seizing computers and other evidence.

But some politicians warned that the danger remained high. "The arrests yesterday are just evidence of how serious the situation here in Germany is," said Wolfgang Bosbach, a prominent legislator in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union who is a top security expert.

The surveillance operation was so close that in July, officials said, the police managed to swap some of the tanks of hydrogen peroxide the suspects had gathered with some containing a far lesser concentration.

One of the suspects, whom police sources speaking on condition of anonymity identified as Fritz Gelowicz, a 28-year-old German born in Munich, was detained in 2005 in a raid in a Muslim neighborhood in Bavaria. He was put under surveillance again by investigators in December 2006, after he was seen scouting an American military barracks in Hanau, according to court documents.

The police were are investigating a German-Turkish man, who is an associate of Gelowicz and also a suspect in the plot, two security officials said. They said he was believed to be in Turkey.

Tuesday's arrests were made at a vacation home in Oberschledorn, a village of 800 tucked into the hills, 75 miles north of Frankfurt. The suspects had rented the house — with a fenced terrace and a blooming garden — to store chemicals to make explosives, officials said. They were preparing to leave when the police swooped in.

One of the three men fled and, in a scuffle with a police officer, wrested a pistol from his holster and shot him in the hand before he was subdued, the authorities said. The officer was slightly wounded. Residents described the raid, by an elite police unit, as something out of an action movie.

A few had seen three young men walking through the village in recent days, but they did not arouse suspicion. Curinna Imuhl, 12, who lives near the rented house, said, "I thought no one was there; the shades were always down."

The arrests came a day after the Danish police arrested eight people in a suspected terrorist plot. The German interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said there was no evidence of a direct link between the plots. Six of those suspects have already been released.

Harms, the federal prosecutor, said the three suspects arrested Tuesday belonged to a German cell of the Islamic Jihad Union, a radical Sunni group based in Central Asia that split from the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

While this group has not been linked to terrorist attacks in Europe, it has claimed credit for suicide bombings in July 2004 near the United States and Israeli Embassies in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The group has called for the overthrow of the secular government in Uzbekistan.

For months, German officials have warned that the country was under threat of a terrorist attack because of Germany's involvement in Afghanistan. They said they were particularly worried by reports of Germans taking part in terrorist training camps in Pakistan, near the Afghan border, and returning to carry out attacks.

Speaking to reporters in Berlin, Chancellor Merkel said, "The lesson from this is the danger is not just abstract, it's real." The consequences of an attack, she added, would have been "indescribable."

Ziercke said the United States aided the German authorities. Another security official said the Americans tipped off the Germans to the existence of the Islamic Jihad Union.

President George W. Bush, who is in Australia, was briefed on the arrests, according to Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "He's pleased a potential attack was thwarted and appreciates the work of the German authorities and the cooperation by international law enforcement," Johndroe said.

Twice this spring, in March and April, the American Embassy in Berlin warned Americans in Germany of the need for heightened security. A spokesman for the embassy, Robert Wood, said the State Department had not decided whether to issue a new "warden message."

American officials, who have spoken publicly about Al Qaeda's growing abilities to attack Western targets, say that the group in Germany probably has ties to Al Qaeda operational figures in Pakistan. American spy agencies believe that Qaeda leaders have established a safe haven in the western mountains of Pakistan, where they have set up small compounds to train operatives for attacks on Western targets.

American military officials said the Germans contacted them on Tuesday evening to warn them about the plot. "This was a German-led investigation," Lieutenant Commander Corey Barker, a spokesman for the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, said. "We do appreciate their commitment to safeguarding us against a terrorist attack."

Ramstein is the largest American air base in Germany and a hub for troops deploying to Eastern Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Barker said the base had not lifted its force protection level, which is currently at B, the second-highest designation.

Frankfurt's airport, the second-busiest in Continental Europe after Charles de Gaulle in Paris, was operating normally, said Robert Payne, a spokesman for the airport.

Germany narrowly missed a terrorist attack in July 2006, when a pair of suitcase bombs left on commuter trains in Cologne failed to explode. Officials noted that the two suspects in that attack, from Lebanon, had a fraction of the bomb-making chemicals used in this plot.

Last June, Schäuble and his deputy, August Hanning, warned that the terrorist threat was comparable to that in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. That plot was hatched in Hamburg by a circle of Islamic militants posing as students.

Schäuble coupled his warning with a call for stricter antiterrorism measures. He has said he would like police to be able to conduct surreptitious searches of computers belonging to suspected terrorists.

"There is a growing problem with home-grown terrorism that's also evident elsewhere in Europe," Schäuble said at a news conference, renewing his call for tougher laws.

Some critics here have accused Schäuble of ratcheting up fears of terrorism in order to push his tougher measures. The debate has been particularly fierce because of Germany's deep aversion since World War II to law enforcement tactics that threaten individual liberties.

The Turkish links in this case trouble some terrorism experts, who note that Germany has generally not had to contend with a radical element in its large Turkish Muslim minority.

"What worries me is that we've got a Turkish-German and a Turkish-Uzbek connection, which is something completely new," said Guido Steinberg, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.