Three militants from an Islamic group linked to al-Qaida were planning “imminent” bomb attacks against Americans in Germany when an elite anti-terrorist unit raided their small-town hideout after months of intense surveillance, officials said Wednesday.
The men — two German converts to Islam and a Turkish citizen who prosecutors said shared a “profound hatred of U.S. citizens” — allegedly obtained military-style detonators and enough chemicals to make bombs more powerful than those that killed 191 commuters in Madrid in 2004 and 52 in London in 2005.
Frankfurt International Airport and the nearby U.S. Ramstein Air Base reportedly were the suspects’ primary targets.
Prosecutors indicated police defused the danger earlier in the six-month investigation by stealthily substituting a harmless chemical for the raw bomb material amassed by the suspects. They said police moved in Tuesday when the alleged plotters seemed ready to try to make bombs.
Second Europe attack thwarted
It was the second consecutive day that European authorities announced they had thwarted a major attack, less than a week before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Danish officials said Tuesday they had broken up a bomb plot by arresting six Danish citizens and two other residents with links to senior al-Qaida terrorists.
Security experts said the two purported plots are a reminder that Muslim extremists are not driven just by anger at the United States and its policies.
Islamic radicals “treat the whole Western world as their enemy,” said Tadeusz Wrobel, an analyst of military and security issues in Warsaw.
Bob Ayres, a former U.S. intelligence officer who is an analyst at Chatham House, a London think tank, said the radical ideology embraced by Islamic militants outweighs national loyalty, noting that many of those arrested in alleged European terror plots in recent years grew up here.
“They’re not Germans, Brits or French. They are radical Muslims living in these countries,” he said.
Prosecutors said the three men arrested in Germany underwent training at camps in Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union and had formed a German cell of the al-Qaida-influenced group. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is believed hiding in Pakistan.
Officials described the Islamic Jihad Union as a Sunni Muslim group based in Central Asia that is an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an extremist organization with origins in that former Soviet state.
“This group distinguishes itself through its profound hatred of U.S. citizens,” Joerg Ziercke, head of the Federal Crime Office, Germany’s equivalent of the FBI, told reporters.
Discos, pubs allegedly targeted
Federal prosecutor Monika Harms said the three suspects intended to attack institutions and establishments frequented by Americans in Germany, including discos, pubs and airports. Her office said the plan was to set off car bombs.
“We were able to succeed in recognizing and preventing the most serious and massive bombings,” Harms said at a news conference. She declined to name specific targets.
“There was an imminent threat,” Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung told ARD broadcaster.
A senior State Department official said German investigators determined that Frankfurt International Airport and the nearby U.S. Ramstein Air Base were the primary targets, although other sites may have under consideration. The official agreed to discuss the confidential between American and German intelligence agencies only if not quoted by name.
Germany’s government had been increasingly worried about the danger of terror plots after attacks on its troops serving in Afghanistan, and security measures had been stepped up.
“This shows that terrorist dangers, in our country as well, are not abstract but are real,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said. She thanked security officials for foiling the attack and called the arrests a “very, very great success.”
FBI: ‘No imminent threat’
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said President Bush was pleased a potential attack was thwarted and expressed appreciation for the work of German authorities.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the FBI and Department of Homeland Security saw “no imminent threat to the U.S. domestically following these arrests.”
Germany’s elite GSG-9 anti-terrorist unit arrested two of the suspects at a vacation home in Oberschledorn, a town of some 900 people in central Germany, officials said. The third suspect fled out a bathroom window but was caught about 300 yards away, they said.
The suspects were taken before a judge in closed sessions Wednesday at the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe and ordered held pending trial.
Prosecutors said the three — identified only as Fritz Martin G., 28; Adem Y., 28; and Daniel Martin S., 21 — first came to the attention of police when one or more of them carried out surveillance of U.S. military facilities in Hanau, near Frankfurt, in late 2006.
Officials said that during the first part of this year, the men acquired 12 containers of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide solution, which can be combined with other material to make explosives — as did the four London suicide bombers who blew up three subway cars and a bus on July 7, 2005.
In diluted form hydrogen peroxide is commonly used in hair coloring and as a disinfectant, but the more than 1,500 pounds obtained by the suspects could have made a bomb with the explosive power of some 1,200 pounds of dynamite, 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 Ziercke, head of the Federal Crime Office.
Suspects set up attack
In a sign of the intense surveillance involving 300 police officers, prosecutors said that at one point police were able to replace the dangerous peroxide in the containers with a harmless solution without the knowledge of the suspects.
The containers were first kept in a garage in the Black Forest region in southern Germany. Then on Aug. 17, one of the three rented a vacation cottage in Oberschledorn under a false name, and was joined there by the other two suspects Sunday, officials said.
Police decided to move in when the suspects transported one of the peroxide containers to the cottage, where they also had taken detonators and electrical components.
Officials seized computers and were trying to determine if anyone else was involved in their activities. The three had no steady work and were collecting unemployment benefits while their main occupation was the plot, officials said.
Police also searched an Islamic information center in the southern town of Ulm, home to one of the suspects.
The arrests came a little over a year after two bombs fashioned from gas canisters failed to explode on German commuter trains. Officials said that attack was motivated by anger over cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. Several suspects are on trial in Lebanon, and a Lebanese man has been charged in Germany.
Additionally, three of the four suicide pilots involved in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the U.S. had lived and studied in Hamburg.