Suspected radical Islamic terrorists were arrested in a sting operation by German police, accused of planning to attack U.S. facilities such as military bases, in Germany.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Ferdinand Ostrop
BERLIN -- Three suspected Islamic terrorists from an al-Qaida-influenced group nursing "profound hatred of U.S. citizens" were arrested on suspicious of plotting imminent, massive bomb attacks on U.S. facilities in Germany, prosecutors said Wednesday.
German Federal Prosecutor Monika Harms said the three, two of whom were German converts to Islam, had trained at camps in Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, a group based in Central Asia. They had obtained some 1,500 pounds of hydrogen peroxide for making explosives.
"We were able to succeed in recognizing and preventing the most serious and massive bombings," Harms told reporters.
Harms declined to name specific targets, but said the suspects had an eye on institutions and establishments frequented by Americans in Germany, including discos, pubs and airports.
Sudwestfunk televison, citing unnamed security sources in Berlin, reported that Frankfurt international airport and U.S. Ramstein Air Base were among the targets.
Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, appearing on a morning ARD television show, was asked if the airport and U.S. base were targeted.
"I ask you to understand that I cannot say anything about the details. But I will say again, our security forces were very active here and in my view did very good work," Jung said.
He also said: "I can only say that our security forces did very good work in that this action tonight was possible, it also shows how direct the threat situation was."
Later, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was asked about the reports and said that "we don't know exactly what the targets of the attacks were."
The suspects, delivered by helicopter, made a first appearance at a closed hearing at the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe, which ordered them held pending trial.
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said that President Bush had been briefed on the arrests and that he's "pleased a potential attack was thwarted and appreciates the work of the German authorities and the cooperation by international law enforcement."
Officials said the solution of hydrogen peroxide, stored in a hideout, could have been mixed easily with other additives to produce a bomb with the explosive power of 1,200 pounds of TNT.
"This would have enabled them to make bombs with more explosive power than the ones used in the London and Madrid bombings," Joerg Ziercke, the head of the Federal Crime Office - Germany's equivalent of the FBI - said at a joint news conference with Harms.
The three suspects - two Germans, ages 22 and 28, and a 29-year-old Turk - first came to the attention of authorities because they had been caught observing a U.S. military facility in Hanau, near Frankfurt, at the end of 2006, officials said.
All three had undergone training at camps in Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, and had formed a German cell of the group, which officials said was influenced by al-Qaida.
The Islamic Jihad Union was described as a Sunni Muslim group based in Central Asia that was an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an extremist group with origins in that country.
"The group, which is influenced by al-Qaida, set up a German cell in winter of 2006 with the goal of finding recruits here to carry out attacks," Harms said.
The three had no steady work and were drawing unemployment benefits while their main occupation was the plot, officials said. "This group distinguishes itself through its profound hatred of U.S. citizens," Ziercke said.
Members of Germany's elite GSG-9 anti-terrorist unit arrested two suspects at a holiday home in central Germany on Tuesday, Ziercke said. A third managed to escape through a bathroom window, but was apprehended about 300 meters later by federal police who had roped off the area.
Germany, which did not send troops to Iraq, has been spared terrorist attacks like the train and subway bombings in Madrid and London - although its involvement in the attempt to stabilize Afghanistan has led to fears it might be targeted.
German and U.S. officials have warned of the possibility of a terrorist attack, and security measures have been increased.
In July 2006 two gas bombs were placed on commuter trains but did not explode. 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.
Wolfgang Bosbach, a top legislator for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, pointed out the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks next week, as well as deliberations by the German parliament in the next few weeks over whether to extend its troop mandates in Afghanistan.
"We are in a highly sensitive period," he said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an interview released Wednesday that German troops would remain in Afghanistan for several more years, despite recent setbacks in the region. "To walk away would send the wrong signal," Merkel told N-24 television.
Robert Payne at Fraport AG, which operates Frankfurt International said that it was "business as usual" at the airport, but had no further comment about the arrests or any details about the alleged claims of the facility being a target.
Navy Capt. Jeff Gradeck, spokesman for the U.S. military's European Command in Stuttgart said German authorities had contacted them concerning the alleged plot, but had no further information.
"We extend our gratitude to Germany for their efforts in protecting us," Gradeck said.
Ramstein is one of the best-known U.S. Air Force bases worldwide because it serves as a major conduit for U.S. troops moving in and out of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It is a key transit point for injured troops from Iraq and Afghanistan who are flown there to be taken to nearby Landstuhl.
On Tuesday, Denmark's intelligence service said it thwarted a bomb plot and arrested eight Islamic militants with alleged links to senior al-Qaida terrorists.
Ziercke said that although there were similarities to the group arrested in Denmark on Tuesday, no direct connection between the two had been established.
The Tuesday arrests in Denmark sent jitters through a country that was the focus of Muslim anger and deadly protests over the cartoons. Jakob Scharf, head of the PET intelligence service, said that the eight suspects arrested were "militant Islamists with connections to leading al-Qaida persons."
The European Union's top justice official said Wednesday that the threat of a terror attack remained high in the 27-nation bloc. EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said the EU executive would push ahead with plans to set up an EU-wide airline passenger data recording system despite privacy concerns.
"The threat of new terror attacks continues to be high," Frattini said, citing Spain, Italy, Belgium, Britain and Germany as countries where the risk has been the highest.