BERLIN – Three suspects allegedly trained in Pakistan by an Al Qaeda-linked group have been arrested for plotting massive car-bomb attacks on US troops and other Americans near US military bases and German airports, authorities said yesterday.
After months of surveillance during which German police secretly replaced a stockpile of bomb chemicals with a weaker mixture, a SWAT team raided a vacation home in a wooded village in central Germany on Tuesday and arrested the trio, two of whom were German converts to Islam. One of the suspects grabbed an officer’s gun, shooting him in the hand and suffering a cut on the head during a struggle.
Searches in five German states deployed 600 officers, an unprecedented number for an antiterrorism operation led by federal police here, on the same day that Danish police seized bomb materials in Copenhagen and charged a Pakistani and an Afghan with plotting an attack under the direction of unidentified Al Qaeda leaders. Authorities said they knew of no direct connections between the men arrested in the two European nations.
The two alleged plots stoke fears that a resurgent Al Qaeda is using hide-outs near the Afghan-Pakistani border to train Europe-based militants to hit Western targets in Europe, which has become a front line because it is easier to enter than the United States and has a larger, more restive Muslim population.
The trio in Germany allegedly planned simultaneous strikes on three soft targets that might have included nightclubs, bars, restaurants, or airports frequented by American soldiers and tourists, according to German and US law enforcement officials. Because the confiscated materials could have produced the equivalent of about 1,000 pounds of TNT, the casualty toll could have far exceeded the transport bombings that killed 52 people in London in 2005 and 191 people in Madrid in 2004, officials said.
“The London bombs had only [6 to 10 pounds] of explosive material,” said Joerg Ziercke, chief of the federal police, at a news conference with top law-enforcement officials. “Here, we are talking about [approximately 1,000 pounds]. In my opinion, a high number of casualties was the main objective, otherwise this enormous amount of explosives is hard to explain.”
The third suspect arrested was a Turkish Muslim living in Germany. The three allegedly underwent training last year at a terrorist camp in northern Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, an extremist network that broke away from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a longtime Al Qaeda ally, authorities said.
“We have been concerned about the heightened threat from Al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the IJU, and this particular plot is consistent with that trend of decentralized command and control in many parts of the world,” said a US counterterrorism official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
German police conducted 41 searches Tuesday and were investigating seven to 10 associates of the jailed suspects, who were said to be testing mixtures and assembling bomb components at the time of their arrest. Surveillance revealed that the jailed suspects’ primary motivation was a hatred of Americans, German and US officials said.
“In the suspects’ minds, they were from days to a couple of weeks away from an attack,” said another law enforcement official who asked to remain anonymous. “The targets weren’t that set, but they wanted to hit soft targets around military bases where there are large populations of Americans.”
Although officials did not reveal links between the suspects in Germany and Denmark, both cases feature stockpiles of bombmaking materials and suspected links to Pakistan and Al Qaeda-related figures there. The German suspects tried to maintain secrecy by communicating through the Internet and, like the Danish group, allegedly received orders or external communications from the network in Pakistan, officials said.
Danish and German police communicated with each other and US counterparts about the raids, which occurred a week before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, a period believed to be of heightened risk. Investigators say that the fugitive leaders of Al Qaeda have been emboldened by their ability to operate in Pakistan and have set their sights on new targets in Europe.
The German investigation began more than nine months ago with a suspect identified as Fritz G., a 28-year-old convert who lives in Ulm. He was questioned and released in January after he allegedly conducted reconnaissance on two US military barracks near Hanau, authorities said. He was arrested again Tuesday along with the other two suspects, whose names were not released. Surveillance early this year revealed that the three were trained by the Islamic Jihad Union in Pakistan in 2006.
Between February and August, one of the suspects went to Hanover and amassed about 1,500 pounds of 35 percent concentrated hydrogen peroxide solution purchased at a legitimate company under false pretenses, authorities said.
The chemical, held in 12 containers, was stored in a rented garage in the Black Forest region. As suspicions grew, police gained entry to the garage and, with the help of the company selling the chemical to the suspect, switched the solution with a much weaker mixture of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide concentrate, officials said. The suspects obtained other bombmaking components, including a detonator, from a source that remains unclear, perhaps during travels to Turkey and Pakistan, officials said. On Aug. 17, one of the suspects rented a three-bedroom vacation apartment in the 900-resident village of Oberschledorn, a popular skiing and hiking locale, where the three allegedly began making bombs after Sept. 2.
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