By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 6, 2007
BERLIN, Sept. 5 -- German authorities said Wednesday that they had disrupted a "massive" bombing plot targeting American interests in Germany, and they expressed alarm at evidence that the three local suspects had visited militant camps in Pakistan -- the latest example of people traveling from Europe to that country for terrorist training.
Prosecutors said the men -- two Germans who had converted to Islam and a Turkish citizen who lived in Germany -- had trained at camps in Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, a Central Asian network that is a close ally of al-Qaeda.
Counterterrorism officials said the three were among more than a dozen residents of Germany who had journeyed to Pakistan in recent months and were subsequently arrested or placed under surveillance. Key suspects in the London transit system attacks in July 2005 and a plot to blow up transatlantic airliners last summer also received training in Pakistan before returning to Europe for attacks, investigators believe.
U.S. intelligence officials have said in recent weeks that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have reconstituted themselves in Pakistan's remote mountain regions along the border with Afghanistan and have bolstered their ability to launch attacks on the West from there.
German authorities said that the three men arrested Tuesday, all in their 20s, were aiming at American facilities or sites likely to result in American casualties but that it was unclear whether they had settled on a target. Security officials said evidence indicated that Ramstein Air Base, a major U.S. and NATO installation, and Frankfurt's international airport ranked high on the list of sites under consideration.
"We were able to succeed in recognizing and preventing these most serious and massive bombings," Federal Prosecutor Monika Harms said at a news conference in the city of Karlsruhe.
Police arrested the three men Tuesday afternoon after raiding a two-story white cottage the men had rented in Oberschledorn, a hilly burg of about 900 people north of Frankfurt. One of the men escaped through a window and was grabbed by officers as he sprinted through the village, officials said.
Authorities said the group had accumulated more than 200 gallons of a concentrated hydrogen peroxide solution that is a key ingredient in homemade bombs used by terrorist groups.
"This would have enabled them to make bombs with more explosive power than the ones used in the London and Madrid bombings," Joerg Ziercke, chief of the German federal police, told reporters. On display at the news conference where Ziercke and Harms spoke were large blue containers that police reported seizing from the men.
Authorities said that in July police had secretly exchanged the suspects' supply of the liquid with a harmless substance but allowed the men to continue their plot.
Peroxide-based explosives have been used in several al-Qaeda-sponsored attacks, including the kitchen-built backpack bombs that exploded on the London transit system on July 7, 2005, killing 52 passengers and four attackers. The bombs used in the March 11, 2004, train attacks in Madrid were made from dynamite.
In late February, in one of his earliest appearances on Capitol Hill as director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell described the revival of al-Qaeda training of recruits in Pakistan's North Waziristan mountains. Without giving details, he said a number of terrorist "plans and activities have been shut down or disrupted." He warned that al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, Syria and Europe were planning attacks.
One of the skills taught in these camps, intelligence officials say, is how to make peroxide-based explosives, which can be assembled from materials available at drugstores and are difficult for police to detect.
The most commonly used compound is triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, which can be made from household products such as nail polish remover and hydrogen peroxide by concentrating the solutions and mixing them with other ingredients. The resulting compound is highly unstable and can detonate at any time.
British investigators have said that TATP and a related compound, HMTD, hexamethylene triperoxide diamine, were the primary explosives in the London transit attacks and in the disrupted August 2006 plot to blow up several airliners flying from Britain to the United States. British citizen Richard Reid tried unsuccessfully to use a TATP bomb concealed in his shoe to blow up an American Airlines jet en route from Paris to Miami in 2001.
German officials said Wednesday that one of the suspects seized Tuesday had been detained briefly by German police in December after he was seen acting suspiciously outside a U.S. military installation in Hanau. He was quickly released without charge.
Investigators and other sources said tracking of the cell began in earnest this spring when U.S. officials tipped off their German counterparts about the suspects' travels between Pakistan and Germany, as well as their affiliation with Islamic Jihad Union, a group with no previously known presence in Europe.
The group is an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Based in Central Asia, it asserted responsibility for suicide bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in July 2004 near the U.S. and Israeli embassies.
Uzbek militants have become prominent in recent years along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and counterterrorism analysts said they sometimes cooperate with al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
In mid-spring, German authorities informed the Americans that cell members had obtained a house in Hanau, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The cell's activities prompted the U.S. Embassy in Berlin to issue a warning April 20 of an increased threat of terrorism in Germany, particularly against Americans. Officials did not elaborate on the nature of the threat at the time.
Since then, information flowed regularly between U.S. and German intelligence officials. The U.S. contribution was mostly electronic intercepts, while the Germans handled operations on the ground, the official said. "They employed a lot of people operating in several areas of their country," he added.
German prosecutors said that in February, the suspects started acquiring liquid hydrogen peroxide, ultimately amassing 1,600 pounds of it. Investigators said the cell purchased the chemicals from stores near Hanover, in central Germany, but stored them in a different part of the country -- in a garage in Freudenstadt, a town in the Black Forest in the southwest.
In July, authorities managed to swap out the chemicals.
On Aug. 17, one of the suspects, using a false name, rented a vacation house in Oberschledorn, a village a long drive north in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, prosecutors said.
On Saturday, the suspects began transferring the phony chemicals from the Black Forest to the vacation house, where they had also collected detonators and electronic parts.
That prompted police to sweep in and make the arrests Tuesday, prosecutors said.
"It was a huge shock for the residents," Heinrich Nolte, mayor of the district that includes Oberschledorn, said in a telephone interview.
But Hildegard Hellwig, an Oberschledorn homemaker, said people in the village had begun to whisper in recent days about unusual activity near the rented house on Oak Lane.
"There was a car parked in a field," she said. "The people near the field knew it didn't belong there. In a village, something like that gets noticed."
A security official identified the alleged ringleader of the cell as Fritz Martin Gelowicz, 28, of Bavaria state. Prosecutors named the two others as Adem Y., 28, a Turkish national, and Daniel S., a 21-year-old German, following the German practice of withholding the surnames of suspects.
Police transported the three men by helicopter Wednesday to a court in Karlsruhe, where they appeared before a judge in closed session. The court ordered them held on charges of membership in a terrorist organization.
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.