Trial Opens in Alleged Plot Against U.S. Targets

Daniel Schneider, left, greets his attorney through a window as he and co-defendant Adem Yilmaz, second from right, sit with police in a German courtroom.
Daniel Schneider, left, greets his attorney through a window as he and co-defendant Adem Yilmaz, second from right, sit with police in a German courtroom. (By Federico Gambarini -- Pool)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 23, 2009

BERLIN, April 22 -- Four members of an alleged Islamist terror cell went on trial Wednesday, charged with plotting to kill dozens of Americans and Germans in a campaign to force Germany to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

Prosecutors said the four defendants -- three Germans and a Turkish national -- had accumulated enough chemicals to make nearly half a ton of explosives, which they had planned to use in bomb attacks on U.S. military bases, dance clubs, bars and other places frequented by Americans living in Germany.

When police broke up the cell in September 2007, many Germans were shocked to learn that two of the main suspects were ethnic Germans -- including a Bavarian named Fritz -- who had converted to Islam. Authorities said the group represented the biggest security threat on German territory since 2001, when an al-Qaeda cell from Hamburg organized the Sept. 11 hijackings in the United States.

As the trial opened under heavy security in a courtroom in the city of Duesseldorf, co-prosecutor Ralf Setton said the group was motivated by a long-standing hatred of Americans that intensified after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He said that the cell aimed to kill "as many people as possible" and that "German victims were also welcome."

Investigators said the cell wanted to strike in the days leading up to an October 2007 vote by the German Parliament on whether to extend the mission of the country's 3,500 troops in Afghanistan. Lawmakers approved the extension despite polls showing few Germans in favor of it.

Police have said they caught three of the defendants with bombmaking materials, and authorities allegedly overheard them discussing the plot during hundreds of hours of recorded surveillance. But their precise targets remain unclear, and the bombs were never built.

One mystery is why the cell members allegedly kept making preparations for the attacks even though they realized they were under police surveillance. The accused ringleader, Fritz Gelowicz, 29, granted an interview to a German magazine a few months before his arrest. He complained that police were hassling him and following his every move.

"When you look at how they attracted attention in Germany and moved around, they acted really unprofessionally," said Petter Nesser, a terrorism researcher with the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment who has studied radical cells in Europe. "Absolutely, they could have done a lot of damage. But at the same time, they were very reckless."

Investigators said Gelowicz and another defendant, Daniel Schneider, 22, were disaffected teenagers when they converted to Islam. They became radicalized after attending fundamentalist mosques and cultural centers in southern Germany. Along with a third defendant, Adem Yilmaz, 30, a Turkish national who grew up in Germany, they traveled to Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia for language study and religious missions.

Although details of their travels overseas are murky, police said the suspects made contact with a recruiter for an obscure group called the Islamic Jihad Union, based in Pakistan.

The group consisted mainly of exiled fighters from Uzbekistan seeking to overthrow the government there. The U.S. government has accused it of bombing the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 2004. Not long after, the network decided to broaden its operations and was looking for targets in Europe, according to prosecutors. Investigators said the German recruits presented an opportunity to act on that strategy.

Guido Steinberg, a former counterterrorism adviser to the German government who will testify as an expert witness at the trial, estimated that the Islamic Jihad Union had no more than 200 followers. But he said it worked closely with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

An important liaison to the group was Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda commander who is suspected of ordering the bombing plot in Germany, according to a paper Steinberg authored last year for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Libi and several fighters from the Islamic Jihad Union were killed in Pakistan by a U.S. missile in January 2008.

The Islamic Jihad Union has asserted responsibility for the German bombing plot. Shortly after the cell members were arrested, the group posted an Internet statement saying that three of its "brothers" had been planning to attack Ramstein Air Base -- a major U.S. military installation in Germany -- as well as U.S. and Uzbek consulates.

German authorities were tipped off about the cell's activities by U.S. intelligence officials, who intercepted e-mails and other communications as they traveled between Germany and Pakistan. Hundreds of German police officers then spent months tracking their movements and recording their conversations. Prosecutors said Wednesday that one wiretap recorded Gelowicz explaining plans to assemble three car bombs.

"If each person kills 50 people and injures a few, we will have at least 150 dead," he said, according to prosecutors.

Among other charges, the defendants are accused of membership in a foreign terrorist organization, an offense that was not made a crime in Germany until after the al-Qaeda cell in Hamburg carried out the Sept. 11 hijackings.

The four defendants have not commented on the charges against them since their arrest. All sported heavy beards on the first day of the trial. One of them, Yilmaz, caused a small stir when he refused to stand during the swearing-in of an interpreter. After a judge rebuked him, Yilmaz replied, "I only stand up for Allah."

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