September 6, 2007 in Nation/World

Suspects may have al-Qaida ties

Christian Retzlaff and Sebastian Rotella Los Angeles Times
 

BERLIN – Three suspects accused of plotting massive car-bomb attacks on U.S. troops and other Americans in Germany were allegedly trained in Pakistan by an al-Qaida-linked group, authorities said Wednesday.

After months of surveillance during which German police secretly replaced a stockpile of bomb chemicals with a weaker mixture, a police 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 suspect 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 anti-terrorism 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-Qaida 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-Qaida is using hideouts 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 U.S. 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, Spain, 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 Wednesday 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-Qaida ally, authorities said.

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, whether soldiers or tourists, German and U.S. 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. They wanted to have coordinated attacks – the police assessment is three separate attacks, probably with car bombs.”

Danish and German police communicated with one another and U.S. counterparts about the raids, which came a week before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on America, a period believed to be of heightened risk.

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 U.S. 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 and claimed allegiance to that group.

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.

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 Sunday.

Police had planned to wrap up surveillance and make arrests, probably before Sept. 11, but a coincidence sped things up. While returning Monday from a trip allegedly made to acquire bomb components, the suspects’ vehicle was briefly stopped by traffic police because the high beams were on during the day. Through “undercover methods,” police learned the incident had made the suspects nervous and suspicious, said Ziercke, the federal police chief.

“On Sept. 4 at 1:42 p.m., police learned that the group started to put together a bomb,” Ziercke said. “We learned that the group again discussed the police check and judged it as a danger for the operation success. The group wanted to give up the vacation house and rent a new place. At about 2:30 p.m., the group obviously wanted to leave the building.”

A special police team swarmed the house, arresting two suspects. The third barricaded himself in a bathroom, jumped from a window and fled over a backyard fence, police said. When officers converged on him, he managed to wrestle away a gun, wounding an officer in the hand, officials said. The suspect tried to shoot a second officer, but the gun misfired, Ziercke said. That suspect is likely to face additional charges, officials said.

Because of the hurried denouement, questions and ambiguity persist about the exact targets and details of the plot. Some German and U.S. officials said Ramstein Air Base and Frankfurt Airport were specific targets, but other officials said the objectives were more likely soft targets such as nearby bars and nightclubs.


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