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Germany Arrests Couple in Alleged Anti-U.S. Plot

September 07, 2002|JEFFREY FLEISHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — A Turkish man and his American fiancee, who worked in a supermarket on the U.S. military base in Heidelberg, were arrested with bomb-making materials and nearly 300 pounds of chemicals in an alleged terrorist plot to strike American targets on the anniversary of Sept. 11, German authorities said Friday.

The 25-year-old Turkish man was described by German law enforcement officials as a "fan" of Osama bin Laden. He kept a photo of the Al Qaeda leader in his apartment, along with Islamic writings and a book about constructing bombs.

The Heidelberg base where his 23-year-old fiancee worked is the U.S. Army's European headquarters and home to 16,000 soldiers and civilians.

"We suspect that they intended to mount a bomb attack against military installations and the city of Heidelberg," said Thomas Schaeuble, interior minister for Baden-Wuerttemberg state. He added that the Turkish man, who worked at a chemical warehouse in southern Germany, "seems to be a follower of Osama bin Laden who is deeply religious and harbors a hatred for Americans and Jews."

It wasn't clear whether the man is a German citizen. Germany has a large population of Turkish immigrants.

The couple were arrested Thursday when German police, acting on a tip from U.S. authorities, searched their apartment in the town of Walldorf, about five miles south of Heidelberg. Authorities said they confiscated five shells used for manufacturing pipe bombs and 287 pounds of chemicals.

The names of the suspects were withheld, and state authorities released no information directly linking the couple to Al Qaeda or other terrorist networks. The suspects have not been charged, and are still under investigation by state officials.

Federal authorities investigating Al Qaeda and other militant groups have yet to file charges. A federal charge of terrorism under German law would require at least three conspirators.

"Now we must examine whether [the Turkish man] was acting alone or whether there were structures behind this," Schaeuble said.

Whether the suspects are freelancers or linked to a broader terrorist organization, their arrests became part of an unnerving flurry of alleged terrorist activity leading up to Sept. 11.

German and U.S. officials also announced Friday the August arrest in New York of an Afghan-born German. The 39-year-old man, in custody in Virginia, is from Hamburg, the city that spawned the terrorist cell linked to Mohamed Atta and other Sept. 11 hijackers.

Last week, federal prosecutors in Germany filed charges against Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan citizen living in Hamburg, for his alleged participation in the Sept. 11 attacks. Last week, a Swede of Tunisian origin carrying a handgun in his toiletries bag was detained in Sweden on preliminary charges of attempting to hijack a plane bound for Britain. Authorities in the Netherlands were keeping seven people in jail on suspicion of terrorist activity.

Germany has been urged by the U.S. to track down Al Qaeda remnants and sleeper cells. The investigations have accrued a political tint as opponents of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder charge that Germany's aggressive anti-terrorism effort comes as the chancellor is seeking an uphill reelection.

This week, German Interior Minister Otto Schily said law enforcement agencies have investigated 500 leads of potential attacks since Sept. 11. In each case, there was insufficient evidence to prove a serious, well-orchestrated plot, officials said.

"We cannot rule out that sleeper agents live even here in Germany or in Europe or elsewhere," said Ulrich Kersten, chief of Germany's Federal Crime Agency. "What we know for sure is that in Europe and in Germany there are people ready to commit violence in a jihad," or holy struggle.

German authorities said they are unsure whether there is a large conspiracy behind the alleged plot to attack the Heidelberg base. Both suspects have ideal jobs for potential terrorists: The Turkish man works in a chemical warehouse, and his fiancee, who has both German and American citizenship, has a U.S.-issued identification card that would provide access to certain parts of the base.

German officials said they are in the early stages of interrogations.

There is "no concrete evidence of ties to other persons," said Stefan Keilbach, spokesman for the Baden-Wuerttemberg Interior Ministry. "It's very difficult at this point to draw conclusions."

U.S. Army spokesman Sandy Goss told Associated Press that he had no details of the base being targeted. "All I know is there were two people arrested and we're monitoring the situation closely because we take all these reports seriously."

At the Pentagon, officials also said they could provide few additional details on the arrests.

The U.S. Army installation at Heidelberg has been attacked twice by terrorists. In 1972, three soldiers were killed and five hurt when two car bombs were detonated by the leftist Red Army Faction. In 1981, the chief of U.S. land forces in Europe, Gen. Frederick Kroesen, and his wife survived a shooting attack on their car.

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Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Moscow contributed to this report.

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