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Danes hold 2 in alleged plot linked to Al Qaeda

September 05, 2007|Helen Hajjaj and Sebastian Rotella | Special to The Times

COPENHAGEN — Danish police arrested eight suspected Islamic militants here Tuesday, charging two of them with planning a terrorist attack and attempted murder in what was described as a serious plot with direct ties to Al Qaeda.

Police evacuated a building in the Danish capital before searching an apartment, where they found large quantities of explosive material. The chief of the police intelligence service held an unusual news conference, at which he underscored the urgency of the threat and the alleged foreign connections of the suspects, six of whom hold Danish citizenship.

The arrests "prevented a terrorist attack," said chief Jakob Sharf, who termed the suspects "militant Islamists with international contacts."

"The fact that the suspects have a connection to leading members of Al Qaeda is a very significant aspect of this case," he said.

Sharf did not identify the leaders or the target of the alleged plot and disclosed few details. But the case is the latest of several revealing the intensity of Islamic extremism in the multiethnic immigrant neighborhoods of this small, tranquil and tolerant country.

The accusations of foreign links reiterated the fears of Western counter-terrorism officials about a resurgent core leadership of the Al Qaeda network, which during the last year has allegedly been training Western Europeans in clandestine facilities near the Pakistani-Afghan border and dispatching them on missions to attack their homelands.

Fears have been particularly high in Germany, where militant cells have had links to extremists in neighboring Denmark, since anti-terrorism agencies arrested or detected extremists who had traveled to Pakistan for training.

A law enforcement source said today that two Germans and another man had been arrested in a plot against Frankfurt Airport and U.S. military targets in Germany, including the Army barracks at Hanau. The case involved links to militants in Pakistan, the source said, but it was not immediately known whether it was related to the Denmark case.

Officials in Germany have been warning for about six months for Americans to be on alert because of indications of a terrorist threat.

"Al Qaeda has won a foothold after being on the defensive for a period of time," Sharf said.

The two chief suspects, both 21, were identified as a taxi driver of Pakistani origin and a man of Afghan origin. The ethnic backgrounds of the others include Somalian and Turkish.

Police released the six other suspects after questioning them Tuesday, but anti-terrorism sources said they could be arrested again as investigators wade through a large quantity of evidence. In keeping with strict privacy laws, authorities did not release any names.

In announcing the arrests, police cited cooperation with a number of foreign intelligence agencies during a long, labor- intensive investigation. But because of Denmark's tough civil rights protections and mixed record on terrorism prosecution, police will be under pressure to answer questions about two key issues: the alleged target of the accused plotters and the nature of their supposed ties to Al Qaeda.

Sharf pointedly avoided confirming whether the attack would have been carried out in Denmark, thereby leaving open the scenario of a plot staged for execution in a neighboring country.

In addition, he did not reveal whether the police had determined that the suspects traveled overseas to meet with Al Qaeda figures or communicated with them by phone or the Internet.

The recurring pattern in a string of attacks and plots in Britain in recent years has involved British extremists, mostly of Pakistani origin, heading to Pakistan and being groomed for strikes back home.

Elsewhere in Europe, most plots and attacks have involved ties to masterminds and trainers active in North Africa or the Middle East.

If Al Qaeda in Pakistan played a role in the Danish case, that would be a worrisome expansion of the network's reach.

The foreign connections in previous cases in Denmark have been less direct.

This year, a court in Bosnia-Herzegovina convicted two members of a Copenhagen-based cell of preparing a bomb attack in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, while one accomplice was convicted here and a judge overturned the jury convictions of several others.

Those militants were part of a young but ferocious network dominated by a Moroccan based in London who used his computer expertise to become a leading propagandist and cyber-operative for Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq. The Moroccan was also convicted this year.

In another Danish case, a trial is to begin here today of four young Muslim men from Denmark's third-largest city, Odense, on charges of plotting an attack with explosives found in the garden of one defendant. That group was allegedly a multiethnic homegrown cell with minimal foreign connections.

Also this year, a court accused Said Mansour, a Moroccan extremist ideologue based in Denmark, of with having ties to top European Al Qaeda figures, many of whom were jailed in crackdowns after the Sept. 11 attacks. Mansour was convicted of spreading propaganda promoting terrorism.

Denmark is seen as a potential target of Islamic terrorism because of its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and because of the publication in a Danish newspaper in 2005 of caricatures seen by some Muslims as insulting to the prophet Muhammad.

The upcoming anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks also could have had an influence on the timing of the raids.

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rotella@latimes.com

Special correspondent Hajjaj reported from Copenhagen and Times staff writer Rotella from Madrid.

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