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Plot to kill GIs, tourists alleged

Germany arrests three suspects it says had ties to an Al Qaeda ally. They reportedly wanted to bomb soft targets.

September 06, 2007|Christian Retzlaff and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

BERLIN — Three people allegedly trained in Pakistan by an Al Qaeda-linked group have been arrested on suspicion of plotting massive car bomb attacks on U.S. troops and other Americans near U.S. military bases and German airports, authorities said Wednesday.

After months of surveillance during which German police secretly replaced a stockpile of bomb chemicals with a weaker mixture, a SWAT 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 of the suspects grabbed an officer's gun, shooting him in the hand and suffering a cut on the head during the struggle.

Searches in five German states involved 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 two men of Pakistani and Afghan origin with plotting an attack under the direction of unnamed Al Qaeda leaders. Authorities said they knew of no direct connection between the men arrested in the two Northern European nations.

The two alleged plots stoked fears that a resurgent Al Qaeda was using hide-outs near the Afghan-Pakistani border to train European-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 may have included discotheques, 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 in London that killed 52 people in 2005 or those in Madrid that killed 191 people in 2004, officials said.

The London bombs, in contrast, had only 6 to 10 pounds of explosives, Joerg Ziercke, chief of the federal police, said at a news conference with top law enforcement officials. "In my opinion, a high number of casualties was the main objective; otherwise, this enormous amount of explosives is hard to explain," he said.

The third suspect detained Tuesday in Germany is a Turkish Muslim living in the country. The three allegedly underwent training last year at a terrorist camp in northern Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, or IJU, an extremist network that broke away from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a longtime Al Qaeda ally, authorities said.

American counter-terrorism officials said they have long been concerned that the IJU and other regional extremist groups around the world have affiliated themselves more closely with Al Qaeda over the last several years. These groups have become far more dangerous and aggressive toward American interests overseas, despite their low public profile, the officials said. Over the last three years, the IJU, also known as the Islamic Jihad Group, has broadened its operational activity to support Al Qaeda's global agenda, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said.

"We have been concerned about the heightened threat from Al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the IJU, and this particular plot is consistent with that trend of decentralized command and control in many parts of the world," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

German police conducted 41 searches Tuesday and were investigating seven to 10 associates of the jailed suspects. Several of the additional suspects are part of Germanys large, but mostly moderate, Turkish immigrant population. They remain under surveillance, though prosecuting them may be difficult under the terms of Germany's terrorism laws.

The case is stronger against the three in custody because they were allegedly testing mixtures and assembling bomb components at the time of their arrest, German officials said. Surveillance revealed that their primary motivation was a fervent 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."

Although officials did not reveal links between the suspects in Germany and Denmark, both cases feature stockpiles of bomb-making materials, and suspected links to Pakistan and Al Qaeda-related figures there. The detainees in Germany tried to maintain secrecy by communicating through the Internet and, like those arrested in Denmark, received orders or external communications from the network in Pakistan, officials said.

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