Sensing vulnerability, Germany steps up terror defenses
British ricin arrests spur new focus on bioterror threat to Europeans
BERLIN — As America's European allies confront evidence of terrorist activity in their own backyards, they are increasing defensive action against what many see as a growing vulnerability to attack.
Germany is taking the threat so seriously that it has begun preparing a defense plan against a bioterror attack using agents such as ricin or smallpox. And as US troops move from Germany to the Gulf ahead of a possible war with Iraq, security around bases here has been increased.
The German government also is warning its well-traveled citizens about increased threats against Europeans in Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
"The member states of the European Union, the US, and Australia are still affected," the German foreign ministry cautioned.
That Al Qaeda is increasingly targeting citizens of European countries became clear in a series of bombings last year, especially an attack on a synagogue that killed a number of German citizens in Tunisia, and a bloody attack on a nightclub in Bali.
German officials have been concerned about the country's increased vulnerability since a suspected terrorist went on trial in Hamburg late last year, the first trial of anyone directly linked to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
The fears surfaced again last week when German authorities arrested two Yemeni citizens at the request of the US. At least one of the men is suspected of having links to the attack on the warship USS Cole.
The country's leading health organization, the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, is calling for preparations for mass inoculation with smallpox vaccine. The institute's president, Reinhard Kurth, said the organization has developed an "alarm plan" to respond immediately should smallpox break out anywhere in the world. "We cannot rule out that smallpox virus is in the hands of people who shouldn't have it," Mr. Kurth said.
Officially, victory in the war on smallpox was declared in 1979 after an international campaign to wipe out the virus. Since then, only Russia and the US have officially acknowledged having stockpiled the virus. US officials believe, however, that smallpox virus may be stored in other countries such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
Fearing its release on an unprotected public, Germany is vaccinating doctors and has launched a program to amass 100 million smallpox vaccinations by the end of the year. "Although there is no acute threat, the state is very serious about protecting the population," said Silke Lautenschlaeger, a government minister in Hesse state, after a meeting last week of state officials on bioterror defense.
Security measures have also been stepped up around the US troops shipping out from Spangdahlem Air Base in western Germany. The New York Times, citing US government sources, reported this week that Washington fears troops under transport could be targeted by terrorists.
The increased threat of attack has renewed a debate in Germany about the powers of the military. An apparently deranged man hijacked a small private plane last week and threatened to crash it into the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. The Air Force scrambled fighter jets and was poised to shoot the plane down, raising concerns about whether such an action is sanctioned by law. The pilot eventually landed and was arrested.
Defense Minister Peter Struck is studying whether a rare constitutional change is necessary to grant the military greater powers to participate in domestic police operations in light of the Frankfurt incident. The proposal has met stiff opposition from within his party, the Social Democrats. After World War II, Germany imposed strict limits on the powers of the military.
German authorities have detained the men suspected of links to the USS Cole attack pending a hearing on extradition. The US is seeking their extradition, but Yemen has protested, saying they are not linked to al Qaeda. Yemen is also seeking their extradition. One of the men, Mohammed Scheik Ali Hassan Mojad, is believed to have administered finances for Osama bin Laden.
In the wake of the arrests, Germany warned its citizens against travel to Yemen. The foreign ministry also warned against traveling to Zanzibar. The island, off the East African coast, is popular with vacationing Europeans. US and European intelligence agencies have warned Al Qaeda could be planning an attack there.
German newspapers have quoted anonymous intelligence officials as saying they believe efforts to tighten security at home are restricting Al Qaeda's ability to strike in Europe. But Europeans traveling abroad are at greater risk in countries where security is laxer, they said.