'Massive' bombing plot puts home-grown terror under Europe's spotlight
Arrests in Denmark and Germany this week could spur widening investigative police powers.
Berlin — Just days before the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, European security forces in Germany and Denmark uncovered two terrorist cells that officials said Wednesday were planning massive attacks even more deadly than the bombings in Madrid and London.
For many Europeans, the threat of a major terrorist attack still does not seem an imminent danger. But the round of arrests this week shows that terrorist cells with links to Al Qaeda are stepping up activity in Europe, and that increasingly, the plotters are European-born.
"The threat of new terror attacks continues to be high," said European Union Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini, saying Europe must push ahead with plans to set up an EU-wide airline passenger data recording system despite privacy concerns.
After months of observation, German police on Tuesday swooped down on a vacation home in the wooded region of Sauerland in western Germany, engaging in a brief scuffle with one of the suspects before arresting three men who had amassed 1,500 pounds of hydrogen peroxide that officials said could have been used to make car bombs. Two of the men are German converts to Islam, which officials called another sign of the growing threat of "homegrown" terrorism in Europe. The third suspect is Turkish. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the date of the suspects' arrest.]
In a seemingly separate development, Danish police on Tuesday thwarted a bomb plot and arrested eight people who security officials said have ties to Al Qaeda leaders. Six of the suspects were released on Wednesday and two remain in Danish custody.
Germany is increasingly seen as a target by terrorists because of its involvement in Afghanistan, say analysts. German troops have been attacked and its citizens have been kidnapped. Despite the plots, there is little doubt, poll-watchers say, that Germany won't extend the mandate of its troops in Afghanistan, a move expected later this month.
What is more likely is that the new arrests will lend support to Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble's plans to widen the investigative powers of the federal police, to give them more FBI-like preemptive investigative authority. One controversial idea is to allow investigators to use the Internet to snoop on the computers of suspected terrorists. Mr. Schäuble told reporters that "the terrorists use all the means of modern technology to communicate" and said he favored online surveillance.
"The big question will be what kind of security strategy comes out of this," says Klaus Segbers, a terrorism expert and professor at Berlin's Free University. "The most likely outcome is that this will put wind in Schäuble's sails."
German police first became aware of the plotters in December, when they observed suspected Islamists under surveillance scoping out sites such as the US air base in Ramstein; Frankfurt International Airport; as well as discos, clubs, and restaurants frequented by American military personnel in Germany.
Schäuble said at least one of the men had links to a mosque in the southern city of Neu Ulm that investigators have long suspected of having ties to extremists. The man was already under surveillance when police obtained evidence that an attack plot was unfolding. Police continued to observe the three men, who had amassed enough chemicals to make a bomb with the explosive power equivalent to 1,200 pounds of TNT.
"This would have enabled them to make bombs with more explosive power than the ones used in the London and Madrid bombings," Joerg Ziercke, the head of Germany's Federal Crime Office, told reporters at a news conference in Karlsruhe. "I could imagine, for example, a scenario with several car bombs exploding simultaneously in different places."
During the observation, German investigators decided not to take any chances. While the suspects were out of the house, officials said, police sneaked in and replaced the volatile fluid with a watered-down chemical in case the suspects were able to elude the police.
Even if the risk seemed more calculated after the switch, police remained on alert. On Tuesday, the three men began building bombs, Mr. Ziercke told reporters at the news conference in Karlsruhe. Nervous discussion erupted among the suspects because hours before, the three men had been stopped by police during a reconnaissance drive. They worried about the safety of their hideout and discussed finding another house.
Police decided then that it was time to move in. When the three began to leave the house, federal police and members of the GSG9 special police unit surprised them. One man bolted, but was stopped after 300 yards. He managed to grab a policeman's weapon and shot an officer in the hand before being subdued, officials said.
"We were able to succeed in recognizing and preventing the most serious and massive bombings," federal prosecutor Monika Harms told reporters.
Ms. Harms said police raided some 41 homes nationally in connection with the arrests. The men – whose ages ranged from 22 to 28 – appeared to belong to a group called the Islamic Jihad Union, which police said has ties to Islamic groups in Uzbekistan.