The trial of four men accused of plotting a 9/11-style terrorist attack against American targets in Germany in 2007 began Wednesday in Düsseldorf.
The men – two Germans and two Turkish nationals – face charges of belonging to a terrorist group and conspiracy to commit murder. They face jail terms from 10 years to life.
Fritz Gelowicz, Daniel Schneider, Atilla Selek, and Adem Yilmaz were arrested two years ago (see original story here) in the sleepy hamlet of Oberschledorn in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia after months under the surveillance of the German Security Service, which was tipped off to the plot by American intelligence agencies. At the time of arrest, authorities say the men were in possession of a large cache of detonators and 12 barrels of hydrogen peroxide.
Prosecutors say the accused planned a series of high-profile suicide attacks on restaurants, discos, and airports in at least seven significant cities and towns, including Ramstein, which is home to a major US military base. Given the amount of explosive material impounded by police, authorities say the four men could have carried out the most destructive attacks in Germany's postwar history.
The plot and the arrest of the four suspects shocked the country in 2007 and raised concerns about so-called “homegrown terrorism,” not least because two of the accused are German nationals who had converted to Islam. The trial is expected to last two years, with prosecutors calling more than 200 witnesses and sorting through more than 500 case folders.
Lawyers defending the four men say their arrests were fraught with irregularities and that the evidence against them was gathered through questionable investigation methods. According to Der Spiegel, the defense attorneys say they suspect that US officials "illegally monitored the suspects in Germany and Pakistan and that German intelligence services should not have used the information."
Wednesday’s trial opening had a few tense moments, one delivered by Mr. Yilmaz, who refused to stand up when the judge entered the court room, saying out loud, “I only stand up for Allah,” according to Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Members of the cell claim to have known they were under police surveillance in the months leading up to their arrest. Although this could call into question the skills of the investigators, an analyst quoted by The Washington Post suggests the accused terrorists were amateurs and likely incapable of pulling off a massive attack.
"When you look at how they attracted attention in Germany and moved around, they acted really unprofessionally," Petter Nesser, a terrorism researcher with the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, who has studied radical cells in Europe, told The Post. "Absolutely, they could have done a lot of damage. But at the same time, they were very reckless."