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Ten terror plotters still being sought in Germany in connection with thwarted attacks

September 6, 2007

Ten terror plotters still on the run in Germany
Roger Boyes, of The Times, in Berlin

The Times ( London )

Sept 6, 2007

German police are hunting ten further Islamic radicals involved in a narrowly thwarted plot to blow up hundreds of people in German airports, bars and restaurants.

"There are Germans, there are Turks, there are other nationalities," said August Hanning, the deputy Interior Minister who is co-ordinating the search with the intelligence services.

Three men - two Germans and a Turk - were arrested yesterday after a spectacular police operation foiled an attempt to convert some 750 kilos of hydrogen peroxide into powerful explosives.

"There is no further danger to Germans from this terror cell," said Mr Hanning. "But there is still a mission to carry out attacks within Germany and this mission worries us."

Undercover agents using US intelligence followed and eavesdropped on the young men in a nine-month operation as they plotted simultaneous suicide truck bomb attacks on American installations and meeting places.

Hydrogen peroxide was a key ingredient in the London Tube bombs, but experts said that the explosives being prepared in a villa in the Black Forest would have wrought destruction on an even greater scale than the attacks on July 7, 2005.

Conversations between the suspected terrorists mentioned the Ramstein airbase, Frankfurt airport and clubs used by American families as possible targets. "They were motivated by hatred of America and this influenced their choice of targets," said Jörg Ziercke, president of the Federal Criminal Investigation Agency (BKA), the German equivalent of Scotland Yard.

Several terrorist plots have been uncovered in Germany since September 11, 2001, but this one has shocked Germans more than any other: it has exposed the existence of a home-grown terrorist potential. The features of 28-year-old Fritz G were blanked out in his arrest photographs yesterday but there was no doubt about it: he was white and, for his neighbours in Ulm, quite unmistakably "our Fritz". Like his accomplice, 22-year-old Daniel S. from the Saarland , he was a middle-class Muslim convert.

"Converts tend to be more radical and fanatical than those who have been Muslims since they were in the cradle," Hans Joachim Giessmann, a terrorism expert at the Hamburg Institute for Peace Research, said. "They are driven either by politics or the fervour of their new faith rather than any cultural tradition."

The number of Muslim converts has risen steeply in Germany since 2005 - reaching 4,000 last year - and sociologists are saying that this represents a new dimension of radical activity.

The three men arrested yesterday — the third man has been identified as Adem Y, 29, a Turk — met in Pakistan , where investigators believe that they received explosives training at a Taleban-linked camp. They are believed to be members of the Islamic Jihad Union, an Uzbek-based group with close links to al-Qaeda. The group has branched out into Pakistan after organising attacks on Israeli and US diplomatic missions in Uzbekistan .

"Above all we want to establish a chain of command and a precise organisational structure for the Islamic Jihad Union," said a senior security service official, referring to the shadowy Uzbekistan-based group behind the plot.

The ten men police are still chasing are thought to have provided the logistic assistance for the Taliban-trained plotters arrested yesterday: renting apartments, arranging cars, phones and computer back-up. The police have the names of at least five. Two of the suspects come from the Saarland and are associates of one of the arrested suspected bomb-makers, Daniel S. Computer records are being trawled and a search has been carried out in the Islamic Information Centre in Ulm in Bavaria where the apparent leader of the terror cell, Fritz G was based.

After returning from Pakistan , Fritz G became an active member of a mosque in Ulm that has played host to radical preachers.

But he was spotted by the police only by accident: his car was observed driving around the US military base at Hanau , near Frankfurt , on New Year's Day. From that moment an intensive investigation began, drawing in 300 undercover agents. The purchase of huge quantities of hydrogen peroxide was the clinching sign that the group was potetentially dangerous.

Mixed correctly, the chemicals were capable of triggering explosions equivalent to 500 kilos of TNT. By contrast, the bombers in London carried no more than three to four kilos of explosive. The potential blast would have been bigger than the Madrid and London bombings combined.

The chemicals were stored in three containers. The watching police became so nervous that they broke cover, waiting until all three men were in different parts of Germany before swapping the contents for a diluted version. That task alone involved hundreds of detectives across the country.

The turning point came on Tuesday. The chemicals had been transferred from the holiday home in the Black Forest to a rented house on the borders of the state of Hesse . The chemicals were starting to deteriorate, the location was near US air bases, the detonators had been acquired: it looked as if the group was ready to strike.

The police were sceptical yesterday that the three men could have primed the explosives in time for a strike on the September 11 anniversary, but Monika Harms, the state prosecutor, did not want to take the risk.

Members of the GSG 9 anti-terrorism unit broke down the door of the house and grabbed two of the suspects. A third wriggled through the bathroom window but was overpowered 300 metres away. He snatched the policeman's pistol as they wrestled on the road and the gun went off. The officer was wounded in the hand.

The group is thought to have had generous external funding. They had crisscrossed the country buying chemicals, rented houses under false names and used several cars. "These were not amateurs," an investigator said.

Immediately after the arrests, police began a search of 41 apartments across Germany . The police have 890 potentially dangerous Muslim German residents on their lists. Wolfgang Schäuble, the Interior Minister, emphasised, however, that German Muslims would not become automatic suspects.

The British connection

— German police copied tactics used by British anti-terrorist investigators to render the bomb plot impotent

— In 2004 Scotland Yard detectives watching a group of terrorists planning a bomb attack in London switched their hoard of fertiliser for a container of cat litter. Similarly, German officers removed high-strength hydrogen peroxide from their suspects' hideout and replaced it with a weaker solution

— Britain has faced more al-Qaeda plots than any other Western European nation since 2001. British tactics, legislation and mistakes are therefore carefully studied by other police forces

— The plot uncovered by German police bears similarities to terrorist activity in Britain . Like many British terrorists, the men arrested in Germany are reported to have received training in Pakistani tribal areas, where al-Qaeda now has its camps

— Hydrogen peroxide-based explosives are a common al-Qaeda weapon and formed the basis of the 7/7 suicide bombs and 21/7 failed bombs. Since then hydrogen peroxide has been made much more difficult to obtain in Britain . Similar restrictions are not, however, in place elsewhere

Source: Times archives

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