Operation Alberich: How the CIA Helped Germany Foil Terror Plot

By , and Holger Stark

Part 4: Foiling the Plot

When the Islamists wrote a message in April saying that they finally expected "the Kurds," the US embassy issued a warning to all Americans, saying that there was an elevated chance of an attack in Germany. But their initial suspicion that the term "Kurds" referred to a "hit team" -- a group of foreign commandos that would execute an attack -- was wrong. The men, who were not yet ready to launch an attack, needed until the summer to finalize their preparations.

On July 20, a Friday, Gelowicz and Adem Y. traveled to the northern German city of Hannover to purchase chemicals. It was to be the last in a series of five shopping trips Gelowicz had undertaken since February.

Containers for storing chemicals used by the suspected terrorists in their plot to build bombs.
Getty Images

Containers for storing chemicals used by the suspected terrorists in their plot to build bombs.

The Islamists were searching for hydrogen peroxide, a chemical that is readily available in concentrations of less than 50 percent. One of its uses is as a hair bleaching solution. In one of his earlier forays, Gelowicz attempted to purchase more highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide, but he was unable to provide the chemicals dealer with the required permit. After this failed attempt Gelowicz bought supplies of the chemical at a concentration of 35 percent, which is available without a permit, in rectangular blue canisters.

An IJU manual describes how to enrich commercially available hydrogen peroxide to concentrations of up to 65 or 70 percent by adding starch, which can be derived from flour. "Abdul Malik" and Adem Y. were apparently familiar with the recipe. The authorities noticed that they were buying flour in large quantities.

An incident that happened in May reveals the extent to which the men were driven by their hatred for America. A surveillance team observed Adem Y. and a few of his friends as they tried to pick fights in front of a nightclub in the southwestern German city of Darmstadt frequented mainly by GIs. When their efforts failed the men went through the streets slashing the tires of US-made cars, until they were questioned by a police patrol.

On their last shopping trip on that Friday in July, Adem Y. and Gelowicz took the Autobahn to Hannover. Along the way, the two men discussed the damage they could inflict with their homemade bombs. Airports, one of the men said. Or an American barracks. Or a nightclub, the other man responded, "a disco with American sluts."

BKA agents had bugged the car and were able to listen in on the conversation. The drive became a key element of the case. It told investigators that things were getting serious, and it prompted them to take action.

On a clear night on July 30, 10 days after the bugged drive to Hannover, a BKA commando unit was dispatched to Wittensweiler, a neighborhood in the Black Forest spa town of Freudenstadt. Wittensweiler had been marked in red on the investigators' maps since Gelowicz, Daniel S. and Adem Y. had rented a garage there, on a street called Immenweg, right across from a Protestant kindergarten in the village center.

The BKA agents had much of the town under surveillance, and a nosy forest ranger who had noticed their black official cars on a forest trail near a major highway demanded to see their badges. The agents then borrowed a tractor from one of the town's few remaining farmers, hoping that it would provide them with cover for their surveillance operation. They also set up shop in the kindergarten across the street from the garage the trio had rented.

The investigators already knew that the building was being used to store 12 containers of 35-percent hydrogen peroxide, a total of 730 kilograms of the chemical the group planned to use as the basic ingredient for their inferno.

As they made their way through the Black Forest under cover of night, the agents were carrying twelve blue canisters with labels identifying the contents as 35-percent hydrogen peroxide. Like the originals the presumed terrorists had obtained, the dummy canisters were from the same chemical products company in Hannover, CVH Chemie-Vertrieb GmbH & Co KG. But the canisters, which two BKA agents had picked up in late June, contained only 3-percent hydrogen peroxide solution, too diluted for use as a bomb ingredient, thereby eliminating the danger the material would have posed in the hands of the three men.

Senior security officials at the Chancellery and the counterterrorism unit discussed what would be the best time to move in. The investigators, hoping to arrest other accomplices, wanted to wait as long as possible.

In late August a man from northern Pakistan, presumably from the IJU, contacted Gelowicz. The Uzbeks were angry, the man said on the phone, and he urged Gelowicz to hurry. He gave the German two weeks to act.

This allowed the BKA to pinpoint the date of the possible attack. It was Sept. 15.

Two local police officers were responsible for the fact that the showdown took place almost two weeks earlier than planned. Unaware of the police sting operation, the two officers stopped Gelowicz, Adem Y. and Daniel S. in their car last Monday evening because they were driving with their high beams on. When the officers entered the Islamists' details into their computer the system automatically flagged the names. "Oh," one of the village cops exclaimed, "they're on the BKA list!"

The officer spoke loudly enough to be heard by the three suspects in the car and by the BKA investigators, who had bugged the car and were listening in. After that things moved quickly. They arrested Adem Y. and Daniel S. a few hours later at the vacation house, but Gelowicz tried to get away. He managed to run 300 meters from the house before a police officer tackled him and there was a brief scuffle and then a single gunshot.

Ramping up the Anti-Terror Legislation

A single shot instead of an inferno, a successful outcome that has spurred on those who want the government to take a tougher stance in light of the growing risk of terror in Germany. Indeed, Chancellor Merkel, shortly before the arrests in the Sauerland region, had already sharpened her tone on terrorism at the Christian Democrats' (CDU's) party convention in Hanau near Frankfurt. The Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel said, should finally agree to her party's plans to allow intelligence agencies to search computers online. On Friday, Interior Minister Schäuble told an emergency meeting of state interior ministers: "Now is the time to figure out what we have learned from this case."

Germany's interior minister wants to be able to search terror suspects' hard drives.
DER SPIEGEL

Germany's interior minister wants to be able to search terror suspects' hard drives.

That may be less than it would seem at first glance, because the lessons from the case are not nearly as clear-cut as one might expect. When it comes to the biggest bone of contention between the two members of the ruling Grand Coalition, the CDU and the SPD -- the online searches Schäuble insists are necessary -- the investigations in Operation Alberich provide little cause for political drumfire. It is indeed true that the intensive communication between Pakistan and southern Germany supports the "growing importance of the Internet" Schäuble repeatedly mentions in support of his call for new intelligence tools.

But the case also shows that online searching -- though a hotly debated political issue -- is only one aspect of many in real-life investigations. Even in complex cases like Operation Alberich, the authorities can be successful without access to the hard drives of suspects like Gelowicz. Both the BfV and the police have long been able to spy on email communications and messages stored on computers connected to the Internet, just as they already have the power to wiretap telephone conversations.

The case also shows that intelligence agents can live with some restrictions, even if they get in the way of their work. For example, the BKA agents were able to bug the vacation house where they eventually arrested the three presumed terrorists' despite high legal hurdles -- apparently with no objections from the investigating judge.

As a weary but pleased Wolfgang Schäuble sat in his office on Friday afternoon, the sun shone across the roofs of Berlin's Moabit neighborhood. By that time the interior minister wanted to see light, not shadow. At his meeting with the state interior ministers, members of the SPD were still critical of his online searching plan. Uwe Schünemann, a fellow member of the CDU from Lower Saxony, promptly came to Schäuble's support, scathingly calling the Social Democrats "irresponsible."

But Schäuble was pleased that Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries -- a Social Democrat, no less -- had come around on another important issue. Zypries had indicated that she plans to give up her opposition to the CDU's plan to strengthen Germany's anti-terrorism laws to make the mere presence in a terrorist training camp a punishable offence. This sort of legislation would have been ideal in dealing with Gelowicz, as well as other would-be terrorists who are still training in Pakistan.

Schäuble was pleased that Chertoff had called after the arrests to thank him. But the minister is also worried that this brief interlude of calm could be short-lived. "We do not believe that the danger has passed," he says. "This cell is finished, but perhaps there will soon be another one."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this caption incorrectly identified Fritz Gelowicz as Daniel S., and Daniel S. as Fritz Gelowicz.

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