Operation Alberich: How the CIA Helped Germany Foil Terror Plot

By Simone Kaiser, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark

With the help of the CIA, German investigators foiled what would likely have been the most devastating terror attack of its kind in the country's history. The plans of a fanatical group of Islamists trained in Pakistan reveal just how great a risk Europe faces.

Daniel S. is one of the three terror suspects arrested last week. *
DPA

Daniel S. is one of the three terror suspects arrested last week. *

It was early June at the G-8 summit in the German seaside resort of Heiligendamm, and climate protection and hedge funds were the key issues on the agenda. But then there came the moment when the news of a potential terrorist plot reached Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not a word of it was mentioned in the summit's official communiqués. Merkel and US President George W. Bush met alone to discuss what he called "the Pakistan matter." America felt threatened, and the threat, US intelligence agents told their president, was coming from Germany -- once again, just as it had on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bush, who was well briefed about the plot, even knew the names of the suspects. He made it clear to Merkel that he was taking the matter very seriously. Her officials at the Chancellery were all too familiar with what the US president was talking about. "Operation Alberich," as the intelligence agencies called the case, had top priority.

For months the operation was discussed almost every Tuesday at a weekly meeting conducted by Merkel's chief of staff, Thomas de Maizière. What began with vague information soon turned into the biggest police operation since the so-called "German Autumn" of 1977 -- a political thriller rarely seen in postwar Germany.

Operation Alberich began last October, when the US National Security Agency, the NSA, began intercepting suspicious emails between Germany and Pakistan. It ended last week in the central German Sauerland region, with the arrests of two German converts to Islam, Fritz Gelowicz, 28, the son of a southern German doctor, and 22-year-old Daniel S., who had learned how to handle weapons during his military service in the western German city of Saarlouis. His neighbors in nearby Saarbrücken had noticed that he prayed to Allah "often and very loudly." The third man arrested in the sting was Adem Y., a 28-year-old Turkish national. The trio was caught in the act of mixing chemical ingredients to make explosives at a vacation house in the mountainous Sauerland region.

When they searched the house, German investigators found military detonators from Syria that a courier had smuggled into Germany, as well as 60 liters of hydrogen peroxide. The materials were apparently intended for use in three car bombs that the group may have planned to detonate in front of a US military base in Germany, a nightclub or possibly a major airport. When troops from the GSG 9 elite commando unit stormed the house last Tuesday, the pungent stench of chemicals was already in the air. According to investigators, what the men were planning could have been one of the bloodiest attacks in European postwar history -- worse than London or Madrid. In addition to the three terror suspects, German authorities are investigating more than 45 people.

Since the conversation with Bush during the G-8 summit, the Chancellor knew that the diabolic plot not only threatened people's lives, but that if US soldiers were killed in Germany, it would endanger the trans-Atlantic relations that were so important to her. America feared a new spectacular attack from a resurgent al-Qaida -- possibly even a second Sept. 11. Another attack against America planned on German soil had to be prevented.

These experiences and fears explain why Operation Alberich was conducted from both Berlin and Washington, with a joint CIA and German task force set up in Berlin. US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told SPIEGEL last week that cooperation between the two countries was "the closest it's ever been."

But from the US perspective the German investigation was also a trial by fire. American authorities kept ramping up the pressure on the Germans, with both CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and US Ambassador William R. Timken meeting with authorities in Berlin. In early June Chertoff traveled to German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble's hometown of Gengenbach and over dinner urged him to do everything he could to prevent a possible attack. "We care," Schäuble assured him.

Schäuble was deadly serious. The Chancellery promptly convened its so-called security situation meeting, a group that hadn't met at the same level since Sept. 11, 2001, to discuss what Schäuble called the "new, elevated threat level." Germany's interior minister decided to take a highly unusual step. In late June August Hanning, Deputy Secretary at the Interior Ministry, announced to the public that he feared Germany could be in a situation "like that before the attacks of Sept. 11," and that connections between German extremists and Pakistan suggested that the risk of an attack in Germany was now greater than ever before. Pakistan is now seen as the new epicenter of terror, a place where terrorist organization al-Qaida is actively training recruits like Gelowicz.

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