Tracking Down the Islamist Cell Authorities Hunt Further Suspects in Terror Case
Authorities are on the trail of at least seven further suspects involved in a terror plot to bomb targets in Germany after three arrests Tuesday. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has warned of the danger from German converts to Islam and called again for online surveillance of suspects.
Two days after three terror suspects were arrested in Germany, the authorities are still looking for at least seven further suspects connected to the case.
Interior Ministry official August Hanning told German broadcaster ARD Thursday of a network of "around 10" terrorists including Germans, Turks and people of other nationalities. "This is the network that we are currently aware of," he said. The 40 raids which took place around Germany in connection with the arrests provided more information about the group's contacts.
The Federal Prosecutor's Office in Karlsruhe said on Thursday morning that there had been no more arrests so far. Although investigations are still continuing, the terror cell is no longer regarded as a threat.
According to the Federal Prosecutor's Office and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), the three men, arrested in Medebach-Oberschledorn in North Rhine-Westphalia on Tuesday, were planning "massive bomb attacks" in Germany. American facilities in Germany were the most likely targets, with both the US military base at Ramstein and Frankfurt airport apparently being considered.
The three suspects, who appeared before a court in Karlsruhe Wednesday, have been identified as 28-year-old Fritz G. and 21-year-old Daniel S., both German converts to Islam, and 28-year-old Adem Y., who is Turkish. Prosecutors said the three had trained at camps in Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, a little-known Sunni Muslim group with roots in Uzbekistan and ties to al-Qaida.
The terror cell had been the focus of an undercover investigation for months. In the largest police operation since the "German Autumn" of 1977 when the far-left RAF terror group kidnapped leading industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer, around 300 officers observed the suspects around the clock for half a year. A further 300 officers were involved in the arrests Tuesday.
Authorities observed the men procuring 12 containers of 35-percent hydrogen peroxide solution, which can be combined with other material to make explosives. Police decided to act when the suspects began moving some of the containers and acquiring other equipment used to make bombs, such as a military detonator. The arrests came one day after another Islamist terror plot was uncovered in Denmark.
The arrests have shocked Germany and re-kindled an on-going debate about how best to combat terrorism in the country -- especially now that "home-grown" terrorism similar to that found in the UK is clearly a problem now.
In an interview with the mass-circulation daily Bild Zeitung, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble warned of the danger posed by radical converts to Islam. "One thinks that people who have grown up here and who enjoy the benefits of our free society are immune," he said. "But some are susceptible to radicalization. These are dangerous, fanatical people with a high degree of criminal energy. That is a great concern for me."
Terrorism expert Guido Steinberg from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs sees in the origin of the three suspects an indication of a growing threat. "The case involves three German converts and a Turkish man with connections to the Islamic Jihad Union. That is something which we haven't had before," he said. Meanwhile BKA chief Jörg Ziercke called for dialogue with the Muslim community in order to better identify possible radicals.
The case also fuels the debate about whether the German government should be allowed to carry out secret online surveillance of suspects' computers. Schäuble renewed Thursday his calls for online spying, saying that terrorists are increasingly using the Internet to plan their operations. Authorities must have the option to secretly spy on computers "in strictly justified exceptional cases," Schäuble told the German broadcaster ARD.
In the interview, Schäuble also warned against an over-reaction to the arrests. "We shouldn't let ourselves be driven crazy," he said. "We can rely on the fact that the security authorities do a good job," he said, adding that there is no further evidence of concrete plans for other attacks at the moment. He also called for visiting terrorist training camps to be made a criminal offense.
Schäuble, who belongs to the center-right Christian Democratic Union, was supported in his calls for online investigations by other conservative politicians. "The case shows that we urgently need online searches to deal with serious crimes such as bombings," Bavaria's state Interior Minister Günther Beckstein, a member of the CDU's Bavarain sister party the CSU, told the online edition of the newspaper Die Welt. "If we had had the possibility to carry out online surveillance then we would have obtained further information."
However Social Democratic floor leader Peter Struck saw his party's rejection of online surveillance confirmed by the case. "The success of the investigative authorities shows that such terrorist activities can be uncovered in the early stages without the additional instruments that Schäuble is demanding, such as online searches," he said. Other SPD and Left Party politicians also said that the case showed that the existing security apparatus was sufficient to cope with the terror threat.
Terrorism expert Steinberg also warned against putting too much emphasis on online spying. "Conventional work using undercover informers and close contacts in the militant scene is much more important than technological surveillance methods," he said.