The arrest of three suspected al-Qaida members in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Friday followed a months-long investigation that, in addition to the German authorities, also included the participation of the CIA and Moroccan secret service. The German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) created its own special "Comet" investigative unit to look into the case.
The Federal Prosecutor's Office in Karlsruhe stated Friday that three suspects had been arrested.
The detainees are suspected of being members of the international terrorist organization al-Qaida. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, the main suspect in the so-called "Düsseldorf Cell" is Abdeladim K. of Morocco. He is believed to have been in regular contact with an allegedly high-ranking al-Qaida official in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.
During the course of the investigation, BKA officials placed a Trojan virus to enable online surveillance as well as software that allowed the monitoring of voice calls on his computer. The arrests reportedly happened after investigators eavesdropped on the suspects planning a test. Previously, they had obtained chemicals that could be used for the construction of bombs.
German public broadcaster ZDF is reporting that security officials acted before the suspects could start building a bomb. One of the leaders reportedly received training in a terrorist camp abroad.
A Bomb Strike against Public Transportation?
The German daily Die Welt is reporting that the men may have been planning a bomb attack on public transportation. "The target was public transportation in a major city," investigators told the newspaper. The precise location could not be determined. The investigators' suspicions of a planned attack were lent credence by the discovery of large amounts of explosive materials and chemicals seized in a residential area. Tapped mobile phone calls as well as Internet connection data for the suspects provided additional evidence.
However, the Munich-based national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the men were only in possession of small amounts of chemicals and that they hadn't yet begun to enrich the chemicals in order to create explosives. On its website, the newspaper cited sources within the investigation stating that the attack was not yet at a stage where it was imminent. The paper reported it was also unclear whether a target had been chosen for the attack.
Meanwhile, the report in Die Welt claimed that the three Moroccan men, who have German passports, are part of a larger group of terror suspects. Because further arrests and raids could take place, the BKA and German Federal Prosecutor's Office were reserved, the paper reported security officials as saying. The newspaper reported that when the men appear, as expected, before investigative judges at the Federal Court of Justice on Saturday, they will be accused of membership in a foreign terrorist organization.
Germany 'Remains in the Crosshairs'
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich stated Friday that investigators had succeeded in "averting a concrete and imminent threat of international terrorism." The incident, Friedrich said, shows that Germany "remains in the crosshairs of international terrorism." He called on Germans to "remain vigilant."
If the suspicion of links to al-Qaida becomes concrete, the men would be the first al-Qaida members to be discovered in Germany since the Hamburg 9/11 cell. In 2009, a trader of Pakistani origin from the western German state of Rhineland-Palatine was convicted of supporting a terrorist network. And one year later, Bonn jihadist Bekkay Haarach of Afghanistan died. He landed in the headlines in the autumn of 2009 after threatening to conduct attacks in German on al-Qaida's behalf.
By the time of Harrach's threats at the latest, analysts at security officials have started to assume that al-Qaida is also seeking to carry out or initiate an attack in Germany. Other terrorist groups in the crisis region along the Afghan-Pakistani border, at times with the help of German recruits, propagated anti-German propaganda. The movement has been led by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
A further group, the Islamic Jihad Union, also ordered terror strikes that were to be carried out by another terror cell in Germany, the so-called Sauerland group, who were prosecuted a year ago. Both groups cooperate, at least at times, with al-Qaida.
The dimensions of the case are comparable to the Sauerland Group, whose members were arrested in 2007, sources said. At the time, the four Islamists with the Sauerland Group, led by a German Muslim convert by the name of Fritz Gelowicz, had planned attacks in Germany and had already begun preparations. The men had been trained at terrorist camps. The three men were arrested, with a fourth suspect detained later in Turkey.