Operation Alberich How the CIA Helped Germany Foil Terror Plot

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.

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.

Terrorists with European Passports

Gelowicz is precisely the type that concerns Schäuble and Chertoff: a young, fanatical Muslim whose European passport allows him to travel freely. "They can board a plane for America tomorrow," says Chertoff -- or they can strike at home. According to an internal document prepared for Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, converts like Daniel S., who an investigator describes as a young man "searching for structure and values," play a particularly dangerous role. "Europe," Chertoff believes, "has become just as much a part of the battlefield as the US." For the US administration, the old continent is home to a Trojan horse, something the Europeans haven't recognized yet. As if to confirm these fears, last Tuesday counterterrorism units in neighboring Denmark broke up a ring of eight young Muslims they believe were also preparing an attack.

After the German arrests, Schäuble characterized the Islamists' motive as a "self-destructive hatred of Western civilization." At his June meeting in Gengenbach, Chertoff was already convinced that Americans, not Germans, were the likely targets of the suspected attack. Chertoff's suspicions were based on an observation report that the BfV had prepared and sent to Washington.

Early in the evening of Dec. 31, 2006, a car containing several passengers drove silently past the Hutier Barracks in Lamboy, a section of the western German city of Hanau. Hanau is known as the home of a major US military base, where thousands of US soldiers live and routinely look forward to celebrating New Year's Eve in their home away from home. The BfV's observation team later noted that the car drove back and forth in front of the barracks several times. When German agents finally stopped the car, they discovered that the passengers were Fritz Gelowicz, Attila S. from the southern city of Ulm, Ayhan T. from Langen near Frankfurt and Dana B., a German of Iranian descent from Frankfurt who, when asked what he and the others were doing there, claimed that they had just wanted to see "how the Americans celebrate New Year's Eve."

The presumed scouting expedition raised red flags with German intelligence. On Jan. 6, police officers in the state of Hesse searched Gelowicz's apartment in an effort to unearth the Islamists' true plans. Gelowicz lived in an unassuming, white, six-unit apartment on the outskirts of Ulm. White shades blocked the view through the windows of Gelowicz's ground-floor apartment.

Over the next eight months, Böfinger Weg, a dead-end street where strangers quickly attract attention, became the scene of the sort of around-the-clock surveillance operation rarely seen in Germany. The country's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) soon installed video cameras to monitor Gelowicz's comings and goings. But when they searched the apartment in early January they found nothing.

The BKA agents had better luck at the apartment of Ayhan T., where they found a video depicting the Turkish immigrant in a building that looked like a clubhouse, somewhere in the state of Hesse. The video shows a group of several men sitting in a circle singing jihad songs in Turkish. Then Ayhan T. steps in front of the camera and talks about jihad.

The tape depicted men chanting the slogans of a religious conspiracy against the infidels, but was it also the farewell video of a potential suicide bomber?

The BfV was convinced that it was, but the BKA wasn't so sure. Despite their disagreement over the group's motives, the searches yielded new information. The list of suspects kept growing, and soon both sides started playing a cat-and-mouse game. When one of the Islamists noticed a BfV observation team, he calmly stepped out of his car while stopped at a red light, pulled out a knife and slit the tires of the agents' vehicle.

The US intelligence agencies, the NSA and CIA, provided the most important information: copies of messages between German Islamists and their contacts in Pakistan. Three people in Germany were apparently the ones maintaining contact. The first was a man with the pseudonym "Muaz," who investigators suspected was Islamist Attila S., 22. The second was a man named "Zafer," from the town of Neunkirchen, who they believed was Zafer S., an old friend of Daniel S., one of the three men arrested last week. According to his father, Hizir S., Zafer is currently attending a language course in Istanbul. The third name that kept reappearing in the emails the NSA intercepted was "Abdul Malik," a.k.a. Fritz Gelowicz, who prosecutors believe was the ringleader of the German cell, a man Deputy Secretary Hanning calls "cold-blooded and full of hate."

The Making of a Fanatic

Gelowicz, a native of Munich, caught the attention of the authorities a few years ago when he was seen in the company of Yehia Yousif in Neu-Ulm in southern Germany. Yousif, a trim doctor with an ice-gray goatee, was long seen as a key figure in Germany's radical Islamist scene. An occasional informant to German domestic intelligence, Yousif, charismatic and authoritarian, was the ideal mentor for young Muslims. Under his guidance, Neu-Ulm and its so-called "Multicultural House" developed into a nationwide magnet for Islamists, especially for German converts like Gelowicz and Daniel S. But as soon as the authorities began investigating, the imam left Germany, the Multicultural House was closed and the group was banned.

But convictions can't be banned, and by 2005 Fritz Gelowicz, who had converted to Islam as an adolescent and had gone by the name "Abdullah Gelowicz" since then, must have already been sufficiently radicalized that it no longer mattered whether or not Yousif was still there to guide him.

Gelowicz had previously studied industrial engineering at the Neu-Ulm University of Applied Science. He was a good but "inconspicuous student," says Uli Fieder, the dean of the university. But a fellow student disagrees, saying that he remembers Gelowicz as someone who "already had an Islamist bent in his first semester." In those days Muslim students would meet at a place called the "Café Istanbul" to discuss the Koran. Another fellow student recalls: "they talked about the passages in which it is stated that it is correct to kill Christians and infidels." Gelowicz, says the student, defended the discussions by saying: "It's the right thing."

A friend of Gelowicz from his adolescent days, Tolga D., was among those in Neu-Ulm who had similarly radical thoughts and attended the discussion groups on the so-called pure teachings of the Koran. He has been in custody in Munich since he was arrested in Pakistan in June.

Gelowicz must have begun losing interest in his studies, even though he was almost finished with the industrial engineering program. He passed his last examination in corporate management in the 2003/2004 winter semester with a mediocre grade, and then took a leave of absence for 18 months.

Gelowicz's faith in Allah and his prophets seemed to have been much more important to him than work, a career, or finding a place in the Western performance-based society.

The investigators believe that Gelowicz spent those 18 months abroad, probably pursuing religious studies in Saudi Arabia. Both Adem Y. and Attila S. were also with him in Saudi Arabia for a time.

The core of the group must have formed during this period. German investigators and prosecutors believe that it was in Saudi Arabia that the men must have begun to acquire their belief in violence, a belief that eventually turned into a scheme to kill as many Westerners as possible.

It is possible to reconstruct the stations along the way, as Gelowicz gradually slid into the radical milieu, and yet no one has been able to provide a truly convincing explanation as to his motives. Gelowicz's brother also converted to Islam, and yet authorities have never identified him as an extremist.

The father of the two converts manages a small solar technology business in which Fritz would occasionally help out. The mother is a doctor at a hospital. The parents separated early in his life. The Gelowicz family and its circumstances are ordinary by German standards -- not exactly the kind of environment that would encourage someone to go to Pakistan and join an obscure group like the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) to be trained in the use of weapons to fight a holy war.

The IJU, established in 2002, is one of many similar groups that began popping up worldwide in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11. It is an al-Qaida copycat group, inspired by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's idea of a global holy war. To wage this war, the IJU had originally set out to kill non-believers in Uzbekistan.

But intelligence officials became alarmed after the IJU's leader, a man named Ebu Yahya Mohammed Fatih, announced this May that his group operates "without regard to nationalism or tribal heritage," but instead consists of "the faithful from all over the world." They are concerned that the IJU has now also set its sights on Europe, encouraged by men like Fritz Gelowicz. According to a CIA dossier, Gelowicz arrived at an IJU training camp in northern Pakistan in March 2006.

US intelligence officials believe that Gelowicz received a visit from Adem Y., who may have helped set up his trip to Pakistan. Y., who made ends meet in Germany by working at odd jobs, maintained strong contacts with other IJU sympathizers in Turkey. They arranged Gelowicz's journey through Antalya in Turkey to the Iranian city of Zahedan, where he managed to slip unnoticed across the border into Pakistan.

The authorities have long suspected that Adem Y., who had links to a Saudi traveling imam in Frankfurt in 2002, helped facilitate clandestine travel in the name of jihad. Devout Muslims among his acquaintances kept disappearing: Sedullah K. from Langen disappeared on Jan. 5, 2007, followed by Frankfurt resident Sali S. in March, Ümit S. on May 10 and, on June 5, the brothers Bekir and Hüseyin Ö., both now in prison in Pakistan. At times it seemed that Langen was the site of a travel agency for adventure trips into holy war. The German interior ministry's list of radicals who traveled to the Hindukush region during this period already includes more than a dozen names.

While at the Pakistani camp in the spring of 2006, Adem Y. and Gelowicz probably discussed ways to secretly deliver messages from Pakistan to Germany. They used a Yahoo mailbox, but instead of sending messages directly, they would store them in a draft folder through which their fellow Islamists could then access the messages. But it turned out that the method they hit upon had long been known as an al-Qaida ploy. The CIA, NSA and BKA had no trouble monitoring the group's communications. Two men who went by the aliases "Sule" or "Suley" and "Jaf" kept up the contact from the IJU side.

To analyze the messages, investigators first had to decipher a complicated code. In some messages the Uzbeks in Pakistan asked whether "the gift" had arrived, and in others a "trainee" and a "wedding" were mentioned. What exactly the code words meant remained a mystery to experts at both the BKA and the CIA.

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.

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."

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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