Under tight security, four men aged between 23 and 30 took to the dock on Wednesday in Düsseldorf to answer accusations of plotting a spate of bombings in discos, restaurants, airports, the Federal Prosecutor's Office and US army installations. The alleged plot, which was in its final stages when it was thwarted by police in September 2007, would have been the most destructive in Germany's postwar history.
Sitting behind panes of bulletproof glass, the suspects being tried -- Fritz Gelowicz, Adem Yilmaz, Daniel Schneider and Atilla Selek -- face charges of conspiring to commit murder, plotting to launch explosive attacks and membership in a terrorist organization, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). The men have remained silent since their arrest 18 months ago.
Police detained three of the so-called "Sauerland cell" members during a sweep on a holiday home in a quiet village in the Sauerland region in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
The raid was Germany's biggest anti-terror operation to date. Police said they had been tracking the terror cell for months but stormed the cottage when it appeared that the suspects were nearly ready to strike. They are accused of having turned the unassuming holiday cottage into a bomb-making base. Among the evidence, police impounded hydrogen peroxide-based liquid explosives more potent than those used in the 2004 Madrid bombings or the 2005 attack in London.
In a foretaste of the complexity of the case, lawyers for the four suspects on Wednesday questioned the legal foundation of the trial. In a statement, they described the "origin and quality of the result of the investigation" as doubtful. They argued that the entire case was "weakened by the mixture of information from the secret service and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which, contrary to the constitution, were handed over to the police."
According to the defense lawyers, breaches of protocol occurred from the onset. It was American intelligence officials who first alerted Germany that a terrorist group was planning an attack. But the defense said it suspects that the US officials illegally monitored the suspects in Germany and Pakistan and that German intelligence services should not have used the information.
Two of the suspects, Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider, are German-born converts to Islam, a fact which has sparked a national debate about "home-grown terrorists" and how to deal with the growing threat close to home. Of the other two suspects, Attila Selek is a German citizen of Turkish descent, and Adem Yilmaz is a Turkish national. Prosecutors are still searching for a fifth man they believe played a central role in the alleged plot.
A report in the Bild tabloid on Wednesday said a new video warning to Germany had surfaced on the Internet. The latest video, which was not immediately accessible, spoke of Germany's "criminal government" and showed footage of the 9/11 attacks on New York. Security officials told the paper that the video aimed to send a signal to encourage potential terrorists inside Germany. Top crime fighters in Germany have warned that terrorists may target the country in the run-up to the general elections in September.
The car bombings planned by the Sauerland cell aimed for maximum carnage by selecting busy public places like bars and discos. Targets included the American Air Force base in Ramstein and cities like Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Cologne and Munich. As one of the defendants reportedly put it: "The world will burn."
The trial's paperwork reportedly fills some 530 folders, and the prosecution alone plans to call 219 witnesses. It is estimated that the case could last up to two years. Commentators expect it will be one of the most spectacular trials since members of the leftist terrorist Red Army Faction (RAF) stood in the dock in the 1970s and 1980s.
German wire service DPA said that the men face sentences ranging from 10 years for Selek to as much as life in prison for Schneider, who is charged with attempted murder after he allegedly pulled an officer's gun out of a holster in an escape attempt during the raid. Meanwhile, Gelowicz and Yilmaz face as much as 15 years in jail.
Three of men in the dock were monitored traveling to training camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region in 2006, where they were allegedly recruited by the Islamic Jihad Union, a terrorist organization based in Uzbekistan.