As always, there were early signs, warnings and indications. In July, Saudi Arabian intelligence contacted German security officials to report that al-Qaida was planning an attack involving aircraft, and that it might affect Europe. Unfortunately, the Saudis were unable to provide any further details.
The experts from the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) and Germany's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and the foreign intelligence service, the BND, pored over the report at the German government's counterterrorism center. But no concrete steps were taken, and given the vagueness of the information, what could they have been?
A second warning, more specific this time, came only a few weeks later, on Oct. 9. The Saudi Arabians met with the BKA's liaison in Riyadh and told him about a sophisticated plot.
According to the Saudi officials, on Oct. 5, al-Qaida had completed its plans for a spectacular attack "with one or two aircraft." It was to take place in the coming week. In addition to the Germans, several other European governments, including the British, were informed.
Three weeks later, on the night of Oct. 28, the deadly cargo was loaded onto a plane at Cologne/Bonn airport in western Germany. It was coming from the Yemeni capital Sana'a and was bound for Chicago. It was pure coincidence that the bomb didn't explode at the German airport. This time the information had come from more than just chatter and what intelligence officials commonly refer to as "noise." This time it was PETN, a highly volatile plastic explosive, which is also used by the military. On Friday, the group Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing.
The interception of the bombs from Yemen marks the climax of a summer of worries. For months, there had been growing indications that al-Qaida was planning a spectacular attack. Germany was one of the possible target countries. Intelligence officials were convinced that the al-Qaida leadership had made the decision to strike in Europe. It is believed that the group's leader, Osama bin Laden, had personally approved the plans and the funding for the attacks.
The government in Berlin is currently ajusting to the changes in the security situation. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), had originally taken a different approach from that of his predecessor Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), who had vocally warned about the risk of terrorism and had even discussed what would happen if a dirty bomb exploded in Germany. But this wasn't de Maizière's style. He preferred not to talk about bombs and potential casualties unless it was absolutely necessary. In his view, there was no need to unsettle the public unnecessarily.
Merkel Calls for Tougher Measures
And now -- with new warnings from the intelligence agencies arriving in Berlin almost daily? The chancellor is already addressing the subject directly and calling for tougher measures. Last week, Merkel called for the "implementation of stricter controls worldwide to prevent terrorist attacks." And there is every indication that de Maizière will also change his lower-key approach.
After all, the security agencies fear the worst, and de Maizière receives personal briefings several times a week. The BKA has formed a special task force it refers to as the "Stars." The domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, is compiling all information in its Operation "Moonlight." And, for more than two months now, there have been regular briefings with the CIA and the United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
The intelligence experts are looking into the possibility of bombs coming from Yemen and an attack similar to the one that occurred in Mumbai in 2008. In this connection, they are reviewing statements made by two German Islamists, Ahmed Siddiqui, 36, and Rami M., 26.
Siddiqui has long been a supporter of militant jihad. He knew some of the men who piloted the planes used in the Sept. 11 attacks, and he was a regular visitor to an apartment occupied by some of the 9/11 terrorists on Marienstrasse in Hamburg. He left Germany in early March 2009 to join the militants in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This July, US military special forces units arrested Siddiqui in Kabul. He has been held at the Bagram military prison since then, and he is talking. When four German officials with the BKA and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution questioned him in early October, his statements set off a flurry of intelligence activity. Siddiqui is the most important source of information to date about the plans to stage attacks in Europe.
The militant Islamist told authorities about a man named Sheikh Younis al-Mauretani, said to be the No. 3 ranking member of the al-Qaida terror network, who was allegedly planning a major attack in Europe. According to Siddiqui, Al-Mauretani had recruited volunteers from Western countries, and when he ran into Siddiqui and his Hamburg friend Rami M. in a small city in Pakistan this spring, he said to them: "Perfect, this is exactly what I want."
Al-Mauretani let the two Germans in on his plan to stage an attack in Europe or the United States, and he tried to entice Siddiqui by telling him that there would be no martyrs in his scenario, and that the person committing the attack would survive. He told the two men that he wanted to target financial and economic centers.
US Claims 25 Terrorists Were Already on Way to Europe
Siddiqui's statements coincide with those of Rami M., who was arrested in June on his way to the German embassy in Islamabad. According to Rami M., Al-Mauretani planned to "develop a network of individuals throughout Europe."
The two Germans' confessions alone would have been enough to unsettle the intelligence agencies. But it was the American government that triggered a mood that has been described as being "similar to before Sept. 11, 2001." At almost the same time as the Siddiqui interrogation was taking place, the Americans warned of another possible attack plan that could be loosely modeled on the Mumbai attacks in 2008, when several groups of terrorists stormed hotels and took hostages in the Indian city, embarking on a massacre that would last about 60 hours and claim 175 lives.
According to the US information, up to 25 terrorists were already en route to Europe, divided into several groups. A man named Ilyas Kashmiri, 46, was allegedly behind the plans.
"He is one of the most dangerous men in the world," says American terrorism export Bruce Riedel. Newsweek recently described Kashmiri as an " evil genius." Kashmiri has only one eye, wears a thick beard and is a legend in jihadist circles. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and was later behind bombings against Indian authorities in his native Kashmir.
Investigators believe that he tried to stage an attack in Europe last year. The alleged target was the building occupied by the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten, where Kashmiri's terrorists were to take hostages and then execute them. The plot was uncovered and foiled, but Kashmiri remains undeterred. "I am not a traditional jihadi cleric who is involved in sloganeering," he said in an interview last year. "But as a military commander, I would say every target has a specific time and reasons."
Who nows how much of the grand proclamations would have been realized? It is not clear whether al-Mauretani or Kashmiri are just boasters seeking to inflate their position in Pakistan with a few sensational headlines in Europe. But the explosives from Yemen that were found in packages late last week are no scenarios. They are real. And they change the official approach to the situation in significant ways, including in Berlin.
There were advance warnings in the cases of al-Mauretani, Kashmiri and Yemen, and they proved to be correct for the Yemen scenario. In other words, a fictitious plan had turned into a real threat, about which BKA teams are currently assembling background information in several countries. The results of American, British, Saudi, Dubai and German police investigations yield a precise picture of what the terrorists had planned.
Bombs Travel Halfway around the World
The first bomb was dropped off at UPS in Sana'a in the middle of the week before last. A woman signed the paperwork with the name Souad Ali Quassim Safed and provided a contact address with the Yemen American Institute in Sana'a. The package was addressed to a Diego Deza on Barry Avenue, Chicago, USA.
There is no man of that name living on Barry Avenue in Chicago, and yet the name was deliberately chosen. Diego Deza was a grand inquisitor notorious for his brutality who persecuted Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. UPS assigned the package a tracking number, 1Z20001 V66809 43792, and from then on the package containing the bomb traveled halfway around the world under that 18-digit number.
The second bomb was dropped off at a Federal Express office, by a woman who called herself Hanan Mohamed Ali Alsamawi. She indicated that the package contained "printer, books" with a value of $360. The paper was addressed to a Reynaldkrak on West Pratt Boulevard, also in Chicago -- another reference to a historic figure. Reynald Krak was a French knight known for his atrocities against Muslims in the Middle Ages. Federal Express assigned the package the tracking number 873447 901 7. Now there were two aircraft flying around the world with bombs on board.
The packages were already in the air when the Saudi Arabian authorities summoned the BKA official to another meeting in Riyadh. Starting on Friday morning, at 2:04 a.m. Central European Time, the Germans knew that every minute counted.
After 34 minutes, the BKA agent left the Saudis and contacted officials in Germany. The UPS package had already arrived at the Cologne/Bonn airport at 10:56 p.m., where it had been loaded onto another plane and was now at the East Midlands Airport in Great Britain. The BKA forwarded the information to the British authorities, and the bomb was found a short time later.
The bomb that British authorities seized was a sophisticated device with a time fuse. The terrorists had filled part of a plastic syringe with as much as five grams of lead azide, a flammable material that is also used in military detonators. The syringe was embedded in 300 grams of the plastic explosive PETN, a white powder. A light-emitting diode was submerged in the lead azide, and the card and battery of a mobile phone were attached to the LED. The powder, mobile phone circuit and syringe were arranged partly inside and partly surrounding a Hewlett Packard HP-05A toner cartridge. The design made it almost impossible to detect the explosive charge.
The bomb was supposed to detonate when the attached mobile phone triggered a preset alarm. When that happened, the diode would heat up and ignite the lead azide, which in turn would ignite the PETN, setting off a potentially deadly chain reaction.
EU Interior Ministers To Discuss Near Disaster this Week
British crime scene technicians determined that the plastic explosive was "of extremely high concentration." According to the report by the investigators, the fact that it was made in Yemen required the kind of logistics likely to be found only in government facilities.
The second bomb was found before it left the Persian Gulf region. It too consisted of a piece of a syringe containing lead azide for the initial ignition, as well as 300 grams of PETN. The igniter in this bomb was the filament of a light bulb.
Investigators assume that both bombs came from a skilled al-Qaida bomb maker, a Saudi named Ibrahim al-Asiri, 29. He is also suspected of having sewn explosives into the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airline flight bound for Detroit in December 2009.
Asiri is a member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that was formed when Saudi and Yemeni cells merged. Its members include both Afghanistan veterans and former Guantanamo inmates with an insatiable hatred for the United States. The group's media division publishes videos, magazines and taped messages in English and Arabic.
In September, the US government's counterterrorism center announced that AQAP represented a serious threat to American national security. "The sheer numbers ... suggest that one of the plots in the United States will succeed," former CIA officer Philip Mudd wrote in an article in August, adding: "The Pakistan-Afghanistan border region will not be the sole, or even primary, source of bombing suspects."
A Blacklist for Countries with Lax Inspirections?
Even though the terrorists did not achieve their deadly goals, the package bombs from the Arabian Peninsula will lead to major changes in aviation. Until now, there has been no comprehensive security system in air cargo. The interior ministers of the European Union will meet in Brussels early this week to discuss the lessons to be learned from the near-disaster.
De Maizière will arrive at the meeting with a five-point plan. Probably the most controversial demand coming from Berlin is to provide security officials with access to the databases of logistics companies like FedEx and UPS. This would make it possible to intercept any suspicious packages. However, it would also constitute an infringement of postal privacy, which is protected under Germany's constitution and is thus potentially problematic from a constitutional standpoint.
The German government's proposals also include targeting cargo from politically unstable countries like Yemen for special inspections. The Ministries of Transportation and the Interior are pondering a blacklist that would identify airports with lax inspection procedures.
A bill that would revise the existing aviation safety law was scheduled to be introduced into the German parliament in the summer of 2011. But now the coalition government in Berlin plans to modify parts of the law by the end of this year. "If any changes or amendments to the law are necessary, we will make them as quickly as possible," says Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU).
It "cannot be that passengers who have been searched and scanned several times are sitting in an aircraft while hazardous cargo that hasn't been checked is in the cargo hold below," says Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberg, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in Merkel's coalition government. She also includes a dig at de Maizière: "It would have been better to invest time and energy in the inspection of cargo instead of new developments like the full-body scanner, which is not only questionable from a technical standpoint but also raises constitutional (privacy) concerns."
Al-Qaida Chalks Up a Success
De Maizière does appear to have asserted himself on one central issue: the dispute over jurisdiction for air safety. The interior minister wants to transfer control over air cargo security to the German federal police. The minister's motto, "everything from a single source," will also be part of his argument in Brussels. Transportation Minister Ramsauer has already indicated his unofficial agreement with de Maizière's approach, saying: "If we reach the conclusion that other organizational structures would be more effective, there will be no turf wars between ministries."
Asiri, the presumed bomb maker, can already celebrate his next big success. Partly as a result of the foiled Detroit bombing plot shortly before Christmas in 2009, many countries will soon introduce full-body scanners capable of screening people through their clothing.
And in the wake of the bombs from Sana'a, nothing will be the same anymore in freight traffic. For al-Qaida, it would seem almost immaterial as to whether the package bombs did in fact explode.
MATTHIAS GEBAUER, JOHN GOETZ, PETER MÜLLER, YASSIN MUSHARBASH, BRITTA SANDBERG, HOLGER STARK, VOLKHARD WINDFUHR