German security forces have prevented a series of “massive bomb attacks” that could have been more deadly than the Madrid and London bombings, top German officials said on Wednesday.
A German terror cell had planned to use the equivalent of 550kg of TNT explosives to mount simultaneous car bomb attacks on US military and civil targets in Germany, Monika Harms, federal chief prosecutor, told a press conference in Karlsruhe, southern Germany.
German special forces personnel arrested the alleged cell members – two Germans who had converted to Islam and a Turkish national based in Germany – in a raid on Tuesday in the Sauerland region of western Germany.
“This was one of the most serious terror attacks ever planned in Germany,” said Ms Harms, Germany’s top prosecutor. “There could have been a very big death toll,” she added, as the amount of explosives collected by the cell exceeded those used in the Madrid train bombings in 2004 that killed 191 people, and the London transport bombings in 2005 that killed 52 people.
Bars and discos frequented by US citizens, and a US military base in Hanau near Frankfurt may have been among the group’s targets, Ms Harms said.
She refused to confirm reports by security officials that other targets included Frankfurt airport – the largest airport in continental Europe – and the US base in Ramstein, south-western Germany.
The men belonged to the Islamic Jihad Union, a shadowy terror group linked to al-Qaeda that has its roots in Uzbekistan, according to Jörg Ziercke, president of the BKA federal crime agency.
The terror plan was new evidence of the spread of “home-grown” Islamic terrorism in Europe, security experts said. The three men, aged between 22 and 29, were all without work and claiming unemployment benefits in Germany. They had all visited terror training camps in Pakistan in 2006, Mr Ziercke said.
Wolfgang Schäuble, the German interior minister, said the foiled attacks showed that Germany had become a target for Islamic terror attacks and was no longer simply a region where terrorist “sleepers” were based before mounting attacks elsewhere.
A spokesman for the FBI in Washington said US authorities had been “closely co-ordinating with the Germans on this case,” but said there was no imminent threat to the US following the arrests.
Some 300 police were involved in the surveillance operation against the cell that started last December. Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the work of the security forces.
The arrests sparked renewed debate on the need for further tightening of German security laws, in particular by allowing remote computer searches by German security forces.
The cell had obtained 12 vats of hydrogen peroxide weighing 730kg to be used in preparing explosives.
Germany has not been the target of a major Islamic terror attack in recent years, but several alleged terror cells have been broken up and suspects arrested, for instance a Lebanese man charged earlier this year with planning a series of train bombs in 2006.
Three of the pilots involved in the September 11 2001 terror attacks had been living in Hamburg, northern Germany.
Danes put bombmaking suspects on trial
Four alleged bombmakers went on trial in Copenhagen on Wednesday, a day after Danish police arrested eight other alleged Islamic militants suspected of plotting a bomb attack, writes Robert Anderson in Stockholm.
Two Palestinians, an Iraqi Kurd and a Dane pleaded innocent to charges of buying chemicals and equipment to produce explosives. The men were arrested last year in Odense after a tip-off from an informant.
Police allege they were caught with a bomb-making manual and 50 grammes of triacetone triperoxide, used in the 2005 London bombings.
The eight new suspects – who are of Afghan, Pakistani, Somali and Turkish origin – were arrested after police raided 11 addresses in the Danish capital on Monday night. All of the eight new suspects have been charged with terrorist offences and two have been remanded in custody.
Police, who worked with foreign security services, believe that these two suspects are the first militants caught in Denmark with direct links to al-Qaeda.