The German authorities said they had foiled a conspiracy to blow up an airliner, but raised questions about the seriousness of the threat when they said five of the six suspected terrorists had been released after a brief detention.
Police had searched nine apartments and questioned six foreign men suspected of planning to smuggle explosives in a passenger aircraft after bribing an airport employee, state prosecutors said.
The news was the latest indication that Germany had become a target of Islamist terrorists, an interior ministry spokesman said. In July, two makeshift bombs that failed to explode because of flawed detonators were discovered aboard commuter trains in Rhineland.
“Terrorism is not abstract danger,” the spokesman said. “We must assume that there are people around who are working on concrete plans for attacks.”
Security experts say vigilance is rising in Europe because of the high level of “chatter” in terrorist circles picked up by electronic surveillance and intelligence agencies in recent weeks.
Local German media reported that the six men were planning to smuggle an explosives-packed suitcase aboard a flight by El Al, the Israeli airline, operating out of Frankfurt airport, Germany’s largest.
The prosecutor’s office, which declined to confirm these details, said it had released five of the suspects on Saturday after questioning them. The sixth man, who was already in detention under a separate offence, remains behind bars.
The authorities, which did not release any information about the suspects’ nationalities or identities, said they had opened a formal investigation into the men who face a possible charge of membership in a terrorist organisation.
In the past, such a charge has been used against terrorist suspects whose plans were not detailed or advanced enough – or when the evidence collected was not sufficient – to back a charge of attempted murder, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
The fact that no arrests were made also suggests that the plan was either at a very early stage or that the main actors of the plot had yet to be identified.
The prosecutor’s office suggested the latter was the case when it said the six suspects, detained in the south-western states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse, where Frankfurt is located, were operating on behalf of an as-yet unidentified terrorist organisation.
■A masked man wearing explosives and brandishing rifles opened fire after storming a secondary school in the western German town of Emsdetten on Monday, wounding at least 11 people before he committed suicide, Reuters reports.
Police identified the man as an 18-year old former pupil at the school who was known to authorities and due in court on Tuesday for weapons violations.