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Plot to kill GIs, tourists alleged

Times Staff Writers

Three people allegedly trained in Pakistan by an Al Qaeda-linked group have been arrested on suspicion of plotting massive car bomb attacks on U.S. troops and other Americans near U.S. military bases and German airports, authorities said Wednesday.

After months of surveillance during which German police secretly replaced a stockpile of bomb chemicals with a weaker mixture, a SWAT team raided a vacation home in a wooded village in central Germany on Tuesday and arrested the trio, two of whom were German converts to Islam. One of the suspects grabbed an officer’s gun, shooting him in the hand and suffering a cut on the head during the struggle.

Searches in five German states involved 600 officers, an unprecedented number for an anti-terrorism operation led by federal police here, on the same day that Danish police seized bomb materials in Copenhagen and charged two men of Pakistani and Afghan origin with plotting an attack under the direction of unnamed Al Qaeda leaders. Authorities said they knew of no direct connection between the men arrested in the two Northern European nations.

The two alleged plots stoked fears that a resurgent Al Qaeda was using hide-outs near the Afghan-Pakistani border to train European-based militants to hit Western targets in Europe, which has become a front line because it is easier to enter than the United States and has a larger, more restive Muslim population.

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The trio in Germany allegedly planned simultaneous strikes on three soft targets that may have included discotheques, bars, restaurants or airports frequented by American soldiers and tourists, according to German and U.S. law enforcement officials. Because the confiscated materials could have produced the equivalent of about 1,000 pounds of TNT, the casualty toll could have far exceeded the transport bombings in London that killed 52 people in 2005 or those in Madrid that killed 191 people in 2004, officials said.

The London bombs, in contrast, had only 6 to 10 pounds of explosives, Joerg Ziercke, chief of the federal police, said at a news conference with top law enforcement officials. “In my opinion, a high number of casualties was the main objective; otherwise, this enormous amount of explosives is hard to explain,” he said.

The third suspect detained Tuesday in Germany is a Turkish Muslim living in the country. The three allegedly underwent training last year at a terrorist camp in northern Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, or IJU, an extremist network that broke away from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a longtime Al Qaeda ally, authorities said.

American counter-terrorism officials said they have long been concerned that the IJU and other regional extremist groups around the world have affiliated themselves more closely with Al Qaeda over the last several years. These groups have become far more dangerous and aggressive toward American interests overseas, despite their low public profile, the officials said. Over the last three years, the IJU, also known as the Islamic Jihad Group, has broadened its operational activity to support Al Qaeda’s global agenda, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said.

“We have been concerned about the heightened threat from Al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the IJU, and this particular plot is consistent with that trend of decentralized command and control in many parts of the world,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

German police conducted 41 searches Tuesday and were investigating seven to 10 associates of the jailed suspects. Several of the additional suspects are part of Germanys large, but mostly moderate, Turkish immigrant population. They remain under surveillance, though prosecuting them may be difficult under the terms of Germany’s terrorism laws.

The case is stronger against the three in custody because they were allegedly testing mixtures and assembling bomb components at the time of their arrest, German officials said. Surveillance revealed that their primary motivation was a fervent hatred of Americans, whether soldiers or tourists, German and U.S. officials said.

“In the suspects’ minds, they were from days to a couple of weeks away from an attack,” said another law enforcement official who asked to remain anonymous. “The targets weren’t that set, but they wanted to hit soft targets around military bases where there are large populations of Americans. They wanted to have coordinated attacks -- the police assessment is three separate attacks, probably with car bombs.”

Although officials did not reveal links between the suspects in Germany and Denmark, both cases feature stockpiles of bomb-making materials, and suspected links to Pakistan and Al Qaeda-related figures there. The detainees in Germany tried to maintain secrecy by communicating through the Internet and, like those arrested in Denmark, received orders or external communications from the network in Pakistan, officials said.

“It’s remarkable that on the one hand terrorism works with an international network, but on the other hand it remains in these strictly separated cells,” said Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German Interior minister. “We don’t have any hints that there is a connection to what happened in Denmark yesterday.”

Danish and German police communicated with each other and U.S. counterparts about the raids, which came a week before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, a period believed to be of heightened risk. Investigators said the fugitive leaders of Al Qaeda have been emboldened by their ability to operate in Pakistan and set their sights on new targets in Europe after overseeing half a dozen plots against Britain.

In an ominous development, Al Qaeda appears to be recruiting amid the multiethnic mix of Muslims in Northern Europe as well as from the predominantly Pakistani immigrant enclaves of Britain, where militants have formed cells on their own and then traveled to Pakistan for training and direction. The suspects here were apparently undeterred by the fact that German and U.S. authorities had issued several alerts this year warning about an increased risk of attacks on American targets.

German investigators have been particularly concerned about the flow of militants back and forth from Germany to Pakistan and Afghanistan during the last year. As fighting in Afghanistan has heated up, the movement of militants from Europe to Iraq has decreased while intensifying toward South Asia, where Al Qaeda’s most sophisticated core leadership survives, Western counter-terrorism officials said.

The German investigation began with a suspect identified as Fritz G., a 28-year-old convert who lives in Ulm. He was questioned and released in January after he allegedly conducted reconnaissance of two U.S. military barracks near Hanau, authorities said. He was arrested again Tuesday along with the other two suspects, whose names were not released. Surveillance early this year allegedly revealed that the three were trained by the Islamic Jihad Union in Pakistan in 2006 and claimed allegiance to that group.

Between February and August, one of the suspects went to Hanover and amassed about 1,500 pounds of 35% concentrated hydrogen peroxide solution purchased at a legitimate company under false pretenses, authorities said.

The chemicals, held in 12 containers, were stored in a rented garage in the Black Forest region. As suspicions grew, police pulled off a slick trick used in at least one previous inquiry in Britain. By secretly gaining entry to the garage, then enlisting the help of the company selling the chemical to the suspect, investigators switched it for a much weaker mixture of 3% hydrogen peroxide concentrate, officials said. The suspects obtained other bomb-making components, including a detonator from a source that remains unclear, perhaps during their travels to Turkey and Pakistan, officials said. On Aug. 17, one of the suspects rented a three-bedroom vacation apartment in the 900-resident village of Oberschledorn, a popular skiing and hiking locale, where the three met, allegedly to begin making bombs after last Sunday.

Police had planned to wrap up the surveillance and make arrests, probably before Sept. 11, but a coincidence sped things up. While returning Monday from a trip to acquire alleged bomb components, the suspects’ vehicle was briefly stopped by traffic police because the high beams were on during the day. Through “undercover methods,” police learned that the incident had made the suspects nervous and suspicious, said Ziercke, the federal police chief.

“On September 4 at 1:42 p.m., police learned that the group started to put together a bomb,” Ziercke said. “We learned that the group again discussed the police check and judged it as a danger for the operation’s success. The group wanted to give up the vacation house and rent a new place. At about 2:30 p.m. the group obviously wanted to leave the building.”

A SWAT team swarmed the house, arresting two suspects. The third barricaded himself in a bathroom, jumped from a window and fled over a back fence, police said. When officers converged on him, he managed to wrestle away a gun, wounding an officer in the hand, officials said. The suspect tried to shoot a second officer, but the gun misfired, Ziercke said. The suspect is likely to face additional charges in the incident, officials said.

Because of the hurried denouement, questions and ambiguity persist about the exact targets and details of the plot. Some German and U.S. officials said Ramstein Air Base and Frankfurt International Airport were specific targets, while other officials said the objectives were more likely soft targets such as nearby bars and nightclubs.

The apparent ferocity and dimensions of the alleged plot have erased notions that Germany is not a terrorist target because it stayed out of the war in Iraq, observers said. The threat today is fed by the German military role in Afghanistan, the presence of tens of thousands of Americans at military installations and Al Qaeda’s obsession with striking in the heart of the West.

“We’re not dismissing the possibility of follow-on plots, and the Germans are tracing leads on this. But this particular plot appears to have been disrupted in rather late stages,” the U.S. counter-terrorism official said.

He said German authorities had placed the group of suspects “under a microscope” for a long period, and that they felt confident they had disrupted the particular plot and arrested all major participants.

“But we can’t discount the possibility that there were other target sites for these guys,” he said. “And we don’t discount that there are others out there planning significant attacks” in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

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rotella@latimes.com

Retzlaff reported from Berlin and Rotella from Madrid. Staff writer Josh Meyer in Washing- ton contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Ties to Uzbekistan

The Islamic Jihad Union, or IJU, said to have run a training camp in Pakistan attended by the three suspects arrested in Germany this week, is an offshoot of a group formed in Uzbekistan in 2002 with the goal of replacing the Uzbek government with one that follows Islamic law, according to U.S. counter-terrorism and intelligence officials.

The IJU first carried out attacks in April 2004, targeting a bazaar and police checkpoints in Uzbekistan, assaults in which 47 people were killed, including 33 militants, according to U.S. intelligence and State Department reports.

The group struck again in July 2004, targeting the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek prosecutor general’s office in the capital, Tashkent. IJU representatives claimed responsibility for the attacks “in support of their Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghan brothers in the global insurgency,” and stated that martyrdom operations would continue, according to U.S. intelligence.

The United States formally designated the IJU as a terrorist organization May 25, 2005, saying it was linked to Al Qaeda.

Source:

Times reporting


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