German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised security authorities for their "great success," adding the arrest showed that "the terrorist threat in Germany is not abstract, but very real."
The three men, two Germans and a Turkish citizen ages 22 to 28, were planning "massive bomb attacks” that could have been more deadly than the Madrid and London bombings and surely would have killed “many, many people,” Federal Prosecutor Monika Harms said Wednesday in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe.
The three men planned to simultaneously detonate self-made explosives loaded in cars at "several locations throughout the country," Harms said. As possible targets, she named "discotheques, pubs and airports frequented by Americans."
The suspects belong to a German cell of the terrorist group "Islamic Jihad Union" and were united by "hatred against American citizens," said Joerg Ziercke, the president of Germany’s Federal Criminal Office. That hatred against the United States is also reflected by the other potential targets officials named: Ramstein Air Base, a major transit point for U.S. soldiers into the Middle East, and the nearby Frankfurt International Airport, one of Europe’s biggest travel hubs.
German police and special units arrested the men in the afternoon hours of Tuesday -- exactly a week before the sixth anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- in their hideout in western Germany, after they had started building the explosives based on hydrogen peroxide, the same material used in the London train bombings.
A series of successful attacks, however, may very well have eclipsed the London bombings in their graveness: The hydrogen peroxide the terrorist suspects had assembled (12 barrels with some 1,600 pounds) could have produced bombs with the explosive power of more than 1,200 pounds of TNT -- "20 to 30 times" the explosive power used in London in 2005, Ziercke said.
German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Wednesday in Berlin the foiled attack plans not only proved that German security authorities were doing a "very good job," but also that the country was "very concretely" threatened by "homegrown terrorism," a phenomenon dominated by young Muslims who grew up or were even born in Europe and have become radicalized.
"Those guys weren’t some semi-professionals," Schaeuble said. "They worked in a highly conspirative way and were very determined."
The minister said the cell is believed to have links to al-Qaida leadership circles in Pakistan, from where it may have received financial and ideological support, and even orders.
"We know that they got messages from Pakistan that said, 'Let’s go, act now,'" Schaeuble said.
The two Germans are converted Muslims, and the Turkish national apparently grew up in Germany, officials said. At least two of the three men received training in a Pakistani terrorist-training camp.
Security and anti-terror experts have praised the German arrests.
"This shows that the many federal security units are able to work well together, and it also shows that the international cooperation works as Germany coordinated its moves with U.S. officials and foreign intelligence services," Berndt Georg Thamm, a German terrorism expert, Wednesday told United Press International in a telephone interview.
After criticism of its anti-terror strategy, Germany over the past two years established a federal anti-terror center in Berlin and a nationwide terror suspect database, which identified two of the arrested as potential Islamist agitators.
The group officials believe the three men belong to -- the Islamic Jihad Union -- has its roots in Central Asia, mainly Uzbekistan, where it wanted to establish an Islamic Caliphate but has since connected with al-Qaida to update its goals, Thamm said.
“But this is the first time they have become active in Europe,” he told UPI.
The synopsis of the German anti-terror mission is fascinating: The Germans first got wind that something was happening in early 2007, when one of the arrested was repeatedly seen snooping around U.S. military bases. When his phone was tapped, officials learned that he and two other men were planning to launch terror attacks.
In order to capture as many suspects as possible, German authorities refrained from an early arrest and over the next six months proceeded to watch the cell’s every move. It would turn into the biggest covert anti-terror mission the country has ever seen, with more than 40 objects simultaneously surveyed, Ziercke said.
From February until July, the men assembled 12 barrels of hydrogen peroxide, which they stored away in a garage in a small Black Forest town. They then rented a holiday house in the Sauerland, a scarcely populated region of North Rhine-Westphalia, taking one of the barrels there.
Shortly beforehand, German special units had scored the greatest coup yet: Without being noticed by the terror suspects, a German unit was able to exchange the 30-percent hydrogen peroxide solution in all 12 barrels with a 5-percent solution.
When the men, using chemicals, military fuses, cables and chemicals, started building the bombs on Tuesday, officials decided it was time to make the arrest.
Police and the GSG 9 (a special unit that in 1977 was responsible for the successful ending of a hostage drama in Mogadishu, Somalia, involving a Lufthansa passenger airplane captured by Palestinian terrorists) moved in at 2:32 p.m. local time. One of the suspects jumped through a bathroom window, pursued by a police officer. The suspect was able to take away the officer’s gun and shot him in the hand but was later overwhelmed by other police.
"They really challenged us to the maximum," Ziercke said.
The successful security mission comes just a day after Danish police arrested eight terror suspects accused of storing "unstable explosives" at a time when anti-terror prosecutors are on high alert throughout Europe ahead of the upcoming Sept. 11 anniversary.
In Germany, officials had warned of a heightened security alert all year, with Schaeuble having sounded the alarm repeatedly. Last year a bombing targeting two regional commuter trains in western Germany failed only because a technical error prevented the explosives from going off.
Germany has also received a growing number of terror threats for its engagement in Afghanistan, where more than 3,000 soldiers are leading reconstruction efforts, flying reconnaissance missions and taking part in U.S.-led anti-terror operations.
Ziercke said the investigation is ongoing, with German police having raided 41 other objects on Tuesday and early Wednesday to arrest more suspects.
"We can’t give the all-clear yet," Ziercke said. "We have to continue to be very careful."