Three Islamic militants from an Al Qaeda-influenced group nursing a "profound hatred of U.S. citizens" were arrested on suspicion of plotting imminent, massive bomb attacks targeting Americans in Germany, prosecutors said Wednesday.
In Washington, a senior U.S. State Department official said German investigators had determined the Frankfurt International Airport and the nearby U.S. Ramstein Air Base were the primary targets of the plot but that those arrested may have also been considering strikes on other sites, particularly facilities associated with the United States.
The three men, two German converts to Islam and a Turkish citizen linked to a group based in Central Asia, had some 1,500 pounds of hydrogen peroxide — enough to make a bomb with the explosive power of 1,200 pounds of TNT, prosecutors said at a news conference.
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It was the second time in as many days that European officials said they had thwarted a major attack. On Tuesday, Danish authorities arrested eight alleged Islamic militants with links to senior Al Qaeda terrorists. No direct connection between the two groups has been established, officials said.
German Federal Prosecutor Monika Harms said the suspects arrested Tuesday had an eye on attacking institutions and establishments frequented by Americans in Germany, including discos, pubs and airports. She declined to name specific targets.
"We were able to succeed in recognizing and preventing the most serious and massive bombings," she said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel thanked security officials for foiling the attack, and called the arrests a "very, very great success."
"This shows that terrorist dangers, in our country as well, are not abstract but are real," she said.
Germany's elite GSG-9 anti-terrorist unit arrested two of the suspects Tuesday at a vacation home in Oberschledorn, a town of some 900 people in central Germany. A third suspect fled through a bathroom window, but was caught about 300 yards away, authorities said.
The suspects, appearing behind closed doors Wednesday at the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe, were ordered held pending trial.
The state Interior Ministry in Saarland, the home region of one of those arrested, said a total of eight people were under investigation by prosecutors for suspected membership in a terrorist organization and other offenses.
Officials said the 35-percent hydrogen peroxide solution easily could have been mixed with other additives to produce a powerful bomb.
"This would have enabled them to make bombs with more explosive power than the ones used in the London and Madrid bombings," Joerg Ziercke, head of the Federal Crime Office, Germany's equivalent of the FBI, said at the news conference.
The use of hydrogen peroxide is by no means a first. The four suicide bombers who killed 52 commuters on three subway cars and a bus in July 2005 in London used bombs made using hydrogen peroxide, commonly used in hair dying and coloring.
The two Germans, ages 22 and 28, and the Turkish citizen, 29, first came to the attention of authorities because they had been caught observing a U.S. military facility in Hanau, near Frankfurt, at the end of 2006, officials said. Police were also searching an Islamic information center in the town of Ulm in Baden-Wuerttemburg.
Prosecutors said the three had undergone training at camps in Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, and had formed a German cell of the Al Qaeda-influenced group. The Islamic Jihad Union is described as a Sunni Muslim group based in Central Asia that was an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an extremist group with origins in that country.
"This group distinguishes itself through its profound hatred of U.S. citizens," Ziercke said.
The three had no steady work and were collecting unemployment benefits while their main occupation was the plot, officials said.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security saw "no imminent threat to the U.S. domestically following these arrests."
But a senior U.S. State Department official said the U.S. Embassy in Berlin had already boosted security and issued warnings in April and May about possible terrorist attacks.
The arrests were another alarming report following a failed train bombing last year and warnings that Germany's troop deployment in Afghanistan could make it vulnerable. German and U.S. officials have warned of the possibility of a terrorist attack.
In July 2006, two gas bombs were placed on German commuter trains but did not explode. Officials said that attack was motivated by anger over cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. Several suspects are on trial in Lebanon, and a Lebanese man has been charged in Germany.
Additionally, three of the four suicide pilots involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, once lived and studied in Hamburg.
Wolfgang Bosbach, a top legislator from Merkel's Christian Democrats, noted the upcoming sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, as well as deliberations by the German parliament in the next few weeks over whether to extend its troop mandates in Afghanistan.
"We are in a highly sensitive period," he said.