Germany Thwarts Plan to Bomb U.S. Facilities
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JIM LEHRER: The breakup of the bomb plot in Germany. We have a report from Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post in Berlin. Gwen Ifill talked with him earlier this evening.
GWEN IFILL: Craig Whitlock, welcome.
It was last April that a warning went out to Americans in Germany that there may be a terrorist threat. Now there were months of surveillance for this latest one, and an arrest was made now. Why now? What took so long?
CRAIG WHITLOCK, The Washington Post: Well, that’s a good question. They had kept this group under surveillance very closely for many months. I think they wanted to find out what they were up to; I think they also wanted to build enough of an evidentiary case to make sure that they had a strong prosecution at trial.
But I think the biggest factor was that German authorities said that these men started moving these chemicals they had assembled over many months to build a bomb from a storage locker in the Black Forest of Germany up to a vacation house they had rented a couple of hundred miles north. And it appeared to them that they were getting ready to the point where they were going to put these bombs together. They also had electronic components and detonators. So I think that was the main reason that prompted the arrests.
A separate plot in Denmark
GWEN IFILL: We heard earlier this week of arrests, as well, of eight people in Denmark, also accused of -- sounds, at least at first, like a similar terrorist plot. Was it similar?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: We don't know as much about the Denmark case. Danish police made the arrest on Monday; they announced it on Tuesday. They have since released most of the suspects. But the Danish authorities have said that what caught people's attention was that this cell apparently had links to senior al-Qaida leaders outside the country in Pakistan.
Now, they didn't give details of who they had links to, nor have they even said what targets they were considering. But Danish reports have indicated since then that perhaps they are looking at a train station in Copenhagen. But German authorities have said there are no links that they know of between the cell they arrested here and what happened in Denmark.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about that Pakistan link. Part of the concerns we gather is that the people who are under arrest had gone to Pakistan for training. What do we know about that?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that's right. That's something that's alarmed officials not just in Germany, but throughout Europe. We know from prosecutors here that there's evidence that these three men who were arrested had gone to Pakistan to train in camps run by a group called the Islamic jihad Union. It's a group that's not well known, but it was originally based in Uzbekistan.
Since then, a number -- perhaps hundreds -- of Uzbek radicals have gathered along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. And there they run a number of training camps, and in some affiliation with al-Qaida. So to have Europeans with European passports go to this area, receive training and come back, this is something, of course, that German authorities were very concerned with.
GWEN IFILL: When Michael Chertoff, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said today in Washington that this was more proof that al-Qaida and its allies still mean to do harm to American interests, when we say "and its allies," is that what we're talking about when we talk about the Islamic Jihad Union? Or what are we talking about when we talk about al-Qaida?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, I think that's exactly right. I think it's an al-Qaida ally. This is not al-Qaida central, per se, at least that we know of.
It's certainly possible that al-Qaida could use some affiliates to train people. This has happened in the past with Pakistani jihad groups in Kashmir. But as of now, German authorities say, you know, they've singled out this Islamic Jihad Union group, which, again, is distinct from al-Qaida, but is an ally. So I think that's what the secretary was referring to.
GWEN IFILL: Is it significant that some of these people who were arrested today are European converts to Islam rather than what we have come to see people from Islamic countries?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Yes, of course, absolutely. This is something that is happening much more frequently in Europe, that we're seeing converts, people without Muslim background, with white skin, who are not people who fit the stereotypical profile of Islamic terrorists.
These are people who have passports from the West. It's easy for them to travel throughout the world, including to the United States. The ringleader of the group arrested yesterday in Germany was a guy named Fritz from Bavaria. You know, this is a guy who converted to Islam some years ago.
Now, this, again, is something that authorities say they're noticing more and more, but perhaps a guy named Fritz would be less likely to attract attention if he flew throughout Europe or to the United States. And this is something that certainly al-Qaida and its affiliates have sought out, people like this from these backgrounds.
Hamburg plot update
GWEN IFILL: The last time we famously heard of this sort of thing happening in Germany was the information about the pre-9/11 planning of the Hamburg cell in Germany. What has happened with the case against those people? And how good is Germany in general at prosecuting terror suspects?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, the prosecutions in the Hamburg cell have wrapped up. There were a couple of cases that dragged on for many years and resulted in a conviction of one of the men, an expulsion of the other to Morocco. There are several others who are still wanted who are minor players in the cell. And, of course, three of them died in the September 11th attacks. And at least one of them, Ramzi Binalshibh, was captured by the U.S. in Pakistan afterward.
But there has been a history, a pattern of difficulty in prosecuting people under Germany's pre-9/11 terrorism laws. For instance, before 9/11, it was not a crime to belong to a foreign terrorist organization in Germany. It was illegal to belong to a German terrorist group, a domestic group, but not a foreign group like al-Qaida. And this was a factor in the prosecutions of the Hamburg cell.
Since then, German lawmakers have changed those statutes, and they've considered other ones, as well, that would give their police more tools, such as surveillance, Internet access, and more leeway in questioning individuals. This is something that continues to be a debate in Germany: How far should the police be allowed to go? And given the arrests this week, I think that is something that will certainly feed the debate further.
GWEN IFILL: Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, thanks again for helping us out.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: You're welcome.