A group of three alleged Islamist terrorists arrested in a small town in west Germany late Tuesday were planning a "massive" and "imminent" bombing attack on American targets, including nightclubs and bars surrounding the American air base in Ramstein, according to German authorities.
The suspects allegedly planned an attack using bombs with more explosive power than the ones that rocked Madrid in 2004, leaving 191 dead and more than 1800 injured. In addition to the U.S. targets, Frankfurt Airport and other German airports were also under consideration as targets, officials said.
Federal prosecutor Monika Harms said the three suspects, including two Germans who had converted to Islam, had been trained at terror camps in Pakistan. The suspects had been under surveillance for more than eight months and were arrested by German authorities following a shoot-out. ABC News has reported the suspects had been brought in for questioning on New Years Eve 2006 and then released.THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS
In conjunction with the raids, police seized a large amount of hydrogen peroxide, sources told ABC News, and the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on its Web site that official sources said the suspects had already obtained a military ignition system for the devices they planned to make.
German officials say the men had been under investigation since late 2006 and linked them to the terror plots against the Ramstein Air Base and Frankfurt Airport that were first reported by ABC News last May.
At that time, ABC News reported that U.S. officials said an al Qaeda-connected cell in southwest Germany had been under 24-hour surveillance since the beginning of the year after some of its members were detected conducting surveillance on the headquarters of the U.S. European Command at Patch Barracks, near Stuttgart.
The cell, officials said at the time and reiterated today, is made up of members of the Islamic Jihad Group, a violent terrorist organization based in Uzbekistan. Since then, authorities have been watching the group around the clock. Help was provided by local authorities, and U.S. officials also turned over material to the investigation, Der Spiegel reported.
"Thankfully, collaboration worked well in this case," an official said.
The surveillance of the suspects included wiretaps that recorded numerous conversations about the selection of targets. In these, Frankfurt and other airports were mentioned, officials said. German authorities described the attack scenarios as "horrific" and said the plans included simultaneous attacks using several car bombs.
Authorities conducted searches of 40 buildings in several German states in connection with the arrests, according to German media.
"There was an imminent threat," German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung told reporters. Officials said the three had no steady work and were drawing unemployment benefits while their main occupation was the plot. A top legislator said the group could have struck "in a few days," noting a "sensitive period" that includes the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"This group distinguishes itself through its profound hatred of U.S. citizens," Joerg Ziercke, the head of Germany's Federal Crime Office, said at a joint press conference with German federal prosecutor Monica Harms.
Ziercke said members of Germany's elite GSG-9 anti-terrorist unit arrested two of the suspects at a holiday home in central Germany on Tuesday. A third managed to escape through a bathroom window, but was apprehended about 300 yards later by federal police who had roped off the area.
Harms said the three had trained at terror camps in Pakistan and procured some 1,500 pounds of hydrogen peroxide for making explosives. Hydrogen peroxide, which is used in commercial applications, including hair dying, is a key component to at least one form of homemade high explosive.
In May, ABC News reported that security at all U.S. military and diplomatic facilities had been increased following reports that suspected terrorists had conducted surveillance of the Patch Barracks facility.
"The attack would be designed to create high numbers of casualties among both Germans and the U.S. military," said ABC News consultant Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterror official, said at the time .
The 9/11 hijackers planned their operation out of Hamburg, Germany, and the country continues to be known as a staging area for al Qaeda and groups affiliated with it.
"There are 300 to 500 people who are suspected to be part of al Qaeda cells in Germany," said Col. Andrew Pratt (Ret.) of the George Marshall Center in Germany.
"We were able to succeed in recognizing and preventing the most serious and massive bombings," Harms told reporters.
At the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Capt. Jeff Gradeck told ABC News, "The U.S. military command in Germany have no information as to the presumed plan of the terrorists on the AFB in Ramstein."
He did add, however, that the German authorities have informed them about the arrests made and are keeping them informed appropriately on the ongoing investigation. Ramstein is a major transit point for U.S. troops heading to and from Iraq and an important landing site for wounded military personnel.
ABC News' Brian Ross, Richard Esposito, Rhonda Schwartz, Pierre Thomas, Jack Date and Jason Ryan contributed to this report.