German authorities have launched a worldwide manhunt for as many as 50 members and supporters of a suspected terror cell that was allegedly plotting to launch multiple car-bomb attacks against U.S. military and other American-related targets in Germany, several officials close to the investigation have told NEWSWEEK.
The plot was first made public when it was foiled a month ago, and three of the group's alleged ringleaders are in custody. But the officials said as many as a dozen active members of the cell are still believed to be on the loose—dispersed to locations including Pakistan and Great Britain. The new information suggests the German terror plot, which heightened security concerns in the United States as well as Europe, involved a more extensive network of Islamic militants than authorities originally disclosed.
Investigators believe five members of the cell, most of them German-born converts to militant Islam, are currently in Pakistan, where they went for training in makeshift camps run by members of the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), an Uzbek-led affiliate of Al Qaeda's central command. Another two suspects are under surveillance in Germany, according to a German official who, like other investigators, asked for anonymity due to the continuing inquiry. The German-based suspects are being watched while detectives continue to collect evidence that they hope will eventually justify criminal charges.
Yet another suspect, also said to be a German citizen, is believed by German and British authorities to have fled to the United Kingdom. Local authorities are aware of his presence, although it is not clear whether the suspect's precise whereabouts are currently known to investigators. German and British authorities are concerned that the suspect may be trying to get into contact with a possible IJU cell in Britain, though the existence of such a cell has not been confirmed.
German authorities also believe that another 20-30 supporters or helpers of the German-based IJU cell may also be at large; investigators are concerned that a group of sympathizers may have gone to ground in Turkey. Officials also fear that a new leader may have already been designated to replace the plot's suspected mastermind, who was arrested last month. In the last two weeks, Germany's Interior minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, and other senior German officials have visited the U.S., where they have discussed the IJU case and other terror-related investigations with American counterparts at the Justice Department, FBI, CIA and National Security Agency.
Some German officials have described the IJU case—which culminated in the well-publicized arrests of alleged plot ringleader Fritz Gelowicz and two close associates—as the gravest terrorist threat to face Germany since the end of World War II. (Gelowicz has since been charged with leading a terrorist plot. )
The German IJU investigation began about a year ago when U.S. intelligence agencies eavesdropping on international communications spotted suspicious message traffic, believed to include e-mails, between Pakistan and Germany. U.S. authorities alerted German intelligence to the suspicious messages, and the Germans opened an investigation. A few weeks later, around Christmastime, the investigation intensified after suspects in the case were observed driving in suspicious patterns near a U.S. military installation in the Frankfurt area.
German investigators concluded that they had discovered a militant cell of the IJU, led by Gelowicz. A convert to Islam, he had taken a leadership role at an Islamic center in the town of Neu Ulm in southern Germany three years earlier, after the center's militant Egyptian imam was deported. Last year, according to investigators, Gelowicz and two other principal suspects traveled to remote tribal areas on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. There, authorities believe, the three underwent indoctrination and weapons training in camps operated by the IJU, a group that had split from a larger Islamist movement in Uzbekistan and affiliated itself with the fugitive Al Qaeda leadership, which is believed to be hiding out in the same region. Officials say they do not have evidence that the German suspects were in direct contact with Osama bin Laden or his inner circle.
Upon their return to Germany, investigators told NEWSWEEK, Gelowicz and his cohorts began conducting none-too-subtle surveillance of potential American targets, many in the Frankfurt area. They also allegedly recruited and indoctrinated other potential members of their cell. Some of the new recruits were sent off to Pakistan for training (including the five suspects who are currently being sought there). Investigators read e-mail traffic between the suspects in Germany and people they believed to be IJU contacts in Pakistan discussing plans for possible attacks on U.S. targets in Germany.
German authorities believed that Gelowicz and his cell in Germany were taking orders related to the plot from IJU leaders in Pakistan. The Germans still are trying to uncover the real identities of the IJU leaders in Pakistan—whom they believe were pulling the strings in the plot. Authorities believe the IJU leader in the case goes by the nom de guerre "Sousa" but say they do not know his true identity.
Over the last nine months, German authorities mounted a massive surveillance operation of IJU-plot suspects which, at one point, involved as many as 400 federal and local police officers and two or three hundred more intelligence officers. Investigators watched as the suspects purchased large quantities of high-concentrate hydrogen peroxide, a household chemical used to bleach hair but also an increasingly common ingredient in homemade explosives. Sympathizers in Turkey were allegedly tasked with acquiring detonators. Investigators read e-mails and listened in on conversations—including discussions in a bugged car—as suspects talked about attacking an unnamed airport, U.S. military installations and restaurants and nightclubs frequented by Americans. The suspects allegedly researched potential targets over the Internet using Google Earth.
During the course of the investigation, it became clear that some of the central suspects knew authorities were on to them. On at least one occasion, a German official said, suspects slashed the tires of a vehicle counterintelligence officers were using to follow them.
German investigators were particularly disturbed that even after it became clear that the plot leaders knew authorities were after them, the suspects continued to purchase bombmaking materials and move ahead with their plot. Ultimately, according to German officials, the suspects acquired enough high-concentrate hydrogen peroxide to make three car bombs, each with explosive power equivalent to nearly 200 pounds of TNT. That's several times the power of the hydrogen-peroxide knapsack bombs that suicide bombers used to attack the London transport system on July 7, 2005. German investigators said that the plot would have been relatively cheap to carry out. A 12-barrel supply of concentrated peroxide sells for 3,000-4,000 euros ($3,500-$4,500); travel costs and other overhead costs would have run a few thousands euros more. Investigators saw some evidence that the alleged German-based plotters financed their activities with ATM cards given to them by new recruits sent off by the plot leaders to Pakistan for training.
But German law enforcement moved in before the alleged plot could be carried out. In fact, authorities embarked on a James-Bond style mission to defuse the explosives before they were even built. Investigators wanted more time to watch the suspects before making arrests in the case, but they were concerned that the plotters might secretly begin using the stockpiled hydrogen peroxide to begin making the explosives. So authorities snuck into the building where the barrels of peroxide were stored and, unknown to the suspects, replaced them with a watered down version of the chemical that wouldn't explode, according to a German official.