Are Terrorists Plotting an Attack on Germany?

In recent weeks intelligence officials in Germany have been inundated with a rush of terror-threat warnings, NEWSWEEK has learned. But investigators are not sure how much of the information is genuine, and suspect some sources are making up stories in an effort to scam money out of German spy and law enforcement agencies nervous about a possible attack in the run up to the country's Sept. 27 elections.

Intelligence that has been flowing into German counterterrorism units includes jihadist video messages, electronic "chatter," and information from informants who claim to have specific details about impending strikes. The video messages are among the most alarming indicators, said a European counterterrorism official, who like others quoted in this article, asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. Especially disturbing is the number of videos that make specific threats against Germany, the official said, noting that it is much higher than in the past.

European and American counterterrorism officials say that they are concerned about the possibility that jihadists may see Germany's national elections, in which the future of Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government with Social Democrats is at stake, as an opportunity to make a political statement. The officials believe jihadists may see potential parallels between the preelection period in Germany and the period before the jihadist bombings of commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004.

The Madrid attacks, which killed more than 190 people and injured nearly 10 times that many, were launched only a few days before national elections were to take place in Spain. Before the bombings, polls indicated that the conservative prime minister, José María Aznar, was slightly favored to win reelection. After the attacks, however, voters swept Aznar from office and installed as prime minister his socialist challenger, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Some German investigators worry that, even though would-be terrorists may harbor no specific grievance against Merkel or her coalition partners, they might want to attack before the election simply to demonstrate that they have the power to influence the outcome. It is unclear, however, whether the Germans have received any intelligence indicating that any such plot is in the works.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said that, based on the volume of intelligence, there is as much concern about a possible attack in the weeks after the election. A European counterterrorism official said that some of the intelligence the Germans have collected details the timing and location of possible preelection attacks. Law enforcement agencies are giving these threat alerts special attention. However, most, if not all, of the information the intel agencies received fell apart when authorities launched intense inquiries. Investigators now suspect that the information about specific attacks may well have been fabricated by informants to defraud intelligence officers, who are often willing to hand out generous payments to tipsters for hot tips about impending attacks.