Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images
German security officials lead one of three terrorist suspects from a helicopter to Karlsruhe's federal court.
Massive terrorist attacks on a major U.S. and NATO military base and international airport in Germany were just days from being carried out when three alleged plotters were arrested, authorities said Wednesday.
The three men, arrested late Tuesday, had trained in Pakistan terror camps and obtained about 1,500 pounds of hydrogen peroxide for making explosives, German federal prosecutor Monika Harms said.
"Possible targets for the suspects were places Americans went - for example nightclubs, bars or airports. In front of those facilities, cars loaded with explosive devices were to have been detonated and a high number of people were to have been killed or injured," said Harms.
A senior U.S. State Department official said the suspects planned to attack Ramstein Air Base — a major U.S. and NATO military hub — and Frankfurt's international airport.
A top German legislator said the group could have struck "in a few days," noting a "sensitive period" that includes the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Officials said the hydrogen peroxide, stored in a hideout, could have been mixed with other additives to produce a bomb with the explosive power of 1,200 pounds of TNT.
"This would have enabled them to make bombs with more explosive power than the ones used in the London and Madrid (transit) bombings," Joerg Ziercke, the head of Germany's Federal Crime Office, said at a joint news conference with Harms.
"There was an imminent threat," German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung told ARD broadcaster.
The three suspects - two Germans and a Turk - first came to the attention of authorities because they had been observing a U.S. military facility at the end of 2006, officials said. All three had undergone training at camps in Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, and had formed a German cell of the group.
The three suspects were brought before judges in a closed proceeding at Germany's Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe after being flown in by helicopter, court officials said.
The Islamic Jihad Union was 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.
Prosecutors in Karlsruhe said the arrests were made Tuesday afternoon, and that police had also conducted nationwide searches. The German reports came a day after Denmark authorities said they had thwarted a bomb plot when authorities rounded up eight alleged Islamic militants believed to have links to al-Qaida.
Wolfgang Bosbach, a top legislator for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, said that "the suspects had been under observation by security officials for a long time."
"Consequently, we know without any doubt that they were planning attacks that would have had considerable consequences," he told N24 television, adding that the three had acquired chemicals for the plot.
Bosbach said an attack could have occurred "in a few days" and pointed out the Sept. 11 anniversary, as well as parliamentary deliberations in the next few weeks over whether to extend troop mandates in Afghanistan.
Ramstein is one of the best-known U.S. Air Force bases worldwide because it serves as a major conduit for U.S. troops moving in and out of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It is a key transit point for injured troops from Iraq and Afghanistan who are flown there to be taken to nearby Landstuhl.
Besides U.S. personnel, British, French, and other international forces are also located there.
Frankfurt International Airport is Europe's third-busiest airport, handling hundreds of in- and outbound flights to and from the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. In July, a record 5.2 million passengers arrived or departed from the airport.
German and U.S. officials have warned of the possibility of a terrorist attack, and security measures have been increased. Navy Capt. Jeff Gradeck, spokesman for the U.S. military's European Command in Stuttgart, said German authorities had contacted them concerning the alleged plot, but had no further information.
"We extend our gratitude to Germany for their efforts in protecting us," Gradeck said.
Germany, which did not send troops to Iraq, has largely been spared terrorist attacks such as the train and subway bombings in Madrid and London - although its involvement in the attempt to stabilize Afghanistan against Islamic insurgents has led to fears it might be targeted.
In July 2006, two bombs were placed on commuter trains but did not explode. Officials said that attempt was partly 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.
The Tuesday arrests in Denmark sent jitters through a country that was the focus of Muslim anger and deadly protests over the cartoons. Jakob Scharf, head of the PET intelligence service, said that the eight suspects arrested were "militant Islamists with connections to leading al-Qaida persons."
From NPR reports and The Associated Press