OSLO (Reuters) - Three men were arrested in Norway and Germany on Thursday on suspicion of plotting attacks and of having links to al Qaeda as well as people under investigation in the United States and Britain, Norwegian police said.
Two of the men were arrested in the Oslo region while Norwegian media said the third man was a Norwegian resident who was detained during a visit to the German city of Duisburg.
"We believe this group has had links to people abroad who can be linked to al Qaeda, and to people who are involved in investigations in other countries, among others the United States and Britain," said Janne Kristiansen, who heads the Police Security Service (PST).
In Washington, a U.S. official, who declined to be identified, said his government believed an al Qaeda operative, Saleh al-Somali, had had "a hand" in the plot before he was killed in a drone strike late last year.
"He had a role in conjuring it up," the official said, declining to elaborate. Somali was described by a U.S. counter-terrorism official at the time that his death was reported as a senior planner in al Qaeda's core leadership.
Kristiansen did not give details of the plot nor say which country might have been the target of a planned attack. Norway, which has troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission, has never had an al Qaeda-led attack on its soil.
She declined to comment on whether there was a link to arrests in the United States and Britain.
On Wednesday, the United States charged five men with plotting to bomb New York City's subway system and attack an unidentified target in Britain under orders from al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
British police also on Wednesday arrested a 24-year-old terrorism suspect given leave to stay in Britain after a request from the U.S. government for his extradition.
U.S. authorities want Abid Naseer, who won a court battle in May against deportation to Pakistan, to stand trial on charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy to use a destructive device.
Norwegian police said Thursday's arrests were brought forward by fears that details of the investigation would appear in public.
"We were afraid evidence would be destroyed, because we knew that an international media organization was about to publish details of the case. That made it urgent to make the arrests," Kristiansen told Reuters.
One of three men was a 39-year-old Norwegian citizen whose origin is Uighur, a Muslim minority in western China. Another was a 37-year-old Iraqi citizen, and the third was a 31-year-old Uzbek citizen. The Iraqi and the Uzbek both had permanent residency in Norway.
A lawyer representing the Uzbek national, Kjell Dahl, said his client denied any involvement. "He pleads not guilty and he is horrified by this accusation of involvement in terrorism," Dahl told Reuters. "He is a family man ... a moderate modern Muslim, a very ordinary person ... He has no connection to any kind of political, religious group."
Kristiansen said Norwegian police had collaborated with several police services abroad, but did not specify which. "The threat of terrorism in Norway is (generally) low and it is still low," she told a news conference.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg also said the country had been in no immediate danger, but said Oslo would "maintain and consolidate" security. "Terrorism creates fear and insecurity, and must be combated," he told a news conference.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous in Washington, Editing by Myra MacDonald, William Maclean and David Stamp