KARLSRUHE, Germany (Reuters) - Three suspected al Qaeda members had been planning a bomb attack in Germany for four months when they were arrested, federal prosecutors said.
Rainer Griesbaum, a federal prosecutor, told a news conference on Saturday that the trio, led by a 29-year-old Moroccan, had planned to detonate their device in a crowded area but had not yet picked a target.
“They were still in the experimental phase,” Griesbaum said. “They were planning to explode a device packed with pieces of metal in the midst of a large crowd.”
German authorities said the suspects, arrested on Friday, had discussed planting the bomb on a bus or at a bus stop.
The three were detained in police raids in Duesseldorf and the nearby city of Bochum at 6:30 a.m. on Friday after authorities, who had been monitoring the group, decided they might be getting close to carrying out an attack.
Prosecutors said the public had not been in danger.
Bild newspaper reported that the Eurovision Song Contest, watched by more than 100 million television viewers, was a possible target. The contest will be held in the western city of Duesseldorf on May 14.
The suspected ringleader, a 29-year-old college drop-out identified as Abdeladim El-K., was charged with planning a terror attack in Germany and being a member of a foreign terror organization. The other two suspects are still being questioned.
Griesbaum said the 29-year-old Moroccan had attended an al Qaeda terror camp in the Waziristan region of Pakistan near the Afghan border in 2010. He returned to Germany in May 2010 and was attempting to build a terror network here with an estimated seven to eight members.
“But it could also be more than that,” said Joerg Ziercke, president of the Federal Crime Office (BKA), at the news conference at the federal prosecutor’s office in Karlsruhe. “We’ll learn more with our investigation.”
The suspects had cheered Thursday’s bombing in Marrakesh where 15 were killed, Griesbaum said.
The other suspects are a 31-year-old electrician identified as Jamil S., who holds dual German and Moroccan citizenship, and a 19-year-old with German and Iranian citizenship, Amid C., who was about to graduate from high school.
Jamil S. was tasked to arrange the financing of the attack and obtain identity papers for Abdeladim El-K. Amid C. was responsible for ensuring encrypted communication.
Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine reported on Saturday that the CIA as well as Morocco’s intelligence agency had worked with German authorities on the investigation.
Ziercke said the three had inspected public buildings and downloaded information on explosives from the internet.
“But we don’t have any indications that they were planning a suicide bombing,” Ziercke said.
Authorities said they decided to launch the raid on Friday when the suspects discussed making a “detonator for a bomb” by extracting hexamine from barbecue firelighters and mixing that with hydrogen peroxide and citric acid.
Last year, a court in Duesseldorf convicted four militants who admitted planning “a monstrous bloodbath” with car bomb attacks on U.S. targets. They were known as the “Sauerland group” after the area of western Germany where they were caught.
European countries have grappled with militant threats for years, regularly arresting individuals or groups suspected of planning attacks some fear could mirror bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 which killed more than 200 people.
Berlin views Germany as a potential target because it has nearly 5,000 military personnel stationed in Afghanistan, the third largest contingent of the 150,000-strong international force fighting the Taliban-led insurgency.
Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Robert Woodward