German officials said on Saturday they had nipped in the bud plans for a major attack inside the country by breaking up an alleged terror cell whose leader was under orders from al-Qaeda.
The cell’s suspected leader, 29-year-old Moroccan national Abdelakim El-K, had received orders from “a senior al-Qaeda figure in spring 2010 to carry out a bomb attack in Germany,” federal prosecutors said in a statement.
The plot was thwarted after a tip-off from the US prompted a six-month police operation in which three suspected members of a terror cell were monitored around the clock. German police arrested them on Friday in the western cities of Bochum and Dusseldorf.
They picked up Abdelakim El-K and two people he allegedly recruited, Jamil S, 31, who holds joint German and Moroccan nationality, and Amid C, 19, of -Iranian-Germany extraction.
However, police believed the three suspects formed part of a larger network, the head of the German federal police, Joerg Zierck, told reporters.
“We are working on the principle that they are at least seven or eight” in Germany, Zierck said.
The threat of an attack on German soil remained, he said.
German officials said it was a tip-off from US intelligence agents that had alerted them to the activities of Abdelakim El-K.
Police launched a surveillance operation on the three suspects, using 65 officers to keep tabs on them around the clock.
They waited six months before launching Friday’s raids — and even then, they had not not completed their investigation, Zierke said.
However, they decided to move because they feared that Thursday’s deadly bomb attack in Marrakech, Morocco, might spur the suspects into action, he explained.
Telephone taps had revealed the suspects’ delight at news of the attack in Marrakech, which killed 16 people and injured at least 14 more.
Despite the arrests, Germany had to expect “Islamist terrorist acts” on its soil, Zierke said. He estimated that there were around 130 potential extremists ready to carry out such attacks.
Abdelakim El-K, a former student in the western city of Bochum, had been living illegally in Germany since November last year, Zierck said. The suspect had links with Austria, Morocco, Kosovo and Iran.
The prosecutor’s statement said that after receiving weapons and explosives training at a training camp along the Afghan-Pakistan border, Abdelakim El-K had returned to Germany in May last year to begin planning the attack.