On Thursday, German authorities arrested three alleged members of Islamic State suspected of planning an attack in downtown Düsseldorf. French police had already arrested a fourth suspect, also from Syria, in February.
The four men had entered Europe as refugees and were supposed to be joined by six more people to carry out the attack in Düsseldorf, Der Spiegel reported, citing the fourth suspect, Saleh A. who is currently in French custody.
According to the plan, two people were going to detonate suicide bombs and others would kill people with guns and explosives, Der Spiegel said. Similar attacks hit Brussels in March and in Paris in November, which killed a total of 164 people.
Düsseldorf’s historic center, nicknamed the longest bar in the world, is lined with pubs and is known for its popularity among tourists.
The fact that the three arrested Thursday entered Germany as asylum seekers is likely to fan the tension surrounding the refugee issue that has divided politicians and the public.
Europe is on high alert for possible terror attacks and the European soccer championship, beginning next week in France, is seen as a potential target. Thursday’s arrests were not related to the soccer event, the prosecutors said Thursday.
Germany, which supports military efforts in Syria and Iraq to fight Islamic State, is also a target for Islamic extremists, according to German intelligence services.
Last year, more than 1 million people fled war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa and sought asylum in Germany.
Two of the men, Saleh A. and Hamza C., suspected of preparing the attack are believed to have entered Germany separately as refugees, one in March 2015 and the other in July 2015 via Greece.
As thousands of refugees traveled by land across different borders, amid political discord over whether and how to handle the situation, and how to secure the resources needed to do so, security procedures are believed to have been have been lacking.
In Germany, the two men are believed to have met with a third Syrian, Mahood B., who apparently persuaded them to take part in a plan that also involved Abd Arahman A., 31, who reportedly was tasked with securing suicide vests and is believed to have learned about how to carry attacks from his work with Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist group.
The attack failed to take place after Saleh revealed the plans to the French authorities in February.
The three other men were arrested Thursday in North-Rhine Westphalia, Brandenburg and Baden-Württemberg and police searched their homes.
Düsseldorf’s mayor, Thomas Geisel, praised the work of the investigators and expressed horror at the planned attacks.
The men suspected of planning the attack apparently reached Germany via the Balkan route, the corridor from Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia and on to Slovenia. According to the authorities, two of those involved in the Paris attacks used the same route; in Salzburg, last fall, two men were arrested who had traveled to Europe via Greece and said they also had planned to take part in the November 2015 Paris attacks.
The fact that the three arrested Thursday entered Germany as asylum seekers is likely to fan the tension surrounding the refugee issue that has divided politicians and the public. Right wing populist politicians in the Alternative for Germany party have repeatedly warned that terrorists could be among the influx of refugees and the arrests could gain the party further followers. Likewise this could cost Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party support.
However the security authorities have questioned whether this is necessarily the case, stating that would-be terrorists could also enter the country using counterfeit documents rather than taking the more dangerous route.
Hans-Georg Maaßen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, said that by infiltrating the refugees the strategy was to cause divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims, discredit the refugees and radicalize both sides.
In the eyes of one European expert on terrorism, the aim of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is to destroy the social consensus in Europe.
Germany has long been seen as a target for IS attacks and there are 1,100 people who may be likely to commit an attack, according to intelligence chief Mr. Maaßen. Almost all are believed to be part of the Salafist community, which consists of 8,650 people in Germany, according to the agency’s estimates. They tend to be based in Germany’s largest cities and across the Rhineland.
Salafists follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhamad closely and believe they are the purest, first Muslims, who are most closely following the values of Islam established in the 7th century. Only a small minority support IS and advocate violence.
The authorities are especially concerned about people returning, radicalized, from Syria. According to the authorities, apparently 810 people from Germany have joined the war under the influence of radical groups such as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Partly through luck, Germany has not yet seen attacks on the scale of those in Spain, France and the United Kingdom, but according to the authorities, it was more a question of when than if an attack would take place.
While an attack is deemed likely, according to a European expert on terrorism, Germany’s security authorities are comparably ill-equipped to deal with a terrorist attack compared to those in France, the United Kingdom or the United States, a problem is compounded by a lack of legal empowerment.
The authorities made another arrest on Thursday unrelated to the planned attack in Düsseldorf. Early in the morning, a man from Syria was detained, believed to have planned a bombing on New Year’s Eve in the Berlin region, according to a spokesperson from the Bochum police. He was later released following questioning and no explosive material was found.
Politicians in Germany praised the work of the officials in preventing the attack. An interior ministry spokesperson said, “The security authorities in Germany are watchful and reacted,” sentiments echoed by politicians across the political spectrum.
Handelsblatt’s Till Hoppe is a political correspondent. Sönke Iwersen is part of Handelsblatt’s investigative team. Corinna Nohn, Allison Williams and Gilbert Kreijger contributed to this report. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org