German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble held an emergency meeting with state officials in Berlin on Sept. 7 to discuss anti-terrorism measures in the wake of the arrest
of three men, two German converts to Islam and a Turk, in connection with an alleged plot to carry out militant attacks in the country. Although the militant fixation on soft targets in Europe is well-documented, this case demonstrates that jihadists' sloppy tradecraft can — and does — lead to their undoing. Moreover, the pressure that has been brought to bear on jihadists in places such as Afghanistan and Africa makes it much more difficult nowadays for them to get proper training. The investigation began in late 2006 when a man was observed surveilling U.S. military installations around the town of Hanau in the southwestern state of Hessen. U.S. and German intelligence and law enforcement personnel began keeping tabs on the suspect, which led them to his accomplices. By March, Germany's federal criminal police, or Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), became convinced that a militant plot to attack U.S. facilities in Germany was being developed. In April, the U.S. Embassy in Berlin issued a Warden Message on a nonspecific security threat to U.S. diplomatic and military facilities in Germany. At the time, security officials leaked that they were concerned about "attacks by Iraqi Kurds and terrorists who have snuck into Germany from Iraq." In May, German authorities briefly detained two people on suspicion of surveilling Patch Barracks, a U.S. military facility just north of Stuttgart. Those suspects, who allegedly had ties to the Islamic Jihad Union, an al Qaeda-affiliated Uzbek group, are not the same ones arrested in this case. The investigation culminated Sept. 5 in the small town of Oberschledorn when the GSG-9 counterterrorism unit and BKA officials raided a small cottage where the main suspects allegedly were preparing to move a large quantity of hydrogen peroxide to another location for the purposes of constructing improvised explosive devices. Approximately 30 other locations in Germany were raided at that time in connection with the investigation, though it is unclear whether more arrests were made or evidence seized.
The Germans had their suspects under investigation and surveillance for a long time, and yet the suspects never realized the authorities were onto them. German intelligence, which has a generally good reputation for its ability to conduct physical and technical surveillance, reportedly was even able to substitute a harmless chemical compound for the suspects' bombmaking material without their knowledge. The sloppy tradecraft of the suspected jihadists, however, was directly responsible for the plot's failure. While surveilling potential targets and making their plans, the suspects failed to notice that they themselves were under surveillance. This enabled the BKA and other agencies to track their movements and follow leads to other parts of the plot — as evidenced by the large number of raids conducted throughout Germany. The suspects reportedly had not settled on a target set, although there were indications that they were considering Frankfurt International Airport and the U.S. air base at Ramstein. The U.S. facilities that allegedly were surveilled by the militants, Patch Barracks and Hanau, are relatively soft targets, as their security is not as tight as that at an air base or a tank park, for example. Indications that Patch Barracks was being surveilled, however, were particularly alarming, as it is home to the headquarters of the U.S. European Command and is an important communications node for the Defense Information Systems Agency in Europe. Hanau in particular has a number of soft, isolated targets. Unlike most Army installations in the United States, it is made up of several small facilities, or kasernen, scattered around town. These facilities include Pioneer Kaserne, which has military police and transportation units; the New Argonner Kaserne, with a PX, military family housing, a dental clinic and a heath clinic; Underwood Kaserne, headquarters of the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery; Yorkhof Kaserne, headquarters of the U.S. Army's Hessen Garrison; and Grossauheim Kaserne, home to the 502nd Engineering Company, a bridging unit. In this case, the militant plotters failed for months to notice that they were under surveillance. This failure allowed authorities to uncover the plot and to stage raids in 30 other places. Whether the three suspects in this case received any proper training is unclear, but it is clear that militants are being deprived of safe-havens and training in places such as Afghanistan and Africa. With this kind of pressure on them, jihadists cannot improve their skills or learn new ones — which could mean their efforts will continue to be sloppy. This is good news for those who are attempting to stop them.