Police have arrested three Algerian migrants in Germany in a massive, three-city blitz targeting an Islamic State terror cell allegedly planning an attack on Berlin’s “Checkpoint Charlie.”
On Thursday, some 450 officials including SWAT teams with bomb dogs took part in coordinated raids in Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, against persons suspected of belonging to an Islamic State terrorist cell with ties to the Paris attacks of November 2015. The five alleged members of the cell include four men and one woman, all of whom were born in Algeria and three of whom were registered in Germany as asylum seekers.
In Attendorn, a town some 50 miles from Cologne, a hundred police raided a refugee camp at 6:00pm and arrested a couple who reportedly entered Germany at the end of 2015 amidst the waves of migrants arriving into the country. The 35-year-old man and the 27-year-old woman had been posing as Syrians, claiming to be natives of Aleppo, and were registered as refugees and asylum seekers.
Algerian authorities had already issued arrest warrants for the man and the woman for belonging to the Islamic State, and the man is believed to be connected to a high-ranking ISIS functionary, considered one of the backers of the Paris attacks.
In Berlin, Police seized a third member of the cell, a 49-year-old Algerian man living under a false French identity in Kreuzberg who is being charged with forgery.
The other two suspected members of the cell have not yet been arrested. One is a 31-year-old Algerian living in Berlin, and the other a 26-year-old asylum-seeker living in Hannover.
According to security sources, police found the man in Hannover but did not arrest him. Investigators did, however, seize several laptops, mobile phones and other materials.
There are also photographs showing the man armed on the Syrian battlefield, and several weeks ago he was in the Molenbeek district of Brussels and is suspected of ties to the organizers of the November attacks on Paris.
German intelligence services have had the suspects under surveillance for some time, and had determined the formation of a terror cell. The reference to Checkpoint Charlie as an attack target emerged early in the operation. The highly symbolic center located on the former East German border is visited by countless tourists each day, and fits into the Islamic State strategy of attacking high-traffic, soft targets, according to security sources.
The police decided to move on the terrorist cell on Thursday because the five alleged members had not talked more about their plans for several days. “Since they were no longer talking about the attack, it was feared that they had completed their plans,” security sources reported.
A spokesman for the Berlin police, Stefan Redlich, said that he could not guarantee absolute security for the upcoming Berlin International Film Festival, or for football matches or other events. “But we have a very high security standard in Berlin,” he said.
Along with Checkpoint Charlie, the highly trafficked Alexanderplatz has been reported as a possible target for attacks, and was thoroughly searched on Thursday. Police also raided a bakery shop at the Alexanderplatz subway station Thursday, believed to be an operations center for one of the suspects.
Representatives of the Federal Police said that it is difficult to verify the identity of migrants, or to detect whether a Syrian passport is actually genuine. The Syrian government used to have their passports printed in France, but for many years Syria no longer has a functioning bureaucracy. The border authorities in Greece reportedly do not even know what a Syrian passport looks like today.
A number of North Africans with fake Syrian passport have attempted entry but were caught out when questioned by linguists. Many of the alleged Syrians do not even know where Aleppo is.
Interior Senator Frank Henkel said in a written statement that the threat from Islamic militants remains high.
“We have further reason to be vigilant and cautious. Therefore, a systematic crackdown on the Islamist scene is necessary,” he said, “especially when it involves likely links to the Islamic State.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome