By Judy Dempsey and Katrin Bennhold
BERLIN: German investigators were trying to build a case Thursday against a handful of suspects in connection with a foiled terrorist attack on American and German targets by Islamic militants, as regional interior ministers prepared to debate whether security services should be given wider surveillance powers.
According to the federal prosecutor's office, German security services knew the identities and whereabouts of several of seven suspects named in the investigation in addition to three main suspects who were arrested Tuesday. Some of the seven are still in Germany. Their homes were among about 30 properties raided Tuesday, said Andreas Christeleit, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor's office in Karlsruhe.
The three main suspects - two German citizens who had converted to Islam and a Turkish resident of Germany - remained in custody. Information that surfaced during the investigation, which included monitoring phone calls and tracking suspects' movements, led the authorities to conclude that among the possible targets were the Ramstein Air Base, a key transportation hub for the American military, and Frankfurt International Airport.
"They are not fugitives - we know where they are," Christeleit said of several of the new suspects. But the authorities lacked sufficient evidence to arrest them under German law, he said. Some of the suspects were abroad and two of them were known only by aliases, making it harder to track them down, Christeleit said.
August Hanning, the deputy interior minister and the former head of Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, said the suspects were part of the cell that for months had been planning attacks against American targets.
"This is the network that we are aware of at the moment," Hanning told the ARD public television channel. He added that the cell had been splintered and no longer posed a direct security threat. Nevertheless, he warned that Germany was still a target for Islamic terrorists and that the risk remained high.
Among the suspects still at large were some German converts to Islam, some Turkish residents of Germany and also people of other nationalities, Hanning said.
According to an official close to the investigation, at least one of the men is Pakistani, another is Lebanese and one is stateless. At least one of them left Germany by plane for Turkey, but he may have since traveled elsewhere, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.
While the security forces stepped up their investigation, Germany's 16 state interior ministers were preparing to hold a special meeting Friday in Berlin where they will try to agree on what new security measures can be adopted.
The meeting coincides with a new poll showing that a growing number of Germans believe that over the next 10 years they will be personally affected by terrorism. According to a report published Thursday by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, 70 percent of Germans said they were likely to be affected by international terrorism, compared with 38 percent in 2005.
The interior ministers, who belong to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party and to her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, are sharply divided over what measures to adopt.
Moreover, the Interior Ministry, led by the conservatives, and the Justice Ministry, which is under the Social Democrats, are at odds over striking a balance between protecting civil liberties and protecting citizens against any possible terrorist attack.
Wolfgang Schäuble, the conservative federal interior minister who for months has called for tougher security measures, made it clear this week that he wanted to increase surveillance on suspects by introducing controversial spying methods, including clandestine monitoring of computers they own. The monitoring would be carried out by sending fake e-mails to allow security agents to search private computers. The e-mails would be attached with Trojan horse viruses sent to suspected terrorists. There would be two types of searches: "perusal" and long-term "surveillance."
Schäuble is also pushing for a provision that would allow investigators to suspend the right of terror suspects to use their mobile telephones, thereby undermining their ability to communicate, according to the Interior Ministry.
He has called for new powers to punish people who go to special training camps where they are trained in terrorist methods to attack the West.
After the foiled attacks Wednesday, Schäuble was winning more support from his party for such proposals.
"It is time we introduced this special surveillance of private computers," Wolfgang Bosbach, parliamentary deputy leader of the Christian Democrats and the party's interior affairs spokesman, said in an interview. "Terrorists are using the Internet to organize conspiracies. We have to be able to monitor what they are doing and planning."
Schäuble has also won support from Günther Beckstein, interior minister from the conservative southern state of Bavaria. Beckstein said Thursday it was crucial to be able to use spying software for private computers, since they would help the security services.
But Schäuble's proposals have been challenged by several senior Social Democrats, who accused him of using the foiled terrorist attacks as an excuse to introduce tougher security measures.
Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said she was skeptical of Schäuble's plans. She told German radio that clear limits were needed to protect civil rights, the rule of law and the privacy of the individual. Beckstein has already accused Zypries of keeping the police from using all the means at their disposal to prevent terror attacks.
"I think Mrs. Zypries's behavior is indefensible because it creates a hole in the security net, and that can be very dangerous for Germany," he told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.
Other Social Democrats warned Schäuble against hastily changing the law.
"You just can't rush in with these surveillance methods," Sebastian Edathy, a legislator and interior affairs expert for the Social Democrats, said in an interview. "You have to look at the legal and technical grounds. As it is, the security services can already monitor telephone calls made via the Internet."
Edathy accused the conservatives of "instrumentalizing" the foiled terror attacks for political reasons.
"This is not the time for political point scoring," he said. "This is the time to sit down and examine what realistically can be done, legally and technically." But trying to prevent suspects from using mobile phones would be "completely unrealistic," he added.
The Social Democrats, aware of the public's growing concern about possible attacks, have to walk a fine line between protecting civil liberties and providing security. For this reason, Edathy said, the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of Parliament, should wait until the country's highest court rules on the constitutionality of a similar online-search law that the western German state of North-Rhine Westphalia tried to adopt last year.
"It would be foolish for us to make a decision that, in light of the judges' verdict, would have to be corrected or revised," Edathy said. "The subject can be discussed, but it's not ready for a decision."
Jörg Ziercke, president of the Federal Criminal Police Office, who said Thursday that investigators "needed to be able to get evidence via the Internet when a home computer is used to arrange a crime," played down the scope of the online monitoring. It would involve only 5 to 10 cases a year, he told Stern, the weekly newsmagazine.
"It would be difficult to monitor more suspects," Ziercke said, "because the efforts involved in surveillance of one suspect were particularly difficult because the software had to customized."
Katrin Bennhold reported from Karlsruhe and Mark Landler contributed from Frankfurt.
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