The arrests of three suspected terrorists Friday in Germany are significant, according to U.S. officials, who say at least one member of the trio was trained by al-Qaida – not merely inspired by the terrorist organization.
The three men arrested in and around Duesseldorf, all German nationals, had been under surveillance for some time, and that U.S. intelligence cooperated with German authorities in the investigation, said one U.S. official, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity. The official added that the men had already put together "precursor chemicals" for a terror attack and were planning a "test run" on Friday morning. Although the test was postponed, German authorities decided to move in and arrest them, the official said.
U.S. officials described the planned target as "localized" and related to "public transportation, trains or buses." The official would not comment when asked if U.S. servicemen might have been targeted. Public transportation has become a primary target of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, with more than 800 people killed around the world, from London to Mumbai to Moscow, in the past five years.
Neither U.S. nor German authorities would identify the suspects, but German security officials said all three were of Moroccan origin.
The U.S. official said one of the three had recently been trained along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by people associated with “al-Qaida Central” -- the term used by U.S. intelligence to describe the organization's core group operating in the border area.
"As it unfolds, it will be shown they are al-Qaida. One was trained in Pakistan, in the tribal areas of Pakistan," the official said.
"This was well beyond aspirational," the official added. "The police had been watching for some time, watching and monitoring, planning on disrupting it at the right time."
The official said the investigation was continuing and that other arrests were possible.
Germany has escaped any large-scale attack by an Islamic terror organization, such as the Madrid train bombings of 2004 and the London transit attacks of 2005. But Germany's presence as part of the NATO coalition in Afghanistan has sparked anger and at least two major plots have been thwarted or failed in Germany before they could be carried out.
Asked if this plot was behind the general alert in Germany last summer and fall, the official said the alert was "generated by these types of plots", but not specifically this plot. "We are seeing these in Europe every few months," the official added.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said Friday that the arrest of three suspected Islamic extremists had averted “concrete and imminent danger” of a terrorist attack in Germany.
The three men are scheduled to appear at a court hearing in Karlsruhe, Germany, on Saturday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.