German police have arrested an Iranian man suspected of planning a chemical attack motivated by Islamic extremism.
The 32-year-old was seized at his flat shortly before midnight on Saturday in the town of Castrop-Rauxel, close to Dortmund in western Germany. The arrest followed a tip-off from a foreign intelligence agency that the man had obtained toxins, including cyanide and ricin, with which he planned to carry out a terror attack, authorities said on Sunday.
Another man, believed to be the man’s brother, was also detained. He was known to police but not for his links to terrorism, and it is as yet unclear whether he was involved in the plot.
The brothers are believed to have lived in Germany since 2015.
The men were put into waiting police vehicles in the small shopping street, dressed in just their underwear and with coats draped over their shoulders, escorted by police in heavy protective suits. They are being held in custody.
The SEK special forces who organised the operation reportedly arrived in the street in a fire engine in an effort to disguise themselves until the last minute.
A decontamination unit of officers and scientists from the government’s agency for disease control and prevention, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), as well as a detonation unit, accompanied the operation.
According to a spokesperson for Düsseldorf’s state prosecutor, no dangerous substances were found in the flat.
Reports in German media on Sunday said the FBI had been behind the tipoff after identifying the main suspect as a sympathiser of the terror group Islamic State, in whose name they said he had intended to carry out the attack. He is not believed to have been acting on behalf of the Iranian state, German security sources told the news agency DPA, describing him as being a supporter of a “Sunni Islamistic terror group”.
The tabloid Bild, quoting security authorities, said the plans were well advanced, with security agents discovering that the main suspect had searched for ricin and cyanide on the internet and bought the substances, with the intention of building a bioweapon.
Initially the man had intended to carry out an attack on New Year’s Eve, but did not have enough materials to do so, and had subsequently managed to procure the missing items in the last few days.
Herbert Reul, the interior minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in which the operation took place, said: “We had information which needed to be taken seriously, which is why the police were prompted to make their move in the night.” He said more details about the investigation would be made public in the coming days.
In 2018 a similar plan was thwarted after police arrested a 29-year-old man and his wife in Cologne who had planned to use ricin seeds and 250 steel balls to make a bomb, using instructions provided via the internet by IS. They had carried out test explosions in the 15-storey block of flats where they lived.
According to the RKI’s website, ricin is listed as a weapon of war under the rubric of chemical and biological weapons. It is produced from the seeds of the ricin plant (castor bean). The ingestion of less than 2mg of the substance can prove deadly. While it is not contagious, there is no medical antidote and only the symptoms it causes can be treated. Cyanide is also highly poisonous, with tiny amounts enough to cause death.
The terrorism expert Peter Neumann at King’s College London was quoted by Die Zeit as saying it should be of concern in Germany that almost all terrorist plots planned on German soil in recent years have been thwarted only due to tipoffs from US intelligence services. He said the risk of Islamist terror attacks was lower than it had been six to seven years ago, “but it still exists, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that”.