BERLIN — A major terrorist attack on a transportation hub in Germany was narrowly averted, the head of the country’s domestic intelligence agency said on Tuesday, after a 22-year-old Syrian refugee was arrested and more than 3 pounds of dangerous explosives were found at his home.
Hans-Georg Maassen, who heads the federal domestic intelligence service, indicated in television appearances that the likely target was a Berlin airport and that the suspect had ties to the Islamic State.
He provided few further details about either matter, noting that the case was now in the hands of federal prosecutors, who under the German system will report any other developments. But Maassen said the authorities had received a “very concrete” indication about a month ago that an attack was planned on either an airport or a train station in Germany.
“After a month, we succeeded in identifying the person who could be planning this,” Maassen told ARD television, and the relevant information was passed on to the police in the eastern state of Saxony.
The suspect, Jaber al-Bakr, one of the 890,000 migrants and refugees to enter Germany last year, was able to escape on Friday from his apartment in Chemnitz, about an hour’s drive south of Leipzig, despite heavy surveillance and a police raid.
A nationwide search resulted in his capture early Monday after unidentified Syrians in Leipzig recognized the fugitive from police appeals issued in Arabic and German, tied him up at an apartment and alerted the authorities.
The Syrian who gave police the decisive tip appeared in an interview on Tuesday on the news channel N-TV, but he was not fully identified and was shown only from the back, wearing a hooded garment and with his voice virtually inaudible. He spoke only in Arabic.
He said that al-Bakr had first contacted him late on Saturday by phone, seeking shelter. The N-TV account said that it was only on Sunday that the man who provided the tip, identified by the network and the newspaper Bild as Mohammad A., 36, became suspicious that his new acquaintance was al-Bakr.
N-TV quoted him as saying that he had tried to call the police but that they did not understand his poor German. He then went to a police station, but he was forced to wait an hour before he could show the pictures of the suspect on his cellphone, N-TV said.
Appearing on Germany’s main TV breakfast show on Tuesday, Maassen brushed aside criticism that the 700-member special police unit deployed in the Chemnitz operation had bungled it and failed to capture al-Bakr.
It was “five minutes before midnight,” Maassen said, using a common German expression to mean that time is running short, and “we succeeded shortly before that in preventing a terrorist attack.”
On Monday evening, Maassen told a different ARD broadcast that his agency had identified the suspect last Thursday and had started round-the-clock observation.
“We found out that he then bought hot glue in a discount shop the following day,” Maassen said. “And then we immediately put all measures into place to start a raid because we assumed this could basically be the last missing chemical for him to build a bomb.”
The authorities said on Monday that the raid on the Chemnitz apartment turned up about 3 pounds of material believed to be TATP, the highly dangerous explosive used in terrorist attacks in Paris last year.
Al-Bakr and another Syrian who rented the apartment in Chemnitz are in detention. There has been no information so far on possible accomplices.
Word of the Chemnitz raid and the possible terrorist attack has heightened fears among Germans and the security services, with senior police officials reiterating their calls for more personnel.
Questions have also arisen about the level of cooperation between the federal and state authorities. Under the system adopted in Germany after Nazism, the authorities in Germany’s 16 states bear extensive responsibility for security, while the intelligence service operates on the federal level.
Maassen said the officers who moved on the Chemnitz apartment probably did so warily, in view of the information about explosives inside.
Some conservative politicians have called for the police to have greater access to data on the asylum seekers who entered Germany in the past year. Maassen seemed to address those calls, saying that “in this case, information from the asylum authorities would not have been so useful.”
Al-Bakr is said to have arrived in Germany in February 2015 and been granted asylum five months later. After the arrival of so many asylum seekers, security officials worry that, in the rush, the government has lost control over who is in the country.
The morning news show on ARD said the authorities have about 180 people listed as high security risks. Not all can be watched constantly, because of the heavy personnel demands that such surveillance places on the police and the intelligence service.
“We assign categories to certain people who must be specially watched or, in our view, are less dangerous,” Maassen said. “We think that there are a handful of really dangerous people, and we watch them 24/7.”
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