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Germany

German Interior Minister Highlights Terror Threat on U.S. Trip

A gas attack in Tokyo showed what terrorists could do if they get hold of chemical or biological weapons. In Washington, a top German official calls for close U.S.-German cooperation to counter the threat.

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A fireman stands in front of Germany's new fleet of biological and chemical weapons-sniffing vehicles.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily traveled to Washington and New York this week, where he met with top members of the Bush administration to discuss joint efforts in both countries to prevent attacks by terrorists -- including those using chemical and biological weapons. The trip came as part of stepped-up efforts between the countries to exchange investigators and data that could help prevent terrorism.

In Washington, Schily described relations between federal investigators and intelligence agencies in both countries working together to stop terrorism as "extremely trustful" and said that bilateral cooperation is "absolutely essential" to combating global terrorism.

"We will keep the upper hand only if we work together as strong partners in the anti-terror alliance," he said. "I am in regular contact with Attorney General John Ashcroft and with the American security and intelligence agencies," he said.

600 officers, 130 terror investigations

El Kaida Prozeß in Frankfurt

Arrest of terror suspect

A good deal of that cooperation has been in Germany, where FBI agents are among the 600 officers investigating the roots of the Hamburg al Qaeda cell responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The investigative team, which is running 130 separate probes into Islamist terrorist activity, is the largest in Germany's history. The cooperation has also produced results. The recent arrest of two suspected al Qaeda leaders in Frankfurt came as the result of information exchanged between U.S. and German investigators, Schily said.

"The Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) already had a good working relationship long before the tragic attacks of Sept. 11, as part of our close cooperation as allies and friends," Schily said earlier this week. "In view of the new kind of threat posed by Islamist-extremist terrorism, we have further strengthened and expanded this cooperation."

An invisible threat

Among the chief concerns facing the U.S. and Germany are bioterror or chemical attacks -- threats that are real as the sarin gas attacks on a Tokyo subway in 1995 and the recent arrests in Britain of suspected terrorists with the deadly toxin ricin show. Videos obtained by journalists last summer also showed al Qaeda has already experimented with chemical weapons attacks on animals.

"The threat of biological or chemical attacks is still cause for special concern," Schily said. "Naturally, because biological or chemical substances used with criminal or terrorist intent have the potential to inflict enormous damage, but also because of their potential to spread fear and alarm, even when the actual risk remains limited." Still, he described the threat as "insidious" because "anyone who fears poisoning will have to worry about every kind of food or beverage, since he or she won't be able to tell what is uncontaminated and what isn't."

Otto Schily Pressekonferenz

Otto Schily

At a speech given at a German-American Workshop on Cooperation in Fighting Chemical and Biological Weapons early in the week, Schily (photo) described the threat of weapons of mass destruction as legitimate and growing.

"If a war takes place (in Iraq), the emotions will intensify," Schily said on Wednesday. "It's a matter of concern. You can't exclude repercussions... It could lead to tensions, especially inside Muslim communities and it could increase the danger posed by terrorist activities -- you can't rule that out."

Germany plans own 'Homeland Security' office

He also provided an overview of programs that have been implemented in Germany since Sept. 11 to deal with the eventuality of a chemical or biological attack. Among the chief shifts in Germany is the pending creation of the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Emergency Response, a high-level agency with a mandate similar to that of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Additionally, the government has linked together a number of information systems to create a single emergency preparedness network called deNIS. It has also created a new satellite-based public warning system that can provide instantaneous information in a crisis. Germany has beefed up its Federal Academy for Crisis Management, Emergency Planning and Civil Protection to better deal with nuclear, biological and chemical hazards. It has also deployed 367 state-of-the-art highly mobile vehicles that can detect dangers chemicals or biohazards. Germany is also in the process of producing enough smallpox vaccinations for its entire population -- it currently has enough for half.

During his trip, Schily met with recently appointed Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft to discuss the similar responsibilities their departments share. As Interior Minister, Schily is not only Germany's top counter-terrorism official, but also the head of its federal prosecutors and domestic and international intelligence services.

He also used the opportunity to cautiously criticize the U.S.'s handling of suspected al Qaeda members, who are being held at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay without legal representation or access to justice.

"That's a difficult question that needs to be resolved," Schily warned. "It's my view that there is no place in the world that is a law-free zone. We're a humane society and even in such extreme situations, we should have reasonable rules that can be used... But it's a difficult question that we still have to deal with."

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