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Western militants

October 5, 2010

A US missile strike is thought to have killed a number of German nationals in Pakistan's tribal region. Estimates place the number of Germans killed at five.

A model of a US drone aircraft
The attack came after the US issued terrorism alerts

A rocket attack from a US drone aircraft left eight suspected Islamist militants dead on Monday evening in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. Reports from Pakistani officials indicate five of those killed were German, possibly with Turkish backgrounds.

The strike took place in a village called Mir Ali, near North Waziristan's main town in the tumultuous region that borders Afghanistan. The area is known as a hideout for militants linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the militants killed were reportedly members of a group called Jihad Islami.

A spokeswoman for the German Foreign Ministry told AFP news agency that the ministry had no information on the identity of the deceased, but that an investigation was underway.

Explosive canisters
The Sauerland group planned to blow up American targetsImage: AP

Dozens of radicalized German nationals are thought to be in the Pakistani tribal region for terror training purposes.

The German internal security agency has been monitoring the region since 2009. They suspect that Germans who travel there are seeking terror training.

This was the case with four admitted Islamists known as the 'Sauerland cell,' named after the western German region where they were arrested. They were sentenced to up to 12 years in prison in March for planning attacks on American targets in Germany. In September 2007, all but one of the men was arrested while preparing large amounts of explosives to carry out an attack.

Three members of the group were young Germans, and the other was a Turkish national. They had visited a terror training camp in the border region to Afghanistan in 2006.

European threat

The US drone attack comes on the heels of travel alerts issued by the US and Great Britain for their citizens travelling and living abroad. The alerts advocated a high level of vigilance, saying that terrorists continued to plan attacks on major European cities, and some media reports in the US went so far as to name specific targets in Berlin and Paris.

Police at the Eiffel Tower
The US believes Europe is being targeted by terroristsImage: AP

Monday evening's rocket strike may have been connected to these terror threats. A recently apprehended German man thought to have been involved with planning attacks in central Europe was said to be providing US intelligence officials with information under interrogation at the US' Bagram military prison in Afghanistan.

But what constitutes proof and justification for the US military to carry out an attack is not always adequate for the German public and, therefore, the German government, says Christian Tuschhoff, a transatlantic security policy professor at the Free University of Berlin.

"The American view is that we are at war with terror and terrorists, and if we find terrorists we should capture them dead or alive," Tuschhoff told Deutsche Welle. "Germans typically think they are not at war with terror or terrorists. They think these are criminals and the way to deal with criminals is to catch them and to bring them to trial."

Diplomatic fine line

This distinction could be the source of a tricky diplomatic situation as more information about the attack comes to light, as there is a fine line between the ability of Germany to combat terrorism within its borders and the United States' interest to protect its citizens abroad from terror attacks.

"The Germans think that the US government should apply the rule of law, rather than the rule of war in these cases," said Tuschhoff. "If you apply the rule of law, you should not think that terrorists are combatants, but criminals. And you treat criminals differently than you treat combatants."

Germany is likely to tread lightly regarding this situation in the coming days. If the German government comes down too hard on the United States for attacking and killing German citizens with suspected terror ties, it risks alienating Washington. But Germany will also want to avoid appearing to endorse the killing of its own citizens.

Author: Matt Zuvela (Reuters, dpa, AFP)
Editor: Nancy Isenson