BERLIN -- German authorities announced yesterday that they are searching for suspects in a failed plot involving propane bombs concealed in suitcases that were timed to explode simultaneously on two regional trains in western Germany.
"We are now working on the basis that this was the work of a terrorist group ... and was an attempt to kill a large number of people," federal prosecutor Rainer Griesbaum said during a news conference in Wiesbaden.
The bombs were constructed of propane tanks, gasoline bottles, ignition switches and timers. They were hidden in two suitcases and loaded onto trains leaving Cologne and bound for Koblenz and Dortmund on July 31. They were set to explode 10 minutes before reaching their destinations.
Joerg Ziercke, president of the Federal Criminal Police, said the plan failed because "the bomb builders made technical mistakes."
Surveillance video shows the two suspects in the Cologne train station. One has long black hair and wears a white shirt. He carries a hiker's backpack around his shoulders and wheels a dark-colored suitcase behind him.
The second man has close-cropped black hair and wears a German football jersey. He carries a satchel and pulls a large suitcase toward the train platform.
At some point, the two men disembarked from the trains, investigators said. Rail workers later discovered the abandoned luggage.
The bombs were cushioned in the suitcases by clothing and surrounded by gasoline bottles intended to spark a fireball when the propane tanks detonated. Police said the suitcases also contained a grocery list written in Arabic, at least one telephone number in Lebanon, and bags of cornstarch manufactured in Lebanon and imported to a specialty food trader in Essen.
"It is possible the suspects wanted to send a signal amid the crisis in the Middle East," Ziercke said, referring to the recent fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants. Investigators, however, would not elaborate on motives or whether the suspects had Muslim backgrounds.
If the plot was the work of a terrorist organization - officials initially suspected it was a blackmail scheme against the German rail system - it would further underscore the vulnerability of Europe's train networks.
Investigators also indicated that the plan most likely was orchestrated by militants living in Germany. That is a similar pattern to Islamic radicals living in Britain and Spain who carried out the transit system attacks in London in 2005 and Madrid in 2004, killing 243 people.
But investigators said there were major differences between the German plot and the bombings in Madrid and London. The Madrid attack targeted rush-hour trains and used cell phones as remotes to ignite the blasts. The London blasts were mainly carried out by suicide bombers. And unlike the two earlier attacks, German authorities have not received claims of responsibility and allegiance to al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations.
"Terror has been in Germany for a long time," Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said. "Keep in mind that some of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks planned their actions in Germany. So the idea that we are a blessed island has always been unrealistic and incorrect."
Over the past two years, Germany has arrested radicals with alleged links to the Iraqi militant group Ansar al Islam. Its intelligence services have closely monitored organizations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which wants to create an Islamic caliphate in Europe.
When asked why it took weeks to announce that the bombs might have been planted by terrorists, Ziercke said: "We had to investigate videotapes from more than 100 cameras. It took three to four hours of video sequence. ... I can assure you we have much more material than we show, and it makes us absolutely sure that the two perpetrators worked together."
Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times.