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Update: Cologne couple in court over ‘biological bomb plot’

A Tunisian man and his German wife went on trial Friday, charged with planning a foiled biological bomb attack in Germany with the deadly poison ricin.

Update: Cologne couple in court over 'biological bomb plot'
Special command officers leave the Cologne building where they discovered the rincin in June 2018. Photo: DPA

Sief Allah H., 30, and his wife Yasmin, 43, were arrested a year ago by an anti-terrorist squad that found 84 milligrams of the toxin in their Cologne apartment.

The arrests likely prevented what would have been Germany's first biological attack, said Holger Münch, head of the BKA Federal Criminal Police Office, at the time.

Federal prosecutors said the couple had “for a long time identified with the aims and values of the foreign terrorist organization Islamic State”.

SEE ALSO: Germany arrests wife in foiled 'biological attack' plot

They decided in 2017 to detonate an explosive in a large crowd, “to kill and wound the largest possible number of people,” said prosecutors ahead of the trial in Düsseldorf.

Chief prosecutor Verena Bauer told the court the couple had planned to build a bomb with ricin and steel balls, and that they had purchased “nearly all the required parts” for the explosive.

Lawyers for the defendants said the accused did not plan to make statements in court.

Sief Allah H.'s defence meanwhile filed a motion against judge Jan van Lessen, claiming bias.

Hamster test

The pair had allegedly researched various forms of explosives before deciding on the deadly poison.

They ordered 3,300 castor beans over the internet and successfully made a small amount of ricin, a poison 6,000 times more potent than cyanide that can kill if swallowed, inhaled or injected, according to prosecutors.

Investigators also found 250 metal balls, two bottles of nail polish remover as well as wires soldered on lightbulbs.

Only the raid and arrests prevented “the production of a larger quantity of ricin and the building of an explosive,” said prosecutors.

The couple were caught after a tip-off from the US Central Intelligence Agency, which had noticed the large online purchase of castor seeds, according to German media reports.

News weekly Der Spiegel has reported that the couple were believed to have already been radicalized when they met online in 2014.

Sief Allah H., a former street vendor and labourer in Tunisia, in 2015 married Yasmin H., an unemployed doctor's assistant and mother of seven children from four different fathers, the report said.

The husband had been in contact with radical Islamists and tried twice in 2017 to travel to Syria via Turkey.

His wife helped him with flight and hotel bookings, but both trips failed.

Sief Allah H. also volunteered to help the IS in their propaganda work, and did so in early 2018 by publishing material of the jihadist group online, said prosecutors.

SEE ALSO: Tunisian man held in Cologne 'sought to build biological weapon'

Later, the couple decided to prepare an attack in Germany itself, and also bought a hamster to test the potency of the ricin.

“Very concrete preparations had been made for an act with a … biological bomb, which is a first for Germany,” said Münch.

If convicted of the charges of serious violence endangering the country, the defendants could each face up to 15 years in jail.

Two suspects were also arrested in August last year in Tunisia in connection with the case.

Germany, Europe's biggest economy, remains on high alert after several deadly attacks claimed by the IS group.

The worst attack, a 2016 truck rampage through a Berlin Christmas market by Tunisian asylum seeker Anis Amri, claimed 12 lives.

The trial is expected to last until the end of August.

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MUSEUM

UPDATE: Mysterious vandals damage dozens of works of art on Berlin’s Museum Island

Vandals have damaged more than 70 artworks and artifacts at some of Berlin's most renowned museums, police said Wednesday, in a targeted attack kept quiet by authorities for more than two weeks.

UPDATE: Mysterious vandals damage dozens of works of art on Berlin's Museum Island
The sun sets on the Alte Nationalgalerie in July. Photo: DPA

The damage had already occurred on October 3rd, or the Day of German Reunification, according to media reports in Zeit and Deutschland Rundfunk. 

Around 70 objects in the Neues Museum, Pergamon Museum and Alte Nationalgalerie, among other locations, were sprayed with an oily liquid. 

According to Die Zeit, this is “one of the most extensive attacks on works of art and antiquities in the history of post-war Germany”. 

Among them are Egyptian sarcophagi, stone sculptures and paintings of the 19th century. The liquid had left visible stains on them.

According to Berlin's Tagesspiegel, visitors who had booked museum tickets for October 3rd were contacted by the State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) and urgently asked for help.

“The state criminal investigation office of the Berlin police has opened a probe over property damage to artworks and artifacts on display,” spokesman Martin Dams said in an emailed statement.

Dams said police believe the vandalism occurred on October 3rd, Germany Unity Day, during opening hours at the Pergamon Museum, Neues Museum and Alte Nationalgalerie.

He did not say why neither the museums nor the police had communicated earlier about the attack, which was first reported late Tuesday in German media.

Dams did not provide any information about a possible motive.

However a report by Die Zeit and public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk noted that Attila Hildmann, an activist who has railed against government measures to contain the coronavirus, had in August and September spread outlandish conspiracy theories about the Museum Island.

Using his Telegram channel, Hildmann claimed the Pergamon Museum, closed for part of the summer due to the pandemic, held the “throne of Satan”.

He said the institution was the centre of a “global satanist and corona criminal scene” where “they sacrifice humans at night and abuse children”, in an echo of the international QAnon conspiracy movement.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Museum Island has been a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site since 1999. The Pergamon Museum celebrated its 90th birthday at the beginning of October. 

READ ALSO: 10 must-see UNESCO World Heritage Sites in eastern Germany

The museum is named after its most famous attraction, the Pergamon Altar. It dates from the 2nd century B.C. and was part of the residence of the powerful kings of Pergamon, who created a cultural metropolis in the west of present-day Turkey based on the model of Athens.

Pergamon is one of Germany’s few museums attracts more than one million people every year – when it is not undergoing construction. 

The Island’s museums count almost 3.1 million visitors each year. They include the Bode Museum, Neues Museum with the famous Egyptian pharaoh bust of Nefertiti, and the James Simon Gallery – the most recent construction located between two arms of the Spree.

READ ALSO: €1 gold coin stolen from iconic Berlin museum

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