A major counter-terror operation took place in the German city of Cologne on Saturday after security services in Austria, Germany, and Spain received intelligence of an Islamist terrorist cell’s plans to carry out several attacks across Europe over the Christmas period.
Sniffer dogs trained to detect explosives were deployed at Cologne Cathedral after a specific threat was received regarding the Gothic landmark as authorities sought to ensure that no devices had already been planted at the location.
“Due to a warning of danger for Cologne Cathedral, the Cologne police will take special protective measures from this evening,” a spokesperson for the city’s police said, as cited by the German tabloid Bild.
“The police will not comment on details of the available findings due to ongoing investigations by the police state security service,” they added.
Ahead of Christmas church services, all visitors to the cathedral will be screened upon entry, and security guards will be deployed throughout the holiday period, Cologne’s police chief Michael Esser announced.
“We will take everything into account this evening to ensure the safety of cathedral visitors on Christmas Eve. In coordination with the security officer of the cathedral chapter, the cathedral is searched with sniffer dogs after the evening mass and then locked. Tomorrow all visitors will be screened before entering the church,” he said.
Further counter-terror operations have taken place in Madrid and Vienna following additional terror threats, and Austrian authorities revealed the primary focus for attacks is on churches and religious events including Christmas markets.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna was specifically mentioned as a target and Austrian authorities are imposing access controls and deploying armed guards.
“Since terrorist actors across Europe are calling for attacks on Christian events — especially around Dec. 24 — the security authorities have increased the corresponding protective measures in public spaces in Vienna and the federal states,” Austrian federal police wrote in a press release issued on Saturday evening.
“In particular, endangered places or objects are increasingly monitored and guarded. The adaptation of the protective measures is carried out in close coordination with organizers and operators of corresponding facilities. These precautionary measures serve to maintain the general safety of people in Austria,” it added.
According to Austrian newspaper Der Standard, police forces in Austria made arrests late on Saturday evening with Bild reporting that those detained were Tajiks affiliated with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISPK), a splinter group of ISIS.