Germans are showing enormous restraint amid the rising threat of homegrown terrorism. But the Islamic State hasn’t really hit them yet.
- By Paul HockenosPaul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
Germany’s straight-faced interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s point person for keeping the country safe. A lifelong conservative, de Maizière is considered a law-and-order type, about as no-nonsense and unsentimental as they come in Germany. And he regularly warns Germans in no uncertain terms that one day, perhaps soon, Germans too could suffer a major terrorist attack, perhaps as bloody as those that have hit Germany’s next-door neighbor, France, in succession, the likes of which Germany has been spared — so far.
At the tip of Germany’s counterterrorism spear, de Maizière has previously called for — and pushed through in the face of fierce opposition — enhanced security policies covering data collection, travel restrictions, and police powers. Yet soldiers aren’t patrolling Germany’s streets. And even after the recent spate of attacks in France, elsewhere in Europe, and now, after another lone-wolf rampage this week in a train near the German town of Würzburg, de Maizière and the German security establishment are remaining level-headed. The contrast could hardly be greater with France, where a state of emergency that amounts to de facto martial law, with soldiers armed with automatic weapons thick in public spaces across the country, has been in place since 2015 and last week was extended, again. This week, thousands of reservists were mobilized and appeals made via social media to patriot Frenchmen between 18 and 30 to consider joining the reserves.
All of which raises the questions: Is Germany deluding itself? Has it just been dumb luck that has spared Germany and allowed Germans to pursue business more or less as usual while its neighbors engage in all-out battle with jihadis? Or is there something that the rest of Europe should be learning from Germany’s relative calm?
Germany experienced its first Islamic State-inspired attack this week. The late-night ax rampage of a 17-year-old Afghan refugee on a regional southern German train on July 18 dramatically shattered the illusion that Germany is somehow immune from the Islamic State’s threat. The perpetrator, apparently a fresh convert to the Islamic State, injured five people, two of whom are currently in critical condition. He burst out of the train’s bathroom screaming “Allahu akbar” as he wildly swung his weapons at anyone in his path. The teenager, who police tracked down and shot dead once he fled from the train, was beneath security authorities’ radar but left behind an internet video declaring his acts in the name of the Islamic State and jihad.
The Würzburg incident is by no means the first of its kind this year in Germany, which authorities are referring to as “do-it-yourself terrorism,” spurred by the “turbo radicalization” of lone, often very young, fundamentalists. In February in Hannover, a 15-year-old girl with links to radical jihadis severely injured a police officer with a kitchen knife. In May, a 26-year-old, also motivated by Islamic fundamentalism, attacked a Munich police officer with scissors. A month earlier, two minors connected to the Salafi scene in Essen detonated a bomb in front of a Sikh temple, injuring three. Moreover, Islamic State propaganda videos released this spring named Berlin as a possible target.
The sporadic violence, which the police and security services claim they are all but helpless to prevent, has Germans spooked and on-edge. Yet, in contrast to France, there’s no talk of the country being in a full-fledged “war” with terrorism or even calls to step up Germany’s limited involvement in the airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Last year, Paris had to lean on Berlin to have it join the military campaign by deploying Tornado reconnaissance jets, refueling aircraft, and a frigate to the region.
Among German policymakers, at least for now, there remains a broad, cross-party consensus that while security measures such as police presence and intelligence-gathering efforts are absolutely necessary, an overreaction plays directly into the hands of the Islamic extremists, as well as Germany’s own far right. The place to fight extremism, Germans seem to agree, is in schools, the labor market, and religious institutions.
It’s not the case that Germany has gone scot-free in terms of fundamentalist terrorism or that Merkel’s government hasn’t responded with countermeasures, including classic “hard” ones. Since 9/11, the German government has introduced wide-ranging anti-terrorism legislation that covers data collection, travel to join up with terrorist groups, and enhanced surveillance power for police and intelligence services, among other measures unparalleled in postwar Germany. And, indeed, those security measures provoked a fierce outcry from the leftist opposition, as well as legal action that forced the government to modify aspects of them. Also, German authorities, to their credit, have managed to avert attacks by uncovering plots by organized radical Islamist groups to wreak terror in Germany — close calls that could well have taken many dozens of lives, arguably on the scale of attacks in Paris, London, Madrid, and Nice.
So, are the Germans keeping their heads or sticking them in the sand? “So far, Germany is keeping the right balance,” argues Henning Hof, an editor at Internationale Politik, a Berlin-based foreign affairs publication. “Germany’s a very different kind of state than France,” he says, pointing to its less centralized power structures and 20th-century experiences with intrusive, militaristic dictatorships. “It’s probably going to respond differently even if something bigger happens. Germany experienced terrorist angst in the 1970s with left-wing terrorism, and that’s not something we’d like to repeat.” The bombings and assassinations in that earlier decade by groups such as the Red Army Faction introduced into the young postwar democracy of West Germany a security culture that reminded some contemporary critics of the Germans’ recent Nazi past. The Social Democratic government organized crackdowns on anyone it believed sympathized with the terrorists, and was providing them assistance, but faced accusations that it had criminalized its domestic political adversaries on the left. The security sweeps had the entire country in panic and poisoned relations between the republic’s younger and older generations well into the 1980s.
The daily newspaper Stuttgarter Nachrichten echoed Hof’s caution in the aftermath of this week’s attack, calling proposals for tougher laws — of which there have been very few — out of place. “At most, they’d bring a tiny bit of additional security, but they’d drastically limit the liberties and rights of the population and curtail life in our free and self-determined society,” it opined. There’s no evidence that stricter laws would have prevented attacks such as that in Würzburg, it added.
Indeed, Germans, though unnerved, are taking the threat of terrorism very seriously, as polls show, but not clamoring for heavier-handed measures or baying for an anti-Islamist Krieg. Their reaction to the police shooting of the Würzburg ax-wielder has been far more restrained than one would be liable to find in other countries in the West. In a tweet, one of the leading members of the opposition Alliance ’90/The Greens, Renate Künast, questioned the local police officers’ shooting of the perpetrator. Initially, Künast’s reaction was criticized in law enforcement circles as know-it-all guff from the peanut gallery. But the next day’s newspapers were full of discussion about the ethics of shooting such a young man, with Künast receiving sympathy from unlikely quarters, including senior police officials. Was it really necessary? After all, Germany doesn’t have a death penalty. Couldn’t he have been subdued or just wounded? One newspaper looked at the psychological impact of such shooting on police officers.
In a similarly unemotional vein, one recent poll shows that more than half of all Germans felt it was wrong for the United States to kill Osama bin Laden. And even though nearly 70 percent of Germans think there will be a terrorist attack in the near future, 56 percent (against 32 percent) say they feel the government is already doing enough to protect them.
Where the fault lines run, however, especially in a season with several important regional elections looming, is refugee policy. With every terrorist incident, whether big ones in France or small ones in Germany, critics of the Merkel government, including dissenters in her own ranks, insist that she reverse the still largely liberal policy of allowing victims of forced migration who arrive in the country to apply for political asylum or temporary refugee status. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Bavarian Christian Democrats (CSU), and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) have all stepped up their calls for higher quotas, and more rigorous qualifications for asylum, that would stem the flow of refugees.
Merkel’s team, in response, points to studies that show there’s no greater propensity for a refugee to commit an act of terrorism than a native European. The chancellery has warned against a general suspicion of refugees. In the aftermath of the Würzburg attack, de Maizière made a point of urging German volunteers to keep up their good work, underscoring that the attack shouldn’t tarnish the reputation of refugees in general. Though Merkel has made many accommodations on migration to appease her conservative critics, she has held fast that quotas and higher walls are not the way Germany will respond to the refugee flows. So far, there’s no sign that she’ll budge despite fierce pressure.
So what is Germany going to do about the new, increased security threat posed, above all, by the Islamic State? In the wake of the attack, most commentators and politicians are calling for better supervision of the young, traumatized refugees who have arrived in Germany with parents, estimated at about 60,000 and growing every week. In the works are programs to help teachers integrate orphaned migrants, to enable young refugees to learn German, and to provide Islamic education classes in German schools. Educators say they face enormous obstacles dealing with the trauma many of their pupils have experienced and require social workers and psychologists in the schools.
Yet whether programs like these would have prevented the Würzburg rampage is questionable. The perpetrator was in a foster home with a family that he seemed to be getting along with well. His German was pretty good. He had been accepted into an apprenticeship. The host family liked him, and nobody who knew him says they saw it coming.
“It’s something we all have to live with,” says Hof of Internationale Politik, of the small-scale terrorism. Yet the fact remains that Germany hasn’t really been tested yet. In the 1970s, the West German state overreacted to the left-wing terrorist spree, alienating a generation of young people. Today, with the far right ascendant as never before, it will be a true test of resilience to see Germany keep a level head when blood flows in the streets of Berlin or Munich. According to Interior Minister de Maizière, it’s just a matter of time.
Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images