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Germany caught in the terrorism debate

Commentary, 29 September 2008
Terrorism, Europe
The latest arrests of terror-suspects in Germany highlight the authorities’ success in preventing attacks in that country. But this episode also represents the increasing threat to the country and the difficulty Germany faces in balancing security with civil liberties.

The latest arrests of terror-suspects in Germany highlight the authorities’ success in preventing attacks in that country. But this episode also represents the increasing threat to the country and the difficulty Germany faces in balancing security with civil liberties.

Hanna-Caroline Imig, International Security Studies Department, RUSI

German police boarded a Dutch airliner at Cologne-Bonn Airport on the morning of 26 September and arrested two men suspected of planning to take part in terrorist attacks. The two terrorist suspects – identified as 23 year-old ‘Abdirazak B’ (a Somali) and ‘Omar D’, a 24-year-old German citizen born in Somalia – were apparently on their way to Pakistan via Amsterdam, allegedly in order to receive training in one of the terrorist camps near the Pakistan-Afghan border. The pair, who are also believed to be linked to the ‘Islamic Jihad Union’, had apparently been under surveillance for several months by the German Intelligence Service (BND) and the Federal Crime Office (BKA). Authorities said they moved to arrest the two men after searching their apartments and finding notes indicating their intention to fight a ‘holy war’.

It is not for the first time that German authorities have prevented terrorist incidents in the country, and ordinary Germans have been alerted to the enduring dangers of political violence before. Just one day before the police operation at Cologne-Bonn airport, the BKA appealed to the public to help track down two missing jihadists who were also suspected of membership in the terrorist group ‘Islamic Jihad Union’: Eric Breininger, a 21-year-old German convert and Houssain al-Malla, a 23-year-old of Lebanese origins. The police suspect them of secretly returning to Germany from Pakistan in order to prepare a terrorist attack.

Breininger had apparently recorded several videos in which he spoke of carrying out a suicide bombing in the name of jihad. He is also known to have links to the Islamist terror cell known as the Sauerland group, which planned car bomb attacks in major German cities as well as against US military bases in Germany in September 2007. The BKA and the BND were able to prevent these attacks, which could have been deadlier than those that killed hundreds in London and Madrid, and arrested the three separate Islamic militants, out of whom two were German citizens who converted to Islam, and the third was a Turkish resident of Germany. The examples of Eric Breininger and the Sauerland group are no exceptions; an increasing number of young Germans are attracted by radical Islamic movements and are actively supporting their cause.

The latest arrests highlight the success-rate of German authorities in preventing attacks thus far. Intelligence information about terrorist suspects appears to be efficiently gathered, and it is shared with other intelligence services in Europe, as well as the US.

Notwithstanding the current successes, Jorg Ziercke, the BKA’s president, believes that stronger counter-terrorism measures are needed in order to facilitate the surveillance of terrorist suspects. The BKA has also warned that the presence of around 3,000 German soldiers in Afghanistan has increased the risk of terrorist attacks on German soil. So, although Germany has not suffered a major terrorist outrage such as those experienced by Britain and Spain, it remains a prime target for terrorism.

Yet the reaction of the German population to such incidents remains mixed. There is concern at the accumulation of terrorist incidents, especially those which appear to have been planned by German nationals. But there is also great concern that stricter counter-terrorism legislative measures could lead to an erosion of civil liberties. And, given the country’s history during the twentieth century, civil liberty concerns are particularly important. The recent events will also enhance the continuing debate over the presence of German troops in Afghanistan, which is shortly to be brought back to the floor of the Bundestag, the federal parliament.

However, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble declared that despite the Friday arrests, the threat level in Germany has not changed and there are no indications that specific terrorist attacks are planned against Germany. But the rising number of incidents allegedly planned by some German converts to Islam has left everyone feeling queasy.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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