Is Germany prepared for Islamist attacks?

This is a 6-minute read

On December 19th, 2016 a young Tunisian called Anis Amri hijacked a truck in west Berlin. After shooting the driver, he bulldozed the vehicle into a busy Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz, one of the city’s main squares.

Twelve people lost their lives. Dozens more were injured. Amri was able to flee, but died in a shootout with cops at a Milan railway station four days later.

It was the worst act of Islamist terror in German history but was the just last of six jihadi attacks in a year which one intelligence officer described as “a never-ending series of tip offs and planned attacks.”

In the autumn of 2015, the Islamic State managed to smuggle dozens of jihadists into the country disguised as refugees. Deadlier attacks than Amri’s were foiled.

Since 2016 things have been much quieter. But a new wave of violence has led people to ask whether Germany is better prepared this time around.

The background

  • The beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb by a Muslim student who took insult at his use of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the prophet Muhammed in a class on freedom of expression kicked off a new wave of violence. Three people were killed in a stabbing at a church in Nice and then came the gun rampage in downtown Vienna in which four innocent people lost their lives. All of the attacks have been claimed by Islamic State.

Triggers for violence

  • Any explanation for Islamist violence that blames the crimes on “provocations” from Western society is pretty dubious. Not only does this parrot the extremists’ arguments, it misses the fact that Islamists see Western society per se as depraved. Austria isn’t even a member of NATO and played no role in the military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, but its people can still be murdered in cold blood in the name of a holy war.

  • Nonetheless, in contrast to France, Germany carefully avoids rhetoric which would be seen as antagonistic in the Muslim world. Angela Merkel’s comments on the wave of terror in France haven’t gone beyond the standard utterances of solidarity. For her critics, this silence is a betrayal of European ideals. In a furious editorial on Tuesday, Die Welt called the entire Berlin establishment “hollow, frivolous and cowardly.” Merkel, ever the pragmatist, has evidently decided she doesn't want to risk a cultural war that alienates the country’s 4.5 million Muslims.

What is the current threat level?

One of the best informed journalists on Islamist terror, Georg Mascolo, reports based on intelligence sources that:

  • The “background noise” in Germany has gotten louder since the murder of Samuel Paty. Throughout October, terror organizations have increased calls for attacks, preachers in radical mosques have upped their vitriol, and there have been calls in Islamist chat rooms for acts of martyrdom.

  • At the same time, the scene in Germany currently lacks charismatic leadership and has been demoralized by the defeat of Islamic State in Syria.

Dr. Klaus Rogner, head of the Islamist terror unit at the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) - Germany’s domestic spy agency - painted a gloomy picture of the threat level at a recent sitting of the parliamentary inquiry into the Breitscheidplatz attack.

  • The number of Islamists who the BfV classifies as Gefährder (i.e. those whom they would trust to commit an attack at any time) has risen from 1,500 in 2016 to around 2,200 today. Rogner described these people as “highly volatile and unpredictable.”

  • “Despite extensive efforts, we will never be able to completely watch these people,” the veteran spy said. The budget for observing Islamist radicals has grown in recent years, “but we don’t have a last line of defence that means we can stop every attack.”

A murder committed in Dresden just three days after Mr Rogner gave his testimony proved his point. A Gefährder who had been released from prison days before, and was under surveillance, attacked a gay couple with a kitchen knife, killing one and seriously wounding the other.

What are the security agencies getting right?

The Bundestag inquiry into the Breitscheidplatz attack has revealed some interesting aspects of how Germany’s intelligence agencies work.

  • Close relations with agencies in friendly Arab & North African states have helped intercept attacks. These security services often have their own informants inside the radical scene in Germany and provide key warnings about impending attacks.

  • V-Männer (informants) have penetrated the inner circles of radical preachers. But in the case of the Breitscheidplatz attack, police failed to take a V-Mann seriously who warned about Amri.

  • There is a similarity to the far-right scene here. Penetration of the groups is very thorough, forcing the extremists to resort to “lone wolf” attacks. The far-right call it “leaderless revolution” - influencers in the scene encourage attacks without planning them; acolytes take whatever is to hand - a truck, a knife or a gun - and attack with as little planning as possible.

What are they getting wrong?

  • Reading through the testimonies given by security chiefs to the public inquiry on Breitscheidplatz, the similarities to the neo-Nazi NSU murders are obvious. There are dozens of different police and spy services (each federal state has its own intelligence agency) who aren’t very good at talking to each other. If extremists move across state lines it is quite easy for them to slip through the cracks - and security agencies seem more than happy to pass on responsibility for tracking them. When scandal hits, they all furiously deny that their agency could have done anything differently.

  • And despite the fact that foreign intelligence agencies try to tell Germany about the danger of some individuals, these warnings aren’t always acted on. Morocco’s spy chief told his counterparts at two different German agencies that Amri was a highly dangerous individual. But the warnings fell on deaf ears.

Have lessons been learned?

The answer is a definitive “yein.” If another terrorist came along who was just like Amri, then he would probably be stopped.

  • A lot more money and personnel has gone into investigating terrorism. Since last year the Federal Investigation Agency (BKA) has a 900-person team that just focuses on terrorism, but only half the jobs have so far been filled. BKA boss Holger Münch claimed on Thursday that his agency had stopped eleven Islamist attacks since Breitscheiplatz.

  • Investigation has also been centralized under the federal prosecution service. Federal investigators now have more power to bundle small crimes together to ease the process of putting a Gefährder behind bars. The police also now have extended capabilities to track Gefährder when they leave prison.

  • But the Dresden terror attack shows that these reforms can only do so much. The 20-year-old attacker was under video surveillance, but no one spotted him going into a shop and buying two sets of kitchen knives.

Bottom line

The police need 30 officers to put a Gefährder under 24-hour observation. Given their resources, it simply isn’t possible to do this with every single potential terrorist. Anis Amri was considered such a low risk case that police stopped following him in September 2016. 

Financial realities mean that the authorities have to make judgement calls - and they are not always going to get them right. As fatalistic as this sounds, it is a matter of when, not if the next Islamist attack hits Germany.


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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.