Fight Against Terror: Germany Faces Hard Choices

Fight Against Terror: Germany Faces Hard Choices

Right after the Paris terrorist attacks, anti-terrorist operations were launched in France – the country living under state of emergency – as well as some other European states. It became evident that the Schengen zone is vulnerable. Belgium and Germany, the neighboring countries located near the «French hotbed», were the first to react. It’s not only geography. What is more important is the assessment of the potential threats by their governments. 

Germany is threatened from within. Around 43,000 people (German citizens) are part of Islamist circles in Germany Holger Munch, the president of the German Federal Criminal Police Office (or BKA), said in an interview with Die Welt newspaper. 

Officially, 3 million Muslims are living in Germany. We believe this figure to be understated. According to police, every tenth Islamist living in Germany may pose a security threat. Those who have battle experience fighting in Syria within the ranks of the Islamic State have become prime suspects. At least 750 Islamists who would not shy away from violence have made their way from Germany to Syria so far. Half of them have returned. No way can the interconnection between the increasing flows of refugees to Europe and terrorism be ignored. The Greek police have already confirmed that one of the perpetrators had crossed the EU border as a refugee before the Paris terror attack. 

The incoming asylum seekers constitute another group of suspects. As newcomers they are especially difficult to deal with for police because those who had come to the country before had been vetted one way or another. For instance, it’s known that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the St. Denis attacks, had visited Germany a number of times. Salah Abdeslam, another one of the suspected Paris attackers, has spent about two months in Germany this year. In early September he moved to Austria. It is extremely difficult to determine who is who in the mixed flows of asylum seekers that have been hitting Europe since August, especially in view that some desperate migrants jumped out of moving trains used to transport them to certain destinations in Germany.

In Berlin police cordoned off certain areas 14 times in the first 4 days in the aftermath of the Paris attacks after suspicious objects were detected. It hampered the flow of traffic. The residents of neighboring houses had to be evacuated. It provoked irritation. Not all Germans were indifferent to the fact that two their compatriots were among the victims of Nov.13 attacks. According to the recent survey conducted by YouGov, an international internet-based market research firm, 59% of respondents said they were afraid terror attacks may take place in Germany, 61% felt they were not safe.

YouGov is the first German pollster to ask the question about Germany’s involvement in the military operation against the Islamic State. Before the Paris attacks respondents’ attitude to such an idea had been somewhat half-hearted, be it Afghanistan, Iraq or, recently, Libya.  Now half of respondents believe German participation would be justified (male respondent are more determined). 

The ARD-Deutschland Trend   survey shows different results: 42% endorsed the idea of Germany’s involvement in military operation against the Islamic State (more than half of them said they were the supporters of the Christian Democratic Union) against 52% who disapproved it. 

The top political circles are either not united on the issue, or there is something they are waiting for. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen rapidly responded when French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made an appeal to the EU partners for assistance. «It goes without saying that we will do everything in our power to provide assistance and support», von der Leyen said.

What exactly can Germany do? It can expand the support for Kurdish Peshmerga fighters (Germany has provided training for some Kurdish fighter on its territory, sent advisers to the north of Iraq and delivered arms to the Peshmerga formations) and boost its military presence in Mali. The latter proposal is a rather awkward attempt to kill two birds with one stone. It is aimed at rendering assistance to France while pushing it out of its former colonies. Le Drian mentioned the need for assistance to cope with the situations in hot spots, especially in Syria. Germany is lingering on, but there is some tangible shift in its stance on the issue. 

Visiting Passau (a town in Lower Bavaria near the Austrian border) on November 17, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the terror attacks in Paris were not the reason to invoke collective defense. She agreed they were an ominous attack against democracy and freedom, but not a precedent sufficient to undertake a collective action. On November 20, the Minister said she would not rule out dispatching military forces to Syria if a military operation in Syria were conducted in accordance with a United Nations Security Council resolution. According to her, «All we need is a local ground force, the people who live there and are interested in returning their land».

The logic is not clear: does she mean that it’s up to local people to clear up the mess? Or does she want to say that «we need the local people to bring everything back to where it was?» I wonder, who does she mean saying «we»? Does she mean the ones who need others to do the dirty work? Or, to make it more precise, the ones who will lose their lives? It’s a pity, Ms von der Leyen never elaborated on who she meant.  

Anyway, the desire to take advantage of the situation is obvious. It’s not only the «generous» response to the French request for help, but, what is more important, the steps taken inside Germany. An attempt is made to artificially seal the country off. To close the borders and impede the refugee flows – isn’t it something native Europeans have been trying to achieve in vain applying pressure on their respective governments? If surveys can be trusted, over 90% of Germans support tightening security measures, while only 5% believe such steps would endanger the fundamental rights and freedoms. 

Pretty soon they will say that turning the internet into a total surveillance system is a good thing.  One cannot rule out the expansion of Bundeswehr’s role to police work, in addition to military duties – something Christian Democrats insist on. Eight thousand of military personnel have already been involved in carrying out police functions. 

Evidently, the government is doing its best to calm the people down. A friendly soccer game between Germany and Netherlands and a jazz concert were cancelled with no arrests made. Alarm was raised on a night train destined for Hanover because a suspicious package was found. In the morning it was announced that the package was a dummy bomb. In Munich four men were arrested in a hotel on November 20. Police said the arrests had no relation to terrorist activities, though, according to reports, police uniforms and pepper sprays were found. The same day the Baker Street tube station in London was closed for a few hours to evacuate the passengers. An official statement said the incident also had no relation to a terror threat. Perhaps, it’s true, the bombs were dummies. May be it’s more important to prevent people from panicking than make public the reports about the success of anti-terror operations. Besides, one can hardly call these operations successful. In Munich four men were arrested while four other suspects managed to escape in silver Mercedes cars. One of the ringleaders of the Paris attacks was killed, but the other perpetrator (Saleh Abdeslam) is on a wanted list. According to media reports, there was a third man involved in the crime, but his name is still unknown.

The main thing – Germany does not give a straight answer to the most important questions. Is it really possible to shape an anti-terror strategy while isolating itself from the outside world? What can be done about the fact that the tentacles of the Islamic State have already stretched out to Europe?