On 19 December 2016 Anis Amri drove a truck, which he stole by shooting dead its polish driver, through a crowd at the Christmas market on the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 56. He himself died four days later in a shootout with two police officers near Milan, Italy. His attack was the culmination of a series of jihadist attacks and attempted attacks targeting Germany in 2016.
NOT A NEW THREAT
German society has long been confronted by the threat of terrorism. Between the 1960s and 1990s it faced left-wing motivated bombings and kidnappings. At the same time there has also been a certain level of right-wing terrorism mostly in the form of refugee shelter firebombing and, dramatically, a decade long (initially unrecognized) murder-spree. The global rise of Salafi-Jihadism since 1979 has also affected Germany. Prior to the beginning of the war in Syria the country saw its fair share of foreign fighters leaving for foreign battlefields and terrorist targeting Germany itself. However, since 2011 the threat has – as in many other countries – reached totally new dimensions. The country has increasingly come under threat by former German residents that are now living in foreign countries and calling upon similar minded people in Germany to launch attacks.
For a long time security services were able to foil all plots. However, on 2 March 2011, a young man killed two American soldiers at Frankfurt airport in the first successful Islamist inspired terrorist attack in Germany. He was mostly self-radicalized and apparently did not have links with a wider network. However, he had reportedly been inspired by nasheeds and videos produced by a man called Denis Cuspert.
THE SYRIAN JIHAD (2011 – 2017)
Denis Cuspert emerged as a propagandist in Germany’s Jihadist scene in late 2010. Early on, the former gangster-rapper started releasing nasheeds calling for Jihad and professing his support for Usama bin Laden. For months he travelled in Germany urging young Muslims to leave behind hip-hop culture and adopt the Salafist worldview, gave talks on Paltalk (a video group chat service) and was involved in organizing help for Islamist prisoners (1). In October 2011 he and another Islamist, Mohammed Mahmoud, founded the organization Millatu Ibrahim (named after the main work of Salafist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi). Mahmoud, an Austrian, had recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for spreading Jihadist propaganda. The Millatu Ibrahim group belonged to a European network of Jihadist organizations that included people like Anjem Choudary in the United Kingdom (2). Their message was highly militant and authorities banned the group in May 2012 after it had organized a violent protest against two events of the far-right Pro-NRW party during which Muhammad caricatures were displayed. After the proscription of Millatu Ibrahim, many former members left Germany and ultimately ended up in Syria. Subsequently, the first pictures of Cuspert in Syria emerged in August 2013 (3), and soon he became the main figurehead for German Jihadists in the Levant, publicly joining ISIS in April 2014.
German Jihadists in Syria frequently called on others to join them in their emigration, with much emphasis being put on the suitability of bringing their families. This propaganda was certainly successful. Since mid-2012 the number of people (nationals and residents) that left Germany for Syria grew massively. The peak of emigrations was in 2014, after which the number fell considerably, mirroring developments in other European countries (for a detailed analysis of Germany’s foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq see Heinke/Raudszus 2015 and Heinke 2017). According to authorities, by April 2017 over 900 people had left for Syria and Iraq.
Just before Cuspert left Germany in 2012 he had already threatened Germany in a video. Over the following years he and other members of the Islamic State repeatedly threatened Germany explicitly or in inclusion with other European states. For example: In the fourth edition of ISIS’ English-language propaganda magazine, “Dabiq”, the writers called for attacks on every country that had entered the alliance against the Islamic State. The article explicitly mentioned Germany along with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In April 2015 the “al-Hayat Media Centre” published a video titled “An Euch Feinde Allahs” (To You Enemies of Allah) that combined a nasheed by Denis Cuspert, in which he called on Muslims in the West to launch attacks, with brutal pictures of beheadings and actors simulating suicide attacks.
A few months later Muhammad Mahmoud appeared in yet another video in which he and another man called for Muslims to emigrate to Syria and for attacks in Germany, then proceeding to shoot dead two prisoners in front of the camera. Previously, Mahmoud had tweeted similar calls. Early 2016 saw a small wave of IS-related German speaking propaganda emerge. At first collages with reference to the attacks in Brussels appeared online, featuring depictions of burning airports and landmarks in Germany, and calling for attacks. Furthermore, in issue 14 of “Dabiq” there were calls for attacks in the West in general and on “apostate” preachers, including prominent Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel (4). Shortly afterwards another video was published. It elaborated on the threat against Vogel and also included calls for attacks. The video was partially dubbed with a Cuspert nasheed (5). Only days later a new Nasheed by Cuspert emerged online in which Cuspert called for hostage taking and terror in the West, including attacks against police officers (6).
It is hardly surprising that this stream of propaganda would have an impact in Germany. In February 2016 police arrested several suspected IS-supporters who were allegedly planning a terrorist attack in Berlin. This was followed by a chain of low-key attacks and violence. Also in February, a 15 year old Salafist girl stabbed a police officer in Hannover; in April two young Salafists bombed a Sikh-Temple in Essen; on 18 July a young refugee attacked passengers on a train close to Würzburg with a knife and an ax, injuring five people, (he was subsequently shot by a SWAT team); and a suicide attack in the city of Ansbach injured 15 people on 24 July (7). Thus, the Berlin attack in December was the preliminary culmination point of this series of attacks.
The Salafist-Jihadist movement consists of different movement organizations and foreign fighters could rely on logistical and recruitment networks. The latest iteration of such a group led by the Salafist preacher Abu Walaa was involved not only in foreign fighter recruitment but also in the Berlin attack, as journalist Georg Heil recently described meticulously. Germany clearly is a target for Jihadist terrorist more than ever before. With the rise of global Salafist-Jihadism and in particular the emergence of ISIS, the threat has continued to grow, and with the attack in Berlin has reached a new level. Germany has had to react.
FIGHTING TERRORISM: THE GERMAN WAY
Germany has long had to deal with terrorism by left-wing and right-wing groups. However, unsurprisingly, since the 9/11 attacks jihadist terrorism is the main focus (8). Policy-makers have made efforts to improve Germany’s security architecture over the years while navigating a complicated system. This includes a strongly decentralized security structure (every state runs its own criminal police and domestic intelligence agency in addition to the federal agencies) with Germany’s federal states as important veto players that have a strong interest in defending their authority against federal encroachment. Furthermore, the governments have had to cooperate with a powerful parliament and a strong constitutional court that has frequently valued privacy protection over security interests (e.g. it has rejected a controversial data retention law) in its rulings. The court has established provisions limiting the scope of security measures, in particular surveillance (9).
9/11 came as a shock to the German government. Existing terrorism laws had clearly been ineffectual against al-Qaeda and its allies. The response to terrorism in the decades before 1990 had been the creation of the famous anti-terror unit GSG9 and a strengthening of the federal security agencies beyond the role as data collectors. The dragnet search had been introduced. It was supposed to utilize data-collection and analysis to identify terrorists. The contact between lawyers and defendants was limited. New laws prohibited the formation of a terrorist organization and support of serious violent crime, as well as explicitly prohibiting aircraft hijackings, kidnappings, and hostage taking (10). Evidently, this had not been sufficient.
Germany’s parliament quickly passed a law allowing for the proscription of religious associations. A “religion privilege” had previously granted such organizations immunity from surveillance and criminal investigations (11). In addition a new Art. 129b of Germany’s penal code made support for foreign terrorist groups illegal (12). The article has been instrumental in the prosecution of foreign fighters and in recent years of supporters of the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front in Syria. An article also prohibits the preparation of serious crimes against the state (Art. 89a penal code), and activities prosecuted under the articles have regularly included the participation in weapons and explosives training abroad.
In principle, in Germany local and state police forces are responsible for public security, which includes counter-terrorism operations. When it comes to extremism and terrorism, domestic state intelligence services collect and analyze information. However, in the domain of terrorism, federal authorities have gained dominance. Nevertheless this has been a long and complicated process, and they still often have to rely on the help of state forces. Over the years federal agencies have also received more and more rights to collect additional data and these data collection efforts are increasingly independent of state authorities. State agencies have also increased their access to data on individuals suspected of terrorism or association with terrorist activities.
Intelligence is crucial in all forms of policing. However, in counter-terrorism it is particularly important. This is due to clandestine nature of the threat and the often transnational/national composition of involved individuals. To form a comprehensive intelligence picture analysis needs access to all possible (and legally accessible) information. As in other federal states (in particular the US) the decentralized security architecture requires the exchange of information between the relevant institutions to prevent intelligence failure. In Germany, the solution for this problem was the creation of a fusion center for counter-terrorism intelligence sharing. The Joint Counterterrorism Centre (Gemeinsames Terrorabwehrzentrum – GTAZ) was created after the Madrid attacks in 2004.
All German intelligence services, federal and state forces, as well as several other authorities (40 agencies in total), share information on Jihadist terrorism at the GTAZ, coordinate operational activities and participate in working groups on conceptual issues. Several foreign countries have stationed liaison officers here. Importantly, the GTAZ does not have its own executive function. It needs other forces to act on its intelligence. In addition to the GTAZ, several states have set up their own fusion centers that fulfill a similar function.
The GTAZ has been role model for several other federal fusion. This includes the Joint Counter-Extremism and Terrorism Centre (Gemeinsames Extremismus- und Terrorismusabwehrzentrum – GETZ) which deals with left-wing and right-wing militants, other foreign extremists, espionage and proliferation.
Another step to bridge gaps in the federal structure was the creation of an intelligence database feed by federal and state agencies that gathered data on individuals engaged in terrorist activities, their associates and linked institutions. Basic information is accessible to all agencies, while the owner of that specific intelligence releases more detailed information upon request (13).
This strategic response to the terrorism threat has largely been successful. However, the deadly Berlin attack of last year has shown that the system is not flawless and requires additional improve.
The Paris attacks of 2015, broadly modeled on the Mumbai attacks of 2008, have led to adaptation by security forces on the tactical level as well. The states are improving their front-line officers’ equipment including guns, body armour, vehicles and training. In addition the attacks revealed the necessity to deploy massive police forces with heavy equipment on short notice. In response, the federal government has begun to equip specialized units of the federal police force with assault rifles and to train them in urban combat. According to the plan the units will be distributed across Germany and be stationed in five different locations. The force is supposed to be 250 officers strong. This comes in addition to a hiring spree by federal and state police and intelligence forces.
WELL ADAPTED, BUT MORE STRATEGY IS NEEDED
Germany has taken a lot of effort to adapt its security architecture to the terrorism threat while considering its particular constitutional federal system. The creation of fusion centers has bridged the intelligence divides between the plethora of security agencies. The judicial system and legal provisions can be used to address the issue of foreign fighters rather well. Nevertheless, in particular after the Christmas-market attack there have been new calls for further restructuring, including calls to set up a German version of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Hence, the debate has picked up on familiar themes: decentralization vs. centralization.
Independent of how that debate will play out, it has long been clear that Germany would benefit from a more forceful publicly-promoted national counter-terrorism strategy. Condensed paragraphs of the existing one can be found on the homepage of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, although the rest is not openly available. It appears to be roughly modeled on the original British CONTEST strategy (Pursue terrorist before they can attack, Prevent radicalization which is the basis for terrorism, Protect the public and critical infrastructure against attacks, Prepare for the aftermath of an attack). The German strategy additionally highlights the importance of international cooperation and of curbing the financial sources of terrorist organizations. However, all of this is rather light on detail. The latest version of CONTEST on the contrary has 125 pages and the Home Office publishes annual reports on its implementation.
Thinking and debating more in term of a long-term comprehensive strategy would help the decentralized country to march in the same direction when it comes to security. It would give all state and federal institutions a common understanding of how Germany wants to fight terrorism, and what legal and procedural mechanisms should be in place (police law is state law in Germany, hence what a police officer is permitted to do when trying to prevent a crime differs from state to state). This would improve the coordination of the agencies and subsequently improve their efforts to protect its citizens.
Photo1: Counter Terrorism operation in connection with the ban of the “Fussilet33“ mosque association in Berlin on 28 February 2017.
Photo 2: Abu Talhah al-Almani (Denis Cuspert) pledges allegiance to ISIS in Syria in a video “My Oath to the Islamic State“ released by al-Tibiyyan Media on April 11, 2014 (via Jihadology http://jihadology.net/2014/04/11/al-tibiyyan-media-presents-a-new-video-message-from-abu-tal%E1%B8%A5ah-al-almani-deso-dogg-my-oath-to-the-islamic-state/).
Photo 3: The truck drove by Anis Amri on the terrorist attack against pedestrians at the Christmas market on the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin on 19 December 2016 (dpa).
Photo 4: Gemeinsames Terrorabwehrzentrum (GTAZ) meeting in Berlin in December 2016 (Bild).
1 SCHMIDT, Wolf (2012): Jung, deutsch, Taliban. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag (123-131).
2 SAID, Behnam T. (2014): Islamischer Staat. IS-Miliz, al-Qaida und die deutschen Brigaden. München: C.H. Beck: 118-125.
3 SAID (2014): 129-132.
4 Dabiq 14 (2016): “Kill the Imams of Kufr in the West”, Dabiq 14: 8-17.
5 FURAT (2016a): Die Wahrheit über Pierre Vogel [Video – archived by author].
6 FURAT (2016b): Auf zum Schlachten! [Audiofile – archived by author]
7 Arguably in the latter two cases the attackers were probably not influenced by German-speaking propaganda though.
8 It is necessary to point out that between 2000 and 2011 a right-wing terror cell unrecognized by security services killed at least ten people with foreign heritage and a police officer
9 HELLMUTH, Dorle (2016): Counterterrorism and the State: Western Reponses to 9/11. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press: 78-86.
10 HELLMUTH (2016): 87-88.
11 HELLMUTH (2016): 89-90.
12 MAUER, Victor (2007): “Germany’s Counterterrorism Policy”, in: ZIMMERMANN, Doron/WENGER, Andres (Eds.): How States Fight Terrorism. Policy Dynamics in the West. London: Lynne Rienner: 64-65.
13 HELLMUTH (2016): 105-106.