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Fear, the Zeitgeist of Europe

Germany has been lucky rather than secure during last years. We were lucky enough to observe the horror of 9/11, the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the London Underground attacks in 2005 from outside.

December 13, 2015 - Katharina Kloss - Stories and ideas

In January of 2015 we followed ISIS terrorists on the doorsteps of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo eradicating some of France’s most precious satirical artists, most of the staff and some police forces. It was a deep shock but still on our neighbour’s soil. One month later shootings occurred in Copenhagen. There was consternation, but still not in Germany. And on November 13th, when even our shared western lifestyle was attacked, there was still a feeling of “for now they didn’t come for us”.

Instant security measures

But terrorism has probably never been closer to Germany than on November 13th, 2015, when an organised group of terrorists killed more than 130 Parisians and left 352 people severely wounded in the deadliest attacks France has experienced since World War II. Shortly after the shootings and suicide bombings – during the same night – the Federal Criminal Police (BKA) called for its emergency plan: “Immediate measures in case of terrorist events abroad”, an action plan which was adopted in 2009.

The Federal police was told to instantly reinforce border controls and further monitor the so-called Gefährder. A Gefährder is a potentially radicalised German citizen who has completed trainings with a terrorist organisation or fought for the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Endangerers represent a security threat because of possible criminal action including attacks. According to the BKA there are currently around 1,000 people in Germany who can be identified as belonging to Islamist terrorist groups. Among them, around 420 are counted as Gefährder – far fewer than France’s “fiche S” who are estimated to be up to 5,000 – but still too many to be under police surveillance 24 hours a day.

Since the Paris events, heavily armed police forces patrol crowded places such as airports and train stations in Germany. There were investigations jointly led with French agents to find out if there were German connections involved in the recent terrorist attacks. Despite several Kalashnikovs, some explosive substances and hand grenades found in a car in the German town of Rosenheim (on whose navigation system someone had typed Paris as a destination), no further connection could be found. One man has been arrested.

But fears became rather real on this side of the Rhine, when an international friendly football game between Germany and the Netherlands was cancelled on November 17th in Hannover. This terror alert came in just four days after the Paris attacks where three people died at the Stade de France. Armed police forces patrolled the stadium area during the whole night, which was evacuated due to bomb threats; public transport was interrupted all around. According to security expert Prof. Frank Friedrich “such a presence is the easiest way to enhance both subjective and objective security”.

Nothing new on the Western front

But none of this is new. It is just getting closer. German security authorities have been alarmed for years. More than twelve possible terrorist attacks have been prevented on German soil during the last few years. If Islamic fundamentalist Marco G. had been “successful” and bombed Bonn’s train station in 2012 as he wanted to, security would have been much more of an issue in Germany since.

In 2007 police arrested members of Sauerland-Gruppe, a German cell of the Islamic Jihad Union which is a terrorist organisation operating on the Pakistani-Afghan border. They had planned to use car bombs against US citizens in clubs, barracks and airports in Germany to avenge the German federal armed forces’ military engagement in Afghanistan.

“You can be lucky five, six, seven times. But on the eighth time luck won’t strike again”, former president of BND German intelligence service August Hanning claims. Germany has not seen a bloodbath on its soil for many years. But considering the assassination of two US soldiers in 2011 at Frankfurt am Main’s train station, the only attack from someone with an Islamist background so far in Germany, luck has not always been on our side.

Take 2015 alone. There were several red alerts. Back in 2014 ISIS’ propaganda magazine Dabiqalready explicitly mentioned Germany as a potential target. The post-attack admission statement clearly pointed at Germany as a “crusader nation”. “The situation is tense”, said Thomas de Maizière (CDU), Federal Interior minister, during his public statement on Saturday, one day after the Paris attacks. “Germany remains in the crosshairs of international terrorism”.

Even if Germany had France’s more aggressive mass surveillance techniques, constant data preservation or the UK’s CCTV cameras in every remote corner – there is no such thing as 100 per cent safety. A well-structured defense against terrorism needs hard work mixed with a solid portion of luck. International co-operation with other countries’ secret services is required as well. Even France could only get hold of some of the remaining terrorists and their accomplices in Paris’ suburb of Saint Denis because of a crucial hint from Moroccan intelligence.

It would take 30 police officers in Germany to screen a suspected person full time, says the BKA. “Public authorities cannot guarantee absolute safety”, confirms terror expert Michael Götschenberg in an interview with Deutschlandradio Kultur. “Mainly because terrorists target people in their everyday environment, in cafés, bars and restaurants or on the street. But one should be careful to not panic right now. It is still very unlikely to fall victim of a terrorist attack.”

No panic on the Titanic?

Complete safety for German citizens is a mission impossible. And even if this is worrying, there is not much more that can be done. German security is thus based on a wait-and-see strategy with a particularly reinforced surveillance of the German Islamist scene. “The security situation is tense”, reiterated Stephan Mayer (CSU), home affairs spokesman of Merkel’s conservative party in the Bundestag, “although there is no concrete evidence for an attack on German soil.”

It is what interior minister Thomas de Maizière identified as an “ambient noise” in a scene which, according to him, has amplified since the Paris attacks. But the minister stated that from experience there would be many copycats who jump on the terrorism train. Safety authorities will have to adapt their work according to new information on how the Paris attacks were planned and carried out. But there is no need so far for the German government to make new laws or create more panic amongst the citizenry.

But the balance between safety and personal freedom, one of democratic societies’ fundamentals, is much more of a tightrope walk than it seems. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 new elements were put into place in Germany. Presumed terrorists’ IDs can be confiscated, departure to terrorist camps is prohibited as well as advertising the so-called Islamic State. But even all that is no guarantee that an attack can be averted in Germany.

The joint terrorism defense center (GTAZ) in Berlin Treptow, founded in 2004 with the sole purpose of suppressing Islamist terror, meticulously radiographs every person who is classified as potentially dangerous. But alarms were pulled off quite often – maybe too often – after Charlie Hebdo. PEGIDA’s (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) demonstrations in Dresden was called off, the carnival in Braunschweig could not take place and a bicycle race in Hessen was cancelled throughout 2015. Suspicions were not confirmed in any of these cases. Insecure times produce security measures which would never be adopted under normal conditions. The problem is what happens afterward when the acute danger is over: they remain.

For now De Maizière is planning to create a special paramilitary task force of 500 men support police officers in the near future. Between 2016 and 2019 German security authorities will oversee the creation of 750 new jobs with an additional budget of 328 million euros. Nothing to be alarmed about though. Germany has a security budget of 1,6 per cent of its GDP which is below the EU average and has cut over 10 000 positions in the police staff during the last 15 years. So this might just fill some of the interior security gaps. Chancellor Angela Merkel has refused federal finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s (CDU) proposal to deploy German federal armed forces to reinforce German borders or to assure the home country more safety, a measure prohibited by the German constitution till today.

What is rather worrying is a recent shift in tone concerning Germany’s welcoming culture towards refugees after the attacks. One of the Paris attackers had a fake Syrian passport with which he entered Europe. Horst Seehofer (CSU), Bavaria’s prime minister belonging to Merkel’s CDU conservative sister party, was quick as usual in saying “we have to know who travels through our country” pleading in the same breath for more border control. That was expected to happen. But there was a lot of criticism coming from Merkel’s own ranks within the CDU and social media comments heated up quite quickly.

Fear seems to be the general European zeitgeist. Poland refused the EU-imposed refugee quota, Marine le Pen’s far right Front National just became the strongest force in the first tour of regional elections in France and even Sweden recently surrendered to a massive refugee wave. For now Angela Merkel is backed by the majority of her grand coalition. But the refugee question will be a tug of war in a current climate of putting refugees under general suspicion.

The end of “Merkeling”?

It is certainly a strange (and far-fetched) coincidence that the Langenscheidt publishing house’s jury decided upon the German youth slang word of 2015 on the very date of the Paris terror attacks. Instead of long-time favorite expression merkeln (“Merkeling”) – a neologism referring to Angela Merkel’s talent for letting politics run their course and staying cool – they went for ‘Smombie’, a portmanteau word composed of smartphone and zombie, to best represent the year. We were all smombies staring at our mobile devices with disgust and disbelief in the wake of the terrible Paris attacks of November 13th and to realise our continent was not a safe place to have a drink out at a bar on a Friday night.

2015 might so far have been a year in which the German chancellor, perhaps for the first time, did not bury her head in the sand concerning alarming developments in the country. She officially addressed issues such as the PEGIDA movement’s growing anti-immigrant hate speech in her New Year’s address. And even more surprisingly, this summer, when thousands of war refugees from Syria tried to reach Europe through awfully dangerous overseas trips to Greece’s Lesbos or Italy’s Lampedusa, she opted for an open-door policy concerning the swelling migrant influx. Against all odds. It is for those achievements she was awarded “person of the year 2015” by Time magazine.

The year 2015 will also be remembered as the year when Merkel’s government decided to join French armed forces in an international coalition to fight ISIS in Syria. The German parliament adopted the mandate with 445 voices against 145. “War is terror provoking more terror”, said leftist opposition voice Sahra Wagenknecht, “We don’t need a second Afghanistan.” Experts do not exclude the possibility that Germany will even deploy ground troops at some point, so far a taboo topic. Afghanistan has brought us the security situation we have today. So what happened to “Merkeling”, the inability to make decisions and the ability to stay cool even in difficult circumstances. Merkel’s concept in 2015 rather resonates with: Don’t worry, just panic.

Katharina Kloss is a German editor at Cafébabel, participatory online magazine written by the young and for the young in Europe. She studied in Mainz, Dijon and Glasgow. She graduated with a master of European journalism in Paris, where she is currently based.

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