Fears of a Mumbai Redux: The Story Behind Germany's Terror Threat

By Matthias Bartsch, Yassin Musharbash and Holger Stark

Germany is currently in a state of high alert. Security officials are warning that they have concrete information pointing to a possible terror attack on the federal parliament building in Berlin, a massively popular tourist attraction. The days of Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière's reserved stances in dealing with such warnings appear to be over.

Photo Gallery: Germany Increases Security in Face of Threat Photos
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The call came from abroad, and the man speaking hurriedly on the other end of the line sounded as if he feared for his life. He wanted out, he told the officers of the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) -- out of the terrorist scene. He wanted to come back to Germany, back to his family. Then he asked if German officials could help him.

Right now, they're trying to do just that. The BKA is pursuing the case under the codename "Nova." The apparently remorseful man could be an important possible whistleblower from a dangerous region of the globe. In fact, he is also the most recent reason why German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière put the entire country in a state of fright on Wednesday.

During a hastily called press conference that day, de Maizière stated that Germany faced the threat of terrorist attacks that might be launched against the country at some point in November. As he put it, Germany is "presently dealing with a new situation."

Just two days earlier, the source had called for the third time in just a short period and provided more information. He told officials that a small group of terrorists wanted to conduct a raid on the Reichstag building in Berlin, which houses the federal parliament, and that that was only one of the targets included in their attack plans.

Germany on High Alert

Since then, Germany has been in a state of high alert. The Reichstag is surrounded with barricades and its popular cupola tourist attraction temporarily closed to visitors. Police armed with submachine guns are patrolling major railway stations and airports. And vacations have been called off for officials at the country's security agencies. Wherever they have cause for doing so, the authorities are secretly monitoring communications, conducting surveillance operations and launching undercover investigations. At the moment, investigators seem to be at a loss; their modus operandi: "We'll prod the shrubs and see if we can flush out any birds."

"There is cause for worry, but no cause for hysteria," de Maizière assured his listeners. But while he has never been much of an agitator, his colleagues at the state level have described the situation in much more drastic terms. Uwe Schünemann, for example, who has been the interior minister of the northwestern state of Lower Saxony since 2003, stated that he had "never experienced a heightened security situation like this one." And Berlin Senator for the Interior Ehrhart Körting, whose position is tantamount to that of a government minister in the city-state, has already even gone so far as to call on the inhabitants of the German capital city to report suspicious-looking individuals of Arab origin to the police. "If you suddenly see three somewhat strange-looking men who are new to your neighborhood, who hide their faces and who only speak Arabic," Körting said, "you should report them to the authorities."

Under heightened pressure, officials in Germany's 16 federal states are now checking to see when and where major events are scheduled to take place this coming week within their boundaries. And nothing suggested as a possible target is being discounted, no matter how unlikely. For example, officials in Rhineland-Palatinate warned the state's interior minister, Karl Peter Burch, that there was always a lot going on at IKEA stores on Saturdays.

Serenity, Scaremongering and Strategy

Since last week, German politicians at both the state and federal levels have once again had to figure out how they will handle themselves when making warnings about terrorist attacks. They have had to come up with a language that can simultaneously convey both an alert and a sense of calm.

This is no easy task. For one thing, this isn't the first time this has happened. In September 2009, for example, right before federal elections were held, there were concrete threats that resulted in a heightened security situation. But, in the end, nothing happened. This time around, people are wondering whether they are on the precipice of an emergency or whether these are once again empty threats.

Still, one thing is certain: For the time being, Germany has become a different country -- more nervous, more anxious, more agitated. And Germany's domestic security policies are being put to the test.

When Interior Minister de Maizière assumed his office in October 2009 in conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, he aimed to cool down the heated sense of alarm regularly fanned out by his predecessors. What's more, the man who had served as Merkel's chief of staff in Chancellery until being moved to the role of interior minister in her new government, was given the task of nurturing a more relaxed relationship between her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its new coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). In particular, it was his job to not draw out the long-standing conflict over domestic security policies with the Justice Ministry, which has been led since the 2009 election by Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the FDP. Indeed, Merkel feared that the quarrelsome FDP might try to capitalize on the issue to win over more voters, so she assigned de Maizière to prevent that from happening.

In fact, the plan was to repeat the same strategy that the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), had used when they were in the so-called "grand coalition" with the center-left Social Democratic Party, between 2005 and 2009. At the time, they made a point of undermining the SPD by championing what had traditionally been the latter party's issues.

A Game-Changer

But now the game plan has changed. This November will drastically alter de Maizière's understanding of his role in office. If he tries to return things to their previous state of calm, he's going to have a very tough time. In fact, it's much more likely that he will be a completely different interior minister.

For a while now, de Maizière's softer stance has prompted opposition by politicians on the right involved with domestic security issues. But they are now calling louder than ever for a tougher course to be followed. Merkel is also adjusting to the new situation and is reportedly happy with the way de Maizière handled himself last week. Likewise, no one seems to have voiced any criticism last Thursday evening during a meeting of the Coalition Committee, a regular gathering of the parties that are part of the government.

The almost complete lack of protest has a lot to do with where the alarming information is coming from. In fact, information regarding the supposedly imminent attacks has come from two independent sources. Shortly before receiving the telephone call about the planned attacks, BKA officials had received a cable from their American counterparts at the FBI, America's federal police force, warning of possible attacks.

Still, what truth is there in these "security-related" pieces of information coming from both domestic and foreign sources? And, given all the discrepancies in the warning messages, just how much do they deserve to be trusted? Indeed, even among security officials themselves, there is some doubt about how legitimate these statements are -- and about just how acute the danger threatening Germany really is.

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Merkel on Terror Threat
Speaking at the NATO summit in Lisbon on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the current terrorism concerns in her country. "Terrorism presents a real danger to us," she said. The politician, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, said she didn't want to mention "any details" about possible targets for attacks and warned against panic. She said that German security officials are working "attentively" and in a manner "appropriate to the situation." Merkel added: "We are determined that our way of life, freedom, will not be taken away from us."


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