A Country on Tenterhooks Germans Wonder If Terror Can Be Prevented
Part 2: Ansbach and Würzburg Are not New York, London or Paris
In early 2016, representatives of the US government and its intelligence agencies met with major Internet companies, including Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft. The high-level deliberations took place behind closed doors, seeking answers to the question of how "to deal with the growing threat of terrorists and other malicious actors using technology." The meeting reportedly included considerations for establishing a permanent system for using crowd-sourcing to track terrorists.
Facebook's anti-suicide alarm could serve as a model. The service allows users to alert others if one of their friends' posts seems unusually gloomy or shows troubling signs of depression.
Will users set off alarm bells in the future if they search for things like "IS," "decapitation" and "infidels" too often? And how many researchers, criminologists, politicians and journalists will be caught up in the authorities' wide dragnet? How many of their names will one day be included on lists of terrorism suspects -- lists that are constantly growing and easy to lose sight of?
Even if the authorities manage to create an early warning system with the help of algorithms and citizen volunteers, one question remains open: Will early be early enough? It's true that many lone wolves announce their plans ahead of time, but most of the time they do so surreptitiously through encryption -- or right before they strike.
On the morning of Nov. 1, 2013, 23-year-old Paul Anthony Ciancia stormed into his flatmate's room and insisted he immediately drive him to the Los Angeles airport. What's more: He sent a text message to his family in New Jersey in which he hinted at his impending suicide. Ciancia's father alerted the police and officers arrived at Ciancia's apartment shortly thereafter. But they were too late. The lone wolf was already at the airport, where he shot four people, one fatally.
Are Attacks Preventable?
Can terrorist attacks and shooting sprees be prevented? Are there effective strategies against the radicalization of youths? Is it possible to recognize when young migrants begin to direct their anger toward their newly adopted home?
If you ask researchers at the University of Maryland and Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, the answer is yes to all of the above. But there's one condition: We have to let go of our false belief that religion plays the decisive role in the matter.
The American and German researchers wanted to figure out what the appeal of jihad was for young Muslims who grew up in the West, so they conducted a psychological study, titled, "The Struggle to Belong: Immigrant Marginalization and the Risk of Homegrown Radicalization." They surveyed 464 people, mostly young and educated Muslims in the United States, the Netherlands and Germany.
They found that the more young people felt rejected by a majority of society, the more susceptible they were to fundamentalist, black-and-white thinking.
Migrants who neither felt at home in Germany nor in their countries of origin are prone to radical ideas, says Klaus Boehnke, who co-directed the study. For these people, acceptance is paramount. "But instead, we make them feel like outsiders," Boehnke says.
Thomas Mücke, head of the Violence Prevention Network (VPN), believes prevention must be far more comprehensive and begin much sooner. The VPN looks after more than 200 at-risk youth. Mücke speaks of a "cocktail of frustration" that gradually builds up in disenfranchised adolescents. From there, it's only a matter of time before it can be exploited by extremists. "If integration fails and a young refugee feels alone and ostracized, that's when they start recruiting," Mücke says. In his opinion, further attacks won't be prevented with more repression and surveillance. "We need an educational infrastructure in addition to our security infrastructure in Germany."
After so many years, the German government seems to have come to a similar conclusion. For the first time, the Interior and Family Ministries have joined forces to come up with a "Strategy of the Federal Government for Extremism Prevention and Democracy Promotion," which they unveiled two weeks ago. The 62-page paper makes clear that "security policy" is no longer solely in the foreground; preventative measures are weighted just as heavily.
German Family Minister Manuela Schwesig has set her sights on a new law that would guarantee financing for the country's numerous prevention programs. Until now, these programs have had to beg for fresh funds on a nearly annual basis. Organizations focusing on prevention among refugees, in particular, will be supported in the future. During a meeting with her state-level counterparts last week, Schwesig said her ministry would come up with draft proposals over the summer.
Finding a New Approach
The severity of the situation is on full display in the office of Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn, a doctor and psychotherapist who has spent 23 years working in the outpatient clinic of the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims (BZFO). Since last year, she has been practically overrun with refugees. Wenk-Ansohn estimates that at least a quarter of the people who seek asylum in Germany are in need of psychological care.
Her doctor's office is like a seismograph that measures the impact of political decisions in the German capital on the psyches of refugees. When the government decided to limit the ability of asylum-seekers to have their families come join them, Wenk-Ansohn could immediately see the effect it was having on her patients. A similar thing happened when it became clear that the countries in the Maghreb region would be deemed safe places of origin by the German government. "Every political decision, every official letter can plunge a person who is already in an unstable condition deeper into crisis. Very often, this can lead to suicidal tendencies," Wenk-Ansohn says.
This is even truer for young refugees who get stranded in Germany without their parents or contacts and often without any prospects for the future. Hospitals located near asylum-seekers' dormitories are often confronted with teenage refugees who have tried to kill themselves. Most clinics don't have the capacity to cope with these situations.
In the southwestern German state of Saarland, authorities are trying something new. There too, young refugees have tried to take their own lives by swallowing thumbtacks, injuring themselves with knives, knocking their heads against radiators until they bleed or trying to strangle themselves.
Since last August, however, unaccompanied minors living in Saarland have been getting psychological assistance without even realizing it. A support system has been integrated into their daily lives -- one that often takes place in groups -- and it's been hugely successful. Whereas there was at least one attempted suicide by an unaccompanied minor every night a year and a half ago, now that figure is down to two per month, according to Eva Möhler, the head of child and youth psychiatry at the SHG Kliniken Sonnenberg medical center in Saarland.
Möhler came up with a concept she called START, which stands for stress, trauma symptoms, arousal regulation and treatment. "It's a short-term intervention designed to help people overcome acute, emotional crises and learn to self-regulate themselves and their feelings," she explains.
She says that refugees don't arrive in Germany as aggressive, unapproachable criminals; at first, they're full of hope. People here need to be careful not to destroy that by plastering the new arrivals with negative labels. "If a young refugee hears over and over again that he's not wanted and is treated as if he's a thief or potentially violent, it's not surprising if he adopts that role at some point," Möhler says.
With the way things are now, Möhler would have a tough time convincing the broader public of the utility of her work. Doctors and psychologists promise solutions in the medium term, but many people are feeling an acute sense of insecurity. They want immediate solutions.
Even before the series of attacks in July, fears of terrorism had overtaken all other worries among Germans in the polls. And coupled with those fears is a growing rejection of migrants and Muslims. For many, the fact that it was Muslims who swung an ax in Würzburg and detonated a bomb in Ansbach was confirmation of the next supposedly irrefutable truth: That Islam is synonymous with terrorism.
The majority of Germans have not jumped to such conclusions following the recent violence, but for a large, very vocal minority, a sense of fear could change to aggression, as seen during the refugee crisis last year.
In the days since the ax attack in Würzburg, a number of Germans have resorted to vigilante justice. In Gailhof in the German state of Lower Saxony, as well as in Rösrath in North Rhine-Westphalia, asylum-seekers have been attacked out in the open. In Niesky, in the state of Saxony, shots were fired from a car at a dormitory for refugees. In Dresden, Heidenau and Königstein, anonymous vandals painted chalk outlines in front of train stations and left behind leaflets with the words "Migration kills" splashed across them.
Countless people are also taking to social networks again to spread their vitriol. They agitate against German Chancellor Angela Merkel under the hashtag #merkelsommer -- which translates to #merkelsummer -- saying she opened the floodgates and let criminals, rapists and terrorists into the country. "Germany is sacrificing its citizens on the altar of massive immigration," one anonymous user wrote on Twitter.
In order to capitalize on the violence to the greatest extent possible, one political party wasted no time in making fear one of their party's central credos. Frauke Petry, the head of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, wrote on Facebook on Monday: "Würzburg, Reutlingen, Ansbach Is Germany colorful enough for you, Ms. Merkel?" The party's second-in-command, Alexander Gauland, called for the right to asylum to be lifted for Muslims.
But the AfD politicians weren't the only ones who sought to link Merkel's refugee policy with the recent violence. The head of the far-left Left Party, Sahra Wagenknecht, did too -- to the chagrin of her party colleagues. Early last week, the politician issued a press release stating that "events of recent days show that there are considerable problems associated with taking in and integrating a large number of refugees and migrants and that it is more difficult than Merkel tried to convince us it would be last fall with her frivolous 'We can do it'" mantra. The popular politician said "potential threats" must be tracked so "that the people of our country can feel safe again."
Merkel, for her part, sought to calm the country with a mixture of sober reflection and determination. The "barbaric acts" would be clarified quickly, Merkel promised last Thursday. At the same time, she warned against overreacting. The terrorists' goal is to "destroy our way of life. They sow hatred and fear among cultures, and they sow hatred and fear among religions."
Merkel knows just how precarious her situation is. During public appearances, she is repeatedly confronted with the accusation that the state has lost control. Every act of violence only serves to further strengthen that sentiment. "It is unbelievably difficult to counter that," a close confidant of Merkel's explains.
Merkel wants to prevent a discussion of her immigration policy from flaring up. But that approach didn't take into account CSU head and Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer, one of the leading critics of the chancellor's refugee policies from the very beginning. "We were validated in all of our prophecies. Especially concerning security policy," Seehofer said last week at a meeting of his state government cabinet. He then proceeded to present a list of demands from his law-and-order policy toolbox: allow domestic deployments of the German army, the Bundeswehr, hire more police officers, push through more encompassing data retention legislation and increase surveillance at refugee hostels.
Seehofer's interior minister, Joachim Hermann, went a step further, saying that "deportations to crisis regions" should "no longer be taboo." Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback called for electronic ankle bracelets for extremists. There was only one problem: The Islamist who murdered a priest in France last week was wearing such a device -- and it didn't stop him from committing that grisly crime.
These are the same reflexive responses that have dominated Western security policy for the past 15 years. Since 9/11, around two dozen new anti-terror laws or amendments to existing legislation have been enacted in Germany. Many of them had to be corrected or were rejected outright by Germany's Constitutional Court because they were hastily written in the immediate aftermath of a violent attack.
The fact that expanding government powers alone isn't enough to prevent further violence from happening is perhaps best exemplified by France. A state of emergency has been in place there for nine months and police and intelligence officers enjoy even broader powers than they do in Germany. Yet French authorities were still powerless to stop the most recent terrorist attacks, such as the one in Nice that killed 84 people.
Seehofer and officials in his CSU party are similarly convinced of the state's obligation to do something -- anything -- in times of uncertainty. After the chaos of the last weeks, admitting it is too early to come up with a substantive response doesn't seem to be an option.
The CSU party chief has at least refrained from further radicalizing the political discourse so far. Whether he'll continue to do so will depend on his performance in the polls. Lately, approval ratings for the CSU have been stable, but if there are more Islamist extremist attacks, the party's rhetoric will only intensify -- and the cycle of fear will escalate.
Germany Spared Major Attacks
It must be noted that while the latest wave of violence in Bavaria and elsewhere may have brought terrorism uncomfortably close to home, Germany has still been spared a major attack. Ansbach and Würzburg are not New York, London or Paris -- and they're certainly not Baghdad or Kabul. Of the thousands of people who are killed by terrorism every year, only a very small percentage of them are Europeans or Germans.
And when delusional or insane people are forced to reach for axes or knives to do their killing, it just goes to show that Germany is better prepared than many people think. Someone who avoids trains out of fear for their life and instead chooses to drive a car should know that they're exposing themselves to an incomparably greater risk.
Fear brings the world into disarray; it is often felt most strongly where there is the least danger -- and vice versa.
In the chaos of the recent shooting spree in Munich, while it still wasn't clear who the shooter was or whether he was acting alone and public transportation came to a standstill, something else happened: Munich residents took stranded, frightened and panicked people into their homes. Even the Bavarian state parliament building and numerous mosques opened their doors. People organized emergency shelters in their neighborhoods, coordinating their efforts under the hashtag #offenetuer, German for #opendoor.
Countless strangers found protection in the apartments of Munich residents.
Fear had to wait outside.
Reported by Maik Baumgärtner, Anna Clauß, Martin Knobbe, Ann-Kathrin Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Sven Röbel, Jörg Schindler and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt
- Part 1: Germans Wonder If Terror Can Be Prevented
- Part 2: Ansbach and Würzburg Are not New York, London or Paris