Far-Right Terrorism Deadly Attack Exposes Lapses in German Security Apparatus
The 27-year-old German man who went on a shooting spree during the Yom Kippur holiday was out to kill Jews. He apparently self-radicalized in the darkest corners of the internet, beyond the reach of police or intelligence officials, who are woefully unprepared for this new breed of terrorism. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
The day before this week's anti-Semitic attacks on a synagogue in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, some of the country's most important criminal prosecutors met in Berlin. Germany's federal prosecutor general attended the meeting as well as his counterparts at the state level and the federal justice minister.
In the light-flooded inner courtyard of the German Historical Museum, they discussed what the German judiciary could do to fight right-wing violence. Tweets about the event featured the hashtag #unantastbar, or inviolable, the decisive word in Article 1, Paragraph 1 of the German constitution that addresses human dignity.
Federal Prosecutor General Peter Frank had a message for the guests, which he recited in a calm, measured tone, though his message was anything but: He told them that right-wing extremist lone perpetrators often do not act alone. Even when they commit acts of violence by themselves, they are part of a virtual community that cheers the murders they commit on the internet.
What the country's highest prosecutor described is no less than a new form of terrorism. The crimes are committed by purported "lone wolves," who have largely isolated themselves from the outside world and become radicalized -- through the internet, for example. But Frank's statement can also be interpreted to mean that these wolves are part of a growing pack -- a globally networked movement of right-wing extremist hate.
In hindsight, the prosecutor general's words seem eerily prescient. Less than 24 hours after the conference, a lone wolf let his hatred run free.
Equipped with black boots, a helmet and an olive camouflage jacket, Stephan Balliet, 27, attempted to storm a synagogue in the city of Halle. His rental car had been packed with an arsenal of explosive devices, rifles and pistols.
The attack happened on Yom Kippur, the feast of reconciliation, the most important holiday in Judaism. Fifty-one people had gathered in the house of worship at the time. The door was only made of wood, but it was well-secured. It saved their lives.
Balliet fired his rifle at the door several times, splintering the wood, but the lock and hinges held. Instead, Balliet shot and killed a passerby on the street and executed a construction worker at a kebab shop. He broadcast his crimes online. Five users watched the livestream as it unfolded and 2,200 others viewed the video shortly thereafter. At least initially, no one seems to have reported the video to the police.
A Major Turning Point
The attack in Halle marks a major turning point. It's the second right-wing extremist murder to happen in Germany this year, following the slaying of Walter Lübcke, a conservative Christian Democrat. Lübcke was the first German politician to die at the hands of far-right extremists since 1945. This week, the country only barely avoided a massacre of Jews at a house of worship. It would not be hysterical to describe this as a dangerous escalation -- and an unacceptable situation: Jews in Germany must fear for their lives once again.
On the evening of the attack, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hurried to a vigil in Berlin at the New Synagogue, which burned on Kristallnacht in 1938. A sign on the building's façade warns: "Never forget!" On Thursday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Josef Schuster, the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, visited the crime scene in Saxony-Anhalt.
The deadly crimes committed in Halle are proof that what the federal prosecutor general described as a dark prophecy has actually been reality for some time now. The danger from right-wing extremists is on the rise and there are new forms of radicalization. Even the crimes themselves differ from past attacks -- livestreams give them the feel of a macabre reality TV show.
As Wednesday's attack demonstrates, German security authorities are ill-prepared, despite noticeable efforts in the months since the Lübcke murder to make up for lost time. A high-ranking official within Germany's domestic intelligence agency expressed his deep concern: "The security authorities alone will fail in this task."
Anti-Semitic violence from the far-right didn't disappear entirely after 1945. It has existed in Germany in the form of everyday hostility, assault and insults.
The number of anti-Semitic criminal offences has risen to the tens of thousands since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949. Property damage, arson and bomb attacks on synagogues and memorials, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, assault and, although it is often overlooked, murder.
For example, shortly before Christmas in 1980, an unknown perpetrator, believed to have been a member of the "Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann," a paramilitary and neo-Nazi group, rang the doorbell of Shlomo Lewin, a Jewish publisher in Erlangen. When Lewin opened, the assassin fired a Beretta submachine gun at Lewin and his girlfriend, killing both. A few years later, a far-right terrorist shot Jewish cloakroom attendant Blanka Zmigrod on the street in Frankfurt's Westend neighborhood.
It's probably only a matter of luck that there haven't been more killings. When, for example, neo-Nazis threw Molotov cocktails into an entrance of the Lübeck synagogue in 1994, five people were sleeping one floor above. The only reason no one was harmed was because the fire was discovered so quickly.
It's also possible that the discovery of the neo-Nazi terrorist group National Socialist Underground (NSU) eight years ago in fact prevented the murders of Jews. Investigators found 233 addresses of Jewish institutions on the killers' hard drives.
A New Quality
And yet, there was a new quality to the violence in Halle. It expsosed a type of far-right terrorist against which the German authorities seem powerless, one who draws his ideological inspiration from anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic forums online and takes cues from mass murderers like Anders Breivik in Norway or Brandon Tarrant in New Zealand. This new type of terrorist may even feel like part of a larger global movement that has expectations of him. At the point Balliet realized that his plan to commit mass murder wasn't going to work, he apologized to his virtual audience: "Sorry, guys."
Like Tarrant, Balliet also livestreamed his attack. Like Breivik, he wore a helmet and combat gear. And like his far-right extremist role models, he posted a multi-part "manifesto" on the web, in which he devoted 16 pages to detailing his plans for the attack.
"Significant that attacker wrote and published manifesto in English," Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at London's King's College, tweeted in response to the attack. "Clearly shows that he wasn't trying to impress local Neo-Nazis, but that his 'audience' was on message forums like 8Chan and his heroes were people like Breivik and NZ, El Paso attackers." In other words, it was directed at an international audience.
The manifesto and the video of the attacks are both peppered with references to the far-right internet and gamer subculture, in which anonymous haters in forums like 8chan call themselves "Anon," share cynical anime images, and create hit lists for racist killings: the higher the death count, the higher the score.
'Kill As Many Anti-Whites As Possible'
Balliet clearly wanted to immortalize himself in this alternate online universe in which games and true brutality blur. According to his manifesto, his goal had been to "Kill as many anti-Whites as possible, Jews preferred."
Balliet hadn't even been on the radar of the German police or the domestic intelligence agencies tasked with tracking terrorists and political extremists. He had no criminal record. An internet search turned up only a few articles about chess tournaments he participated in as a child and a teenager.
On Wednesday, Balliet sat in his car in a parking lot near Halle's Paulusviertel neighborhood at 11:54 a.m. He played around with his smartphone and laptop a bit. A few minutes passed. The rest is on the video.
In it, he could be heard saying that the livestream had begun.
Balliet then panned the mobile phone camera to himself and made a statement in broken English he had apparently prepared in advance for the far-right community, which could watch the video live on the computer gaming platform Twitch. He agitated against feminism and mass migration. "The Jew," he says, "is the root of all these problems."
Part of his arsenal of weapons could be seen in the footwell on the passenger side: a homemade shotgun and a self-built submachine gun, a so-called "Luty."
In the background, Balliet played the song, "Mask Off," by the American rapper Future. He then started the engine. The synagogue in Halle was only 150 meters (492 feet) away. As the perpetrator waited at a red light, he said: "Nobody expects the internet SS." Then he laughed.
By this point, Balliet had mounted his smartphone on a German army helmet. He filmed the crime as if it were a first-person shooter game.
Balliet drove past the wall to a cemetery. He got out of the car and stood in front of a heavy wooden door. A sign read: "Jewish Congregation of Halle (Saale)," with a star of David on each side.
Balliet had apparently scoped out the synagogue complex in advance, because in his manifesto, which he apparently posted online before the shooting began, he described his target in detail. He explained where surveillance cameras were installed, the number of doors and the security precautions in place. "If I won't get lucky and they have a door standing open, I need to force my way in or lure the rats out," he wrote. He also said he chose that particular synagogue because it was the nearest place where so many Jews could be found -- and he appeared to be aware of the fact that the police don't guard the building around the clock, but only patrol it from time to time.
At 12:02 p.m., Balliet threw a homemade explosive device over the wall of the Jewish cemetery. "Maybe they'll come out," he mumbled.
Inside the synagogue, parishioners and guests, including 10 American visitors, were gathered for Yom Kippur prayers. One person in attendance was Jeremy Borovitz, who lives in Berlin and works as a rabbi.
They heard the explosion and saw clouds of smoke rise outside the window. Then there was a second bang, followed by gunfire.
'Everybody Get Out!'
The cantor was the first to react. "Everybody get out and go to the adjoining room!" he shouted. From there, people, including many elderly, went to the kitchen on the first floor and sat down on the floor. On the ground floor, Max Privorotzki, the chairman of the local parish, notified the police. At 12:03 p.m., officials received the emergency call, which accidentally went to the fire department dispatcher because the wrong number had been dialled. Together with other people inside the synagogue, Privorotzki barricaded the doors with furniture.
Outside, Balliet rattled the gate to the cemetery, unable to open it. He cussed and went back to the car, which was filled with homemade fragmentation grenades, nail bombs and Molotov cocktails. He took an explosive device from a backpack, clamped it under the cemetery gate and ignited it. But he still couldn't get the gate to open.
A few seconds after the bang, a pedestrian named Jana L., 40, walked past Balliet. Earlier that morning, L., who liked going to concerts and collecting autographs from German pop singers, had posted a cheerful message on Facebook. She lived just around the corner.
But she misjudged the situation on the street at Humboldstrasse entirely. It was clear that Jana L. thought she was dealing with some kind of young punk who liked to set off firecrackers. "Do you have to do that when I'm walking by?" she complained.
All of a sudden, Balliet shot Jana L. from behind. After she fell to the ground, he fired another round at her, calling her a "pig." A courier driver, who showed up at the crime scene only shortly afterward, only survived because the killer's submachine gun jammed. Later, his weapons would fail repeatedly -- otherwise the death count might have been much higher.
The head of the local Jewish community was able to follow the perpetrator's movements from inside through the images on the CCTV camera. He watched the man fire his gun at the woman on the street. And then he witnessed how the perpetrator tried to get inside the synagogue again. At 12:05 p.m., Balliet fired a shotgun at the entrance door -- once, twice, three times -- before kicking the wood. The door held.
'One Time Loser, Always Loser'
Balliet left the synagogue and got back into his rental car. He apparently shot one of his vehicle's tires by accident, because he had a flat. In broken English, he says in the live video: "One time loser, always loser."
He drove toward an intersection some 500 meters away, where he discovered Kiez Döner, a Turkish-Kurdish kebab shop. "Doner, we take," he mumbled.
A construction worker in white pants and a red sweater ran inside in panic as Balliet shot at him. He tried to hide behind a fridge. One of the restaurant's employees, Rifat Tekin, later reported hearing him shout, "Please don't, please don't!" as he feared for his life.
Balliet mumbled, "Shut the fuck up!" as he fired at the men. He fetched another weapon from the car with ammunition casings he had apparently made himself using a 3-D printer. Investigators would later discover a 3-D printer in Balliet's former childhood bedroom at his father's apartment.
He shot indiscriminately at people on the sidewalk. Then he forced his way back into the kebab shop and, again, shot the man in the red sweatshirt who was already lying motionless in the corner. The victim's name was Kevin S., a 20-year-old construction worker from the nearby town of Merseburg. Friends and colleagues described S. as lovable and "always willing to help." He enjoyed soccer and was a fervent fan of the team Hallescher FC. "He was family," said a fellow soccer enthusiast who knew S. from team's fan block.
At 12:16 p.m., 15 minutes after the attack on the synagogue, the shooter encountered the police for the first time. A patrol car was blocking Ludwig Wucherer Street. "Police, now I'm going to die," Balliet announced on his livestream.
A video taken by a witness showed the attacker sheltering behind his car and shooting at the officers in the road.
Then Balliet was hit in the neck. Despite the bleeding, he was able to escape in his car. At 12:22 p.m., he tossed his mobile phone out the car window near Halle's central train station. "I am a complete loser," was one of the last things he said before the livestream ended.
A Dark Online World
For Germany's intelligence services, the culprit came out of nowhere. He wasn't believed to have been registered as an extremist in any police or intelligence agency files. He had no prior convictions. Only the German army, the Bundeswehr, had records on him: He learned to shoot there years ago. According to investigators, Balliet completed basic training with a mechanized infantry division from 2010 to 2011 in Hagenow, near Schwerin, in northern Germany. After the shooting, Germany's Military Counterintelligence Service quickly inspected his personnel file. There was considerable fear that something important had been overlooked during Balliet's time with the troops. But even the Bundeswehr's records didn't raise any red flags.
But it appears that Balliet had been self-radicalizing for quite some time, flying well under the radar of the authorities.
Balliet had signed up two months ago for an account on Twitch, the gaming platform he used Wednesday to livestream his attack, the company said.
A metadata analysis revealed that Balliet composed the most important part of his manifesto a week before the attack. His writing, plus the video of the crime, indicate that he was deeply embedded in the international racist community online. He even knew how to speak their language, an amalgamation of codes and abbreviations that often only means something to other far-right extremists.
Balliet disparaged Jews as "kikes" and spoke of a "ZOG" -- a "Zionist Occupied Government," a popular right-wing extremist conspiracy theory. Burning down a mosque would be like a "crusty kebab," he wrote.
Such extreme contempt for humanity is common among exponents of the new wave of global white terrorism. They are united by their savvy use of what the internet has to offer. It is a space for recruitment and radicalization. It is where hateful musings and justifications first emerge; later, it is where crimes are streamed in real time. It is a parallel world in which the values of civilization do not apply.
A 'New Kind of Inspirational Terrorism'
The Christchurch shooter in New Zealand deliberately made his attack earlier this year look like a live action role playing game ("LARP"). He even underlaid the entire thing with the song, "Remove Kebab," an unsavory piece of Islamophobic propaganda.
But the internet is more than just a place where murder is documented. It provides a global network for white supremacists. There are even forums that maintain high-score charts for the "most successful" killers. Whether in Christchurch in New Zealand or Poway and El Paso in the United States, shooters know that like-minded individuals will celebrate and honor them after the fact. They know that an international community exists in which they will be elevated to hero status. Balliet must have also found his motivation in this world.
German political scientist Florian Hartleb wrote a book about this new kind of right-wing terrorism. In it, he takes a closer look at perpetrators' personalities. He notes that they're all men between the ages of 18 and 30 who spend a lot of time in front of their computers, consuming violent video games and self-radicalizing by lapping up conspiracy theories and developing a hatred for Jews, migrants or women. What's more: Their actions often have a political slant. "You also find these patterns in the perpetrator in Halle," Hartleb said.
This form of networked terrorism can hardly be comprehended without first understanding the conduct and linguistic codes of some forums. The New York Times described this phenomenon as "an internet-native mass shooting, conceived and produced entirely within the irony-soaked discourse of modern extremism." Radicalization researcher Julia Ebner of the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue speaks of a "new kind of inspirational terrorism."
The Darkest Reaches of the Internet
Many questions arise for politicians, the authorities and the operators of commercial internet platforms. First of all, do the authorities even have a grasp of this subculture, its thinking and its language? And more importantly, are they even capable of gaining access to this world? Do bans and "de-platforming" -- in which extremists' user accounts are shut down by the major platforms -- even help to combat this phenomenon? Or is it better to leave them alone so they can be observed?
In the case of Christchurch and El Paso, the shooters used what's called an imageboard website, made up of individual, user-created message boards. They chose 8chan, a radical offshoot of the better-known 4chan, from which the net activism movement Anonymous once emerged. On its homepage, users were greeted with the message, "Welcome to 8chan, the Darkest Reaches of the Internet." Stephan Balliet, the Halle shooter, mentions the forum in his manifesto. But it's unclear where the link to his gruesome livestream on Twitch first appeared. What is clear is that the link was later disseminated in numerous forums and chat groups -- on Gab, 4chan, Kiwifarm and Telegram, according to Ebner, the researcher. "In many far-right extremist chat groups and online forums, the shooter was revered and glorified," she said.
According to extremism expert Peter Neumann, the German authorities need to infiltrate and scrutinize these forums much more closely. "Unfortunately, it has become clear in recent years that something always has to happen in this country before the authorities react," he said.
Months of Preparation
The evening before Balliet embarked on his murderous rampage, he helped his mother do the laundry. She had injured her hand, so her son took over ironing duties.
The 27-year-old with the boyish face and high-pitched voice lived in a room where the door was always locked. It was his "realm" and he had "his privacy" there, his mother told reporters from SPIEGEL TV. She said she had never caught sight of any prohibited weapons. But she had overheard Stephan saying things like, "The white man doesn't count for anything anymore."
He wanted to become a chemist, but he dropped out of college after only a few semesters due to health reasons. Her son had been seriously ill, his mother said. Doctors discovered a large blood clot just in time and Balliet was promptly operated on.
Then, when he was in his early 20s, her son experimented with drugs and it nearly killed him. Afterward, his mother explained, he was a different person. As for Balliet's anti-Semitism, she said: "He didn't have a problem with Jews per se. He just had a problem with the people behind the financial power. Who doesn't?"
A day after the interview, police specialists opened the door to Balliet's room. Before doing so, a bomb squad checked the apartment for booby traps. Apart from a hard disk, police found no relevant evidence. Apparently, Balliet had assumed his room would be searched and had prepared accordingly. Notes had been hidden in various places with the word, "Try Again!" on them.
The manifesto Balliet published online indicated he had planned extensively. If he did, in fact, build all of his explosive devices and weapons himself, he must have put in an enormous amount of effort. In the manifesto, he spoke of months of preparation.
Lone Wolves and Vast Networks
This begs a number of questions: Did nobody really notice anything? Or did he have confidants or even help? And: Could the authorities have prevented the attack?
These are questions that always arise after attacks like the one in Halle. The last time was in June, when a local Christian Democratic politician, Walter Lübcke, was murdered on his terrace in the town of Wolfhagen-Istha in central Germany. The perpetrator was allegedly a neo-Nazi who was already known to authorities as a violence-prone right-wing extremist but who had disappeared under their radar for many years. He was thought to be living as a family man in one half of a townhouse, but in fact he and an old friend from the neo-Nazi scene had been radicalizing themselves since 2015.
"It is of dire importance that we overcome this illusion of the individual perpetrator and take a closer look at the networks," said Martina Renner, a member of the German parliament with the Left Party. "Otherwise motives and backgrounds remain hidden." In her basic assessment of the right-wing extremist threat, the left-wing politician is even in step with Germany's conservative Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.
Seehofer recently called the danger posed by right-wing extremism the "greatest threat in our country" alongside Islamism. At the end of September, flanked by the heads of Germany's other security and intelligence agencies in Berlin, he presented his new plans for combating far-right extremists. He proposed the creation of 440 new positions at the Federal Criminal Police Office and 300 at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the domestic intelligence agency.
In classified documents, the authorities have admitted to making some mistakes in the past. They warn that in the darkest corners of the internet, dangers are lurking which they have only moderately had under control to date, which is why they urgently require additional resources. They also speak of an exponential increase in online hate speech beginning in 2015 and of the danger of serious acts of violence that brews in the depths of the internet. The authorities must find a way into these areas and be able to read encrypted chats, the documents argue.
There are even grumblings at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution about possibly using artificial intelligence to identify suspicious postings online and on social media. The implementation of such a step, however, is apparently proving to be tricky.
Islamists Distract From Right-Wing Terrorists
Germany's half-hearted response to the serial killings of nine immigrants and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007 is now coming back to haunt it. The reforms lacked the necessary vigor, overshadowed as they were when the danger posed by the Islamic State became the focus of attention. After all, recruiting and training new police officers and domestic intelligence officials takes time. They must also learn to analyze new phenomena online and on the street.
In order to penetrate virtual spaces more effectively, Hartleb said, a specific kind of personnel is required. "These must be people who feel at home in these online spaces, in the truest sense. After all, perpetrators often spend 16 to 18 hours a day there," the extremism researcher said. This is one way online investigators could recognize prospective attackers: "The perpetrators look for like-minded people online and spend a lot of time preparing for their attacks or procuring weapons or similar items. All of this leaves traces," Hartleb said.
The improved exchange of information with international authorities is also necessary, since perpetrators often network across borders and their ideology is not strictly nationalistic.
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has recognized this, too. A confidential paper published by the agency says that in the fight against the "global threat" presented by the far right, the office must work much more closely with foreign intelligence services. It cites the fight against Islamist terrorism as a model.
At the European Union level, it has been accepted that right-wing extremism is a transnational problem and that it must, therefore, be combated transnationally. But this is immediately thwarted by the fact that no single, agreed upon definition of violent right-wing extremism exists in the EU. The European police authority, Europol, recently complained at a conference of EU justice and interior ministers that the phenomenon of violent right-wing extremism "was not being sufficiently documented." The responsibilities of Europol's Internet Referral Unit, which has until now been primarily focused on Islamist propaganda, must be expanded to include right-wing extremist content, the organization argued. The only problem is: There isn't enough staff. According to another document, anti-Semitic content isn't even systematically recorded. The tone of both documents is uneasy -- there is a "danger of underestimating the phenomenon and its significance." So far, the EU has no plan for how to rectify this.
Possible Links to Other Neo-Nazis
"It may be that from a legal standpoint, the perpetrator in Halle acted alone," said Konstantin von Notz, a member of parliament with the Green Party, "but it's likely that he was part of a right-wing extremist network." Therein lies the blind spot in German authorities' threat analysis, he added, saying it was high time officials started recognizing this phenomenon. Meanwhile, investigators with the Federal Criminal Police Office's special task force "Concordia" are trying to reconstruct the terrorist attack in Halle as well as its planning phase.
On Thursday evening, Balliet was questioned for several hours by an investigating judge at the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe. He reportedly spoke in detail about his crimes and has been in pre-trial detention ever since. DER SPIEGEL has learned that the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution is now investigating possible links between the attacker and right-wing extremists from the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, though investigators have yet to find irrefutable evidence of such a link. At the time this story went to the press, Balliet's defense attorney was not available for comment.
If there's one thing that can provide some consolation after the bloody attack in Halle, it's a photo of the U.S.-born rabbi Jeremy Borovitz. It shows him after the attack on a bus that brought the Jews from the synagogue in Halle to safety. He's smiling brightly at a small child.
By Maik Baumgärtner, Sven Becker, Felix Bohr, Jörg Diehl, Matthias Gebauer, Hubert Gude, Thomas Heise, Roman Höfner, Max Holscher, Martin Knobbe, Roman Lehberger, Timo Lehmann, Claas Meyer-Heuer, Adrian-Basil Müller, Ann-Katrin Müller, Henrik Neumann, Rachelle Pouplier, Sven Röbel, Marcel Rosenbach, Thies Schnack, Philipp Seibt, Steffen Winter, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Klaus Wiegref