Germany is to implement a far-reaching package of security measures over the coming months, amid fears of a potential terror plot timed to coincide with German national elections in September.
High-ranking security officials told SPIEGEL ONLINE that a new counter-terrorism package had been agreed at a meeting between federal and state-level officials in Berlin Thursday. The German Interior Ministry confirmed only that a meeting of the authorities had taken place.
The new package is a reaction to recent official warnings that Germany faces an increased risk of terror attack. The government fears that al-Qaida is planning attacks on Germans abroad, and possibly in Germany, ahead of the Sept. 27 general election. Authorities are concerned that terrorists may time an attack to try to affect the outcome of the election or provoke discussion on the German military mission in Afghanistan.
As a result of the increased terror fears, the government has ordered all the relevant authorities to work on measures to counter the threat. Senior Interior Ministry official August Hanning said he would implement all the necessary preventative measures.
The new action plan was developed by the various federal and state authorities in recent weeks. On Thursday morning, the heads of the authorities met again in Berlin in order to sign off on the package. The meeting kicked off with presentations from Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, who outlined scenarios for possible dangers facing the country. The risk of an attack, either within national borders or against Germans abroad, has increased sharply in recent months, authorities believe.
Officially, the meeting was called a workshop. But the high-ranking attendees at the get-together reveal how seriously Germany is taking the threat of attack. Joining August Hanning around the table were BND head Ernst Uhrlau, BKA President Jörg Ziercke and Heinz Fromm, who heads the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency. The event was also attended by the heads of the state-level Interior Ministries, who received a situation report from Uhrlau and Ziercke on why exactly they believe an attack may be looming.
The extensive package of measure bears similarities to the tightened controls ahead of the 2006 soccer World Cup, which was hosted by Germany. Airport and border police must now step up their search for individuals returning from terror training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The return of Islamists is seen as the biggest threat at present. Intelligence reports show that dozens of men, either German converts to Islam or German citizens with immigrant backgrounds, have traveled to terrorist training camps in the region. Officials fear they may carry out attacks should they be allowed back into the country.
Controls are also to be tightened to prevent the outbound journey of potential new recruits. As a result, Germany's domestic intelligence service is to increase its checks on passengers heading for Pakistan or other countries in the crisis region, in a bid to spot those planning to attend al-Qaida terror training camps. In coming weeks, as part of the new package, state-level intelligence officials will visit 140 Islamists identified as a security threat and will also beef up surveillance of their activities. In Germany there are believed to be 45 people who have already attended a terror training camp.
Meanwhile, authorities plan to contact colleges and universities to identify any signs of radical elements among Muslim groups. In the past, terror cell members often met each other at technical colleges and then increasingly isolated themselves from their peers. By contacting the colleges, investigators hope to identify such developments before they become a threat.
Young men from North Africa are a particular focus of the new measures. Information from the US suggests that al-Qaida in Pakistan aims to target Germany in a bid to curtail its military involvement in Afghanistan. Germany is seen by Islamists as the weak link in the Western alliance in Afghanistan, sources say. According to the US intelligence warning, al-Qaida's section in North Africa has already been instructed to carry out an attack on German targets. This warning has been passed on to German firms operating in the area. Authorities have also issued increased travel warnings for Germans traveling to the region.
Recent video messages from German al-Qaida recruits make specific reference to the ongoing German debate about its Afghanistan mission, revealing how closely the terrorist organization monitors Germany's position. "Islamists aim to attack what they see as the weakest link in the chain," August Hanning from the Interior Ministry said recently. He says that the terrorists closely track surveys of public opinion and the German political debate. An attack could have a massive influence on public opinion about the mission.
At present, no one likes to say exactly how big the risk is. However, a vague intelligence report from Pakistan in early May fanned fears of a planned attack. According to the report, 15 terror-camp trained individuals, including Germans and other Europeans, were sent back to their home countries and told to await instructions from overseas. Until now, intelligence officials have been unable to confirm the reports but they have warned border officials to be especially vigilant of people possibly returning from Pakistan.
It is unclear how long the new measures will stay in place. Some officials are concerned that diverting attention to the latest counter-terrorist measures will come at the cost of surveillance of other Islamist groups. As a result, they want the package to be in place for a limited period of time. But it was unclear after the meeting whether officials had agreed on a time limit for the package.