'We Are Doing What We Can' German Domestic Intellience Chief on the New Wave of Hate

In an interview, Thomas Haldenwang, the president of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, discusses the new threat of extremism in the wake of the Halle attack and his agency's need for greater authority in the monitoring of such threats.
The kebab shop in Halle, Germany, that was the site of the Oct. 9 attack

The kebab shop in Halle, Germany, that was the site of the Oct. 9 attack

Foto: Jens Schlueter/ Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Haldenwang, the perpetrator in Halle who attempted to conduct a mass murder  at a synagogue on Oct. 9 appears to have come out of nowhere. He seems to have struck without the authorities ever having noticed his extremism. As president of Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) what's your explanation for this?

Haldenwang: He must have had a long-term plan of action -- he built his weapons using his own resources. To do that, he must have obtained material from the internet. But as far as we know so far, he didn't share his plans for the anti-Semitic attack with anyone.

DER SPIEGEL: Perpetrators like him radicalize themselves in forums and networks on the internet that often have links to the gamer scene. Is Germany's interior minister right when he says that the scene needs to be the subject of greater scrutiny?

Haldenwang: The majority of gamers have nothing to do with right-wing extremism, not even the ones who like the shooting games. But if I perceive that hatred and agitation are developing on these sites, if right-wing extremist ideas are being shared, including the idea of committing a terrorist attack, then we have to deal with these platforms.

DER SPIEGEL: Shouldn't you have done so long ago?

Haldenwang: We are doing what we can, but we need more staff to conduct considerably more intensive internet monitoring. This is a complex task and you need skilled employees who can identify trends and suspicious individuals.

DER SPIEGEL: How many people do you need?

Haldenwang: The 50 percent increase announced when I took office has already taken place. With 300 additional positions, we would move in the right direction, bringing us closer to the size of our department that deals with Islamism and Islamist terrorism. But we also need to be granted the authority commensurate with today's challenges.

DER SPIEGEL: You are referring to the monitoring of chat communications, which are often encrypted?

Haldenwang: Yes. Messenger services, for example. It should make no difference whether we want to be able to read an SMS or a WhatsApp message.

About Thomas Haldenwang
Foto: HC Plambeck

Thomas Haldenwang, 59, has served as president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution since November 2018. Prior to that, the lawyer was the deputy of the Cologne-based agency, which is responsible for monitoring and combating extremism in all its forms in Germany.

DER SPIEGEL: Should providers be required to hand the authorities a decrypted version of chats, if required?

Haldenwang: That would be a very far-reaching approach; there are alternatives, such as tapping sources, which would be our preferred approach. We would access extremists' phones at the point before communications become encrypted -- always subject to the strict requirements of the law, according to which all surveillance must be approved by an independent body, and only if the person has the potential to be particularly dangerous.

DER SPIEGEL: That wouldn't have helped at all in Halle. You can't plant a Trojan horse on someone's phone to monitor them if you don't even know who that person is.

Haldenwang: Unfortunately, there will always be cases that can't be detected in advance. But we can increase the chances -- by, for example, observing the internet more closely with additional staff.

DER SPIEGEL: In June, Walter Lübcke, a senior regional government official in Kassel, was shot dead  on the terrace of his home, likely by a man who has been deeply rooted in the extreme right-wing scene for years. How could such a thing happen?

Haldenwang: The alleged perpetrator had not appeared to be visibly extremist to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution since 2005. There was also a seemingly plausible explanation. He had married, built a house, had regular work, children, a dog and he was a member of a club. From all outside appearances, it was a successful resocialization.

DER SPIEGEL: But the suspect, Stephan Ernst, had been involved in an attack on a trade union rally in the city of Dortmund in 2009. Your office wasn't aware of that?

Haldenwang: That didn't make it into the systems of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. He had disappeared from our radar four years earlier. That's why our authority deleted all data about him from our files in 2015, after the expiry of the maximum storage period of 10 years. After the revelations about the NSU terrorist group , though, a moratorium was placed on deleting data. That's the only reason there were any documents left.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there a lesson to be learned from the Lübcke murder?

Haldenwang: We should consider extending the deadline for deletion to 15 years. And then you need to check each individual case carefully before you delete it: Has the person really left the scene, or are there any indications to make you doubt it? We shouldn't have automatic deletion any longer.

DER SPIEGEL: Is Ernst an isolated case?

Haldenwang: We have conducted an intensive search of our documents and files to determine whether there are similar cases. As of today, we haven't seen any.

DER SPIEGEL: You often receive tips about suspicious Islamists from foreign partners like the United States. Have you ever received a tip about a right-wing terrorist in the states of Saxony or Hesse?

Haldenwang: In the fight against right-wing extremism, cooperation on the national level is the chief priority. But international exchange has intensified since the attacks in Norway and New Zealand. I am confident that this will lead to the exchange of tips in the future. Given our expertise, we are also a sought-after partner internationally.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there anything novel about the type of perpetrator who emerged in the Halle attack?

Haldenwang: What's new is the international dimension. Right-wing extremism as we know it was long a particularly German phenomenon. But now, we see Anders Breivik in Oslo, Brenton Tarrant in Christchurch, Patrick Crusius in El Paso, the perpetrator in Halle. It's like links in a chain, almost an international competition. Another insight is that it appears that no deep ideology is needed to radicalize and develop plans for attacks. All that's needed is this emotion, hate, incitement, the web-based instigation and this convergence of people who, on the basis of simplistic messages often rooted in fake news, arrive at this world view and think they have to strike immediately.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there a societal discourse that promotes these kinds of crimes?

Haldenwang: There is currently growing acceptance of ideologies in Germany that are crossing the lines. The New Right practices a very intellectual right-wing extremism. On the surface, it distances itself from violence, but it also promotes the conspiracy theory of the "Great Replacement," (Eds: the idea of the government deliberately swapping out the native German population with refugees and foreigners) and conveys the feeling that something needs to be done to stop these alleged developments. That creates the intellectual breeding ground for these kinds of crimes.

DER SPIEGEL: One of the protagonists of the movement is Björn Höcke, the regional leader of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the eastern state of Thuringia and a man known for peppering his language with Nazi rhetoric. Do you consider him to be a right-wing extremist?

Haldenwang: I ask for your understanding that I cannot comment on a leading candidate shortly before a state election for legal reasons.

DER SPIEGEL: What, for you, is the definition of a right-wing extremist?

Haldenwang: If, for example, analogies to National Socialism are drawn in the wording. If historical revisionist, ethnic and xenophobic views are not only held, but also ultimately pursued. If human dignity is denied to large sections of the population with immigration backgrounds.

DER SPIEGEL: Another prominent figure is Andreas Kalbitz , the AfD's chair in the state of Brandenburg. Has he credibly distanced himself from his right-wing extremist past?

Haldenwang: Mr. Kalbitz has made statements that can be categorized under the aforementioned. I cannot recognize that he has distanced himself from his past. Like Höcke, he's one of the leading figures on the AfD's "Flügel" ("Wing"), which we classified as a suspicious case (Eds: meaning it is under observation by Haldenwang's agency) several months ago. We don't see anything that would dissuade us from this assessment. On the contrary, the Flügel is growing increasingly extremist.

DER SPIEGEL: There are also other influential New Right groups, like publisher Götz Kubitschek , who influences Höcke, or the magazine Compact. Are you looking into them, as well?

Haldenwang: There are many organizations that we are scrutinizing very intensively. "Reconquista Germanica," a project of net activists, for example. It has been obvious to us for a few weeks now that they are clearly right-wing extremists. We can use intelligence agency means for such objects of observation.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 43/2019 (18th October, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

DER SPIEGEL: Right-wing extremist elements have also been popping up repeatedly in Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, and in the police. Are we talking about individual cases or structures?

Haldenwang: The overwhelming majority of the staffs of German security authorities abide fully by the constitution. But there have been cases of right-wing extremism. You could say they're isolated cases, but one can also say, and this is my opinion, that there are too many isolated cases for me not to look at them systematically. That's why we work together with the state-level agencies under the tutelage of the federal agency to compile all the relevant information. And we plan to set up a telephone hotline for tips that will not only be there for government instances, but for all indications of right-wing extremism. That's already an effective tool in combating Islamist terrorism.

DER SPIEGEL: Your predecessor Hans-Georg Maassen makes no secret of the fact that he views Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy to be the culprit of the current wave of hate. Do you share that view?

Haldenwang: I supported the federal government's policies, also back in 2015. It is part of my Christian worldview that you help people who are in need. Germany did a remarkable job in that respect in 2015. However, it was also right to restore the normal procedures for immigration. So, no, I do not share my predecessor's criticism.