Blind Spot German Politicians Grapple with Tracking Extremists

Following the attempted mass murder at a synagogue in Halle, political parties in Germany are debating what action can be taken to prevent radicalization on the internet. Some politicians say surveillance is the answer. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Halle perpetrator Stephan Balliet (center) as he is delivered to Germany's prosecutor general

Halle perpetrator Stephan Balliet (center) as he is delivered to Germany's prosecutor general

Foto: Ronald Wittek/ EPA-EFE/ REX/ Shutterstock

Three people were watching live as Stephan Balliet streamed his failed attempt  to storm a synagogue in Halle, Germany, on Oct. 9, the Yom Kippur holiday, instead shooting to death a woman passing by and a customer at a kebab shop. Three people who watched the 36-minute long video of the crimes committed, recorded by a camera on Balliet's helmet and streamed on the internet portal Twitch, apparently without reporting it to the police.

Investigators with the Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) are now searching for those three people in order to question them and, presumably, prosecute them. It won't be an easy task, given that they may have used the Tor browser, which cloaks the identity of the computer being used to surf the web. So far, the trail ends at IP addresses in the United States and Switzerland.

The attack in Halle began on the internet, with the radicalization of the perpetrator in related forums. The attacker also searched the web for instructions for building weapon parts, which he apparently later made in his father's workshop. Toward the end, he also posted a manifesto on the web, in which he provided details about the crime he intended to commit. But during the half a year Balliet spent preparing his attack, he apparently didn't tell anyone about his murderous plans.

The video of the attack was ultimately viewed by more than 2,000 people. Balliet's manifesto was also shared online, including by two brothers in the city of Mönchengladbach who are now under investigation for possible incitement charges.

During interrogation after his arrest, 27-year-old Balliet said he was "not a social person," and said that the anti-Muslim terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 people were killed, served as "kind of an initial impulse." Investigators have already determined that Balliet wrote the first of his three-part manifesto for the web in the spring.

Controversial Proposals

A major debate has now broken out in politics in Germany about what can be done to combat this type of perpetrator, who has self-radicalized on the internet. A week ago Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), called for numerous measures, including mass data retention. They want to require telecommunications companies to store connection information and location data for longer than they currently do. But that controversial project has been on hold since a Higher Administrative Court in Münster ruled in 2017 that such a regulation was in violation of European Union law.

Experts such as Sven Herpig at the think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV) consider the proposals to be ill-considered. "In this particular case, data retention wouldn't have helped prevent the crime," he says. Herpig also notes that investigators have the perpetrator's smartphone and computer in their possession.

Another controversial idea is that of permitting not only the police, but also the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which is responsible for monitoring all forms of extremism inside Germany, to directly monitor the mobile phones and laptops of suspects in order to tap their communications prior to encryption on messaging apps. Both Merkel's conservatives and BfV President Thomas Haldenwang, (see related interview ) are calling for the agency to be given such powers. A draf law produced by the Interior Ministry is currently working its way through the Justice Ministry, where officials have called for changes, including greater parliamentary oversight. Experts from both ministries are meeting on a weekly basis to find solutions, and the pressure is said to be high to produce results.

A 'Fundamental Contradiction'

Critics complain that the government must rely on weak points in end devices in order to hack them, which would necessitate leaving security gaps in those products open. That, though, would also leave those vulnerabilities open for exploitation by criminals and spies. Merkel's coalition government "still hasn't resolved this fundamental contradiction," said Konstantin von Notz, the Green Party's point man for domestic affairs.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the CSU and Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) both agree that platform providers should be liable not only for deleting criminal content, but also for reporting it to the authorities. A related amendment to the law is expected to be passed imminently at a meeting of Merkel's government cabinet.

In the longer run, however, there is no way of avoiding strategic surveillance of the internet, argues Armin Schuster, the domestic policy point man for the Christian Democrats in parliament. He's concerned about "suspicious extremist content" and would like to see the government try to push through the kind of digital drag net initiative has failed to get off the ground in the past.

'We're Still at the Beginning of the Debate'

He says it would also be helpful if more BfV agents were monitoring right-wing extremist forums for relevant content. "But we can only be effective if we also have automated monitoring on top of that," he said. WebCrawler programs that can be used to search the web for harmful content already exist and Germany's security authorities are discussing the possibility of using them. But, says Schuster, "we're still at the beginning of the debate."

Sebastian Fiedler of the Federation of German Police Detectives, though, warns that "the security authorities and politicians need to admit that they will not be able to manage the threat posed by this type of perpetrator on their own." He adds: "We are all responsible for preventing these kinds of crimes." Fiedler says there's also a lack of prevention programs for young men who show extremist tendencies.


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

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Holger Stahlknecht, the state interior minister in Saxony-Anhalt, where the attack took place. The Jewish communities in Halle and Magdeburg have claimed that they requested additional police protection, especially on public holidays. Stahlknecht, though, has said that no such request was ever made.

His authorities have also been criticized for the fact that the police didn't have a patrol car in front of the synagogue in Halle on a Jewish holiday. But the minister has argued that the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) had not identified any acute dangers. But the BKA is usually only responsible for describing threats more broadly, with the state-level affiliates in charge of compiling more detailed analyses for their respective states.

That was a "fatal misjudgment on the part of the police," argued Henriette Quade, a member of the state parliament in Saxony-Anhalt with the far-left Left Party, "and Stahlknecht is partly responsible."

By Melanie Amann, Jörg Diehl, Martin Knobbe, Timo Lehmann, Sven Röbel and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt

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