Keeping Its Composure Germany Seeks Calm after French Attack

The German government is trying to address the French terror attacks with a sense of calm, with no plans for new terror laws. However, fears are growing that the massacre will boost a disturbing anti-Muslim current in the country.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière meets with Muslim women in Berlin in June.
Christian Thiel

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière meets with Muslim women in Berlin in June.

When the news agencies began issuing their first reports on the Paris murders on Wednesday afternoon, the presidents of Germany's major security agencies were sitting around a conference table. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, was hosting a routine "security conversation" in Berlin. French security officials in Paris sent their situation reports to the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and the Interior Ministry, and the officials attending de Maizière's meeting were kept updated.

De Maizière gave orders that remained all but unnoticed by the public. A police bulletin was issued in Germany for the second getaway car, a Renault Clio with the Paris license plate number 157 NBZ 75. The federal police agency's border agents were instructed to keep an eye out for suspicious individuals. Finally, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, was told to closely monitor individuals on its watch lists and search for possible connections between German Islamists and France. All of this is part of a routine of sorts during heightened terrorism alerts.

Islamist terror returned to Europe on Wednesday, to France, Germany's closest and most important neighbor. There is a special connection between these two nations, which were once arch enemies but now, for almost six decades, have formed the heart of European unity. So what does the Paris attack mean for Germany, what does it mean for its government, its political parties and, most of all, its citizens? Will fear run rampant in a Europe without borders? Or possibly even xenophobia? Everyone in the German capital is familiar with the questions, but no one knows the answers.

"Keep a cool head." It's something many politicians in Chancellor Angela Merkel's grand coalition government -- comprised of her CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- are now saying, partly to calm themselves. It is up to them and the media to show that they can keep Islam and Islamism separate in their rhetoric and actions, even under great pressure. If they do not succeed, Germany could change. Suspicion could proliferate against all things Muslim and corrode society. Our society's openness is its strength, but so is its internal and external vulnerability.

It's a fine line. The interior minister and the justice minister stress that they are opposed to new security laws. But they are also quick to list the decisions that were reached before the attack, and the pending legislation currently stuck in the parliamentary bureaucracy. It sounds like a reinsurance policy.

Can Calm Prevail?

Only the next several days will show whether calm will prevail in Germany, because there is one factor that is difficult to predict: What does it mean that a relatively successful party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is trying to derive political capital from the killings?

"Our composure is that of a country that has not faced a fundamental test of this kind yet. But when push comes to shove, we have stuck together until now. I am confident that this would also be true in the case of a terrorist attack," says Interior Minister de Maizière. But there is a hint of quiet skepticism within his certainty. According to a Bertelsmann study conducted before the Paris attack, 57 percent of Germany's non-Muslim population sees Islam as a threat, up from 53 percent in 2012.

By coincidence, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) was attending a presentation by the German Giant-Alpecin cycling team for the Tour de France at the French Embassy in Berlin when the first news of the attack arrived. Suddenly the ambassador was called away from the room. When Maas was told what had happened a short time later, he expressed his sympathy to the ambassador. It was a moment of helplessness.

Maas, the cabinet's sharpest critic of the anti-Islamic Pegida protest movement in Dresden, is sticking to his criticism when he says: "Perhaps the murders in France will change the situation, but not the arguments." Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen voiced similar sentiments: "This is not Islam. This is pure terror. And it makes us all the more determined to stand side-by-side with France for freedom and tolerance."

This is now the line taken by the entire German government, always careful to erect a firewall between Islam and Islamists. On Friday, German President Joachim Gauck said, "Our society is large. We will not allow extremists -- regardless what their political inclination -- to weaken or defeat us. We have institutions and laws to counter fanaticism and violence."

It was an important distinction to make because otherwise the roughly 4 million Muslims in Germany would all become potential suspects. Most have their roots in Turkey, a country that has little in common with the Islamism of the Arab world. On the other hand, this firewall also blocks a question many people are asking today: Could it have something to do with Islam itself that most of the acts of terror around the world in recent years were committed in the name of this religion?

New Rules Already in Works

The government does not wish to entertain this notion under any circumstances. Instead, Interior Minister de Maizière points out which laws the grand coalition has already decided to tighten. Even the attempt to travel to a terrorist training camp will soon be a punishable offence, as will the funding of terrorist groups. A bill will be submitted to the cabinet in January that would enable law enforcement to revoke the identification cards of suspects.

The Christian Democratic interior minister also supports the establishment of an EU-wide requirement to collect certain data from air travelers. It would enable authorities to compare the names of passengers on flights to Europe from certain regions against wanted lists before their arrival. The European Parliament initially blocked the proposal. "We need this ability to compare passenger data," says de Maizière, who discussed the issue with several EU interior ministers in Paris on Sunday. He also sees a new debate developing over the controversial subject of data retention. De Maiziére said the ministers would be prepared to make compromises on the traveler database but that it would not accept "blockading" by the European Parliament.

But SPD Justice Minister Maas remains skeptical. He quotes former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who, after the 2011 massacre of 77 people in his country, said: "We will never renounce our values -- our answer is more democracy, more openness and more humanity. But never naïveté." Maas does not want to see any new security laws enacted.

In Norway, Stoltenberg's appeal only strengthened the proud composure of his fellow citizens. Do the Germans, who have not suffered a similar attack yet, also have what the British call a "stiff upper lip?" "I am certain that our people will place the incidents in the right context," says Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavaria sister party to Merkel's CDU. In fact, he adds, if Germany does not have a credible response to the fear of terrorism, it will only benefit the Pegida protest movement. "I am pleased that all democratic parties in Germany have so far refrained from deriving political capital from the attack."

But not all. The AfD views the Paris murders as confirmation of its warnings about Islam and Islamists. In mid-December, following an attack on a café in Sydney, party leader Konrad Adam said: "This shows that you don't even need mass immigration to put people in danger. All it takes is one person." Or, to put it plainly: Only a Muslim-free country is a safe country. And now he says: "The attack validates the Pegida demonstrators in many respects, and it shows that politicians were wrong in flatly condemning them. I expect that Pegida will continue to grow." The same could apply to his party, the AfD, which is apparently trying to build a bridge to the protesters. If the German political landscape begins shifting to the right as a result, the CDU and the CSU will be quick to jettison their aura of self-control.

Joachim Herrmann, Bavaria's state interior minister, offered a taste of what is to come. "Monitoring radicalized individual perpetrators is costly and complex. The only solution is to have well-trained and experienced personnel." Stephan Mayer, the spokesman on domestic policy for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, is calling for "additional staff to observe potentially threatening individuals and those returning from Syria." He is touching on a sore spot.

A Threat to German Security?

On Wednesday, the BKA activated its "Immediate Measures in Response to Terrorist Incidents Abroad." The list of measures, last updated in 2009, focuses on determining, as quickly as possible, the whereabouts of potential attackers or "relevant individuals" with ties to jihadist groups. The monitoring is to be conducted "in a concealed manner," that is, through informants, observation and telephone surveillance.

This requires tremendous resources. The BKA estimates that there are about 1,000 individuals in Islamist terrorist circles in Germany, of which 230 are under special surveillance. They are classified as so-called "Gefährder" (literally, "endangerers"), who are prepared to commit acts of violence at any time. German counterterrorism officials pay special attention to the roughly 550 individuals who have traveled to Syria recently, some of whom have been involved in fighting, as well as the 180 who have returned to Germany.

Graphic: Jihadists in Europe

Graphic: Jihadists in Europe

The Federation of German Police Officers (BDK) estimates that about 3,600 officers would be needed just to monitor these returnees around the clock. "This is beyond the scope," says André Schulz, the head of the BDK. "We need more observation teams if we want to improve the security situation in Germany," says Schulz. The BfV has recently approved only 36 additional employees for such surveillance work.

In an initial assessment, the BKA said last week that the Paris attack has not had a direct impact on the security situation in Germany. Nevertheless, patrol cars were posted on Thursday in front of the offices of several German newspapers that had reprinted cartoons from Charlie Hebdo.

The attack could "serve as an opening for individuals living or staying in Germany who are inclined to commit similar acts," the BKA report states. The murderous attack on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo proves "that such attacks could happen in European cities and capitals at any time," the report continues. The actions of the Paris attackers correspond to a "trend to stage attacks in Western countries propagated by terrorist organizations" in recent times, say BKA officials.

Early Sunday morning, an arson attack was committed against the Hamburger Morgenpost, one of the newspapers in Germany that reprinted Charlie Hebdo cartoons after the murders. The authorities are currently investigating possible motives for the Hamburg incident, which did not result in any injuries.

Meanwhile, the authorities must also keep an eye on right-wing and extremist right-wing groups. The inflammatory German website Politically Incorrect (PI), for example, called upon its supports to fight back "with no holds barred." According to an article published on the PI website on Wednesday evening, Germany is "at war" with Islamist "occupiers" acting "on the orders of a hostile religion."

Germany Is a Target

For intelligence agencies, the Paris attack confirmed "what we have been warning against for months," said a senior BfV official. In an internal analysis prepared in the fall of 2014, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, had warned against attacks by the militant terrorist group Islamic State, saying that it could commit "a major terrorist attack affecting that public in the West." The official propaganda vehicle of IS, a glossy product called Dabiq, has named Germany as a concrete target.

In fact, Germany has only narrowly escaped attacks in the past. A group based in the central Sauerland region was planning attacks until 2007, and in 2006 the so-called suitcase bombers planted explosives in two regional trains, but the bombs failed to detonate. Bonn may have escaped a major attack in December 2012. Probably the only reason a bomb deposited in a bag at the city's main train station did not go off is that a pedestrian apparently destroyed the trigger mechanism by kicking the bag.

In November 2014, a SWAT team of about 50 officers stormed the apartments of four brothers suspected of gathering and delivering "substantial assets" for IS in Syria. Among the items seized at the apartments were night-vision goggles, binoculars, mobile phones and computers. The Berlin public prosecutor's office is investigating the men, who are Turkish citizens and are suspected of making "preparations for a serious act of violence endangering the state."

Strong indications of potential violence were also found in Düsseldorf, where members of an Al-Qaida cell were convicted a few weeks ago. They were planning attacks in Germany, but apparently they were also toying with the idea of taking action against Charlie Hebdo. Next to the bed of the cell's leader, Moroccan national Abdeladim El-K., officers found a spiral notebook in which the words "attack" and "execution" had been scribbled in French. The name of the French satirical magazine now synonymous with one of the bloodiest attacks in Western Europe was also written in the notebook and in an address book found in the apartment.

By Melanie Amann, Nikolaus Blome, Markus Deggerich, Hubert Gude, Horand Knaup, Peter Müller, Fidelius Schmid and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt


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Inglenda2 01/12/2015
1. Radical Islamists are not always a minority.
Islam is a divided religion, but every branch is based on the Koran. It is therefore not only ridiculous, but also very dangerous to say Islamism is not part of the Islam. The so-called Euro-Islam, which is both peaceful and partly democratic, is itself threatened by more orthodox Muslims. The reason being, that Euro-Moslems do not accept fully, those parts of the Koran which call for violence against non-believers. The enlightened Muslims, who are a very small minority, have the chance to think for themselves and regard the verses of the Koran, which call for the killing of members of other religions, as having only historical value. For this very reason they risk being killed by other Moslems who take the Koran by word. The events in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, show quite clearly, that where Muslims have a majority, or reason to feel strong, the acceptance of violence is much higher. 01/12/2015
2. Keeping Composure
Radical Islam followers are the issue, thus "regular" muslime should stand up and reject the atrocities committed by ISIS/AlQeda and their followers everywhere. Kind and soothing words by politicians will not curb the fear of the regular folks, irrespective of their individual religious affiliations. Appropriate cooperation of authorities around the world is needed and should be supported. Our Government should endorse and make readily available the remerkable speech of Egypt's President El-Sisi on the need for re- orientation in the muslim world and leading these actions should be done by Imams in their countries. Education trumps war, but, unfortunately both are needed at this very moment. Karl
rafael 01/12/2015
"...disturbing anti-Muslim current in the country..." Yeah, has Germany done anything concrete to address it? Or does it have to take Charlie Hebdo to come out of lull! Does everything has to take scores of death before action is taken?
peskyvera 01/12/2015
A big step in the right direction would be to stop provoking Muslims.
subo_168 01/13/2015
5. oh my
It looks like Germany practically got a nervous breakdown over the terrorist attack in Paris. Imagine if they go to pieces over a terrorist attack that killed a handful of people on another country, what would have Germany done if faced with a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 with 3000 people murdered in a few minutes. The USA never produced a PEGIDA even after 9/11 while Germany which has never suffered an Islamic terrorist attack has produced PEGIDA. Of course this will never be pointed out by Der Spiegel as it will spoil their narrative of "morally superior Europe/bad America".
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