Germany finds that nowhere in the West is safe from Islamist terrorism
ASK Germans what worries them most and—at least to a foreigner—the answers may be a surprise. According to one recent poll, fears about such things as cuts in social benefits or the loss of jobs make up the top ten threats. The possibility of a terrorist attack comes in only 14th, with 25% mentioning it—even fewer than those who are most concerned by global warming and climate change (38%).
Terrorism seems, however, sure to leap up the list now, after it emerged that the country had narrowly escaped its first big Islamist terrorist attacks. Last weekend the police identified two suspects, arresting one in Kiel, in northern Germany. At the end of July, this suspect, a 21-year-old Lebanese student, and another Lebanese man who fled to Beirut but later gave himself up, are alleged to have placed two suitcases, each containing a bomb, on regional trains. Fortunately, their makeshift workmanship (one gas cylinder, water bottles filled with gasoline as a detonator, an alarm clock) was so crude that the bombs failed to explode.
Predictably, the politicians are now outdoing each other with plans for how best to avert further terrorist attacks. Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister, has demanded that more security cameras be deployed and other electronic surveillance be stepped up. The arrest came after a tip-off from Lebanese intelligence, but the suspect was also caught on video camera dragging a suitcase containing a bomb along Cologne's main train station, as well as by a telephone tap. Others are calling for armed “train marshals” to patrol at least some of the thousands of trains that crisscross the country every day.
Yet Germany hardly needs another raft of anti-terrorism measures. In the wake of September 11th 2001, the police got nearly all they wanted, including access to financial and other personal data. The problem lies more with Germany's federal structure. There is no equivalent of America's FBI. Each of the country's constituent states, or Länder, has its own police organisation, which makes it harder not only to fight terrorism but also to develop joint techniques for doing so, and for exchanging information. For years, the states and the federal government have been talking of creating a “terrorism database”. But some states want this to include as many details as possible, whereas others, supported by privacy advocates, insist on limiting it only to basic data.
This points to another problem that may make fighting terrorism harder in Germany than elsewhere. Germans put a premium on the protection of their personal data. For instance, the use of data from the nationwide toll system for trucks to catch a suspect is widely considered as a giant leap towards an Orwellian state. Such a reaction is in part a response to the experience of the Third Reich and the Gestapo. But it is also the result of what is now known as the “leaden time” of the 1970s, when left-wing terrorism by the Red Army Faction and other groups led the government to overreach and overreact.
What the failed bombings, and the nationality of the suspects, demonstrate beyond doubt is that Germany can no longer rely on those factors that were thought to have shielded it from Islamist terrorism. These included its criticism of the Iraq war, a Muslim community mostly made up of relatively well-integrated Turks, good police work—and plain luck. Next time, the bombs may actually explode.