Terror in Europe: Germany tackles ghosts from past

TO A nation that is all too familiar with the official brutality of Nazism and Communism that rode roughshod over their lives in the not so distant past, there are now challenging times ahead for Germans as they struggle to choose between their cherished civil liberties and the compulsions of the state in curtailing them in devising its counter-terrorism policy.

By M N Hebbar

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Sun 16 Sep 2007, 8:31 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:34 AM

The provocation for the above arose from the arrest last week of three men in Western Germany on charges of planning car bomb attacks against US-related sites, sending reverberations across European nations that imagined they were off the terrorists’ radar. The foiled plot has woken up Germany to the chilling realisation that it was not impervious to attacks that have bloodied London, Glasgow, Madrid and Istanbul since the attacks of September 11, a plot hatched by militants who used Hamburg as their base.

Prescience may have been behind Germany’s interior minister Wolfgang Schaeuble’s warning three months ago that the country faced a heightened threat of attack, possibly even a suicide bombing, because of its military engagement in Afghanistan, drawing parallels to that of the months before September 11. It apparently came sooner than expected.

As a consequence, the minister had begun to push for a law to allow surreptitious online searches of computers belonging to people the government deemed suspicious. Alarmingly, he also called for empowering security forces to shoot down a plane commandeered by hijackers as well as powers to detain potential terrorists and approve the elimination of terrorist leaders abroad.

Such proposals almost frightened the public in a country that has continually sought to eradicate any vestiges of state-sanctioned violence by erecting a legal framework that enshrines the rights of the individual over those of the state. Importantly, they were seen to erode civil liberties and undermine Germany’s rule of law.

But Mr Schaeuble’s proposals are now receiving serious attention in the wake of last week’s exposure, also buttressed by Germany’s close brush with a terrorist attack in July 2006, when it narrowly escaped a potentially deadly explosion after a pair of suitcase bombs failed to explode on commuter trains.

The uncovering of the bomb plot in Germany has been seen as new evidence of the worrying evolution of the Islamist terrorist threat, with the German chancellor Angela Merkel pronouncing the nation-wide view that the terrorist “danger is not just abstract, but real”. The Islamic threat was closer to home than ever imagined.

The rapid spread of “home-grown” Islamist terrorism in Europe (two of the three alleged plotters last week were German nationals) has alerted European intelligence officials and Europol has stepped in to work closely with the Germans. Investigations are also taking place outside Germany, say tight-lipped officials. And there is mounting pressure for Berlin to pass legislation outlawing visits to Islamist training camps abroad.

Intelligence officials say on condition of anonymity that the three accused are part of a small, but growing, flow of militants from Germany and other Western countries who are receiving training at camps in Pakistan. Furthermore, they are troubled by evidence that Al Qaeda and other groups are looking for recruits from Europe to better facilitate training and later use them in Germany for operations.

Recent security studies have focused on the emerging threat of terrorism conceptualised and planned by local citizens, which delineate the majority of these individuals as having ‘unremarkable’ lives, ‘unremarkable’ jobs, and little, if any, criminal history, making it doubly difficult to zero in on them.

The backgrounds of the two Germans allegedly involved in plotting what could have been Germany’s most serious terrorist attack throw light on how apparently unobtrusive young people become radical Islamists, according to security experts. Both crossed the line after converting to Islam in their late teens.

The upshot of it all has been that the German government has been compelled to draw up plans to introduce draft legislation on sensitive issues, including evidence of visiting training camps proving sufficient to hold up in court as a basis for bringing terrorism-related charges against a suspect. The government may be encouraged by the experience of other countries, including the UK, where visiting a terrorist training camp is a criminal offence.

So a public debate has come to the fore over Germany’s re-evaluation of the balance between civil liberties and collective security in its counter-terrorism policy. How far can the state go legally in upholding the interests of the state while safeguarding the rights of the individual?

Germany is also debating the continued involvement of its troops in Afghanistan, where it has deployed 3,000 troops, part of a NATO force battling a Taleban insurgency. The Bundestag (parliament) is scheduled to vote next month on whether to extend the deployment. Last week’s incident has confirmed the worst fears of critics that Germans, either in Afghanistan or at home, could become targets for attacks.

That said, the fact remains that an overwhelming section of the German public fondly embrace its liberties as much as its security. Even if a major attack were to take place, the chances are that the Germans would not overturn the national consensus that favours protecting individual rights over those of the state.

The shock of learning that the September 11 attacks had been plotted in Hamburg was not enough to shake the apathy of the Germans because they comforted themselves that the threat was directed against the United States, not at Germany itself. Now the threat is clearly directed at Germans, which would make it tougher to dismiss the interior minister’s seemingly drastic but urgent proposals.

The German government is forcing the public to face up to difficult questions rather than to stick one’s head in the sand. Time is no longer on the side of governments. Europe is sitting on a powder keg.

M N Hebbar is a Berlin based writer

More news from