Combating Terrorism and German Security Policy

Dieter Dettke

Georgetown University

Dr. Dieter Dettke is a Non-Resident Fellow at AICGS and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.

Dr. Dettke served as the U.S. Representative and Executive Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Washington from 1985 until 2006 managing a comprehensive program of transatlantic cooperation. In 2006, he joined the German Marshall Fund of the United States as a Transatlantic Fellow and from September 2006 to June 2007, he was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His most recent book is “Germany Says ‘No’: The Iraq War and the Future of German Foreign and Security Policy,” published by theWoodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, 2009.

Dr. Dettke is a foreign and security policy specialist, author and editor of numerous publications on German, European, and U.S. foreign and security issues.

He studied Law and Political Science in Bonn and Berlin, Germany, and Strasbourg, France and was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1967/68.


The 2016 White Paper on German security policy is first and foremost a document reflecting a growing sense of realism with regard to the complex nature of the new and increasingly global security challenges the country has to face at home and abroad. After the week of terror in July of this year, there is now a much more profound sense of vulnerability in the German public. Although the four terrorist-like attacks – not all of them ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) related – were much less lethal than this year’s earlier attacks in France and Belgium, they came as a shock for Germany, prompting Chancellor Merkel to qualify these attacks as a civilizational break of taboo. What distinguishes the new White Paper from all other documents of its kind in the past is that it recognizes the need to take on more “responsibility for the security of Europe” (Chancellor Merkel in her introduction) and that the country is now “ready to lead” (Defense Minister von der Leyen). Germany, it seems, has adopted the Spiderman principle, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In the language of the White Paper, the new approach is that “due to its economic, political and military significance, but also as a result of its vulnerabilities…come more options to exert influence but also increased responsibility.”

I. The Evolution of Terrorism

With regard to combating terrorism the new White Paper reflects the changing security landscape for Germany as well as the need to do more by stating that “terrorist attacks represent the most immediate challenge to our security.” The main characteristics of the new terrorist threat are summarized accurately: that it is transnational and global in reach, that it benefits from failing states, and, as in the case of ISIL, that it is even capable of establishing territorial control and state-like structures such as the caliphate.

The evolution of terrorism in the recent past is remarkable both for its technological and financial resources as well as its lethality. Modern weaponry, social media, professional filmmaking, and video productions are powerful tools in the hands of a dangerous religious cult such as ISIL. The recruitment success of ISIL is extraordinary. Richard Clarke, a former terrorism advisor for three American presidents is convinced that the terrorist threat has metastasized and spread geographically in recent years. With some 100,000 people in strength today, it is much larger now than in 2001 when al Qaeda staged the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More than 27,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIL in Syria and Iraq, including Europeans, Americans, and Canadians, and there are sleeper cells in almost every country of the globe. As one terrorist expert put it, ISIL is the crack cocaine of violent extremism.

The German Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maiziere estimates that there are 520 potential terrorist attackers in Germany and 360 others with terrorist connections. As a result, for part of the German public a conflation of the issues of terrorism and Germany’s openness to Islam in the context of the current refugee crisis was not untypical. Anti-immigration movements are now on the rise. The Alternative für Deutschland (AFD), a new right wing political party focusing on resisting immigration, gained considerable electoral strength in recent local elections and seems to be on its way to winning seats in the German Parliament in the upcoming 2017 national elections.

However, for a country like Germany there is no way to turn back the clock. Globalization, immigration, and multiculturalization are here to stay. Any attempt to recreate homogeneity will not work. Such a policy must fail because of the complex composition of modern societies in Europe and the United States. One important consequence of this development is that conflicts in Europe’s neighborhood directly affect every European society.

II. Terrorism and Immigration

It is true that immigration and terrorism can be linked as has been visible with efforts of ISIL to recruit among refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But it is also necessary to avoid conflating the issue because there is a need for two different strategies to deal with the issues Germany has to face. One is the positive force of integration and the other is to prevail in the asymmetric terrorist warfare confronting Europe and the United States. Even in the context of new terrorist threats Europe has to make diversity work.

Asymmetric warfare is not only to the advantage of terrorists. Full use of Western cyber and media technology as well as drones and special forces would be to the advantage of Europe and the United States in the asymmetric war with terrorism. The White Paper suggests “the use of political, legal, intelligence, police and military resources” in this fight, and if one adds to this Chancellor Merkel’s nine point program announced in the context of the week of terror in July of this year, the contours of a more realistic counter terrorism strategy begin to emerge. The main points of this program are: an early warning system for radicalization, stronger police forces, new information technology to decrypt web communication of potential terrorists, the use of the armed forces in case of catastrophic terrorism, enhanced cooperation on counter terrorism on the European level and with the United States, and, most importantly, a complete ban on weapon purchases over the internet. Finally, Germany is also determined to reduce obstacles to the deportation of asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected.

III. The Military Component for Counter Terrorism

Finding an appropriate role for the military in the long confrontation with terrorism still appears exceedingly difficult for a country like Germany. The issue needs to be addressed more openly and vigorously in a country whose public is instinctively and radically opposed to any use of military force except in case of a direct military attack. It is much easier to generate a public debate about a ban on burkas and burkinis. From the perspective of security this is a side issue and has nothing to do with security. The issue should be left to designers. It should not be such a central issue of public policy. But the fact that there is a majority of the German public in favor of a burka and burkini ban also demonstrates how insufficient and weak the public discourse on terrorism still is.

In the American public discourse one popular concept is to take on ISIL in a similar way the United States took on Nazi Germany in World War II. That would point into the direction of a predominantly – if not even exclusively – military strategy against ISIL. This would not be the best example for an effective counterterrorism strategy. Europe and the United States should see the fight against ISIL more in terms of a quarantine strategy, as an effort to interdict the export of a dystopian ideology. Drying ISIL out would be the objective. Based on the advantages of Western modern technology it should be possible to destroy the ISIL infrastructure, cut off their resources, reduce their recruitment, and weaken their capabilities.

Victory in the classical sense of warfare is not possible with terrorism. Terrorists do not fight on a clearly defined battlefield, there is no time frame, and it is difficult to achieve a peace agreement. Perhaps a kind of truce such as the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland or the most recent agreement between the government of Columbia and the Farc might be possible under specific circumstances. But in general, as the great historian of war, Martin van Crefeld has shown, counter terrorism has been very unsuccessful: France in Indochina and Algeria, the Netherlands in Indonesia, the United States in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, India in Sri Lanka, South Africa in Namibia, and many other examples.

IV. The long War Against Terrorism

Europe has the experience of the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648. Here, like today in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, there is a distinct religious component in a conflict that also involved a struggle over territory as well as political and religious influence and power. It was in many ways a multi-party civil war with intervening forces from outside in a fragmented political environment. As a result of the Thirty Years War, Europe suffered an extraordinary high number of civilian casualties and there were thousands of refugees and displaced persons like in Syria today. Two-thirds of the population of North and East Germany alone perished during the Thirty Years War and it took an entire century to repair the damage. But the war ended in a peace agreement, the Peace of Westphalia, with two important components. One was the principle of sovereignty and the other was religious tolerance. Combined these two components provided the foundation for peace and relative stability.


Today, the religious lines of conflict in combination with the territorial fragmentation in the Middle East provide another example of the explosive forces of a conflict potential generated by religion, territory and power. King Abdullah of Jordan is right to recognize ISIL first and foremost as a Muslim problem. Muslims must take ownership of ISIL and work together to confront it. But there also has to be a more faith-based strategy to deal with ISIL. Religious reform or reformation, to use the European example, is such a concept. The difficulty is that Islam has no central authority. This is also why fringe groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIL are in a position of usurping power in the name of an entire religion. Under these circumstances Islamic countries and democracies such Indonesia and Turkey should take on a stronger role in the fight against jihadism and also contribute to the de-radicalization of those who try to usurp power inside of Islam through terrorism. In Europe and the United States, it is crucial to work with Muslims in the midst of our societies to uncover as un-Islamic both the actions of ISIL as well as its belief system. ISIL is not the first un-Islamic version of Islam. Unchallenged it robs Islam of all humanity. It is our common interest to stop such a development.

*The article is based on a number of reflections presented by the author at a seminar on “Terrorism Generational Challenges: Political, Social, Economic and Strategic Implications” of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies on August 29, 2016

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The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.