“Considerate and Determined”: Germany’s Pragmatic Approach to Combatting Terrorism?

Pia Seyfried

German Bundestag

Pia Seyfried is a legislative assistant for European policy in the German Bundestag and an assistant to the board of Women in International Security Germany e.V. (WIIS.de). She gives lectures on European affairs at the Berlin School of Economics and Law, and publishes articles focusing on EU security policy and intelligence cooperation. Pia Seyfried holds MAs in Political and European Affairs from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques Lille, the University of Münster, and the College of Europe in Warsaw. In a voluntary capacity, she works as the Young DGAP’s Deputy Speaker and manages the Salon Kaleidoskop.

She is a 2017-2018 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

Germany has not yet experienced major coordinated terror incidents of the type that has hit the United States, Belgium, France, Turkey, and other countries. Two Islamist terror attacks in Bavaria, however, shocked Germany last month. The first one was carried out by an Afghan asylum seeker who wounded four people with an ax on a train near Würzburg. A few days later, a Syrian blew himself up at a music festival in Ansbach and injured 15 people. It was the first Islamist suicide attack on German soil. Both incidents have been claimed by the Islamic State.

Three weeks later—after a phase of calm and reflection—on August 11, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière unveiled a wide range of increased security measures to bolster security and combat terrorism. “A lot of people are alarmed and afraid of new attacks. This is understandable. In a free society, no one can guarantee that there won’t be any attacks. But we have to do everything possible. Our common task is to overcome concerns and draw conclusions from these acts of violence in a considerate and determined manner,” he stated.

De Maizière’s security plan basically contains a three-pillar approach focusing on shaping up security authorities, prevention and integration, and the rule of law. The top priority is to improve Germany’s security authorities. Given the current threat situation, de Maizière said, it will be examined whether more personnel are needed for the Federal Police, the Office of Criminal Investigations, and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Overall, he envisages additional personnel up to a number of four figures over several years.

Also, the organization of security forces will be strengthened: A new police direction for special forces will be created, so that in very serious situations—possible terror situations—all necessary forces can be coordinated in one place and made available to the German states.

Moreover, according to the Minister, a “technology offensive” is needed, which means that security authorities shall be much better armed technically in terms of personnel and equipment. Law enforcement agencies will focus more on finding criminal activity on the dark Internet. Specialized undercover cyber investigators will concentrate on, for example, illegal weapons trade or communication between terrorists.

Apart from these long overdue technological investments at national level, de Maizière also sent some messages toward Europe: “Organization and coordination is particularly relevant at the European level. We have to work together more intensively.” Thus, he urged to attack technical “isolated solutions” in Europe as security information exists, but only in fragments and in very different places. This calls for a unified system of information sharing available to all security institutions. All security institutions, including all intelligence services, should have access to the EU-wide fingerprint database Eurodac and the recently implemented flight passenger name record, de Maizière argued. Those statements are of major importance, but have been similarly expressed before and at all political levels – from the idea of “better intelligence cooperation” to a “European FBI”. It therefore remains to be seen whether they will find respective implementation.

As part of the second pillar “prevention and integration,” de Maizière emphasized the creation of an additional center to the existing radicalization advice centers, which primarily will offer refugees the opportunity to report in their own language for cases such as psychological changes or tendencies to radicalization among their housemates. He also called for a common European center of prevention and de-radicalisation. Experiences and best practices should be shared among scientists, practitioners, and civil servants from all EU member states.

As part of the third pillar, “the rule of law,” de Maiziere mainly envisages the rules on the right of residency for foreigners who commit crimes or constitute a risk to public safety in Germany. “We want to introduce new grounds for holding somebody in custody, namely the threat to public safety, so that we can then make sure they leave the country,” he said.

De Maizière emphasized that the security plan contained proposals that could be implemented quickly, hoping that many of the measures will find legislative approval within this term.

Here comes the crucial point. With two regional elections in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in September this year and national elections next year, security has become intensely political. Security policy and immigration are sure to be big topics in all parties’ campaigns. De Maizière unveiled his measures at a time when Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing harsh criticism that last year’s welcome to a huge wave of refugees has compromised security. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), have reasons to worry that the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party could make great gains from the issues of internal security and migration. Already, a fierce debate has ignited, which extends well beyond pure domestic security.

In the wake of recent terror attacks, other European countries have reflexively declared wars on terrorism, including almost permanent states of emergency and intense discussions on the issue of a burqa/burkini ban for Muslim women. De Mazière pointed out that the proposals he presented were limited to points that can directly lead to more security. On the contrary, he would not support a burqa ban in Germany as part of a comprehensive security strategy. He made clear that such a ban might be first “constitutionally problematic” and second not helpful in keeping the society together.

Many, mainly conservatives in the CDU, however have criticized de Maizière and want the government to go further. The internal party controversy resulted in a separate “Berlin Declaration” being presented by de Maizière and conservative state interior ministers last Friday. The proposals include additional 15000 police forces by 2020 and more intensive video surveillance at public places. The most controversial point is, however: The ministers also called for a ban on full-body veils in certain public areas such as schools, universities, courts, or other public authorities. De Maizière defended the partial ban, clearly making concessions to his state-level party colleagues.

The current debate actually demonstrates the different dimensions of security and the challenge of dealing with them at the right time. What is internal security in the end? Is it the prevention of terror attacks and, in the worst case, the prosecution of their perpetrators? Or, does it extend to values, identity, homogeneity, and the feeling of belonging together within a society?

Internal security is not only about security policy. It does include various policy fields and aspects such as education, integration, identity, culture, language, religion, privacy, and the rule of law. All of them are equally important. The question is whether all of them are equally relevant and reasonable to be addressed in the context of combating terrorism. Discussing a ban of full-body veils for women as one aspect of integration policy is necessary. Yet, there is a risk of mixing up topics and the risk of using an extraordinary situation of peoples’ fear and concerns, which might then lead discussions into a remote direction. Treating a possible burqa ban and terrorism in the same strategy paper, and thus linking them in an indirect way, might create tensions and division within society; this is not in favor of security, but of mistrust and uncertainty.

In these times, when terror alerts mix with election campaign rhetoric, de Maizière’s political strategy seems to be de-escalation and concentration on measures purely aiming at combating terrorism. Yet, in announcing the measures, he also calmly prepares the nation for a significant change in confronting new threats. Particularly in Germany, reflections on the role of security authorities, police, and intelligence services in combating terrorism will be necessary. And, in the end, there might be a remarkable shift towards more aggressive security measures in a country which is rather opposed to hard-lined security policy and deeply protective of privacy and civil liberties. In an interview on Sunday, de Maiziere spoke in favor of far-reaching reforms, such as the future use of facial recognition software at airports and train stations to help identify terror suspects. He also called for a possible ban on backpacks at major public events. “We will have to get used to increased security measures such as longer queues, stronger controls, or person-related tickets.”

Overall, de Maizière’s strategy as well as the reactions it attracts reflect a general tension over how to set appropriate measures to combat terrorism against civil liberties, such as privacy, freedom of religion, and the political climate of recurring nationalism and a strong anti-immigration attitude. The current situation is without doubt also a balancing act between effective policies and inflaming election campaigns. By offering the proposed measures as well as his rhetoric in their presentation, de Maizière had so far contributed to an objectively driven debate on internal security. “One thing is sure,” he added, “our country will not respond to the violence of the perpetrators with hate and division.” Yet, his altering attitude regarding a possible burqa ban discloses the struggle of finding the balance between a considerate ministerial approach and electoral pressure.

The debate on how to respond to terrorism has only just begun. De Maizière will enter a long process of negotiations with coalition partners to find a consensus on the new and final measures. Horst Seehofer, Bavarian state governor and head of the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has been criticizing the Chancellor’s immigration policy for months, requesting clear limits on the number of migrants entering Germany and stricter enforcement of deportation laws. Seehofer promised to do everything possible to ensure public safety in Bavaria, even at the risk of unity within the CDU/CSU. “Islamist terror has arrived in Germany. Level-headedness is important, but it does not replace the need for protection through the state. I am no longer willing, simply for keeping the peace, to not handle things as they must be handled in a country governed by the rule of law,” he stated.

Right in the aftermath of the attacks in Würzburg and Ansbach, international media has acknowledged the “heroic calmness” and “pure reason” of Germany in dealing with terrorism. The following weeks and months will actually prove who and what topics and emotions will dominate the political discourse on internal security.

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