Refugees, Terrorism, and a Failing Security Architecture: Germany’s Domestic Security after the Elections

November 7, 2017

There is little doubt that the security situation in Germany has changed dramatically since 2013, provoked, most notably by a precipitous influx of refugees in 2015. Yet, tangled in a multiplicity of interlocking narratives and controversies, meaningful government action to combat terrorism has stalled. Guido Steinberg, an expert on Islamic terrorism, argues that the German security architecture is long overdue for a centralization of its fragmented agencies. In early 2013, when the Islamic State (IS) decided to target the European powers (Britain, France, and Germany), “false refugees” entered the countries by accompanying fleeing migrants. Some had been members of terrorist groups prior to entry in Germany, while others were co-opted into the Jihadist mindset only after their arrival in the country. The dire condition of refugees has been fertile grounds for IS influence. Subsequently, the exponential increase in Germany’s refugee intake was naturally followed by a parallel uptick in terrorist activity. Although the nexus between the refugee influx and the increase in terrorist attacks are painfully obvious, German officials continue to deny the existence of a correlation.

The slowing of migrant flows into Germany has been broadly attributed to the success of the EU-Turkey agreement. However, Dr. Steinberg credits this event to the efforts of Austria in 2016, before the conclusion of the Turkey deal. Recognizing the deficiency of their security infrastructure, German interior minister Thomas de Maizière, decided then to adopt a tougher approach by demanding a centralization of the security architecture. The bureaucratic chaos of 38 separate institutions dealing with counter-terrorism contributes considerably to the ineffectiveness of security measures. Holes in the security architecture became manifestly evident in the Berlin Christmas market attack in December 2016, where the perpetrator, who had been under surveillance, was arrested, but soon released. Despite failing to unite the sixteen state surveillance agencies, positive steps have been taken to make the security system more robust (e.g., creation of the “Working group risk management”, conferring new powers to the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt), and founding the GTAZ – Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (Gemeinsames Terrorismusabwehrzentrum)).

That Germany is living in a tougher neighborhood is truer now than at any time in the post-Cold War era. How can Germany navigate this instability and mitigate security fissures? Guido Steinberg proposed five vital actions.

  • Limiting the number of refugees is essential. The CSU-proposed 200,000 soft limit is, in fact, fairly generous. Unfortunately, the restricted capacity to handle such a large introduction of migrants calls for crude measures that may run counter to humanitarian obligations.
  • State security services need to be responsible to a federal body; they must be consolidated under a simpler scheme. The current system’s decentralized organization is unproductive.
  • Germans have a large but weak intelligence service; it will need to be strengthened.
  • Tighten Germany’s border controls and ensure that everyone entering and leaving is identified.
  • Since terrorist attacks are most lethal when they are backed by organizations that reside outside Germany, active measures to target foreign terrorist groups are necessary. However, Germany should not be overly optimistic about the prospect of establishing peace in conflict zones. That these activities abroad should be limited in scope does not mean that German action should be haphazard and half-hearted (to avoid a situation like American intervention in Libya). This will require Germany to overcome its aversion to military intervention.

Discussant Chris Chivvis was in broad agreement with Dr. Steinberg’s basic analysis, but added that Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, initiatives to prevent radicalization, must be one part of the solution. Mr. Chivvis argued that a comprehensive counterterrorism policy cannot overlook the importance of working closely with locals to thwart internally-inspired terrorist activity. Moreover, Dr. Steinberg is too quick to dismiss the possibility of making progress in conflict countries through foreign intervention. Unlike the U.S., Germany has a greater interest in finding tenable solutions in the Middle East—consequently, Germans will work harder to ensure their intervention is successful.



AICGS R. G. Livingston Conference Room

1755 Massachusetts Avenue NW Suite 700 Washington, DC 20036 United States

AICGS R. G. Livingston Conference Room
1755 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Suite 700
Washington, DC 20036
United States