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

Guido Steinberg

German Institute for International and Security Affairs

Dr. Guido Steinberg was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow at AICGS in Fall 2017.

In Germany, Guido Steinberg works for at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) in Berlin. An Islamicist by training, he has worked as a research coordinator at the Free University of Berlin and an advisor on international terrorism in the German Federal Chancellery (2002-2005).

Since 2006, he has served as an objective expert witness in all major trials against Islamist terrorists in Germany, and has also testified in Austria, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and the United States. He regularly comments on Middle East affairs and terrorism on German and international media, most frequently on Deutsche Welle TV in German, English, Arabic, and Spanish.

In his academic work, Guido Steinberg focusses on Saudi Arabian and Gulf history and politics, Islamism and Salafism as well as Islamist Terrorism. He has published widely on these topics, including: German Jihad. The Internationalization of Jihadist Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

At AICGS, he will work on the research project “Countering the Islamic State: German and U.S. Policy Options.” He will give an overview of the threat posed by Islamist terrorists to Germany, analyze the measures invoked by the German government and its allies to counter the threat, and offer his views on additional efforts to improve the effectiveness of counter-terrorism on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 2016, the domestic security situation in Germany deteriorated to a degree unknown since the “German autumn” in 1977, when the Red Army Faction or RAF began its campaign to free its imprisoned first-generation leaders Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Ulrike Meinhof. Although the frequency of attacks and plots has declined—there was only one minor attack in Germany in 2017—domestic security remains one of the most pressing challenges facing the new government. Polls during and after the federal elections on September 24, 2017, showed that “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism” were among the most important concerns shaping the voting decisions of Germans.[1] Nevertheless, the chancellor and her supporters stuck to “asymmetric demobilization,” Angela Merkel’s time-honored strategy for success, by simply refusing to debate potentially controversial topics like domestic security. At the same time, her contender Martin Schulz chose not to attack the chancellor on this front, an area where the Conservatives have traditionally performed stronger than the Social Democrats. This unwillingness and/or inability to present convincing solutions for problems considered to be of utmost importance to many Germans proved to be a significant factor leading to severe losses for the major parties, especially the CDU/CSU.

False Refugees

For a situation that has quickly deteriorated since 2015, it is puzzling why the Merkel government chose to ignore voters’ anxieties regarding domestic security. The quick decay of the security situation was mainly due to an unprecedented wave of terrorist plots hatched by Islamist terrorists, culminating in an attack in Berlin on December 19, 2016, when the Tunisian “Islamic State” (IS) recruit Anis Amri drove a truck into a popular Christmas market in the western city center, killing twelve and wounding nearly a hundred. Although the attack was the only lethal one of the five perpetrated by Islamists in Germany that year, the visible trend had been worrying to many Germans from summer 2016 onward. The fundamental reason behind the assault was a strategic decision by the Islamic State organization of early 2014, to attack France, Britain, Germany, and possibly other European nations on their own soil. To that effect, IS maintained lists, for which European fighters in Syria could register before they were sent back to their countries of origin. But while French and Belgian jihadists dutifully carried out a wave of IS commanded-and-controlled attacks from May 2014, the Germans who were sent back seem to have developed second thoughts and refrained from risking their own freedom or even lives for the cause of the Mosul Caliphate. “The Germans got cold feet,” one of his commanders in Syria told Harry Sarfo, an IS veteran from Bremen, who would eventually detail discussions with his superiors in his post-arrest interrogations.[2]

This could have been the end of the story in Germany, but the refugee crisis presented IS with a golden opportunity to tap into what would become a new social base in Germany. The number of illegal immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia had been on the rise since 2012, but after spring 2015, the numbers skyrocketed. This was made possible when Turkey opened its western borders for refugees illegally crossing the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands. Once they reached the Greek mainland, most of the surviving migrants travelled along, as it was then baptized, the “Balkan route” toward Austria and Germany. With the numbers of arrivals rising daily and border authorities unable to cope with the situation (in May 2015 they gave up on efforts to register all the incoming people), Chancellor Angela Merkel decided on September 4, 2015, to open the borders to the refugees coming through the Balkan route. Thus, Germany gave up control over its borders, and by the end of 2015, some 890,000 refugees had made their way to the country, tens of thousands without having been registered, thousands or more under false identities, and hundreds or more actual or former members of militant groups.

It should have been expected that an organization like IS, with thousands of foreign fighters at its disposal and the declared aim to carry the armed struggle to the West, would seize the opportunity to send terrorists along with the refugees. This was substantiated by the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, when an IS hit team of ten fighters used firearms and explosive belts to kill 130 people and injure more than 350. Shortly thereafter, it became known that the ringleader, the Belgian Abdalhamid Abaaoud, had been travelling back and forth between Belgium, France, and Syria, and several members of the team had travelled to France via the Balkan route and Germany.[3] In the following months, it also became clear that IS had sent more of its fighters to Europe, and several other cells tasked with executing attacks were arrested in Germany (among other countries). That the country was hit by a wave of attacks perpetrated by refugees, who had not been sent by IS, but became terrorists only after arriving in Germany, was a testament to the mobilizing skills of IS handlers in Syria. Via social media, IS not only made contact with potential terrorists among recent arrivals and convinced them to attack, but also coached recruits in practical matters (e.g., choice of targets and weapons), sometimes up to the very moment of the incident. Although the attackers in Würzburg (July 18), Ansbach (July 24), and Berlin were therefore clearly not lone actors, having communicated intensively with their colleagues in Syria, so that there was a good chance to detect them in time, German security authorities were still overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases. The primary cause is obvious: What had been a small albeit growing scene of jihadists in Germany prior to 2015 had ballooned with the arrival of the refugees, many of whom sympathized with jihadist groups fighting in the civil wars of their home countries. This mentality proved to be fertile recruiting grounds for IS.

A System of Collective Irresponsibility

The nexus between the uncontrolled entry of refugees in 2015 (and earlier) and the deterioration of domestic security in 2016 (and thereafter) continues to be publicly denied by many government officials. Official reticence on the matter does not end there. Shortly after the devastating election results for the CDU and CSU, the chancellor famously proclaimed: “I don’t see what we should do differently.”[4]

In fact, the German government was not responsible for stemming the flow of refugees that eased the situation in early 2016. From late summer 2015, some Balkan states like Hungary and Macedonia started building fences at their southern borders, because they could not cope with the enormous influx of refugees passing through and becoming stranded in their territories. Ultimately, it was mainly an Austrian initiative which led to the closure of the Balkan route. On February 17, the government in Vienna limited the number of entries per day and thereby forced countries on the route to close their borders, a necessary step if they did not want to be overwhelmed by migrants. Crucially, when Macedonia closed its borders, the number of refugees passing from Turkey to Greece decreased considerably.[5] Meanwhile, the Merkel government tried to reduce the numbers of migrants arriving in Greece, which had been overwhelmed by the 2015 influx. To this end, an agreement was signed between the European Union and Turkey (the EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement) on March 18, 2016, stipulating that the latter stop the stream of refugees illegally crossing the Aegean Sea from its territory. The Europeans, on their part, would pay Turkey €6 billion until 2018 to improve the living conditions of refugees in Turkey.[6]

Decreases in the number of immigrants gave the German security authorities and their partners the necessary respite to sift through the new arrivals and look for potential terrorists among them. This would take time, though. When the security situation worsened and terrorist activities by refugees became commonplace, right-wing populists fared strongly in state elections in 2016 and the government reacted on the home front. The task to publicly convey the message that Germany would fight Islamist terrorists more decidedly fell to the interior minister, Thomas de Maizière (CDU). Despite being a known proponent of liberal approaches, de Maizière demanded a centralization of the German security architecture, especially domestic intelligence, after the Berlin attack.[7] The case of Anis Amri revealed a dangerous lack of coordination by authorities in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Berlin. For, even while Amri was well-known to authorities as a dangerous jihadist, he was not stopped and eventually fell off the security radar. Ironically, it is likely that this same deficient federal structure allowed de Maizière to retain his post as interior minister. Due to the institutional chaos of the German security architecture, he and the federal government appeared to be unscathed by what was widely considered a harrowing scandal. As a result of a “system of collective irresponsibility,”[8] it has remained virtually impossible for laypeople and many specialists alike to define which of the thirty-eight security authorities or which ministry and which politician were responsible for the fracas.

Although the larger centralization proposed by de Maizière did not come about, the government decided to strengthen the coordinating functions of the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (Gemeinsames Terrorismusabwehrzentrum, GTAZ) in Berlin. The organization was founded in December 2004, after former federal interior minister, Otto Schily (SPD), failed in a first bid to put state security authorities under the control of federal institutions. The GTAZ was not an institution in its own right, but a meeting place for all institutions countering Islamist terrorists in Germany, with the Federal Criminal Police (BKA) dominating from the beginning. Despite being a remarkably creative solution to an intractable stalemate between the federal government and the states, the new unit did not solve the problems emanating from the fragmentation of the German system. Therefore, in summer 2017, the working group risk management (AG Risikomanagement) was founded as a new subunit to the GTAZ. This group would categorize known “endangerers” (Gefährder)—the bureaucratic expression used for persons judged to be ready to perpetrate attacks at any time—according to how dangerous they were thought to be. If necessary, the new unit would make recommendations to the state authorities, or, if need be, start telephone surveillance and observations.[9] This was a major change, because the GTAZ’s focus shifted from emphasis on certain cases (“Gefährdungssachverhalte”) to that of individuals thought to pose a threat. Most importantly, the BKA now had an instrument to oversee all measures against “endangerers,” whose categorization, surveillance, and observation until 2017 had been a prerogative of the states.[10]

Strengthen Intelligence, Protect Borders, and Carry the Fight to the Enemy

There is ample reason to believe that these compromises, while they improve the situation, will not be enough to avoid the next major failure of the German security architecture. This is mainly because Germany and its European partners live in a rougher neighborhood than at any time since the end of the Cold War. With the arrival of hundreds or more militant refugees, the German jihadist scene of 1,000 to 2,000 radicals is expected to grow substantially in the coming years, especially after the return of most of the surviving German foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq. Therefore, the success of German counter-terrorism measures, first and foremost, depends on the ability to limit the further influx of refugees into the country and hinder potential terrorists to travel in their midst. This will be an uphill battle, because the Middle East, North Africa, and their neighboring regions are going through a prolonged period of instability, prompting the flight of millions to Europe. In Germany, the widespread belief that one solution is to address discord and living conditions in the home countries might be noble, but is dangerously naïve. Conflicts in the Middle East are likely to last for years and possibly decades, and the West has not been successful in ending the wars in Libya, Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan. Furthermore, there is no interest among many European partners to share the burden of a massive development program in West Africa and the Sahel. The successes of past German activities in countries like Mali and Yemen—important recipients of German development aid for decades—remain limited, to say the least. Moreover, the impending loss of Great Britain as one of the three leading nations in the EU, the economic problems of the southern states, and the emergence of right-wing populist governments in Eastern Europe, uninterested in the plight of refugees, will hinder any major projects in this direction.

Consequently, Germany must prepare for the immediate future, in which terrorist organizations thrive in their countries of origin, more refugees will try to enter the country, and jihadist terrorists who are at least partly recruited among recent arrivals and returnees from Syria, threaten domestic stability. In order to mitigate the undesirable repercussions of these developments, Germany will have to limit the number of refugees entering the country and vet them well before they reach European soil. Although this is an extremely tough method that would leave many refugees stranded in countries like Libya, Germany does not have an alternative if it does not wish to see the situation deteriorate again. Seen from this perspective, the CSU’s proposed limit of 200,000 refugees per year is itself a tall order, not only when juxtaposed with the limits of Germany’s partners.

Generally, the situation in Europe and surrounding its borders should convince Germany that stricter measures are needed to preserve the security of the country. First and foremost, a more stringent centralization of its security architecture is required.  In recent years, German federalism has more than once stood in the way of a more effective fight against Islamist and right-wing extremist terrorists. The emergence of the GTAZ is only a temporary solution, designed to alleviate the worst problems of a system that was shaped by the Allies after World War II for a state that did not become sovereign until March 1991. Additionally, Germany needs much stronger intelligence services. Whenever the need to reform the German security services becomes obvious to the wider public, the debate stresses strengthening the police. That has meant that in recent years, the gap between the resources and capabilities of the police and intelligence has widened (though the latter had always been weak by design in a country still haunted by its past). Consequently, Germany has next to no prior information about impending plots and similar threats if it is not provided by its allies. Not surprisingly, when the head of German domestic intelligence in October 2017 demanded NSA-like prerogatives to monitor communications in Germany, it was regarded as a hopeless initiative.[11] Unfortunately, this and more is exactly what German intelligence needs.

Moreover, Germany needs to reestablish control over its borders. In the Schengen and Dublin age, this means that it must cooperate with other European states like Greece, Italy, and others, who are—in principle—obliged to secure their borders as if they were German ones. If this system is to work, all states must obtain all the necessary information about every person entering the Schengen area. This might sound like basic statecraft, but the founders of the Schengen area and many of their successors seem to think of borders as a thing of the past—which they clearly are not. As a consequence, the European Union and Germany do not have control over their borders, so that the reorganization of their protection should have absolute priority in the coming years. If not, voters will force their governments all over Europe to secure their national borders, which would ultimately be a fatal blow to the European project.

Germany will also have to rethink its aversion to military intervention against terrorist groups. Many of the attacks in Europe, including the ones in Paris and Brussels, would arguably not have been possible without IS being in control of territory in Syria, where it trained some of the plotters and helped plan and organize the attacks. These events corroborated what has been known since 9/11: When terrorist organizations are left unmolested in seemingly remote areas like Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen, they are able to plan, organize, and perpetrate far more sophisticated attacks than when under pressure. Notwithstanding this simple truth and the realization that the IS rear base in Raqqa threatened European domestic security, Germany joined the anti-IS coalition only reluctantly and with a symbolic contingent that does not take part in actual fighting. This will have to change in the coming years as IS and al-Qaeda affiliates continue to develop new threats to European security in the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel.


[1] In an Infratest Dimap poll commissioned by ARD German television, 59% of voters named “counter-terrorism” as a very important topic second only to educational policy, see, accessed October 19, 2017. For a 2017 poll, in which terrorism was on top of the list, see, accessed October 25, 2017.

[2] Police Interrogation of Harry Sarfo, December 15, 2015, p. 74.

[3] See e.g., this report about Salah Abdeslam, “Paris attacks suspect was at Budapest railway station, Hungarian government claims,” Associated Press, December 3, 2015. Abaaoud’s presence in Greece is documented here: Andrew Higgins and Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura, “Paris Attacks Suspect Killed in Shootout Had Plotted Terror for 11 Months,” New York Times, November 19, 2015.

[4] Patrick Diekmann, “Ich sehe nicht, was wir anders machen sollten,” Merkel-Pressekonferenz nach der Wahl,, September 25, 2017.

[5] Manuel Bewarder, “Merkel und die Flüchtlinge: Die Krise einer Kanzlerschaft,” WELT online, September 23, 2017.

[6] Till Schwarze, “Für Merkel funktioniert der Deal,” Zeit Online, February 2, 2017, Zeit Online,, accessed 19 October 2017.

[7] Thomas de Maizière, “Leitlinien für einen starken Staat in schwierigen Zeiten,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 3, 2017.

[8] Rene Pfister, “Staatsversagen,” Der Spiegel, January 7, 2017.

[9] Florian Flade, “Neue BKA-Einheit hat Gefährder ständig im Visier,” Die Welt, July 4, 2017,, accessed October 20, 2017.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Florian Flade‚ “Spione greifen nach dem vollen Werkzeugkasten,” Die Welt, October 7, 2017.

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