In the post-September 11, 2001 era, the United States has emerged as the leading nation in combating terrorism. The United Kingdom, as America’s most loyal partner in Europe, has provided vital political and strategic support in the global war against al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Since Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair on June 27, the question has arisen whether No. 10 Downing Street will focus more on national challenges rather than regional and global security concerns, particularly in light of last summer’s car bomb plots in London and Glasgow. If the answer is yes, it is likely Germany, the United States’ other pre-eminent European ally in the War on Terror, will replace Britain as the key counterterrorism player in the region.
After all, Germany, under the leadership of Angela Merkel (who became the chancellor in 2005) has already undertaken important strategic and tactical steps in its capacity as president of the European Council during the first six months of 2007.
Mention should be made of Germany’s leadership in implementing EU counterterrorism strategy in regard to preventing radicalization and the recruitment of terrorists, protecting ordinary citizens and infrastructure, pursuing and investigating suspects, and improving the response to consequences of attacks.
The visit to Washington, D.C. last month by Minister of Interior Wolfgang Schaeuble is the latest example of Germany’s international cooperation efforts.
If one is to assess the possible outlook for Berlin’s role in the coming months and years, it is important to provide a historical context of the country’s past experience and lessons learned. Indeed, Germany has faced both domestic and international terrorism for decades. The domestic challenge to Germany initially developed in the late 1960s and 1970s, partly as a result of “under-identification” with the postwar democracy because of the nation’s Nazi past.
The Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, became one of the most durable terrorist groups in Europe, operating into the early 1990s. Right-wing political violence, particularly against foreigners in Germany, also challenged national security. Moreover, the country had to cope with Middle Eastern spillover terrorism, including Iranian, Palestinian, Kurdish and Algerian threats.
As early as the 1970s, Germany established a computerized police and intelligence apparatus. The domestic databases, used for “grid searching,” were adjusted in the post-September 11, 2001, period in an effort to prevent future attacks on the country.
Since 2002, the government also allocated substantial funding to combat terrorism and provide a strong legal framework to deal with multifaceted needs, including the “First Security Package” (e.g., banning the Hamas-related charity al-Aqsa) and the “Second Security Package” (e.g., marshals on civilian airliners). Additionally, in 2005, other policy changes improved German counterterrorism capabilities, such as greater centralization of the security services.
These efforts resulted in expanded investigations of suspects and the arrest of numerous Islamist extremists, both homegrown and linked with foreign terrorist networks. In 2006, for example, two Lebanese students living in Kiel failed to explode suitcase bombs deposited in regional trains at the Cologne station. And only this month two German converts to Islam and a German Turk were arrested in New Ulm, where they plotted spectacular car bomb attacks directed at the United States diplomatic and military facilities in Germany.
Reportedly, those apprehended and other suspects were members of a cell associated with the Islamic Jihad Union (a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and were trained in al Qaeda camps in the Afghan-Pakistan border area.
Subsequently, the interior ministers of Germany’s 16 states urged the government to make training at a terrorist camp a criminal offense. This request, as well as other initiatives such as online surveillance, including the use of “Trojan” software sent by e-mail to secretly search terror suspects’ hard drives, has already triggered a broader debate about the balance between civil liberties and security.
Regardless of the outcome of this debate, it is becoming increasingly clear that any specific tactical response will be a function of the perceived nature of the threat within and outside the country. The latest view on this issue is the statement by Franz Josef Jung, Germany’s defense minister, who asserted that he would order a hijacked passenger plane shot down to avert a September 11-style attack, despite the ruling of the highest court that such an action would be illegal.
To be sure, a particularly significant development in Germany’s strategy is the shift from considering terrorism a law-enforcement challenge to a strategic threat warranting military involvement. The government, therefore, has deployed military forces in counterterrorism roles, as illustrated by Germany’s contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom and Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
In addition, Germany has become a major participant in the antiterrorism naval task forces off the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean whose mission is to ensure the security of shipping lanes and to disrupt supply and escape routes used by terrorists. Also in Iraq, Germany provides training to the national police force and contributes humanitarian and reconstruction assistance.
Other international cooperative efforts are worth noting. For instance, in 2004, Germany signed a bilateral Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States related to criminal cases. Additionally, Germany signed the 12 existing U.N. counterterrorism conventions and protocols and became a strong supporter of combating terrorism through other intergovernmental bodies, including NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Against the foregoing background, coupled with growing realization that the terrorist threat still exists, it can be anticipated that Germany will assume a leading role in the international battle against extremism, radicalization and violence at the political, legal, intelligence, law enforcement and educational levels.
Yonah Alexander is professor and director, the International Center for Terrorism Studies (at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, Va.). Research background was provided by Tobias Senzig and Judith Koehler at Germany’s University of Trier.