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Police in Germany arm themselves against terror threat

Thus far, the German government has refrained from quickly passing any laws in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris. Instead, they are banking on increased police presence and improved communication among authorities.

According to a press release, the federal police were recently called out to confront a "dangerous intrusion on rail traffic" near Kassel - the intruders - thirty sheep, wandering aimlessly along the tracks. Authorities are still investigating. But they, along with their police and security services colleagues, tend to keep a much closer eye on so-called "potential threats," people who might be inclined to carry out terror attacks. Authorities are much more tight-lipped about "potential threats" than they are about sheep and similarly innocuous domestic animals.

Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) President Holger Münch will only go so far as to say that: The number of "potential threats" in Germany has gone up since the rise of "Islamic State" (IS). "We have seen a significant increase since the caliphate was proclaimed," said Münch, on the German television show "Hart aber fair" (Tough but fair). "Meanwhile, we have categorized a much greater number of people returning from Syria as having the potential to commit such crimes. That is certainly a major burden."

Many authorities, many indications

Are the authorities overwhelmed? BKA boss Münch says they are not, because "potential threats" cannot be watched around the clock if they are not planning specific attacks. In light of the fact that there are more than 40 different security agencies operating within Germany's federalized system, cooperation and the exchange of information is essential in defending against terror attacks.

Innenminister de Maizière und BKA-Chef Münch bei der BKA-Jahrestagung

Interior Minister de Maizière (left) and BKA chief Münch (right)

Does the State Office of Criminal Investigations in Saarland, for instance, know when the Federal Intelligence Services receives information that a violent Islamist could be traveling there from France? It is the job of the "Joint Center for Countering Extremism and Terrorism" (GETZ) in Berlin to make sure that they do. The unit, in which federal and state officials from the police and security services work together, was started in 2004. A Federal Interior Ministry employee tells DW that work there is "very intense" at the moment. "Indication levels" are very high he says, and authorities are receiving a number of clues about potential attacks.

Five of 28 are onboard

Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière seems less than content, however, with the exchange of information in the EU beyond national borders. At a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers last Friday, de Maizière said that thousands of "traveling jihadis" from "IS" could be planning attacks in Europe. "That is why we have to know who is coming to, or returning to Europe. So that we can react."

So far, only five of the EU's 28 member states enter information into the common "Foreign Fighters" database. "So one should not be surprised if the exchange of information is wanting," said de Maizière. Controls at the EU's external borders are being designed to aid in the detainment of fighters returning from Syria in the near future. And the European Commission is supposed to present a proposal for appropriate changes to the Schengen Borders Code.

Sub-machine guns and perceived security

From the point of view of German citizens, one thing has changed since the Paris attacks: Police officers armed with sub-machine guns are now posted at airports, train stations and football stadiums. Normally, officers are only seen with holstered pistols at such venues. US style "terror alert levels" in green, yellow and red do not exist in Germany. Authorities are concerned that these would only serve to increase fear among the citizenry. Still, more police, patrolling streets and city squares with automatic weapons - sends a clear signal that authorities are operating under the assumption of heightened threat levels.

Spezialeinheit GSG 9 Bundespolizei Wiesbaden NSU

The special police unit GSG 9

Security expert Frank Friedrich told DW that, "Beyond technical measures, such presence is the easiest way to increase security, both perceived and objective." The federal government is betting on that fact as well: Interior Minister de Maizière has promised that 4,000 new jobs will be created within the security services in the next few years.

15 shots and that's it

Nevertheless, German police officers are rarely armed in such a way that they could simply jump into the path of a terrorist that knows how to handle a Kalashnikov or a similar automatic rifle. Their vehicles are not armored, and they rarely wear bulletproof vests or helmets. A prolonged firefight would also be difficult due to a lack of ammunition. German federal police do not carry spare ammunition magazines - fifteen rounds from a pistol have to be enough to get the job done.

State police can, however, deploy heavily armed commando units; and the federal police can deploy additional GSG 9 (Border Protection Group 9) units in the event of a terror attack or hostage situation. If several attacks were to be staged simultaneously, they would nonetheless be unable to be present at each scene in time. For that reason, the federal government wants to better arm itself: Their initial plan calls for the creation of five new federal police units by the end of 2016. These are to be more well armed and equipped than regular riot police. The Interior Ministry announced that within the next month, the first, 50 men, anti-terror group could be stationed in Blumberg near Berlin.

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