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Merkel backs counterterrorism center

Ian Johnson
April 26, 2016

Coordinated antiterrorism work by Germany's police and secret services has been described as 'excellent' by Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has visited a controversial German center in Berlin that assesses risks daily.

Deutschland Gemeinsames Terrorismusabwehrzentrum Holger Münch, Angela Merkel und Thomas de Maizière
Image: Reuters/M. Schreiber

Merkel used her visit Tuesday to Germany's Joint Counterterrorism Center (GTAZ) to reassure Germany's public that her government had been "sensibilized" to terror threats in the wake of attacks on Paris and Brussels.

"We have a tense security situation that requires the attention of all those responsible," she said while promising Germany's various agencies better resources and clarification of the center's legal status.

German constitutional law requires strict separation of police and intelligence agencies because of the former Gestapo's (Secret State Police) brutal crackdown on political opponents during the Nazi regime until 1945.

Post-war, German intelligence services were limited constitutionally to observation duties and were not given police powers to arrest, search and seize in efforts to solve crimes.

Prompted by 2001 attacks

The Berlin center, known by its German acronym GTAZ, was created by the German government in 2004, prompted by the 2001 aerial attacks by al Qaeda militants on New York and Washington.

Reflecting Germany's complex federal structure, located in the center are officials drawn from 40 German entities. These include federal and regional intelligence agencies and police criminal investigation bureaux as well as Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency and its military intelligences agency, known as MAD.

Terrorismusabwehrzentrum in Berlin Archiv
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Bernd Settnik

Also represented is Germany's federal customs service.

GTAZ still defies law

Ahead of Merkel's visit, Matthias Bäcker, a leading public law professor in Karlsruhe - the seat of Germany's constitutional court - told the Die Welt newspaper that the Berlin center operated outside legal perogatives.

Single data transfers between authorities were allowed under regulations, said Bäcker, but the constant daily exchanges of information inside GTAZ were not covered. The strict constitutional separation required had been "softened," he said.

Situation 'very serious'

The terror situation in Germany and Europe remained "very serious," said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizére.

He and Merkel were briefed during the two-hour visit by the heads of Germany's diverse services, including federal police criminal investigations bureau chief Holger Münch (pictured above).

"We have to remain watchful and exchange information, especially at a moment when over 800 Islamists from Germany have traveled in the direction of Syria to support the IS ("Islamic State" militia) and over 470 persons are classified by police authorities as dangerous individuals," de Maizìere said.

'Excellent work'

After the internal briefing, Merkel praised what she termed the "excellent work" and good links between the representatives of Germany's federal and regional state (Länder) entities located within the center.

"Here, everyone is pulling together," Merkel said, adding that in the interests of civilians a balance had to be maintained between their data privacy and security.

Exchanges inside the center involve joint teams that make daily situation assessments, handle incoming tips and warnings, and make longer-term analyses of international terror trends.

Report questions religion-terror linkage

Merkel's visit coincided Tuesday with the release of a German Foundation's advisory report disputing assertions of links between religion and terror.

Social origin such as an impoverished childhood played a decisive role and therefore access to education and jobs were "important instruments" in counterterrorism efforts, the report said.

Germany's secular system of one state allowing religious diversity had proven viable, but improvements were necessary, they concluded.

ipj/jm (KNA dpa, AFP)

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