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Can Germany prevent Islamist attacks?

July 23, 2022

Political and religious extremism has long been seen as a threat to democracy in Germany. The Counter Terrorism Center is where agencies and police network to prevent Islamist extremist attacks. Is it effective?

damaged lorry used for attack
The attack on the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin in 2016 was Germany's worst terror attack to dateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

December 19, 2016, was a particularly dark day for Germany's Joint Counter Terrorism Center. That was the day when the terrorist Anis Amri steered a stolen truck into a crowd of people at the Christmas market on Berlin's Breitscheidplatz. Twelve people died, and over 60 were injured, some of them critically. Many victims are still suffering today from the consequences of the worst Islamist attack in Germany.

The tragic twist to the story was that police had had the attacker on their radar for a long time. The Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) had long had him on their list of "Gefährder" (potential attackers or dangerous persons), a term used for suspects who might carry out an attack at any time. The special investigator appointed by the Berlin Senate gave the security authorities a devastating report, saying "everything that could be done wrong, was done wrong."

Nancy Faeser surrounded by GTAZ representatives
Interior Minister Nancy Faser (m) paid her first visit to the anti-terror center GTAZ in JulyImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Anti-terror network

Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, who has been in office since 2021, was far away from Berlin at the time. She was a member of the Hesse state parliament. In her new role, she has paid a visit to the Joint Counter Terrorism Center, or GTAZ, in Berlin, which deals exclusively with the issue of Islamist extremism.

Here, 40 federal and state security agencies work together. The large number is mainly due to the fact that all 16 German states have their own Criminal Investigation Office (LKA) and their own domestic intelligence agency (Verfassungsschutz). Every day, the representatives meet in a long conference room to discuss the current threat levels.

The Interior Minister described this form of networking as the "most important building block" in the fight against Islamist terrorism. Since the GTAZ was founded in 2004, 21 attacks have been prevented, she said, calling this a "great achievement." But in eleven more cases, security authorities were too late, she admits. "This shows that the threat level remains high," Faeser concluded.

While the Interior Minister was upbeat in her assessment of the German "security architecture" — a label for this formalized interaction of the authorities – other politicians were more critical.

In view of the many mishaps before and after the Breitscheidplatz attack, conservative MP Stephan Harbarth came to the conclusion that, "federalism can become an obstacle to the fight against Islamist terrorism." He made his remarks following the special investigator's final report in 2017.

Fighting Islamist extremism

Harbarth is now the President of the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe and wants to see more centralized control: "We need federal authorities to be more involved in dealing with dangerous persons," the former member of the Bundestag demanded. In his new job, he also has to deal with the issue of combating terrorism. Time and again, the Court has to deal with the security apparatus and the legislation which is the basis for the work of police agencies and intelligence services such as the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) or the domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz, BfV).

The GTAZ is a place for networking rather than an office that has a legal remit for the comprehensive exchange of information. Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser says she could imagine changing that, but the most important thing, she says, is that the cooperation can continue.

But the lack of a clear legal basis is precisely what constitutional law expert Matthias Bäcker has been criticizing for years: "So far, there is no one who is responsible for controlling the GTAZ as such," he complained even before the Breitscheidplatz attack.

On the homepage of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), the GTAZ is described as a "cooperation platform." The "expertise of all relevant actors" will be bundled and "effective cooperation" will be made possible. In practice, however, this can sometimes go wrong, as the failure in the Anis Amri case showed particularly painfully.

Ulf Buermeyer
Ulf Buermeyer sees the GTAZ as 'a symptom of a misguided development in the German security architecture'Image: Uli Deck/dpa/picture alliance

Criticism of German security forces

Ulf Buermeyer, a lawyer and chairman of the Society for Civil Liberties (Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte, GFF) sees the GTAZ as "a symptom of a misguided development in the German security architecture."

Buermeyer filed a complaint against the Bavarian Constitutional Protection Act with the Federal Constitutional Court. In that context, he also brought up the GTAZ and its operations. His observations read like an after-the-fact explanation for why it was unable to prevent the attack on the Berlin Christmas market. This is because the "overlapping of competencies and responsibilities has considerable disadvantages for the prevention of danger. Multiple responsibilities of police and intelligence services lead to a "systematic diffusion of information." He concluded with the saying "too many cooks spoil the broth."

In his statement to the Federal Constitutional Court, for which he himself once used to work as a research assistant, Buermeyer criticized what he sees as an unclear division of labor between the security authorities. If many agencies are "somehow a little bit" responsible, they each see only a partial picture of the threat. "But then no agency puts together the pieces of the mosaic into a comprehensive picture of a situation."

The Federal Interior Minister at the time, Thomas de Mazière, suggested that the many mistakes in dealing with the extremist Anis Amri should lead to more centralizarion in the German security architecture. But he was unable to prevail against the federal states. In essence, everything remained the same.

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.