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Experts Say Germany Needs Better Tools to Fight Terror

Sonia PhalnikarAugust 16, 2006

The foiling of potentially devastating bomb attacks in Britain has Germany reviewing its own fight against terror. Security experts say there are serious deficits.

Germany drew the most logical lesson from the British incident- raising airport securityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Like most jittery European capitals, Berlin rushed to beef up security last week after Britain said it had thwarted bomb attacks on transatlantic airliners.

The sense of panic has given way to a debate on security, fueled by reports that one of the arrested suspects in London had a link to Hamburg, where three of the Sept. 11, 2001 suicide bombers had lived.

Though politicians are split on boosting existing counter-terrorism legislation, there is agreement across the board that Germany is well-equipped to deal with terrorism.

"Huge deficits"

The view is at sharp odds to assessments by security experts.

Polizisten am Frankfurter Bahnhof
Germany's beefed up security in the wake of the Madrid bombings in 2004Image: AP

"Germany has huge deficits," said Klaus Jansen, head of Germany's criminal investigators' union (BdK). "Almost five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, not much is left of the anti-terrorism package, Germany still hasn't signed on to the EU-wide arrest warrant system and the surveillance of residences and communication systems has become increasingly difficult."

Germany began putting together its counter-terrorism package in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11. Over the years, it's been cautiously beefed up to include laws making it easier to deport those preaching jihad as well as giving intelligence agencies access to telephone and bank data.

The German parliament recently extended the legislation by another five years.

"Variety of useless tools"

But, experts aren't so sure about the effectiveness of many of the measures.

"We have a variety of tools in our toolbox to tackle terrorism, but they're mostly completely useless," Jansen said, pointing to the current debate on a country-wide anti-terror register, meant to speed up and simplify the exchange of information between Germany's myriad security agencies.

"It's a good proposal, but it comes way too late," he added.

Terrorprozeß in Düsseldorf
One of three defendants accused of being members of al Qaeda in a German courtroom in May 2006Image: AP

A counterterrorism center set up in 2004, meant to improve cooperation between the security services, has also come in for flak.

"It may sound like a central crisis center in the case of a terrorist attack, but it's merely meant to exchange information," Jansen said. "Besides, at least 37 different federal agencies have to coordinate there before they can be even prepared if an emergency crops up."

Concerns over civil liberties, Nazi past

German courts and prosecutors too have come under fire in the past for their perceived failure to put dangerous extremists behind bars following mild sentences and acquittals served in a string of terrorist trials.

Vocal protest by defenders of civil liberties and data protection and the country's mindfulness of Nazi-era abuses by security forces have also placed restrictions on measures such as allowing police to trawl electronic databases to find possible terror suspects and act preemptively against such individuals.

"The police have to be given the possibility to investigate forcefully and in the long-term," Bernhard Witthaut, the police union's deputy chairman, told Reuters. "Only then can we be successful in the fight against terror."

Some say that what is needed is a complete overhaul of the security services.

"We still deal with terrorism with security structures dating from the Cold War and from fighting leftwing terrorism in the 1970s," Jansen said. "We have to recognize that the situation has changed since then and that we're dealing with a new threat."

Getting to the root of the problem

Others point out that Germany also needs to focus on measures to prevent radicalization among its 3.2-million-strong Muslim community.

"You can't only counter terrorism by installing 10,000 more video cameras," said Udo Ulfkotte, a terrorism expert. "We need to get to the root of the problem."

Integrationsgipfel in Berlin, Integration, Migranten
Experts say measures are needed to prevent radicalization among young MuslimsImage: AP

In May this year, the German government said it wanted to step up an education program in schools to prevent young people from drifting into extremist movements.

"Just as we take great care to teach young people in Germany why we don't want to have future Nazis, we have to explain why we don't want future radical Islamists," Ulfkotte said.