A gunman by the name of Tobias R. is thought to have killed nine people and injured at least four in two shisha bars in the city of Hanau, not far from Frankfurt. He then went home where he is suspected of killing his mother before killing himself. He left behind a letter of confession and a video in which he espouses right-wing ideology.
Ahead of the attack, he is suspected of having spread racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic hate speech and conspiracy theories online. Federal prosecutors are now investigating whether he had any contact with other far-right terrorists. Peter Beuth, the interior minister of the state of Hesse, has said that he was not known to the authorities before.
The attack is a clear indication: Far-right terrorism is on the rise in Germany. A spokesperson for the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) told the German media outlet Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland that it currently had a list of 60 people that it officially considered as right-wing extremist Gefährder, a criminal designation for suspects considered threats to public safety.
From threats to action
According to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic security agency, some 12,700 far-right extremists are "oriented toward violence." With more and more communication taking place online, radicalization is happening at a faster pace. The members of a recently dismantled right-wing terrorist cell were allegedly radicalized online. This was also the case of Stephan B, who police say attacked a synagogue in Halle in eastern Germany on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, with the intention of committing a massacre. He failed to get into the building but still killed two people before being arrested.
Germany’s security services face two serious problems when confronting ideological extremism: They need to be able to detect who could be likely to go beyond their fantasies of violence and commit actual attacks, and they also need to find out where the inspiration and funds are coming from. Prosecutor Christoph Hebbecker from the Federal Criminal Police Office’s Cologne-based cybercrime division told DW that since February 2018 there there have been about 1,000 criminal complaints that authorities suspect were committed by the far right. About half of them had culminated in charges being filed, because the anonymity of online forums makes tracking difficult for authorities, Hebbecker said.
Terrorist cell dismantled
Just last week, German police conducted raids on 13 apartments across the country and dismantled a terror cell that was allegedly planning to plunge Germany into a "state of civil war" by committing "as yet undefined" attacks on politicians, asylum-seekers and Muslims. Four suspected would-be attackers were arrested, as well as another eight individuals suspected of supporting them.
At first glance, it would seem that the police, security services and prosecutors were able to stop a terrorist group with fixed plans. But the challenged facing investigators is now to provide evidence that is sufficiently convincing that the suspected plotters are put on trial.
The difficulty of doing so is well illustrated in the case of Franco A., a lieutenant in the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces. Franco A. was suspended and arrested in 2017 after being charged with the "preparation of a serious act of violent subversion." He spent seven months in pre-trial custody, accused of wanting to commit attacks on famous politicians, including now-Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Vice-President of the German Bundestag, Claudia Roth. Although there was evidence that he had stockpiled weapons and explosives and the names of potential victims were known, the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court dropped the charge that he was planning a terrorist attack on the basis that there was "insufficient evidence." The court found that he had a "racist ethno-nationalist and anti-Semitic attitude" but said that it was also "highly probable" that he had not yet made a "firm decision" to carry out any attacks.
The Federal Court of Justice — Germany’s highest criminal court — has since instructed the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court to open criminal proceedings, but no trial date has been set. The tug-of-war shows how high the legal hurdles can be in Germany despite numerous adjustments to the law. It is thus not at all certain that the 12 detained last week will end up on trial.
Cracking down on racist hatred online and offline
Despite the difficulties in tracking and prosecuting those who radicalize online, the German government is taking steps to tackle online hatred even if it does not extend to physical violence. Last month, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer announced a ban on neo-Nazi terrorist organization Combat 18. And on Wednesday, the government approved a bill that aims to crack down on hate speech. If it is signed into law, as is expected, death and rape threats made online could be punished with up to three years’ imprisonment. The maximum punishment is currently one year. Even harsher sentence of up to five years could be applied in cases targeting local politicians with slander and hostility.
The bill comes in the wake of increasing online threats against politicians across Germany. Regional politician Walter Lübcke, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and a supporter of her welcoming policy toward asylum-seekers, had received a number of threats before he was shot dead in front of his house in June last year. Police believe a far-right extremist motive was behind the killing; the suspect in custody is an avowed right-wing extremist who had issued death threats online.
Politicians are also hoping to combat online extremism by requiring internet sites such as Facebook to report certain forms of hate speech and propaganda to the Federal Criminal Police Office, whose president Holger Münch has been cracking down on the far right. The Cologne-based cybercrime division cooperates closely with the media and the Association of the Internet Industry (eco) and has been able to identify 130 individuals suspected of online hate crimes from Germany and abroad over the past two years.
However, prosecutor Hebbecker could not say how often such cases had actually resulted in a trial and was not aware of any suspect who had received a sentence without parole. He said that the division generally dealt with individuals operating as a "lone wolf" who were sometimes known but that there were others who had "never yet turned up in a case file." He said that he could not detect any "big, organized structures." He found one aspect of his research particularly surprising: such suspects clearly displayed a "clear far-right ideology" but did not consider themselves to be right-wing extremists.