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German far-right and Islamist threat rising

July 4, 2017

The number of far-right attacks and Islamists in Germany rose once again last year, new figures have shown. More than half of neo-Nazis are "violence-orientated," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said in Berlin.

Right-wing extremists demonstrate in Cologne
Image: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay

New government figures about neo-Nazi crime show "clear evidence of the danger emerging from this spectrum," a report from the domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz (BfV), said on Tuesday.

The number of far-right violent crimes rose to 1,600 in 2016 - up from 1,408 in 2015 - the report said, and came alongside an overall rise in the number of neo-Nazis considered "violence-orientated:" 12,100 in 2016, up from 11,800 in 2015. The intelligence agency now believes that more than half of far-right extremists in Germany were potentially violent.

At the same time, the BfV believes there are now more Islamists in Germany, and therefore the chance of an Islamist attack remains high. The number of ultra-conservative "Salafists" in Germany rose last year to 10,100 - up from 8,350 the year before. Of these, some 680 have been classified as "Gefährder" (or "endangerer") - more than ever before.

"We have to assume that we can expect further attacks by individuals or terror commandos in Germany too," BfV chief Hans-Georg Maassen said as he presented the report in a press conference in Berlin alongside Interior Minister de Maiziere.

Last year also saw a rise in left-wing extremism, with the BfV estimating that some 8,500 leftist extremists are "violence-orientated." De Maiziere used the opportunity raise the prospect of an increased threat of left-wing violence during the G20 summit in Hamburg this week.

Infografik Rechtsextremismus Straftaten Deutschland ENG

New neo-Nazis

The BfV also suggested that many Germans were losing inhibitions about violent racism - the report said that more people without any connection to the far-right scene were now carrying out attacks on asylum seekers. This "pointed to radicalization processes ... beyond the organized far-right spectrum," the report said.

Read more: A guide to Germany's far-right groups

Meanwhile, the number of crimes related to asylum homes remained roughly the same in 2016 as against the year before. The BfV counted 907 in 2016, as opposed to 894 in 2015, of which 153 were violent. The number of actual arson attacks, meanwhile, dropped slightly - from 75 in 2015 to 65 in 2016.

The BfV underlined that while most of these attacks were against the homes themselves, rather than people (in many cases they are yet to be occupied when an arson attack is carried out), often injuries to people had been "accepted as a possible consequence."

Cyber-threat to German election

The BfV also devoted a whole section of its report on the growing threat of cyber-attacks, pinpointing Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies as sources of hacks on the chancellery, the German Foreign Ministry and its embassies, the Finance Ministry, and the Economy Ministry.

One Russian spy software campaign, named Uroburos, or Snake, has been active since 2005, the BfV said. The malware invades the computer networks of public authorities, major firms, and research institutes, which according to the BfV, suggests that "state interests are at work." 

The BfV warned of more sophisticated cyber-attacks on the German electionImage: picture alliance/dpa

Following the attacks on the Democratic Party Convention in the US last year, the agency went on to warn that German political parties and politicians could be targetted by Russian agencies in the run-up to this September's general election. During Tuesday's press conference, Maassen added that he did not think Russia would "support a particular candidate," but would instead seek to "damage the trust in the functioning of our democracy."

The spying, the BfV warned, came alongside an attempt by Russian agencies to "influence decision-makers and public opinion in Germany." "Leading Russian officers," the report said, were using interlocutors as "intermediaries for spreading Russian-friendly viewpoints," for example by pushing the narrative that the continuation of the Ukraine crisis was exclusively the West's fault.  

Russian, Chinese spies

The BfV also noted increased intelligence activities from foreign actors against Germany - especially from Russia, China, and Iran. "Propaganda and disinformation activities that are pro-Russian and against German government policy have risen since 2014 - in parallel to the growing foreign policy problems (Crimean crisis, Syrian war) and the worsening economic situation in Russia," the report read.

The BfV said that social media channels, state-funded and private institutions, as well as Russian state media, were all being used for these disinformation campaigns. 

Read more: Germany's BND spooks get new mission plan

China, meanwhile, is engaging in more and more "political espionage," according to the BfV - with President Xi Jinping's government showing more interest in gaining information about "supra-national organizations" and conferences, such as the G20 and the European Union.

China's interest in economic espionage is also undiminished, the BfV believes, with the "large-scale" use of social media like LinkedIn and Facebook to make contact with Germans. "The modus operandi is almost always the same," the BfV report said. "Supposed scientists, job agents, and head-hunters make contact with people who have a significant profile. They are baited with tempting offers and then finally invited to China. There the secret service initiation happens."

Iran, meanwhile, largely confined its activities to spying on opposition groups operating in Germany. 

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight