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Is Islamist terror a threat to Germany?

January 12, 2023

The arrest of two terror suspects once again raises questions about the scope of the terrorist threat to Germany. It also brings back memories of the 2016 Christmas market attack.

Barechested man being escorted out of a building by police officers in protection gear
Police arrested to suspected plotters and conducted raids for dangerous chemicalsImage: WTVnews/dpa/picture alliance

The most recent arrest of two terror suspects in Germany has raised the specter of Islamist terror in Germany — despite intensified efforts to prevent such an attack in recent years.

Two men had intended to kill "an unspecified number of people" using ricin and cyanide, the Düsseldorf prosecutor general's office announced this week.

The police did not find any bomb-making materials on the men arrested in Castrop-Rauxel, a small town in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, on January 8. Nevertheless, the brothers from Iran, aged 32 and 25, remain in custody.

Despite unsuccessful searches of apartments and garages, investigators believe that the terror suspects, who arrived in Germany in 2015, wanted to obtain cyanide and ricin, substances that are extremely toxic even in the smallest of quantities.

In retrospect, what the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution's (BfV) President Thomas Haldenwang said in June 2022 when he presented his annual report sounds almost like a prophecy: "The overall picture is dominated in particular by small groups and individual perpetrators acting alone, who are recruited and radicalized through online propaganda."

The two men arrested also seem to fit this profile.

Firefighters carrying plastic containers out of a house
The recent case brings up memories of a raid in 2018 when ricin was found in a flat in CologneImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Tip-off from US intelligence

According to the public prosecutor's office, the tipoff about the brothers came from the US.

The Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser said that 21 Islamist attacks have been prevented in Germany since 2000. However, this would hardly have been possible without the support of foreign intelligence services, especially in the US.

This is the assessment of expert Guido Steinberg of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in a study commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

In 2021, Steinberg warned that it would be a risk to "outsource" large parts of German counterterrorism to the US. Germany has had great difficulties in the fight against Islamist terrorism since 2001, "primarily concerning the early detection of terrorist planning through human and technical resources."

police and emergency cars at the scene in 2016
An attack on the Christmas market at Berlin's Breitscheidplatz is Germany's worst terror attack to dateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Biological warfare 

At first glance, this most recent case resembles the more advanced terror plot that was uncovered in Cologne in June 2018, where the man accused had stored large quantities of ricin in his apartment.

Two years later, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for preparing a serious act of violence endangering the state.

The most serious Islamist attack in Germany occurred in December 2016, when Anis Amri drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin. Twelve people died in the attack.

The number of terrorist attacks and plots dropped sharply after the attack on the Christmas market in Berlin.

Berlin Christmas market attack

According to Steinberg, this is primarily a result of the decline of the extremist group knwon as Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East as well as improved technical reconnaissance by the United States.

It is "less due to the effectiveness of Germany's counterterrorism efforts, which remain fragmented, patchy and error-prone," his analysis states.

Due to Germany's federal structure, all 16 federal states have their own police and constitutional protection agencies, which for a long time exchanged little information with each other.

But since 2004, they have been sitting at the same table with representatives of eight federal security agencies in the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (GTAZ) in Berlin — this has helped eliminate many coordination problems.

Nevertheless, the case of Anis Amri showed that the problems are of a more fundamental nature, Steinberg said.

Amri was initially classified as dangerous and placed under surveillance, but after he moved from North Rhine-Westphalia to Berlin in 2016, the German capital's police force classified him as a petty criminal and therefore no longer dangerous.

"His surveillance expired, paving the way for the Breitscheidplatz attack on December 19," Steinberg concluded. The findings of a special investigator from the Berlin Senate support this view.

Many people at a long conference table
Since 2004, the 16 states' police and intelligence agencies have been sitting at the same table with representatives of eight federal security agencies in the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (GTAZ) in Berlin Image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Fewer potential threats

The fact that the threat of any new terrorist attack may still be underestimated could also be down to the sharp decline in the number of so-called "dangerous persons" the police believe are capable of carrying out such attacks.

In 2018, the police registered more than 770 people as Islamist extremists; two years later, there were just under 630, and now only around 530.

"The attacks that have occurred in Germany in recent years were all perpetrated by individuals from the spectrum of self-radicalized lone perpetrators," BfV President Thomas Haldenwang told German news agency DPA in an interview in December. The two terror suspects arrested now, just a few weeks later, may also belong on this spectrum.

Even if no bomb-making chemicals are found, the brothers may still face charges. If it can be proven that the young men were indeed preparing for a serious act of violence, they would face prison sentences of anything between six months and 10 years.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

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