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How dangerous are 'dangerous' German Islamists?

December 18, 2017

German police are applying more sophisticated criteria in their assessment of what they call Islamist "endangerers." The new RADAR-iTE instrument is meant to help identify risks more accurately.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pförtner

Only around half of the people currently identified as dangerous Islamists in Germany are actually dangerous, according to a new report by the German federal police (BKA).

The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, along with public broadcasters NDR and WDR, reported on Monday that of the 720 Islamists in the country categorized as Gefährder (literally "endangerers") by German domestic intelligence, half are not particularly dangerous, while the other half are, according to the newspaper, "highly dangerous."

For the first time, the BKA was using a new analysis tool introduced in February this year in the wake of the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market by Tunisian national Anis Amri, which left 12 people dead and dozens injured, which has raised many concerns about how German security forces kept track of Amri.

The system, known as RADAR-iTE, was developed by the BKA in cooperation with forensic psychologists from the University of Constance, southern Germany. According to the BKA, RADAR-iTE bases its analysis on a suspect's "observable behavior," rather than their ideology or religious habits, using as much information as can be gleaned about a suspect's life.

Anis Amri
Anis Amri was tracked down by police, but not detainedImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Belaid

Risk assessment for terrorists

The risk assessment is put together on the basis of a set of 73 standardized questions, with a standardized set of answers, which are supposed to systematically raise or lower the potential risk factor of the "endangerer." The results are then slotted into a three-level scale — "high risk," "noticeable risk," and "moderate risk" — which are supposed to ascertain the potential for violence of the person in question.

Jerome Endrass of Constance University, who helped develop the method, explained the key difference to previous methods is that RADAR-iTE focuses on the suspects' social background rather than their ideology. "The criteria we used are criteria we know are forensically relevant — there is empirical evidence that they work well," he told DW. "It's a wider spectrum of risk factors than previously used. There are other instruments that focus very much on ideologies, but we know that ideology is not the only important thing. There are dangerous people in this area for whom ideology only plays a small role."

For instance, habitual criminals who have shown an interest in Islamism only in later life would be less likely to be flagged as highly dangerous under previous methods. "It could be that they have almost no idea about Islam, but they're still a very violent person," said Endrass. "There are other people who are extremely ideologically indoctrinated but they represent no risk because they're so far from the threshold to committing violence. That's why it's so important that you look for a lot of different risk factors, and not just one."

Endrass said he was not authorized to name specific questions that RADAR-iTE asked, but he said that any suspects that had shown a previous propensity for violence, or experience of violence, either in their childhood or at war, should also be considered a higher risk factor, "regardless of ideology."

Who are endangerers?

German police
Police are refining their methods for identifying suspectsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B Wüstneck

The term "endangerer" has no legal definition, but people end up on the list of endangerers when they are reported by German state police because "certain facts justify an assumption by police authorities that they might carry out criminal acts of serious significance."

"But it's no great skill to identify people who are highly violent," said Endrass. "The skill is in categorizing the people who are not dangerous among the people defined as endangerers."

"Now there is a unified assessment," said Oliver Malchow, head of the police union GdP. "Before there was no fixed system, and the individual states came up with their own criteria."

The question still remains whether RADAR-iTE turns out to be more effective than previous instruments. After all, it has only been in place since February. "We have to wait and see whether it is successful," said Malchow. 

At the moment, endangerers are flagged up through statements noticed online, or connections with other suspects, or witness statements.

"I wouldn't say that this system is better than other systems," Endrass cautioned. "There is little comparative research." For one thing, it is not even clear that when two police investigators assess the same case that they come to the same conclusions. "I have to say that RADAR is the only instrument available in the German-speaking world up to now that has followed these strict scientific criteria," he said.

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