A Country on Tenterhooks
Germans Wonder If Terror Can Be Prevented
Following the attacks in Munich, Würzburg and Ansbach, many are asking how the violence can be stopped. There is an answer to this question, but will it be heard in these turbulent times? By SPIEGEL Staff
Just about every Munich local dreams of scoring a spot inside the "Himmel der Bayern" beer tent at the Oktoberfest. Anyone fortunate enough to get their name on a table inside the festival's most magnificent structure is usually a happy camper.
Recently, however, a number of people have been calling the tent's operator, Toni Roiderer, to cancel their reservations -- an unusual occurrence seven weeks before one of the world's most popular events. What if the Oktoberfest rolls around and no one feels like going?
"The world has changed," says Stephan Baumanns, a shop owner in Munich. "We're staying home."
The joyous commotion inside the tent that he enjoyed for years suddenly no longer seems safe to him. Baumanns is done tempting fate after what happened in Munich and elsewhere in Bavaria recently. Both of his children were regulars at the Olympia Einkaufszentrum shopping center, where an 18-year-old shot and killed nine people on July 22. The shooter was from the same neighborhood as the Baumanns. "I'm afraid of copycat killers," the shop owner says.
Baumanns isn't the only Bavarian who gets uneasy when he thinks about the Oktoberfest. Three violent attacks within the space of just seven days deeply upset the self-understanding of Bavaria as a haven of joie de vivre. How cozy can a person feel in a packed tent if they think another one of the guests might have an axe, pistol or bomb with them?
State of Shock
Munich is in shock. As the city mourns, local politicians are seeking to reassure people -- to little avail. A ban on backpacks and a perimeter fence around the Oktoberfest grounds could make the event safer, said Josef Schmid, the head of the annual event. But that "wouldn't be an ideal solution," retorted Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter, who added that a possible attacker could simply blow himself up among the crowds waiting in front of the entrance.
Some locals understood that to mean they'd be better advised to stay home this year and forego Oktoberfest altogether. This summer, it seems, many people are preferring a more solitary lifestyle, with only their fears to keep them company.
Can anyone blame them? Last year, 2015, was already full of horrors. The fact that this year wasn't likely to be any more peaceful became clear early on when authorities received a tip about a potential terrorist attack in Munich on New Year's Eve. It turned out to be a false alarm, but then came July, a month so full of calamities and horrific scenes it seemed worthy of a Hieronymous Bosch painting.
- On July 14, France's national holiday, a 31-year-old man killed 84 people with a truck.
- On July 18, a 17-year-old attacked passengers on a regional train near Würzburg with an axe and a knife.
- Then came the July 22 massacre in Munich.
- On July 24, a 27-year-old in Ansbach blew himself up.
- The same day, a 21-year-old Syrian in Reutlingen, near Stuttgart, murdered a woman using the kind of long knife used to slice the meat for doner kebabs.
- On July 25, several perpetrators shot and killed two teenagers in front of a nightclub in Fort Myers, Florida -- as if seeking to copy the attack in Orlando that took place just weeks earlier and left 49 dead.
- On July 26, two men, both 19, stormed a church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, France, and slit the priest's throat.
- The same day, a 26-year-old in a small town near Tokyo broke into a facility for the disabled, stabbing and killing 19 residents.
The distant countries of France, Japan, the United States and Germany blur together into a single, pixelated image of terror.
Even while forensic experts are still analyzing blood samples and investigators are putting together the pieces of the puzzle, users on social media waste no time sharing their convictions that every single attack is the work of terrorists. For many, every crime of passion, every shooting spree, every bloodbath and every meticulously planned attack by fanatics can only be one thing: terrorism. More specifically: Islamic terrorism.
This is how fear seeps into peoples' heads.
'Taboos of Civilization Are Being Broken'
This became particularly apparent in Germany as it emerged that the perpetrators in Würzburg and Ansbach had struck as "soldiers" of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia. In response to what is believed to have been the first IS attack and the first Islamist suicide bombing to take place on German soil, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last Thursday that "taboos of civilization are being broken." She added that the "abstract threat" that the security agencies had been warning about for years had now become a concrete one in a brutal way, right in front of our doorstep. The questions now dominating the public debate include: Was this just the beginning? How can we put an end to it? Most importantly: Are we stronger than our fear and stronger than potential attackers?
Comments made by Thomas de Maizière, the German interior minister and a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, were refreshingly nuanced. He said it is true that the Germans will have to get used to some changes. "We will have to get used to more intensive security precautions at major public events like Carnival parades, football matches, church congresses or Oktoberfest," he told SPIEGEL in an interview. At the same time, he added, it is advisable to remain calm.
But does that go far enough?
The Israelization of Our Streets
Such reserve didn't last long. Others quickly defaulted to arguments promoted by the security industry, which seems to have only one response when it comes to addressing violence, no matter how rash or calculated it may be: surveil, imprison, combat. The Israelization of our streets has suddenly become plausible, with heavily armed officers at intersections and entry controls in front of businesses and restaurants. The state of emergency seen in neighboring France could insidiously become a part of daily life here. At the moment, German politics seems driven by people's fears.
"Islamist terror has arrived in Germany," Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, said last Tuesday. One must "stand up to it courageously." He sounded a bit like French President François Hollande, who used the word "war" one more time after the murder of a pastor in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray. Keeping calm is no replacement for protection by the state, Seehofer said, before announcing a long list of proposed government measures.
Fighting terrorism is once again the dictate of the hour -- rather than fighting the roots of terrorism. And it doesn't seem to matter to fear-mongering politicians that this will only serve to exacerbate the threat, or that there are other, more level-headed approaches, or even that, as Interior Minister de Maizière has said, society must "to a certain extent endure" some excesses of violence. But for these politicians, the final straw came long ago.
The degree to which Germans have become susceptible to collective panic could be observed on the evening of July 22. When 18-year-old David Sonboly began his mass shooting in front of a Munich shopping center, many reflexively thought it was an IS attack against Germany. Within minutes, rumors began circulating on the Internet that a terrorist commando had gone on a killing spree in the Bavarian capital. The reports centered on men with assault weapons, of shots being fired on Karlsplatz square and of detonations in downtown Munich. The social networks amplified people's fears even though they were wrought with speculation, half-truths and erroneous reports.
By midnight, police had received more than 4,300 emergency calls, most of which turned out to be false alarms. Armed officers, including many in plain clothes, responded to the calls and in the process, unintentionally caused residents to panic even more. In no time at all, people were under the impression that Munich would become Germany's Paris, where 130 people died late last year.
Meanwhile, the country's media machine began to overheat, with journalists lacking any information interviewing experts who had none to offer. When US President Barack Obama spoke later that evening to ensure Germany his full support, it appeared to be confirmation of the terror meltdown that many had been expecting for so long.
Even after it became clear that the deadly events had been committed by a youth with xenophobic views and not jihadist fanatics, parts of the online community refused to budge in their view that the attack had been conducted by an Islamist terrorist. Of course, the "lying cartel" comprised of politicians and the media had kept all this under wraps, they alleged.
Twitter users wrote that jihad had finally arrived in Germany and were validated with likes for having the courage to say what felt like the truth.
Seldom has a single crime illustrated so plainly the incomprehension that prevails in these times of violence as the shooting spree in Munich. The perpetrator was a young German man with Iranian roots -- and possibly racist motives -- who wanted to lure people of the same age into an ambush. For a while, he was even regarded as a potential jihadist. There are no simple categories left for classifying these kinds of attacks -- not in Munich, Würzburg, Ansbach or Reutlingen. There are also no easy answers.
The Nightmare of Every Investigator
Is it all just terrorism? By no means. Violence has many causes. But given that it is happening at such frequent intervals and because fear is clouding our thinking, it can be difficult to differentiate between a spontaneous crime and a premeditated one. Was it conducted by a mad man or an Islamist?
Or perhaps neither? For law enforcement officials these days, it can feel like staring at a "Where's Waldo?" puzzle. It's also unsettling that they have to deal with such a sinister phenomenon, namely that of the lone wolf -- a perpetrator who comes out of nowhere before suddenly inflicting death.
The lone wolf is every investigator's worst nightmare. From 2006 to 2014, almost three-quarters of the terrorism deaths in Western nations were the product of lone wolves or small, autonomous cells. After the latest attacks, the question of whether lone wolves can be stopped is more relevant than ever.
The US and the European Union are making an enormous effort to answer this question, with some success. Research indicates that lone wolves actually leave behind more of a trace before committing their crimes than officials trying to track them had previously believed. In many cases, lone wolves act anything but alone. And they suggest that authorities would be well advised, even after 9/11, not to assume that terrorism will be perpetrated exclusively by Islamists.
In a study called "Lone-Actor Terrorism," several European think tanks analyzed 98 attacks by individuals in the EU, Switzerland and Norway and determined that from 2009 to 2014, some 38 percent of attacks may have been "religiously inspired," but 33 percent were also perpetrated by right-wing extremists like Anders Behring Brevik, who killed 77 people in Norway on July 22, 2011 -- the same man who apparently served as an inspiration for the Munich shooter. Researchers are therefore warning the European security apparatus against focusing primarily on the threat from Islamists, as many have done in recent years.
At the same time, no other group has been as savvy in Europe at attracting lone wolves for its purposes as the Islamic State. Its propaganda apparatus is non-stop in its efforts to animate activists worldwide for do-it-yourself jihad. And it appears that IS' virally distributed hate sermons are particularly appealing to people going through life crises or who are suffering from mental problems.
Security authorities believe that a large share of the Europeans who kill in IS' name have mental disorders. This group also now likely includes Mohammad Daleel, the Ansbach suicide bomber. He had been facing deportation from Germany and had allegedly attempted to kill himself twice before.
Was he sick or an Islamist? Possibly both. "Before, people with depression simply committed suicide," says French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar. "Now they take other people down with them" and claim to be part of IS when they do so.
Early Warning Systems
That makes combatting lone wolves more difficult for investigators. Still, the fact that lone wolves don't act nearly as secretively and discreetly as people long thought offers one glimmer of hope for security agencies. In a study financed by the US Justice Ministry in 2015, American researchers Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaij determined that, "Virtually all lone wolves demonstrate affinity with some person, group or community, be it online or in the real world."
Since the rise of social networks, many supposed lone wolves have left behind digital hints about their plans, which could make it easier to track them before they strike. "If lone wolves announce their violent intentions beforehand, then steps can probably be taken to stop them," Hamm and Spaaij wrote.
In this age of violence, an old hope of criminologists has reemerged, namely that of prevention.
Intelligence services in America and Europe have been working for some time now on a kind of global digital early warning system. In building it, they are also encroaching ever more deeply into our personal privacy. Around the world, governments have invested billions in programs aimed at casting light on virtual spaces.
In July 2015, Europol's Internet Referral Unit began tracking and investigating user accounts that are used to spread terrorist propaganda.
In Germany, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the domestic intelligence agency responsible for monitoring extremism, established a special unit in an effort to detect potential perpetrators in the digital world. Meanwhile, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, is planning to intensify its monitoring of social networks within the scope of its "Strategic Initiative Technology" program. The German Federal Criminal Police Office also has a program in place for the early identification of potential attackers. Following the Munich massacre, investigators are also increasing their efforts to scrutinize the so-called Darknet.
No agency in the world can sift all the data created online. On YouTube alone, several hundred hours of new videos are posted each minute. Instead, Western governments are counting on assistance from net communities with their billions of members.
Ansbach and Würzburg Are not New York, London or Paris
In early 2016, representatives of the US government and its intelligence agencies met with major Internet companies, including Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft. The high-level deliberations took place behind closed doors, seeking answers to the question of how "to deal with the growing threat of terrorists and other malicious actors using technology." The meeting reportedly included considerations for establishing a permanent system for using crowd-sourcing to track terrorists.
Facebook's anti-suicide alarm could serve as a model. The service allows users to alert others if one of their friends' posts seems unusually gloomy or shows troubling signs of depression.
Will users set off alarm bells in the future if they search for things like "IS," "decapitation" and "infidels" too often? And how many researchers, criminologists, politicians and journalists will be caught up in the authorities' wide dragnet? How many of their names will one day be included on lists of terrorism suspects -- lists that are constantly growing and easy to lose sight of?
Even if the authorities manage to create an early warning system with the help of algorithms and citizen volunteers, one question remains open: Will early be early enough? It's true that many lone wolves announce their plans ahead of time, but most of the time they do so surreptitiously through encryption -- or right before they strike.
On the morning of Nov. 1, 2013, 23-year-old Paul Anthony Ciancia stormed into his flatmate's room and insisted he immediately drive him to the Los Angeles airport. What's more: He sent a text message to his family in New Jersey in which he hinted at his impending suicide. Ciancia's father alerted the police and officers arrived at Ciancia's apartment shortly thereafter. But they were too late.
The lone wolf was already at the airport, where he shot four people, one fatally.
Are Attacks Preventable?
Can terrorist attacks and shooting sprees be prevented? Are there effective strategies against the radicalization of youths? Is it possible to recognize when young migrants begin to direct their anger toward their newly adopted home?
If you ask researchers at the University of Maryland and Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, the answer is yes to all of the above. But there's one condition: We have to let go of our false belief that religion plays the decisive role in the matter.
The American and German researchers wanted to figure out what the appeal of jihad was for young Muslims who grew up in the West, so they conducted a psychological study, titled, "The Struggle to Belong: Immigrant Marginalization and the Risk of Homegrown Radicalization."
They surveyed 464 people, mostly young and educated Muslims in the United States, the Netherlands and Germany.
They found that the more young people felt rejected by a majority of society, the more susceptible they were to fundamentalist, black-and-white thinking.
Migrants who neither felt at home in Germany nor in their countries of origin are prone to radical ideas, says Klaus Boehnke, who co-directed the study. For these people, acceptance is paramount. "But instead, we make them feel like outsiders," Boehnke says.
Thomas Mücke, head of the Violence Prevention Network (VPN), believes prevention must be far more comprehensive and begin much sooner. The VPN looks after more than 200 at-risk youth. Mücke speaks of a "cocktail of frustration" that gradually builds up in disenfranchised adolescents.
From there, it's only a matter of time before it can be exploited by extremists. "If integration fails and a young refugee feels alone and ostracized, that's when they start recruiting," Mücke says. In his opinion, further attacks won't be prevented with more repression and surveillance.
"We need an educational infrastructure in addition to our security infrastructure in Germany."
After so many years, the German government seems to have come to a similar conclusion. For the first time, the Interior and Family Ministries have joined forces to come up with a "Strategy of the Federal Government for Extremism Prevention and Democracy Promotion," which they unveiled two weeks ago. The 62-page paper makes clear that "security policy" is no longer solely in the foreground; preventative measures are weighted just as heavily.
German Family Minister Manuela Schwesig has set her sights on a new law that would guarantee financing for the country's numerous prevention programs. Until now, these programs have had to beg for fresh funds on a nearly annual basis. Organizations focusing on prevention among refugees, in particular, will be supported in the future. During a meeting with her state-level counterparts last week, Schwesig said her ministry would come up with draft proposals over the summer.
Finding a New Approach
The severity of the situation is on full display in the office of Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn, a doctor and psychotherapist who has spent 23 years working in the outpatient clinic of the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims (BZFO). Since last year, she has been practically overrun with refugees. Wenk-Ansohn estimates that at least a quarter of the people who seek asylum in Germany are in need of psychological care.
Her doctor's office is like a seismograph that measures the impact of political decisions in the German capital on the psyches of refugees. When the government decided to limit the ability of asylum-seekers to have their families come join them, Wenk-Ansohn could immediately see the effect it was having on her patients. A similar thing happened when it became clear that the countries in the Maghreb region would be deemed safe places of origin by the German government. "Every political decision, every official letter can plunge a person who is already in an unstable condition deeper into crisis. Very often, this can lead to suicidal tendencies," Wenk-Ansohn says.
This is even truer for young refugees who get stranded in Germany without their parents or contacts and often without any prospects for the future. Hospitals located near asylum-seekers' dormitories are often confronted with teenage refugees who have tried to kill themselves. Most clinics don't have the capacity to cope with these situations.
In the southwestern German state of Saarland, authorities are trying something new. There too, young refugees have tried to take their own lives by swallowing thumbtacks, injuring themselves with knives, knocking their heads against radiators until they bleed or trying to strangle themselves.
Since last August, however, unaccompanied minors living in Saarland have been getting psychological assistance without even realizing it. A support system has been integrated into their daily lives -- one that often takes place in groups -- and it's been hugely successful.
Whereas there was at least one attempted suicide by an unaccompanied minor every night a year and a half ago, now that figure is down to two per month, according to Eva Möhler, the head of child and youth psychiatry at the SHG Kliniken Sonnenberg medical center in Saarland.
Möhler came up with a concept she called START, which stands for stress, trauma symptoms, arousal regulation and treatment. "It's a short-term intervention designed to help people overcome acute, emotional crises and learn to self-regulate themselves and their feelings," she explains.
She says that refugees don't arrive in Germany as aggressive, unapproachable criminals; at first, they're full of hope. People here need to be careful not to destroy that by plastering the new arrivals with negative labels. "If a young refugee hears over and over again that he's not wanted and is treated as if he's a thief or potentially violent, it's not surprising if he adopts that role at some point," Möhler says.
With the way things are now, Möhler would have a tough time convincing the broader public of the utility of her work. Doctors and psychologists promise solutions in the medium term, but many people are feeling an acute sense of insecurity. They want immediate solutions.
Even before the series of attacks in July, fears of terrorism had overtaken all other worries among Germans in the polls. And coupled with those fears is a growing rejection of migrants and Muslims.
For many, the fact that it was Muslims who swung an ax in Würzburg and detonated a bomb in Ansbach was confirmation of the next supposedly irrefutable truth: That Islam is synonymous with terrorism.
The majority of Germans have not jumped to such conclusions following the recent violence, but for a large, very vocal minority, a sense of fear could change to aggression, as seen during the refugee crisis last year.
In the days since the ax attack in Würzburg, a number of Germans have resorted to vigilante justice.
In Gailhof in the German state of Lower Saxony, as well as in Rösrath in North Rhine-Westphalia, asylum-seekers have been attacked out in the open. In Niesky, in the state of Saxony, shots were fired from a car at a dormitory for refugees. In Dresden, Heidenau and Königstein, anonymous vandals painted chalk outlines in front of train stations and left behind leaflets with the words "Migration kills" splashed across them.
Countless people are also taking to social networks again to spread their vitriol. They agitate against German Chancellor Angela Merkel under the hashtag #merkelsommer -- which translates to #merkelsummer -- saying she opened the floodgates and let criminals, rapists and terrorists into the country. "Germany is sacrificing its citizens on the altar of massive immigration," one anonymous user wrote on Twitter.
In order to capitalize on the violence to the greatest extent possible, one political party wasted no time in making fear one of their party's central credos. Frauke Petry, the head of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, wrote on Facebook on Monday: "Würzburg, Reutlingen, Ansbach Is Germany colorful enough for you, Ms. Merkel?" The party's second-in-command, Alexander Gauland, called for the right to asylum to be lifted for Muslims.
But the AfD politicians weren't the only ones who sought to link Merkel's refugee policy with the recent violence. The head of the far-left Left Party, Sahra Wagenknecht, did too -- to the chagrin of her party colleagues. Early last week, the politician issued a press release stating that "events of recent days show that there are considerable problems associated with taking in and integrating a large number of refugees and migrants and that it is more difficult than Merkel tried to convince us it would be last fall with her frivolous 'We can do it'" mantra. The popular politician said "potential threats" must be tracked so "that the people of our country can feel safe again."
Merkel, for her part, sought to calm the country with a mixture of sober reflection and determination. The "barbaric acts" would be clarified quickly, Merkel promised last Thursday. At the same time, she warned against overreacting. The terrorists' goal is to "destroy our way of life. They sow hatred and fear among cultures, and they sow hatred and fear among religions."
Merkel knows just how precarious her situation is. During public appearances, she is repeatedly confronted with the accusation that the state has lost control. Every act of violence only serves to further strengthen that sentiment. "It is unbelievably difficult to counter that," a close confidant of Merkel's explains.
Merkel wants to prevent a discussion of her immigration policy from flaring up. But that approach didn't take into account CSU head and Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer, one of the leading critics of the chancellor's refugee policies from the very beginning. "We were validated in all of our prophecies. Especially concerning security policy," Seehofer said last week at a meeting of his state government cabinet. He then proceeded to present a list of demands from his law-and-order policy toolbox: allow domestic deployments of the German army, the Bundeswehr, hire more police officers, push through more encompassing data retention legislation and increase surveillance at refugee hostels.
Seehofer's interior minister, Joachim Hermann, went a step further, saying that "deportations to crisis regions" should "no longer be taboo." Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback called for electronic ankle bracelets for extremists. There was only one problem: The Islamist who murdered a priest in France last week was wearing such a device -- and it didn't stop him from committing that grisly crime.
These are the same reflexive responses that have dominated Western security policy for the past 15 years. Since 9/11, around two dozen new anti-terror laws or amendments to existing legislation have been enacted in Germany. Many of them had to be corrected or were rejected outright by Germany's Constitutional Court because they were hastily written in the immediate aftermath of a violent attack.
The fact that expanding government powers alone isn't enough to prevent further violence from happening is perhaps best exemplified by France. A state of emergency has been in place there for nine months and police and intelligence officers enjoy even broader powers than they do in Germany.
Yet French authorities were still powerless to stop the most recent terrorist attacks, such as the one in Nice that killed 84 people.
Seehofer and officials in his CSU party are similarly convinced of the state's obligation to do something -- anything -- in times of uncertainty. After the chaos of the last weeks, admitting it is too early to come up with a substantive response doesn't seem to be an option.
The CSU party chief has at least refrained from further radicalizing the political discourse so far.
Whether he'll continue to do so will depend on his performance in the polls. Lately, approval ratings for the CSU have been stable, but if there are more Islamist extremist attacks, the party's rhetoric will only intensify -- and the cycle of fear will escalate.
Germany Spared Major Attacks
It must be noted that while the latest wave of violence in Bavaria and elsewhere may have brought terrorism uncomfortably close to home, Germany has still been spared a major attack. Ansbach and Würzburg are not New York, London or Paris -- and they're certainly not Baghdad or Kabul. Of the thousands of people who are killed by terrorism every year, only a very small percentage of them are Europeans or Germans.
And when delusional or insane people are forced to reach for axes or knives to do their killing, it just goes to show that Germany is better prepared than many people think. Someone who avoids trains out of fear for their life and instead chooses to drive a car should know that they're exposing themselves to an incomparably greater risk.
Fear brings the world into disarray; it is often felt most strongly where there is the least danger -- and vice versa.
In the chaos of the recent shooting spree in Munich, while it still wasn't clear who the shooter was or whether he was acting alone and public transportation came to a standstill, something else happened: Munich residents took stranded, frightened and panicked people into their homes. Even the Bavarian state parliament building and numerous mosques opened their doors. People organized emergency shelters in their neighborhoods, coordinating their efforts under the hashtag #offenetuer, German for #opendoor.
Countless strangers found protection in the apartments of Munich residents.
Fear had to wait outside.
Reported by Maik Baumgärtner, Anna Clauß, Martin Knobbe, Ann-Kathrin Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Sven Röbel, Jörg Schindler and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt