Germany Is in Denial About Its Ineffective Counter-Terrorism Structure

Berlin Christmas attack
Security and rescue workers tend to the area after a lorry truck ploughed through a Christmas market in Berlin on December 20. Authorities are hunting a Tunisian man who they believe was the driver of the truck. Michele Tantussi/Getty

On December 19, Germany was hit by its first major Islamist terror attack, when a man steered a huge tractor-trailer truck into a Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the center of former West Berlin. The debate triggered by the event first focused on why the main suspect, the Tunisian Anis Amri, had been able to plan, organize and perpetrate the attack although he had been on a German terrorism watchlist and should have been deported to his home country months ago.

Although this might seem a particularly scandalous blunder on the part the German security authorities, many Germans have grown accustomed to the erratic performance of their police and intelligence services in recent years. In fact, the case of Anis Amri is paradigmatic for the weakness of the German security architecture, which is not ready to cope with the threats of the 21 st century.

The shortcomings of German security have their roots in the weakness of the country's intelligence services, who have been neglected by policymakers for decades. Too heavy is the burden of the two German dictatorships of the 20 th century that built on the cunning brutality of the Gestapo secret police under the Nazis and the Stasi intelligence service in East Germany, respectively. Furthermore, the German intelligence services were established by or under the tight control of the allied occupation authorities in the 1950s and have traditionally relied heavily on their U.S. partners.

After unification, it was quite convenient to keep the old system in place, in which the German services received most of their intelligence from partners, mainly the U.S. and Britain. This way, Germany did not have to confront a highly critical German public with the need to spy on potential enemies abroad and at home.

As of today, the German government has effectively outsourced an important part of domestic counter-terrorism to the U.S. by relying on signals intelligence by the National Security Agency (NSA). In most cases when major terrorist plots were foiled by German security authorities after 2001, initial information about terrorist communications was provided by the NSA. This was, for example, the case when the jihadi Sauerland cell planned attacks on U.S. targets in Germany in 2007. Recently, it was the U.S. again that provided initial intelligence about Jaber al-Bakr, the Syrian member of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) who is believed to have planned an attack on Berlin-Tegel airport and was arrested in Leipzig in October.

It is perfectly acceptable to rely on a friend and ally in security matters and counter-terrorism. But the problem of over-reliance became obvious in cases when the NSA and CIA did not manage to get information about imminent plots, for instance, in July, when another Syrian ISIS extremist tried to plant a bomb at a music festival in the Bavarian town of Ansbach. Luckily, only a part of his device exploded, killing the terrorist and no innocent bystanders. But the event was ample evidence for what might be called the basic rule of German counter-terrorism: When the NSA finds out about a plot, the Germans thwart it; if it doesn't, they have no chance other than sheer luck and/or the ineptness of the attackers.

Just how dangerous the lack of functioning intelligence services can be should have become obvious in the case of the National Socialist Underground (NSU). This was a cell of violent right-wing extremists who went underground in 1998 and subsequently killed eight German Turks, one Greek migrant and a policewoman—and only ended when two male terrorists of the group committed suicide fearing imminent arrest after a bank robbery in 2011. In all these years, the German police and intelligence services did not even investigate the murders as terrorist attacks, but developed bizarre theories about turf wars between Turkish organized crime groups. The failure was especially scandalous because federal and state intelligence agencies had numerous sources in the right-wing extremist scene. Besides a sometimes painful lack of professionalism, the events hinted at an even more important problem, affecting counter-terrorism in general.

Many German states do not allow their intelligence services to exert pressure on their paid informants. This leaves them with only money as a means to convince members of extremist groups to provide them with information. The result is to be expected: the neo-Nazis (and Islamists) continue working for their cause, but accept the payments as well. In the case of the NSU, large sums were given to people who probably knew about or had heard rumors about the existence of the cell and the background of the attacks, but did not inform the authorities.

It would fall short, though, to blame only the security authorities for the shortcomings of German counter-terrorism, and the NSU case provides us with an additional insight into the weaknesses of political oversight mechanisms. When in June 2004, the NSU cell perpetrated a bomb attack in a predominantly Turkish street in Cologne, injuring 22, the German domestic intelligence service quickly came to the conclusion that the culprits were neo-Nazi terrorists.

The agency informed the ministries in Berlin, and the information was received, but nobody followed up on the information in the coming years. Intelligence services in democracies typically try to answer questions that are posed by policy makers in government and in parliament. If the politicians do not ask the right questions, they can not necessarily expect the services to fill the void. And if they simply ignore information or problems than run counter to their established worldviews, wishes and aspirations, they cannot expect a highly complicated security architecture to function without a guiding hand.

This is especially the case when the services are kept weak and fragmented like in Germany, where 38 agencies are active in countering terrorism. In the case of the NSU, the German ministerial bureaucracy and the oversight committees failed because they considered Islamist terrorism the far-larger problem and did not show any interest in far-right violence.

Policymakers and bureaucrats have consistently denied what is obvious for any attentive observer, namely that German security architecture is hardly able to cope with the increasing threat.

The official complacency stands in marked contrast to the warnings of police and intelligence officials in the field. In private, many of them have argued for years that German policymakers should wake up and decide to give them the legal, financial, and technical resources they need to fight Islamist terrorists effectively.

It might now seem that 12 people dead and more than 50 injured provide the proponents of a more focused and dedicated counter-terrorism strategy with a powerful argument. Judging from the record of the last years, though, it will most probably require more shocks for the German government to change its approach.

Guido Steinberg is senior research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and former counter-extremism adviser to German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.