On December 19, 2016, Germany was hit by its first major Islamist terrorist attack, when Anis Amri, a Tunisian supporter of the Islamic State (ISIS), drove a trailer truck into a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding 53. The attack, right in the center of former West Berlin, triggered a heated and nervous debate about how Germany should respond—a debate whose outcome will likely affect the parliamentary elections in September 2017. Many Germans are terrified by law enforcement’s failures in the run-up to the attack, and are demanding quick and decisive changes to the country’s domestic security architecture. Meanwhile, the complacency of politicians in Berlin and in most of the powerful states—with the notable exception of Bavaria—indicates that they do not seem to have grasped that the system must be completely overhauled if Germany is to be saved from the twin dangers of right-wing populism and jihadist terrorism. If Berlin continues on its current path, electoral catastrophes—and more terrorist attacks—are very likely to rattle Germany in the coming months.


Germany has known about the threat of jihadist terror since 2007, when an early warning by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) allowed German authorities to foil the plot of the “Sauerland group,” whose three members, part of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Jihad Group, planned to perpetrate attacks on targets such as the U.S. Air Force’s Ramstein air base. At the time, Germany had a far smaller terrorist scene than its western neighbors France and the United Kingdom, where cells of jihadists from former colonies in North Africa and South Asia had begun to coalesce more than a decade earlier. Part of the reason was that the majority of Germany’s Muslims are of Turkish origin, and so have adopted jihadist thought belatedly and in much smaller numbers than those from the Arab world.

But despite this early advantage, the number of German Muslims leaving the country to fight in South Asia and the Middle East rose steadily throughout the 2000s, so that in 2010, Germans formed the largest contingent of Western jihadists in Pakistan. Some German members of al Qaeda even traveled back to their home country with the intention of carrying out attacks, but the CIA and NSA again helped to track the returnees and expose their plots, most notably that of the Duesseldorf cell in 2011. After a short lull in the early 2010s, when it seemed that the jihadist threat might subside, the war in Syria and the emergence of ISIS heightened the appeal of jihad to young Germans. Although many were first drawn to Syria by their desire to help fellow Sunni Muslims in their struggle against Bashar al-Assad, the allure of an Islamic state, which promised life under the rules of sharia, soon provided more sacred motives. By early 2017, some 900 Germans had left their country to live and die in Syria and Iraq.

The number of German Muslims leaving the country to fight in South Asia and the Middle East rose steadily throughout the 2000s, so that in 2010, Germans formed the largest contingent of Western jihadists in Pakistan.

It was long thought in Germany that, just like in other countries, the returnees from Syria would pose the gravest challenges to domestic security. But although this proved to be the case in France and Belgium, most of the jihadists who plotted attacks in Germany in 2016 were Arabs and Berbers from Syria and North Africa, who had first come to Europe in 2014 and 2015. They had arrived with the immense flow of refugees which had started in 2014, and had then flooded Western Europe after the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September 2015 to open the borders to everyone arriving via the overland Balkan route. ISIS used this golden opportunity to send seasoned personnel to perpetrate attacks, such as the one in France in November 2015, and to prepare for more in Belgium and Germany. It also took advantage of the new recruitment pool in Germany, convincing numerous refugees to attack the country that had granted them asylum. This resulted in several foiled plots and a wave of smaller attacks by ISIS supporters, which preceded the events in Berlin. 


The deeper problem is that Germany has virtually outsourced its signals intelligence collection to the United States. This is the result of a deep-rooted German mistrust of intelligence services—a legacy of the country’s experiences in the twentieth century with the Nazi Gestapo and the East German Stasi. Even after the attacks of September 11, 2001, successive German governments neglected their own intelligence agencies, leaving the country’s national security to allies. While U.S. agencies attempted to find terrorists, the Germans were, by and large, reduced to monitoring people who had already been identified as possible threats. The thus lacked the capability to identify transnational threats originating in the Middle East or South Asia.

A closer examination of the plots of 2016 reveals the extent of this reliance. When the CIA and NSA provided their German colleagues with information about planned attacks, the Germans foiled them. But when the United States had no information, the Germans had to rely on sheer luck and the incompetence of the prospective terrorists to escape from harm. For instance, the Americans provided the Germans with intelligence that Syrian ISIS member Jaber al-Bakr was planning an attack on Berlin-Tegel airport, and German authorities were able to arrest him in Leipzig in October 2016. Other times, however, the Germans were left without a clue, as in the case of Muhammad Daleel, a Syrian ISIS member from Aleppo who tried to blow up a music festival in Ansbach in July 2016, but failed to ignite the deadlier part of his bomb.

A woman stands near a memorial for the victims of the Berlin Christmas market attack, December 2016.
Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

The main difference between the situation now and that before 2015 is that today, after the refugee crisis, neither the United States nor its European partners can cope with the scale of the threat. This had already become obvious after the November 2015 attacks on the Bataclan in Paris. The perpetrators had constantly communicated with each other and with ISIS commanders back in Syria and Iraq, all without the NSA and its European partners being able to monitor the messages due to the effectiveness of modern encryption technology. Some years before, it would have been far more difficult to plan such an attack without tipping off the NSA, but now, with the rapidly rising numbers of jihadists in Europe, the increased professionalism of ISIS’ planning, and cheap and easily available technologies, the terrorists have the advantage.

Yet the failure of German security and intelligence agencies is still the heart of the matter, as is brutally revealed by the case of Anis Amri. The Tunisian had been categorized as a potential terrorist since February 2016, but in what amounted to a total security breakdown (involving not only intelligence but also police services), he was neither deported nor arrested after his application for asylum had been rejected. Although he was well-connected to German ISIS supporters, and in spite of reports that he had talked about perpetrating an attack, surveillance of Amri was stopped in September 2016.


Following the attack in Berlin, the government has reacted with a string of measures, including allowing the authorities to monitor potential terrorists with electronic bracelets and to arrest rejected asylum seekers deemed to represent security threats. Although these are necessary reactions to the Berlin attack, they come years too late. Instead, Germany’s domestic security system needs a complete overhaul in order to prepare for the terrorist threats of the coming years.

Germany’s domestic security system needs a complete overhaul in order to prepare for the terrorist threats of the coming years.

The overhaul will have to start by centralizing the 38 institutions designed to counter jihadist terrorism in Germany. Every state has its own intelligence service and state office of criminal investigation, some of them stronger (such as those in Bavaria), many of them weaker (such as those in Berlin). Their lack of cooperation—and professionalism—led to some of the chaos in the Amri case. Going forward, both intelligence and police will have to work under the direction of their federal colleagues in the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) if their performance is to improve.

Germany will have to strengthen its intelligence services as well. The increasing number of cases in which terrorists in Germany have been able to secretly communicate with each other and with comrades abroad is alarming, especially because those behind many of the recent attacks in Europe were able to communicate with their superiors in the Middle East for weeks or even months. The German agencies should improve their technical capabilities in the years to come, and the government will have to provide them with the legal basis to do their work. They will never come close to the broad reach and the effectiveness of the NSA, but the failures of 2016 show they must start to get better.  

Germany will also have to reestablish control over its borders. Although the number of newly arrived refugees dropped to some 280,000 in 2016, this is the result of states along the Balkan route closing their borders to asylum seekers and the new Turkish policy of stopping migrants from crossing the Aegean Sea. The number of refugees coming from North Africa to Italy via the Mediterranean, and thence northward, is increasing and may rise quickly at any time. Communication among the Schengen member states, moreover, is sorely lacking, and German authorities currently do not know who is entering other European states.  

For the time being, it remains unlikely that anything close to these reform steps will be implemented, because even a very basic proposal to centralize the security authorities has met with stiff opposition. This happened when the federal Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière, proposed a similar but more limited step in January 2017, and the state interior ministers outright rejected it. Rather, a meaningful reform of the German security architecture will require a shift in the political culture of the country, which will only be the result of a major change in the political system. This, in turn, could be brought about by a stronger-than-expected performance of right-wing populists in the elections, or by a further series of attacks. Unfortunately, however, it seems that without such a push, the German political elite will remain mired in complacency.

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  • GUIDO STEINBERG is a Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. 
  • More By Guido Steinberg