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.
WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD
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 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.
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