Germany's counterterror push

New security laws, expected to be introduced into parliament today, anger civil liberties activists.

Hamburg, Germany

Thorsten is a 30-something German businessman. He travels frequently and holds a pilot's license. He's gone back to take classes in a technical field at a small university outside Hamburg. Financially independent. No criminal record.

Though those characteristics are not exactly what you would expect of a terror suspect, they are likely to have landed Thorsten on a list of 10,000 "suspicious students," which Germany's new computer profiling system has already turned up in Hamburg.

As European countries rush to tighten security, Germany is crafting some of the continent's strongest counterterror laws - some of which are drawing fire from civil liberties activists warning against "the blueprint of a police state."

The coalition government is expected to propose a second package of legislation today that would allow police and secret service agents to monitor the phone calls, e-mails, and bank accounts of people like Thorsten, who are not suspected of planning a criminal act but who are "generally suspicious."

When presented with these credentials, a Hamburg security official says, "He would be considered suspicious" under Interior Minister Otto Schily's new security initiatives.

The legislative package, seen as likely to pass, follows several days and nights of tense discussions between the governing Social Democrats and their coalition partners, the Green Party.

Mr. Schily has been fiercely criticized in the German press for the proposals, which critics say will cast an unfairly wide net in the search for terrorists.

"This has been a wish list for police for a long time. Before Sept. 11, the public would not have accepted it. Now, every point of it will be fulfilled," says Christian Denso, an expert on criminology and editor of the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt.

The dual security packages are particularly controversial in the northern city of Hamburg, which has become known as the European headquarters of Mohamed Atta and other Islamic extremists suspected of crashing jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Law enforcement and intelligence officials here agree that none of the measures involved would have prevented the attacks.

"This is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough," says Wolfgang Dicke, General Secretary of the Federal Police Union. "These measures will surely enhance public security, but they won't catch the next Mohamed Atta."

The first security package, implemented in late September, included an additional 3 billion marks ($1.4 billion) for combating terrorism, funded by a cigarette-tax hike. It provided for tighter airport security, background checks for foreigners, more and better-equipped police, and renewed use of computer profiling, which was employed in the 1970s with limited success to track down members of the German leftist terrorist organization Red Army Faction (RAF).

The second package is expected to go much further, including a breach in the traditional wall between police and secret services. The two were separated by law after the Gestapo experience of World War II.

The latest initiatives will also allow security forces greater authority to tap phone lines, monitor e-mails, and snoop in bank records without having a specific suspicion against the people being spied upon.

One of the most hotly debated measures is the introduction of fingerprints and biometric data on identification cards and passports. It is also the one proposal that analysts say might have flagged Atta, the suspected Sept. 11 ringleader, who had three different identities in Germany.

"These German security measures are more restrictive than anything we have seen so far in the US," says Steve Garrett, professor of international policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "The German public is willing to accept more intrusive measures by the state to combat threats to the country."

But Germany is also a strongly left-liberal country and promoting these new laws has been an uphill battle for Schily, who was a founding member of the leftist Green Party and switched to the Social Democrats in the 1990s. A lawyer by profession, he also once represented the RAF and attended anti-establishment demonstrations in his youth.

In an apparent about-face, he proposed a crackdown on antiglobalization protesters last summer before the terrorism crisis. As a result, many critics argue that Schily's security packages are not aimed specifically at international terrorism but rather at German fringe groups.

"Certainly, these measures are aimed at all kinds of extremist groups," says Kai Hirschmann of the German Federal College for Security Studies. "It might be possible for international terrorists to find help and support in certain circles of left-wing radicals."

Hamburg has a strong anarchist and anticapitalist movement, which may have been one reason why Atta's cell was based here. Left-wing activists took over two neighborhoods in Hamburg in the 1990s, and continue to clash with police. To avoid further street battles, police simply stopped trying to force their way into the declared "law-free zones," and the secret service has turned to using infiltration.

Members of Hamburg's radical groups say there are important cultural and political connections between their organizations and the city's Muslim community, where the hijackers hid. "Some of the things we do are illegal," says a middle-aged accountant and left-wing radical whose pseudonym is Frank. "For example, I organized a demonstration of asylum seekers against deportation, which was illegal for them to attend."

A senior German secret service official acknowledges that Hamburg's extreme leftist community is under investigation. He also says the new security package does not go far enough in combating terrorism or domestic extremists. "We are not allowed to bug places where people actually live," he says. "If we could, it might help. We can't predict or prevent terrorism, unless we know what is in people's minds."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.