Germans eye more surveillance after failed bomb plot
BERLIN — With the second suspect in a nearly successful train bombing now in custody, Germany is being forced to reevaluate how secure it really is, given that the attacks were stopped by a technical glitch, not by the work of security agencies.
Though it's still unclear whether the bombing suspects – both young Lebanese men – were part of a larger network of Islamic radicals, their attempted attacks have awakened Germany to its vulnerabilities and cast new scrutiny on counterterrorism efforts.
In the five years since Al Qaeda hijacker Mohammed Atta executed the final details of the 9/11 plot here, Germany's counterterrorism landscape has changed markedly. Germans have largely accepted new security measures, including expanded surveillance powers of security agencies, loosened privacy-protection laws, and computer profiling by police.
But they've been hesitant to support tougher measures, such as a proposed antiterror database, as many Germans feel their opposition to the Iraq war has made them largely immune to the attacks like bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.
"From the terrorists' point of view, of course we are a target," says Rolf Tophoven, a prominent German terrorism expert. Analysts say hosting US military bases, Germany's post-World War II closeness with Israel, and sending German troops to Afghanistan, could all put Germany on militants' target list.
That realization has spurred discussion about new security measures. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has endorsed "carefully" increasing video surveillance of public areas and creating an antiterrorism database. A draft proposal of a law expanding security agencies' counterterrorism measures, which includes a provision for police and intelligence agents to pool information in an antiterror database, is currently circulating in the German parliament.
In the recent attempted attack, bombs were brought onto two trains headed for the western German cities of Dortmund and Koblenz on July 31. The detonators on both went off, but the gas-canister bombs failed to explode.
German officials identified two suspects based on grainy images from a surveillance camera in Cologne, leading to the arrest of one in Kiel, last weekend. The other turned himself in Thursday after fleeing to Lebanon.
The somewhat amateurish construction of the bombs makes Mr. Tophoven believe it's unlikely that the suspects are part of a well-organized terror group.
But even if the incident was an "aberration," that doesn't mean Germany isn't facing a terror threat, says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College.
"No country is immune in Europe," says Mr. Ranstorp.
Klaus Jansen, head of the German union for criminal investigators and a persistent critic of counterterrorism efforts in Germany, says there hasn't been a major attack here because "the attackers haven't committed themselves yet to try something here. You can't seriously think it has something to do with the work of our security agencies."
But data-protection advocates say that information obtained by intelligence agencies, which have more latitude and often work undercover, should not be available to any police officer, says Anja-Maria Gardain, spokeswoman of the Berlin Commissioner for Data Protection. Instead, they are calling for an index that will give some key identifying data for suspected terrorists, and note which intelligence agency has more information on them.
Countries such as Britain have tried to cut support for Islamic militants by trying to engage the local Muslim communities in monitoring and outreach work. But German and Muslim leaders say such an approach doesn't work here.
"We don't work close together with Muslim leaders because they usually are not the ones who know what their brothers are planning," says Manfred Murck, head of the state office for domestic intelligence in Hamburg, where Mr. Atta's cell operated.
Burhan Kesici, vice president of the Islamische Föderation in Berlin's heavily Turkish Neukölln neighborhood, agrees. Like many Muslim leaders, he's under pressure to identify extremists, but says his community has little more information than government officials.
"We can't recognize them, and they don't come into our mosques because we don't practice their version of Islam ...They have their own world, where we also don't belong," says Mr. Kesici.
Kesici also faults poor communication between Muslims of different ethnicities and religious interpretations.
"There are no structures on the state level where Muslim communities could work together. If there was a commission where one could work more together, then we would talk about [extremism] a lot more often," says Kesici.
But Islamic communities in Germany are better integrated into German society than those in England or France, says Steffen Angenendt, a fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
"We have more mixed ethnic environments and quarters in the big cities, and not this type of more ethnic homogeneous structures, as in some British cities," says Mr. Angenendt.
• Andreas Tzortzis contributed reporting from Berlin.