Terrorism: Lessons from Germany

6 September 2007

Terrorism: Lessons from Germany

By Gwynne Dyer

On 5 September, German police raided a house near the village of Oberschledorn, about an hour’s drive east of Dusseldorf, and arrested three suspected Islamist terrorists. They had accumulated enough hydrogen peroxide to build a bomb with the explosive power of 550 kg (1200 lbs) of TNT, and they had scouted potential targets like Frankfurt International Airport and the huge US Air Force base at Ramstein. As usual, the German police released only their first names and initials: Daniel S, age 22; Fritz G., 28; and Adem Y, 29.

It was the closest call yet for Germany, which has so far escaped attacks like those in Madrid and London. More attempts will doubtless follow, for Germany has peace-keeping troops in Afghanistan and Lebanon, and the disaster in Iraq has poisoned the well so badly that Western troops in any Muslim country look like part of the “Zionist-Crusader assault on Islam” to some young Muslims. But the response of the German media was instructive.

There was, inevitably, the “blame the immigrants” gang, like Jacques Schuster in Berliner Morgenpost: “…the government must increase the pressure on Muslims to integrate. Even peaceful parallel societies cannot be tolerated.” Which kind of missed the point that two of the three men arrested were ethnic German converts to Islam. (The other was a Turkish citizen long resident in Germany.)

There was also the realism and refusal to panic of a society that has some previous experience of dealing with terrorism, in the days of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. As Stephan Speicher put it in Berliner Zeitung: “We will just have to learn to live with the threat of terror. At some point, people will die. It is surprising, therefore, how calmly society is reacting, even though everyone must realise that the security agencies cannot be successful for ever.”

But the most trenchant comment came from Richard Meng in Frankfurter Rundschau: “It was Fritz and Daniel who were arrested with Adem, not Mohammed or Mustafa. It can no longer be denied that it is foolish to regard immigrants as a greater security threat than the indigenous population. It is even more foolish to make sweeping judgments about Islam.” Exactly.

“Islamist” extremism is a political phenomenon, and it has precisely the same appeal to the disoriented and the alienated as previous millennial doctrines, from the Hashishin (Assassins) of the 12th century Middle East to the anarchists and Bolsheviks of 20th century Europe. Like many such doctrines, it wraps itself in religious symbolism: most religions are, after all, millennial. But terrorism is not religion, and “Islamism” is not Islam.

First- and second-generation immigrants from Muslim countries who have not found their feet in Western countries are prime recruits for “Islamist” doctrines, of course, but so are alienated people in the host society, like Fritz G. and Daniel S. in Germany or the Jamaican-born, British-raised London bomber Abdullah Shaheed Jamal (né Germaine Maurice Lindsay). Those people thought they were converting to Islam, but they were actually attracted by the violent, apocalyptic fervour of the extremists. Emotionally, all forms of political extremism are virtually interchangeable.

So what lessons can we draw from this? First, the potential terrorists are already in the West, and all the border controls in the world will not stop them. At least 90 percent of the terrorist attacks in Western countries come from people who live in those countries, not outsiders trying to get in.

True, a lot of them go to camps in the more lawless parts of Pakistan for “training,” but this is something that should be warmly encouraged. The training is obviously not very good, for few of the bombs have worked, and few of the terrorists have even got to the point where they actually tried to blow something up. And it was travelling to Pakistan that first put them on the watch lists of Western security forces: all of those “terrorist training camps” are obviously infiltrated by people who hand over lists of the foreign visitors to Western controllers.

This is a twenty- or thirty-year game of spooks and terrorists that will be played out on the margins while most people’s lives continue virtually undisturbed, except for the unfortunate few who get caught in a real terrorist incident. Border controls are of minor importance in the game, and invading foreign countries is almost invariably counter-productive.

Every incident will be represented by some government official as “al Qaeda-linked,” as if there were a criminal mastermind somewhere planning all these attacks. True to form, Germany’s interior minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, announced that the three current suspects, and ten others who are being sought, “obviously planned these attacks on the orders of an international network.” But it’s really scattered local stuff that follows an ideological and tactical template that is now available everywhere in the planet.

Osama bin Laden created the template, so in that very limited sense every “Islamist” attack has an al-Qaeda link, but the organisation itself is no longer a major player. The sporadic terrorist attacks in Western countries will continue, but they will be far less destructive than those in Muslim countries, and they will certainly diminish if Western troops pull out of Muslim countries. So the German approach is just right: do the intelligence work, don’t over-estimate the threat, and above all don’t panic.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“There was also…forever”; and “Every…planet”)