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Friday, August 25, 2006

Germany's Counter-Terrorism Strategy

On July 31, two bombs hidden in suitcases were found on regional trains stopping in the German cities of Koblenz and Dortmund. Last week, police investigators identified two suspects in what they called a failed terrorist plot. Now both suspects -- Lebanese men aged 20 and 21 -- have been arrested. Since the bombs only failed to explode due to faulty construction techniques, many in Germany have been alarmed by the death and destruction that could have been caused.

The incident has also prompted a new round of debate on whether the German government is doing enough to prevent terrorist attacks.

German newspapers on Friday focus on the country's anti-terrorism strategy and deal especially with the significance of surveillance technology. Some lament that discussions on surveillance are distracting German officials from the importance of other, less tangible assets, such as close contacts between investigators and their colleagues abroad, as well as the ability to infiltrate suspect groups. Others argue that German politicians still haven't properly understood the nature of contemporary terrorism, and in particular the role that the Internet plays.

A commentator writing in the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung notes that much of the debate over terrorism prevention in Germany turns on the question of how important new technology -- such as surveillance and data retrieval technology -- is for foiling terrorist plots. The commentator believes that such technology plays an important role: "That major train stations, airports and other important transit points are being observed electronically has turned out to be helpful." And yet relying on technological measures such as the instalment of closed-circuit TV cameras is not enough. The commentator immediately argues that in the case of last month's failed train bombings and the arrests that followed, the "personal contacts" of German investigators to Lebanon were at least as important as the technology. The commentator speculates that these contacts may have been established by Detlev Mehlis, the German UN investigator charged with investigating the February 14, 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. "The investigators aren't saying much about this side of their work, but it deserves at least as much attention as the issues surrounding electronic anti-terrorism files."

Not only is the cultivation of close working relationships between the anti-terrorism forces of different countries desirable, according to the FAZ, but German investigators shouldn't be too squeamish about who they collaborate with either: "International terrorism needs to be fought by international measures. This means German investigators must also cultivate relations with colleagues from states that fall short of meeting the criteria associated with constitutionality and the rule of law."

Business daily Handelsblatt features a commentary criticizing the statements on anti-terrorism measures that have come from German politicians and anti-terrorism experts following the failed train bombings. Experts -- "some qualified, others unqualified" -- have come out with what the commentator calls "antiquated calls for tougher punishments, more intense surveillance and stricter border controls." The effect of what these experts and politicians say is mainly rhetorical, the commentator suggests: Retrieving such lists of traditional measures "from the filing cabinet" is just a "ritual" that ends up achieving very little.

The commentator goes on to note that German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who is known for his insistence on the need for a tougher anti-terrorism strategy, has chosen to expand the current "canon" of measures by calls for closer control of the Internet. But this isn't particularly original either: "The Internet problem was already recognized in 1998, and it was debated at international meetings in 1999." The commentator does believe that closer control of the Web is necessary: "Today the Internet has become what the mosque and Osama bin Laden's training camps used to be." The paper continues by opining that "the new religious warriors" are now able to survive "in a hostile Christian environment" without "strict training" or "headquarters," simply by "taking jihad into their own hands" as travellers of the "information highway." As abstract and bizarre as much of what goes on in Internet forums may seem, genuine terror may be "just a mouseclick away" and "virtual danger" can "crush real life," the commentator insists. The editorial concludes by arguing that the current pleas for "witness protection programs, dragnet investigations, personal surveillance, comprehensive investigation files and excessive border controls" need to yield to concrete action, and that the list of anti-terrorism measures needs to be updated to include such items as "video surveillance" and "Internet analysis."

Franz Josef Wagner, the regular populist commentator in Germany's leading tabloid Bild, has written an open letter to Interior Minister Schäuble for Friday's edition of the newspaper. It's devoted not to anti-terrorism strategy, but to the "wondrousness" of human beings, whose "fear" seems to "peel away like cheap varnish" the moment a reassuring piece of news -- such as that concerning the arrest of the two would-be train bombers -- distracts them from the fact that the threat of terrorist attacks is an ongoing one.

Citizens in Germany still haven't understood the full import of this new threat, Wagner suggests: "For us, death means arteriosclerosis, cardiac arrest, a car accident, cancer" -- not terrorism. Wagner's assessment of the Interior Minister's ability to remedy this state of affairs is as generous as his concern over the ignorance and flippancy of German citizens is grave. And so he ends his brief letter by calling on Schäuble to educate German citizens about the seriousness of the terrorist threat: "It's your job, dear Interior Minister, to make us understand that there is a new cause of death: terrorism. It's your job to shake us awake: Death rides on the train."

Der Spiegel
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