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A Country on Tenterhooks

Germans Wonder If Terror Can Be Prevented

Following the attacks in Munich, Würzburg and Ansbach, many are asking how the violence can be stopped. There is an answer to this question, but will it be heard in these turbulent times? By SPIEGEL Staff

Monday, 8/1/2016   08:27 PM

Just about every Munich local dreams of scoring a spot inside the "Himmel der Bayern" beer tent at the Oktoberfest. Anyone fortunate enough to get their name on a table inside the festival's most magnificent structure is usually a happy camper.

Recently, however, a number of people have been calling the tent's operator, Toni Roiderer, to cancel their reservations -- an unusual occurrence seven weeks before one of the world's most popular events. What if the Oktoberfest rolls around and no one feels like going?

"The world has changed," says Stephan Baumanns, a shop owner in Munich. "We're staying home." The joyous commotion inside the tent that he enjoyed for years suddenly no longer seems safe to him. Baumanns is done tempting fate after what happened in Munich and elsewhere in Bavaria recently. Both of his children were regulars at the Olympia Einkaufszentrum shopping center, where an 18-year-old shot and killed nine people on July 22. The shooter was from the same neighborhood as the Baumanns. "I'm afraid of copycat killers," the shop owner says.

Baumanns isn't the only Bavarian who gets uneasy when he thinks about the Oktoberfest. Three violent attacks within the space of just seven days deeply upset the self-understanding of Bavaria as a haven of joie de vivre. How cozy can a person feel in a packed tent if they think another one of the guests might have an axe, pistol or bomb with them?

State of Shock

Munich is in shock. As the city mourns, local politicians are seeking to reassure people -- to little avail. A ban on backpacks and a perimeter fence around the Oktoberfest grounds could make the event safer, said Josef Schmid, the head of the annual event. But that "wouldn't be an ideal solution," retorted Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter, who added that a possible attacker could simply blow himself up among the crowds waiting in front of the entrance.

Some locals understood that to mean they'd be better advised to stay home this year and forego Oktoberfest altogether. This summer, it seems, many people are preferring a more solitary lifestyle, with only their fears to keep them company.

Can anyone blame them? Last year, 2015, was already full of horrors. The fact that this year wasn't likely to be any more peaceful became clear early on when authorities received a tip about a potential terrorist attack in Munich on New Year's Eve. It turned out to be a false alarm, but then came July, a month so full of calamities and horrific scenes it seemed worthy of a Hieronymous Bosch painting.

People are never far from these horrors as news of them is broadcast live on their smartphones. The distant countries of France, Japan, the United States and Germany blur together into a single, pixelated image of terror.

Even while forensic experts are still analyzing blood samples and investigators are putting together the pieces of the puzzle, users on social media waste no time sharing their convictions that every single attack is the work of terrorists. For many, every crime of passion, every shooting spree, every bloodbath and every meticulously planned attack by fanatics can only be one thing: terrorism. More specifically: Islamic terrorism.

This is how fear seeps into peoples' heads.

'Taboos of Civilization Are Being Broken'

This became particularly apparent in Germany as it emerged that the perpetrators in Würzburg and Ansbach had struck as "soldiers" of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia. In response to what is believed to have been the first IS attack and the first Islamist suicide bombing to take place on German soil, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last Thursday that "taboos of civilization are being broken." She added that the "abstract threat" that the security agencies had been warning about for years had now become a concrete one in a brutal way, right in front of our doorstep. The questions now dominating the public debate include: Was this just the beginning? How can we put an end to it? Most importantly: Are we stronger than our fear and stronger than potential attackers?

Comments made by Thomas de Maizière, the German interior minister and a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, were refreshingly nuanced. He said it is true that the Germans will have to get used to some changes. "We will have to get used to more intensive security precautions at major public events like Carnival parades, football matches, church congresses or Oktoberfest," he told SPIEGEL in an interview. At the same time, he added, it is advisable to remain calm.

But does that go far enough?

The Israelization of Our Streets

Such reserve didn't last long. Others quickly defaulted to arguments promoted by the security industry, which seems to have only one response when it comes to addressing violence, no matter how rash or calculated it may be: surveil, imprison, combat. The Israelization of our streets has suddenly become plausible, with heavily armed officers at intersections and entry controls in front of businesses and restaurants. The state of emergency seen in neighboring France could insidiously become a part of daily life here. At the moment, German politics seems driven by people's fears.

"Islamist terror has arrived in Germany," Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, said last Tuesday. One must "stand up to it courageously." He sounded a bit like French President François Hollande, who used the word "war" one more time after the murder of a pastor in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray. Keeping calm is no replacement for protection by the state, Seehofer said, before announcing a long list of proposed government measures.

Fighting terrorism is once again the dictate of the hour -- rather than fighting the roots of terrorism. And it doesn't seem to matter to fear-mongering politicians that this will only serve to exacerbate the threat, or that there are other, more level-headed approaches, or even that, as Interior Minister de Maizière has said, society must "to a certain extent … endure" some excesses of violence. But for these politicians, the final straw came long ago.

The degree to which Germans have become susceptible to collective panic could be observed on the evening of July 22. When 18-year-old David Sonboly began his mass shooting in front of a Munich shopping center, many reflexively thought it was an IS attack against Germany. Within minutes, rumors began circulating on the Internet that a terrorist commando had gone on a killing spree in the Bavarian capital. The reports centered on men with assault weapons, of shots being fired on Karlsplatz square and of detonations in downtown Munich. The social networks amplified people's fears even though they were wrought with speculation, half-truths and erroneous reports.

By midnight, police had received more than 4,300 emergency calls, most of which turned out to be false alarms. Armed officers, including many in plain clothes, responded to the calls and in the process, unintentionally caused residents to panic even more. In no time at all, people were under the impression that Munich would become Germany's Paris, where 130 people died late last year.

Meanwhile, the country's media machine began to overheat, with journalists lacking any information interviewing experts who had none to offer. When US President Barack Obama spoke later that evening to ensure Germany his full support, it appeared to be confirmation of the terror meltdown that many had been expecting for so long.

Even after it became clear that the deadly events had been committed by a youth with xenophobic views and not jihadist fanatics, parts of the online community refused to budge in their view that the attack had been conducted by an Islamist terrorist. Of course, the "lying cartel" comprised of politicians and the media had kept all this under wraps, they alleged. Twitter users wrote that jihad had finally arrived in Germany and were validated with likes for having the courage to say what felt like the truth.

Seldom has a single crime illustrated so plainly the incomprehension that prevails in these times of violence as the shooting spree in Munich. The perpetrator was a young German man with Iranian roots -- and possibly racist motives -- who wanted to lure people of the same age into an ambush. For a while, he was even regarded as a potential jihadist. There are no simple categories left for classifying these kinds of attacks -- not in Munich, Würzburg, Ansbach or Reutlingen. There are also no easy answers.

The Nightmare of Every Investigator

Is it all just terrorism? By no means. Violence has many causes. But given that it is happening at such frequent intervals and because fear is clouding our thinking, it can be difficult to differentiate between a spontaneous crime and a premeditated one. Was it conducted by a mad man or an Islamist? Or perhaps neither? For law enforcement officials these days, it can feel like staring at a "Where's Waldo?" puzzle. It's also unsettling that they have to deal with such a sinister phenomenon, namely that of the lone wolf -- a perpetrator who comes out of nowhere before suddenly inflicting death.

The lone wolf is every investigator's worst nightmare. From 2006 to 2014, almost three-quarters of the terrorism deaths in Western nations were the product of lone wolves or small, autonomous cells. After the latest attacks, the question of whether lone wolves can be stopped is more relevant than ever.

The US and the European Union are making an enormous effort to answer this question, with some success. Research indicates that lone wolves actually leave behind more of a trace before committing their crimes than officials trying to track them had previously believed. In many cases, lone wolves act anything but alone. And they suggest that authorities would be well advised, even after 9/11, not to assume that terrorism will be perpetrated exclusively by Islamists.

In a study called "Lone-Actor Terrorism," several European think tanks analyzed 98 attacks by individuals in the EU, Switzerland and Norway and determined that from 2009 to 2014, some 38 percent of attacks may have been "religiously inspired," but 33 percent were also perpetrated by right-wing extremists like Anders Behring Brevik, who killed 77 people in Norway on July 22, 2011 -- the same man who apparently served as an inspiration for the Munich shooter. Researchers are therefore warning the European security apparatus against focusing primarily on the threat from Islamists, as many have done in recent years.

At the same time, no other group has been as savvy in Europe at attracting lone wolves for its purposes as the Islamic State. Its propaganda apparatus is non-stop in its efforts to animate activists worldwide for do-it-yourself jihad. And it appears that IS' virally distributed hate sermons are particularly appealing to people going through life crises or who are suffering from mental problems.

Security authorities believe that a large share of the Europeans who kill in IS' name have mental disorders. This group also now likely includes Mohammad Daleel, the Ansbach suicide bomber. He had been facing deportation from Germany and had allegedly attempted to kill himself twice before. Was he sick or an Islamist? Possibly both. "Before, people with depression simply committed suicide," says French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar. "Now they take other people down with them" and claim to be part of IS when they do so.

Early Warning Systems

That makes combatting lone wolves more difficult for investigators. Still, the fact that lone wolves don't act nearly as secretively and discreetly as people long thought offers one glimmer of hope for security agencies. In a study financed by the US Justice Ministry in 2015, American researchers Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaij determined that, "Virtually all lone wolves demonstrate affinity with some person, group or community, be it online or in the real world."

Since the rise of social networks, many supposed lone wolves have left behind digital hints about their plans, which could make it easier to track them before they strike. "If lone wolves announce their violent intentions beforehand, then steps can probably be taken to stop them," Hamm and Spaaij wrote.

In this age of violence, an old hope of criminologists has reemerged, namely that of prevention. Intelligence services in America and Europe have been working for some time now on a kind of global digital early warning system. In building it, they are also encroaching ever more deeply into our personal privacy. Around the world, governments have invested billions in programs aimed at casting light on virtual spaces.

In July 2015, Europol's Internet Referral Unit began tracking and investigating user accounts that are used to spread terrorist propaganda.

In Germany, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the domestic intelligence agency responsible for monitoring extremism, established a special unit in an effort to detect potential perpetrators in the digital world. Meanwhile, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, is planning to intensify its monitoring of social networks within the scope of its "Strategic Initiative Technology" program. The German Federal Criminal Police Office also has a program in place for the early identification of potential attackers. Following the Munich massacre, investigators are also increasing their efforts to scrutinize the so-called Darknet.

No agency in the world can sift all the data created online. On YouTube alone, several hundred hours of new videos are posted each minute. Instead, Western governments are counting on assistance from net communities with their billions of members.

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