Terror in Germany

Angela Merkel’s Tough Summer

German Chancellor Angela Merkel waits for British Prime Minister Theresa May during a military welcoming ceremony at the chancellery in Berlin Wednesday, July 20, 2016, on May's first foreign trip after being named British Prime Minister. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had a tough summer.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Angela Merkel needs to show leadership after a number of attacks in recent days rattled Germans.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • On July 18, an Afghan refugee severely injured four in an ax attack aboard a train near Würzburg. Police say he was an Islamic State sympathizer.
    • On July 22, a German-Iranian man fatally shot nine people before killing himself. Police say the attack was not connected to Islamist terror.
    • On July 24, a Syrian refugee detonated an explosive near a music festival in the small town of Ansbach, killing himself and injuring more than a dozen. Police say he was motivated by Islamist terrorism.
  • Audio

    Audio

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The recent terror attacks in Würzburg, Munich and Ansbach have changed Germany forever.

Whoever had hoped that only our European neighbors were vulnerable to Islamist-motivated attacks has received a cruel lesson to the contrary: Islamist terror does not stop at German borders.

Even if the extent of the attacks in Bavaria can’t be compared with those in Paris, Brussels or Istanbul, most Germans’ feeling of security has been severely shaken.

When the chancellor interrupted her vacation after the terrorist attacks, it might be the symbolic beginning for a change of mind in the refugee debate.

The new situation is particularly problematic for the German chancellor.

First, protecting citizens is one of the fundamental responsibilities of a federal government.

Second, with her “We can do it!” call, Angela Merkel personally stands for a welcoming culture that up to now has brought some 1.3 million refugees to Germany. Previously, intelligence services only suspected there were terrorist criminals among them. Now that is certain.

Yes, it is true that almost all the refugees came to Germany to save themselves from violence and death. And it’s true that the Würzburg and Ansbach assassins submitted their asylum applications long before the huge influx of refugees last fall.

But even though the government is correct in these observations, they are of little help to soothe a shocked and scared population. They are nothing more than flimsy band aids.

Chancellor Merkel knows that the current threatening situation could also be dangerous for her.

The issues of immigration and integration are now of concern for 83 percent of all Germans. That figure has more than doubled since last year.

If citizens’ fear should morph into anger against the chancellor, the poll ratings of her center-right Christian Democratic Union, which had significantly improved in recent weeks, could quickly suffer. Uncomfortable weeks await Ms. Merkel.

Up to now, members of her party have refrained from criticizing the chancellor. But after the summer break, the mood could turn sour. The poor showing by Christian Democrats in March regional elections should be warning enough: Voters have no compunction about punishing the head of government for refugee policies they consider mistaken or risky.

So the chancellor interrupting her vacation after the terrorist attacks might be the symbolic beginning of a change of mind in the refugee debate.

A candid discussion is needed regarding mistakes and omissions in handling refugees up to now. The more than 1 million asylum-seekers have clearly become a challenge for Germany. And there must be a focus on how domestic security can be strengthened.

Nothing is accomplished by quick calls for action, such as deploying the armed forces within German borders. Not only are there constitutional restrictions against it, but soldiers are not trained for investigative police work.

The head of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, Horst Seehofer, is correct when he warns – in spite of all progress – that we have to know who is in the country. There are still over 100,000 people who aren’t yet registered with the Federal Agency for Immigration and Refugees.

But comprehensive registration is only a first step toward discovering potential killers. The suicide bomber in Ansbach was registered – and still no one could keep him from blowing himself up and injuring others.

The fact that he was able to hide material for building more bombs in his refugee hostel, and apparently had accomplices in preparing the attack, exposes the system’s weaknesses.

The state will never be 100 percent able to prevent refugees from becoming radicalized and preparing attacks. But violence-prone Islamists shouldn’t have it as easy as the Ansbach bomber did.

It will be interesting to see at her news conference later on Thursday whether Chancellor Merkel has answers to this and other shortcomings in domestic security. She will also have to respond to questions about recent destabilizing developments in Turkey.

The already controversial refugee pact with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, since the failed coup and resulting crackdowns, become the object of renewed criticism – not only in Germany, but also in other European countries.

So this will probably be Ms. Merkel’s hottest summer as a leader. She carries on her shoulders the responsibility for finding a way to finally control Germany’s refugee crisis.

Sven Afhüppe is editor in chief of Handelsblatt. To contact him: afhueppe@handelsblatt.com.

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