Germany on edge after recent violence from asylum seekers

A profound sense of fear has gripped Germany after four deadly attacks over the last week, three of them involving refugees. Now Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to voluntarily take in more than 1 million refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan last year is coming under renewed scrutiny. 

Until this summer, Germany had been largely untouched by the wave of terror that hit France and Belgium in recent years. Then, on July  18, a teenage Afghan refugee armed with an ax attacked people on a suburban train in the southern state of Bavaria, injuring four. The Islamic State-affiliated Amaq News Agency later released a video purporting to show the attacker declaring himself “a soldier of the caliphate.”

Days later, a German-born 18-year-old of Iranian descent shot and killed nine people at a shopping center in Munich before turning the gun on himself. 

As the country, which does not often experience mass shootings, was already reeling, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee stabbed a pregnant woman to death and injured two others in a machete attack Sunday in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. 

Later that day, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee blew himself up near the entrance to an open-air concert in Bavaria, injuring 15 others. He was trying to enter the concert when the bomb detonated, sending the shrapnel in his backpack flying. Officials said they believed he had hoped to kill many of the 2,000 concertgoers — even though he ended up killing only himself. Bavarian state officials said Monday that they found a video on the suicide bomber’s cellphone in which he pledged allegiance to Islamic State. The militant group also claimed responsibility for the attack through the Amaq News Agency.

The bomber had been facing deportation to Bulgaria, his first point of entry into the European Union, after his application for asylum in Germany had twice been rejected. He came to Germany two years ago, well before the wave of 1 million arrived in late 2015.

Investigators found no link to terrorism in the Munich shooting, which was carried out by a dual Iranian-German citizen, not an asylum seeker, and which had more in common with American school shootings than with the recent Bastille Day attack in Nice, France.

There were also no indications of terrorism in the machete slaying. The victim and assailant were co-workers and had been having an argument; police suspect the attack was an act of jealousy.

But these details will probably make little difference to an anxious public. “For the police or politicians it might make a difference if some of these attacks were caused by mentally disturbed people without a specific terror agenda, but that’s all irrelevant now for most of the people,” said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University. “They’re afraid and fear it’s not safe to go out on the street.”

“And for most of the people it doesn’t matter if most of these attacks were caused by foreigners who’ve long lived in Germany or are refugees — they attribute this all to the refugees,” said Jaeger, who added that the pro-refugee sentiment in Germany from a year ago had all but disappeared, and that Merkel will surely be blamed for the string of attacks.

One poll published Friday found more than three-quarters of Germans believe their country will soon be the target of terrorism. Seventy-seven percent expect an attack to happen soon, up from 69% two weeks ago, according to the survey compiled by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for the broadcaster ZDF.

"I understand that many of us are feeling insecure at the moment," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said at a news conference Monday. He said he had ordered a greater police presence across the country, especially at airports, train stations and public squares.

The recent violence has cast a shadow over Merkel’s open-door policies. Support for these policies had already fallen sharply after a wave of assaults on women in Cologne and four other cities on New Year’s Eve. Hundreds of women filed complaints with police saying they were groped, molested or robbed by unruly mobs of up to 1,000 young men when New Year’s Eve street-party celebrations turned into wanton violence.

Most of the attackers later caught by police were not recently arrived refugees from Syria, but young men who had come to Germany before 2015 from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. But that did not change the public’s perception that Merkel and her government had made a serious mistake by allowing in so many refugees; a Focus newsmagazine poll conducted weeks after the attack found that nearly 40% of voters thought Merkel should resign because of it.

Merkel’s catchphrase “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”) was a rallying cry and symbol of tolerance toward the refugees last year as she rejected all demands to impose limits on the numbers allowed in. She quietly dropped her insistence on open borders this year as more effective barriers to unchecked migration were put in place by Austria, countries in the Balkans, the EU and Turkey.

“The sentiment has clearly turned against refugees,” said Jaeger. “Many Germans were at first friendly and welcomed refugees wholeheartedly even though they realized there were probably a few bad apples there as well. But now the mood is changing. Now most people don’t want to have anything to do with the refugees.”

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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