Despite relatively few terrorist attacks, Germany is gripped by fear and false alarms

German police officers stand outside the apartment building of a suspect in Eisenhuettenstadt, on Aug. 17.
German police officers stand outside the apartment building of a suspect in Eisenhuettenstadt, on Aug. 17.
(Patrick Pleul / AFP/Getty Images)

Heavily armed police stormed the apartment of a German man this week after getting a tip that he might be an Islamic State terrorist putting together a bomb.

Instantly, the sensational news was flashed across a jittery nation and around the world.

But the 27-year-old man, with a record of drug abuse and petty crime, was quietly released from custody a day later without authorities issuing any charges.


Police in the depressed and off-the-beaten-trail eastern town of Eisenhuettenstadt near the Polish border acknowledged they were unable to find anything of note other than 37 firecrackers, a replica Kalashnikov rifle, a few posters with Islamic State symbols and marijuana.

It was the latest in a string of false alarms to rattle Germany, a country that has experienced precious few terrorist attacks in recent decades compared to waves of attacks that have hit other countries, yet nevertheless is on edge.

“Terrorism is on everyone’s mind right now after it was only a distant threat for so long,” said Christian Tusschoff, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University and expert on international terrorism. “There is a palpable apprehensiveness all of a sudden even though, compared to other countries hit by terror attacks, hardly anything has happened here.”

Fears have been running high after two refugees with links to Islamic State were killed in attacks last month that caused no other fatalities, though a total of 16 people were injured. A suicide bomber from Syria died in a bungled bomb attack at a wine bar outside an open-air concert in Ansbach just days after a knife-wielding teenager from Afghanistan was shot dead by police after slashing four tourists with a knife and ax on a train near Wurzburg.

A shooting rampage in Munich last month by an 18-year-old German-Iranian left 10 dead, including the gunman.

There has been a steady flurry of terrorist scares across Germany after those unrelated attacks. Hardly a day passes without false alarms about suspected terrorists, which spread like lightening on social media or via news flashes by online mainstream media and create a misleading impression of a country under siege.

The country’s fourth largest city of Cologne, for instance, came to a halt recently over at-first terrifying reports online – that cascaded into national and international news bulletins — about a woman with a gun at a Labor Office building. The building went into a lockdown, stranding hundreds, as heavily armed police swarmed in. No woman with a gun was ever found.

“We searched the building from top to bottom but couldn’t find anything suspicious at all,” a Cologne police spokesman said after the dust had settled. The city returned to normal about four hours later.

France, Belgium, Spain, Britain, Russia and other countries have been plagued by terrorism and are in various states of siege as they try to guard against more attacks, but Germany had remained relatively immune.

Ortwin Renn, an expert on risk at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, said fears of getting killed in a terrorist attack in Germany are driven by emotion rather than likelihood. One factor causing concern is the more than 1.4 million migrants who have entered Germany during the past year, Renn and other analysts said.

“Pressure has been building with the large number of refugees arriving, peoples’ suppressed emotions about that, and terror fears are the outlet for all that pressure,” said Renn, scientific director at the institute. “It’s almost like people are now shouting: ‘See, I told you so’. “

Tusschoff said that elections in the northern region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the city-state of Berlin next month were playing a contributing role to the perceived national angst because conservative politicians to the right of center are deliberately playing to the public’s fears with their law-and-order platforms.

“Some of the parties are trying to score with voters by hitting the security issue hard,” he said.

Security also has a booming business sector. Gun sales are rising and self-defense courses are enjoying a new popularity.

Berthold Stoppelkamp, the head of the Berlin office of the BDSW Association of German Security Industry, said that there has been a 15% increase, to 247,000, in the number of security guards working in Germany in the last year. Many larger organizations are ramping up security for large public gatherings, he said.

“The way that the terror threat is being discussed in Germany doesn’t really correspond to the actual situation on the ground,” Stoppelkamp said. “The situation in Germany hasn’t really changed at all but the terror issue has become a center of the public’s attention. It’s actually a good thing that the terror danger has become more present in Germany now because beforehand there was a sense that there was no need to worry about it.”

Further exacerbating the anxieties, analysts said, is the speed in which social media and mainstream media outlets disseminate even the first hint of a possible suspected terrorist being arrested or sought.

“The quality and self-control of the media has disappeared,” Tusschoff said. “They used to wait for confirmation from at least two independent sources before spreading their news but that seems to be ignored now with all the pressure to be first with social media. So many of these initial reports these days turn out to be wrong.

“A TV network called me up as the attack in Munich was still unfolding and asked if I could come into their studio and talk about the ‘terror attack’,” he said. “I told them no, sorry, because it wasn’t known at that point if it was a terror attack. And of course it wasn’t.”

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.


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