The Surprise Isn't That ISIS Attacked in Germany, but That It Took This Long

The country that took in over a million refugees has been lucky so far, but Monday’s train attack by an ax-wielding Afghan refugee could be a harbinger of much worse.

A still image from an undated video Islamic State posted July 19, 2016 in which a man whom it identifies as the Afghan refugee who attacked passengers with an axe on a train in Germany vows to carry out a suicide mission and urges other Muslims to do the same.
Reuters / TV

Monday, July 18, will go down as a bad day in German memory: The day on which Islamic State entered the country. A Muslim immigrant armed with a knife and an ax boarded a train in Wurzburg – a small, peaceful city in the center of the country – and attacked those in his path.

While his victims weren’t Germans – but rather four family members from Hong Kong who were vacationing in Germany, two of whom are now fighting for their lives – the threatening message has been well understood all across Germany.

The assailant fled the train and attacked a German woman who got in his way, before being shot dead by German police officers from an elite unit who happened to be there.

Although by the high standards Islamic State set in neighboring France it was an unsuccessful attack – a small number of casualties, without the use of firearms – not for nothing did Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann say that “we’re all in shock.”

The direction is clear. From now on, Germany will not be immune to lone-wolf terrorists who, inspired by the murderous organization, use a van, a knife, an ax, or both, and head out to the street to attack innocent people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The assailant has been identified as Mohammed Riyad, 17, who immigrated to Germany from Afghanistan some two years ago. According to authorities, he had actually begun settling in the country that agreed to host him. At first he stayed at a shelter for underage refugees who like him came to the country on their own. He had recently moved in with a foster family and had even begun interning at a local bakery.

A search of his room turned up an ISIS flag that he drew himself and a farewell letter he wrote to his father, asking him to pray that he goes to heaven. German media reported that a close friend of his had recently been killed in Afghanistan.

In the afternoon, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and published a video that Riyad apparently sent the organization before setting off. “I’m a soldier of the Islamic State,” he says in the video. “When will you wake up?” he wonders as he brandishes a knife at the camera and threatens to carry out a suicide attack in Germany.

In a way, he’s right. Germany, like many other countries, hasn’t yet woken up from the sweet illusion that its streets, squares and markets – as well as trains, buses and the rest of its public space – are still safe to use, as if we were before the year 2000.

Many hours passed until the Germans understood that the attack was an act of Islamic terror. “All options are on the table, we won’t engage in speculations,” German officials repeated, even after the ISIS flag was found in the assailant’s room and after witnesses said that he had called out “Allahu Akbar.” “A believing Muslim, but not extreme or fanatical” was the way Bavaria’s interior minister described him on Tuesday.

Despite the German naivete and political correctness, it’s hard to say that anyone was really surprised to learn that ISIS has infiltrated Germany. Really, the only surprise was that it took this long for the organization to carry out an attack on German soil, even if it wasn’t a “major” one in terms of its nature and the damage inflicted.

The assailant was killed by shots fired by German police officers, who luckily were nearby for a different operation and managed to stop him once he was off the train. And now, as in Israel but for apparently the first time in Germany, a debate has arisen over the use of force by security personnel. A local Green Party politician provoked a furious reaction when she posted a message on Twitter, punctuated with numerous question marks and exclamation points, asking why the attacker could not have been stopped without being killed.

The responses accused her of caring more about the terrorist than the victims. The local police even posted a message saying that the four question marks were not justified.

The Germans certainly have a cause for concern. Among the more than one million refugees who entered Germany legally and illegally in the past few years are many who are unknown to the authorities. Technical and bureaucratic constraints made it impossible to systematically register all of the people who poured into Germany with Chancellor Merkel’s welcome. Even if only a few of the masses who made their way to Germany in search of a better life for themselves and their children have fallen under ISIS’ sway, that’s enough to keep the German authorities awake at night.

In recent years, the German intelligence agencies failed to pick up on three ordinary German citizens who joined the far right and went on to murder 10 immigrants in the name of the National Socialist Underground neo-Nazi group. It will surely be all the more difficult for them to effectively track the activity of radical Islamists who don’t speak German and can easily get lost among the large number of immigrants who’ve inundated German cities.

The ISIS threat has already left its mark in Germany over the past year. In January, the city of Munich canceled its New Year celebrations in the wake of a report that terrorists were planning suicide bombings there. In November 2015, panic spread through Hanover when a soccer match at the local stadium was called off due to fear of an imminent attack. In both cases, the Germans received warnings from foreign intelligence agencies. At the time, various media reports also cited the Mossad as being among those who passed on warnings to the German authorities.

Were these false warnings, or upon seeing the increased security, did ISIS decide to backtrack and try its luck elsewhere another time? The answer may be hidden in the computers of Germany’s intelligence agency, the BND. Germany’s 82 million citizens just have to hope that their luck will hold out next time, while the German security agencies struggle to meet the huge challenge of securing the country’s many unguarded public spaces. Even now, you can walk into any train station, above or below ground, without having to pass through any security check or have your bags searched.

And just like Israel, America and France, Germany won’t be able to fully prevent lone-wolf terrorists who decide to use a knife or an ax, or maybe even a gun or a grenade, from harming civilians in public spaces. Even the best intelligence cooperation in the world with the Mossad and other foreign agencies cannot neutralize this threat, as Interior Minister Herrmann also pointed out. Time will tell if the Germans will also have to get used to living in the shadow of this kind of Islamic terrorism.

In the meanwhile, Germany will also need to handle a different type of threat: The far right, which for years has been warning against “the Muslim danger” and calls to expel “foreigners” from Germany. Attacks like the one on Monday may bring out of the woodwork extremist neo-Nazis who will feel confident enough to raise their heads and harm innocent immigrants just because of their skin color.

Incidents of physical violence against immigrants and the torching of immigrants’ shelters aren’t rare in Germany. In day-to-day life, reports of these incidents are buried deep between the many routine reports of accidents, robberies and murders, but from now on authorities will need to move them to the fore in order to thwart the possibility of a deterioration that will be difficult to stem.