Analysis

Germany: Truck Attack on Berlin Christmas Market Could Lead to About-face for Merkel

The German leader and intelligence service may have finally realized the scope of the terror threat posed by an unchecked stream of refugees.

Policemen patrol over a Christmas market in Dortmund as security measures are taken after a deadly attack ravaged a Berlin Christmas market a day earlier, December 20, 2016.
Bernd Thissen, AFP

One sentence in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech a day after the Berlin attack could signal a change in the direction in which she will try to take Germany ahead of her campaign for a fourth term in office. “It will be very difficult to bear if it turns out that a person who sought asylum and protection in Germany carried out this action. I have no simple answer to the question of how a person carries out a terror attack like this.”

It is hard not to admit that the handwriting was on the wall. Islamist terror has struck Germany a number of times over the past year, perpetrated by asylum seekers from Arab countries, some of whom found a home in Germany thanks to Merkel, who opened the country’s gates to them in 2015. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for several of these attacks and for some of the most murderous attacks in Europe in recent years.

And yet, Germany has not completely internalized the new situation in which it finds itself. Otherwise it is hard to explain how a terrorist in a truck was able to mow down people in a crowded holiday venue, just a few months after a Muslim terrorist carried out precisely the same kind of attack in France.

Someone in Germany’s security and intelligence network should have grasped the size of the threat and more tightly sealed access to such events, which are an obvious magnet for terrorists.

But in Germany people have already managed to forget last summer’s attacks, which were indeed relatively minor in terms of the number of victims and their impact. The difference between previous attacks and Sunday’s attack in Berlin stems from the high number of victims (12 killed and about 50 wounded), the target (a colorful market in a crowded square in a central area in Berlin) and the timing (just before Christmas).

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a press conference following a terror attack that killed 12 in Berlin, Germany, December 20, 2016.
John MacDougall, AFP

Will something now change in Germany’s fight against terror? Merkel had already announced earlier this month that she intended to move rightward and harden the liberal immigration policy she had instituted. In her first campaign speech ahead of this fall’s election, she pledged to stem the unchecked stream of immigrants. Merkel said not all of the million refugees who had entered Germany would be allowed to stay.

Merkel probably thought that taking in such a large number of refugees was a humanitarian gesture of the highest order that Berlin had the moral and historical obligation to initiate. But it’s also likely that in retrospect she regrets it, and understands that there is a price to uncontrolled opening of borders in a time of international terror.

Clearly most of the asylum seekers who entered Germany are not involved in terror. But it is enough for 10 out of a million to defect to ISIS to shake up Germany completely. In this sense, Merkel may have missed the boat.