Germans Feel Unsafe in the Streets, but Are Cautious With the Term 'Islamic Terror'

Even if some perpetrators were inspired by personal woes rather than radical Islam, ISIS has 'won' by unnerving the country.

Police secure the area after the explosion in Ansbach, Germany, July 25, 2016.
Michaela Rehle/Reuters

Even Israelis who don’t speak a word of the local language would have felt at home during the last week in Germany as four attacks followed each other within days. The discourse and questions being asked there sound very familiar to Israelis, and goes back decades: What was the shooter’s motive? Was he a “lone wolf,” or somebody’s agent? Was it terrorism, or some other issue that was at stake? Can people resume their normal routine?

Discussion over the justification of killing terrorists also made headlines in Germany, for a little while, after a parliamentarian wondered whether it had been necessary to shoot and kill one of them, or if he could have been disarmed otherwise.

Only with respect to using one word are the Germans still more cautious than Israelis: “Islamic.” Germany isn’t accustomed to terrorist acts on its soil by radical Muslims (though it did manage to crush a wave of terrorism perpetrated by the anarchist left decades ago), and acknowledging that it too has become a target of such violence is no trivial thing.

In fact, Germans are right not to automatically associate every attack occurring in its cities over the last week with “Islamic terrorism.” Reality is more complicated than those two words would imply. The perpetrators’ personal and social background, their mental state and even frustration due to romantic problems – all are still possible explanations in at least some of the cases.

But it’s unlikely to be mere coincidence that led four immigrants (or sons of immigrants) in the space of one week, young Muslims from Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, to wield axe, knife, machete and gun against tourists, local residents and random strangers alike at sites around Germany.

But the personal background behind each deed isn’t that important right now. For Chancellor Angela Merkel, last week was like a bad dream as warnings by opponents of her “open door” policy – which brought over a million Muslim migrants into the country – started to come true. The vast, absolute majority aren’t involved in terrorism of course, but it’s enough for a fraction of a fraction of them to radicalize – by means of Islamic State, or ISIS, and its ilk – to make life in Germany a nightmare, and to send film crews to one corner after another in this huge country, documenting the dead, the injured and the pursuit of attackers by security forces.

Suspicious eyes on passers-by

The blows of terrorist acts that are landing on Germany’s streets are still a far cry from the horrors in France or Belgium. The casualty counts are smaller and the so-called quality and precision of the attacks fall short. But the achievements chalked up by Islamic terrorism are already evident: From a tranquil, safe country, Germany is gradually turning into one riddled with terrorism, where the people will have to train a suspicious eye on passers-by in the streets, and on strangers in trains and in malls.

Germany’s intelligence and espionage forces are considered to be good and well trained, but against so-called lone-wolf attackers, they, like the Israeli Shin Bet security force, can’t do much.

What Germany can do, on an immediate basis, is reinforce security in the streets. For a country where anybody can walk into a train station or mall or restaurant without their bags being checked or being frisked – this would constitute a 180-degree change in lifestyle, which Germans may find hard to stomach.

In the last week, as of Monday morning, Germany had suffered four attacks that killed nine people, and wounded many more. The common denominator: They were carried out in the southern part of the country by young immigrant Muslims (of the offspring of immigrants), acting alone. It is too soon to say what lay behind each attack.

The first attack was clearly inspired by ISIS, which also took credit for it. That was last Monday, when a 17-year-old Afghan attacked train passengers with a knife and axe, in Wurzberg. He was shot to death after injuring five people, most of them tourists.

The second attack came Friday, when a German-Iranian, 18, who reportedly suffered from depression and was inspired by mass murderers, killed nine people in Munich, then killed himself.

Even if the signs do not indicate the influence or inspiration of radical Islam, that attack was also considered a success by ISIS, since the fear the organization has inspired in Europe triggered panic and chaos on the streets of Munich. The latter, one of the biggest and most important of Germany’s cities, was paralyzed for hours, until it became clear that the attacker had “other” motives.

The third attack was on Sunday, when a 21-year-old Syrian immigrant murdered a woman with a machete, and injured others, in the city of Reutlingen. German media reported that the killer and victim knew one another; they may even have been romantically involved. Another individual, himself the son of immigrants from Turkey, ran the attacker over, killing him.

For the time being, the list of assaults within seven days ends with one that does seem to bear one hallmark of radical Islamic terrorism: suicide. A Syrian immigrant, 27, with explosives in a bag, blew himself up Sunday night at the entrance to a music festival in Essenbach, injuring 12. The festival was canceled and 2,500 would-be revelers were forced to go home. The authorities said the attacker had received treatment in the past after a suicide attempt.

While it turned out that he had not been afforded refugee status in Germany, like many others, the attacker had been allowed to stay on its soil and was not deported to his homeland because of the civil war wracking Syria.

Yet the personal details of the attackers aren’t at the top of the agenda in the German street these days. Citizens feel, rightly, that the life they knew is changing.

It all began in 2015, when a soccer match in Hanover had to be cancelled because of a terror alert.

Come January, it was Munich’s turn to cancel an event – the New Year’s celebrations – because of reports of terrorists planning suicide attacks. In Cologne, Muslim immigrants molested and robbed German women celebrating the new year. Later, in response, Germans on the far right attacked immigrants, or people they suspected of being immigrants because of the color of their skin. And this week, as said, Germany endured a wave of attacks by individuals in the south.

Merkel has yet to deliver a message aimed at calming down the nation, but she can’t delay much longer in expressing her opinion about what has been happening in Germany before her eyes, both in terms of security and from the social perspective too. Undoubtedly, this will be the biggest challenge she has faced during her tenure as chancellor. And it will also be a critical test of her desire to run for another term – a fourth – in next year’s election.