With Germany going to the polls in a general election in three months, authorities are on high alert after detecting an increase in online warnings of terrorist attacks targeting the country.
The German government held high-level talks with top security and intelligence chiefs in Berlin on Thursday to discuss the growing threat posed by Islamic extremists and to coordinate counterterrorism measures. Intelligence officials are alarmed by the rising number of videos posted online by militant Islamists who say they are specifically targeting Germany. Up to 13 videos are reported to have appeared on the Web since January, many of them referring to the deployment of German troops in Afghanistan.
"We're not just concerned about the video messages," Deputy Interior Minister August Hanning told reporters after Thursday's meeting. "They're part of a wider strategy to take action against Germany." He stressed that authorities are taking the video threats seriously. "Germany and German citizens have for some time been a special focus for Islamist terrorists," he said. "We have to prepare for the fact there could be attacks against German installations abroad or here in Germany."
According to authorities, recent intelligence shows a growing number of Islamic extremists leaving Germany to receive terrorism training at camps in Pakistan. Meanwhile, other reports have Islamic extremists setting off from Pakistan to carry out deadly attacks in Europe, possibly including Germany. According to a report on the German public television channel ZDF, intelligence officials received a tip in May that an al-Qaeda commando had left Pakistan to launch terrorist attacks in Western Europe. The commando is reported to be made up of 15 men including Americans, Arabs, Chechens and four Germans allegedly under the leadership of al-Qaeda operatives Abu Abdul Rahman al-Najdi, who was born in Saudi Arabia, and a Californian convert to Islam, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, who is on the FBI's most-wanted-terrorists list. But intelligence officials don't appear to know the current whereabouts of the al-Qaeda-led commando.
Thursday's meeting was part of a series of talks the government is holding regularly with different intelligence agencies. Another meeting, with federal Interior Ministry officials, is planned for July 9, aimed at coming up with a new national-security concept. While the government insists it has no knowledge of any concrete plans for a terrorist attack in Germany, it's clear the authorities are concerned that Islamic-extremist activity is intensifying. Germany's security forces have been on high alert since the beginning of the year, and government authorities believe that intelligence chatter about a possible terrorist attack on Germany has been getting louder.
Sources at the Interior Ministry say they can't rule out the possibility that jihadist groups could be plotting an attack in the run-up to the election on September 27, or on election day itself, with the aim of pushing for a withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan. Until now, Germany has been spared a major terrorist attack. But there is an ongoing and very real threat. German authorities say they have foiled at least six major terrorist plots since 2000. "Al-Qaeda has its eyes set on Germany," Guido Steinberg, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, tells TIME. "We've seen a growing number of attacks on German troops in Afghanistan," he says, including January's suicide bombing near the German embassy in Kabul. Steinberg, a former government adviser on terrorism, says there are lessons to be drawn from the 2004 Madrid commuter-train bombings that killed 191 people. "The attacks took place before the elections, with the aim of influencing the outcome of the vote, so that Spain would pull its troops out of Iraq," he says. And Spain eventually did. "For al-Qaeda, it would be ideal to launch a terrorist attack in Germany before the election in September, to provoke a public debate about the German mission in Afghanistan."
Germany's Afghan campaign is the subject of heated debate. Over the past few months, Germany, which usually restricts its troops to peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts, has found itself drawn into a bloody conflict. In the most recent reminder of how dangerous the mission has become, a memorial service was held in the central town of Bad Salzungen on Thursday for three young soldiers killed in an attack near Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, on June 23. They were the latest casualties of a war that has claimed the lives of 35 German soldiers. At the memorial, senior Cabinet ministers went on the defensive, pledging that German soldiers would stay in Afghanistan. "We're in Afghanistan because we have to protect the security of German citizens in Germany," said Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung. But that message is hard to sell in Germany. A recent poll by the Forsa Institute found that 61% of Germans want their troops out of Afghanistan.
Germany currently has 4,000 troops serving as part of the NATO-led international force, most based in northern Afghanistan, away from the violent southern provinces. An additional 200 soldiers are heading there in the run-up to the Afghan presidential election on August 20, bringing the total number to 4,200 still below the limit of 4,500 set by Germany's strict parliamentary mandate. But on Thursday, the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, gave the green light under a separate mandate to deploy up to 300 more soldiers to support NATO's AWACS surveillance aircraft in Afghanistan.
Amid fears of an imminent attack, German law-enforcement agencies are jittery and are set to tighten security at the country's airports and borders. Although government officials claim that Germany is well prepared to prevent a terrorist attack, the next few months leading up to the election will be tense times.