Terrorism is not new to Europe, despite the recent Islamic State inspired attacks that have rocked France and Germany, Alexander Ritzmann has said. The terror and radicalisation expert said it was vital that the outrages did not lead to policy decisions confusing migration with terrorism ahead of crunch elections in Germany and France next year.
Alexander Ritzmann is Senior Advisor to the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels. He chairs the Communication and Narratives Working Group at the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network and teaches on terrorism at Potsdam University. Ritzmann was a member of the Berlin State Parliament, overseeing the state police and intelligence agency. He spoke to euractiv.com News Editor James Crisp yesterday (26 July) after the terrorist attacks in Nice, Würzburg, and Ansbach but before the attack in Rouen (26 July).
Could the recent attacks in Germany have an impact on the country’s asylum policy?
There is a perception that the attacks are linked to the welcoming of refugees to Germany. But it is the job of policymakers and the media to help the population understand the difference. If there are 500,000 Syrian refugees and one of them stabs someone that is not something that policy should be dealing with. It is a crime and it should be investigated by the police. And, by the way, the average Syrian refugee commits fewer crimes than the average German citizen.
There is of course the potential for radicalisation and for sectarian violence. The refugees bring the conflict with them. Right now everyone is focused on settling and surviving but I am absolutely sure the conflict in Syria will come back to people. Already, they do not trust other Syrian refugees, they will ask where they come from, for example. When you talk to them, they could have family and friends who have been tortured or murdered by someone in the next room belonging to the same group. We work with Syrians on overcoming these sectarian divisions.
There’s also potential for radicalisation in the future if the government doesn’t work with the right institutions. There are some very conservative organisations in Germany with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, people who would rather build parallel societies than integrate. But the government wants to work with organisations, even if those are mentioned in domestic intelligence reports as having Muslim Brotherhood ties, being part of political Islam. And these organisations can become partly government funded, which can lead to uncomfortable headlines in the future.
Could the attacks influence the outcome of the German elections next year?
It depends on the situation. It seems the Ansbach bomber was sent to Germany by so-called Islamic State. If there are continuous attacks by people classified as refugees or by individuals who falsely came here under a refugee status, it could cost [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel the election, absolutely.
But this is a trick by so-called Islamic State. Every terrorist organisation can bring operatives into a country. What they are doing is tainting the whole concept of taking in refugees, playing into the angst of German people, making them suspicious of refugees. That enables radicalisation and propaganda. They say that in their publications. The fact that ISIS is using people pretending to be refugees is a political trap. We are smart enough as a society not to fall into that trap and our political leadership and media must identify that trap and not fall into it.
Why hasn’t Germany been targeted before?
We’ve all been asking that. In 2002, Al Qaida said that Germany was a legitimate target. We are not in the top three targeted countries worldwide but we are in the top ten. That’s surely one of the reasons why there has been no large-scale successful attack so far.
+France and EU policy+
France has been hit with three major attacks in the last 12 months.
France has been highlighted as a main enemy. There are historical reasons for that. One of the Arabic words for crusader is Frank. France is very important in their propaganda. They have that historical perspective and their current foreign policy narrative that is based on fighting back against the proactive military actions that France has taken against them.
Could the attacks in France and Germany have an influence on EU asylum policy? The influential Franco-German axis is under attack.
We really need to keep calm and carry on. We need to analyse whether there is a threat from the refugees. In France, it seems to be an issue that is not linked to refugees. It is way too early to come up with policy recommendations as we don’t have the facts. It’s important we don’t mix integration and immigration with terrorism. We need to separate the two things.
But there will be a push to get tougher…
They have been toughening their response since 2005. In France the state of emergency is being continued, there is military on the street and a focus on deradicalisation. They can do what they can do and they overdo some things but no one can say the French government is not doing something.
Is there a call to strengthen security in Germany? A greater appetite for increased surveillance?
In Germany, the discussion is about to what extent the army can be involved in responding to terror. The army can be called on to help in, for example, natural disasters, and now there is an option to call specific parts of the army in case of an emergency. During the shootings in Munich, there was one division on standby in case the situation had developed into another Paris. The question is how we put this on a proper legal basis. Everything in the German constitution is designed to separate powers so, for example, a minister of defence can’t use the army to take over the country. The army cannot just move around in Germany so it is about finding the right legal framework to respond effectively.
What about internet surveillance? That’s controversial because of the US spying revelations and the Stasi. But are people willing to accept more now?
A scared population will always accept proposals for more security. The data protection community is always on the defensive and the government and major parties are advocating for stronger surveillance. These surveillance fantasies are only checked by the German constitutional court. Two thirds of the laws are sent back by the court, which says they are not precise enough. But most people will choose security over liberty.
How do homegrown terrorists become radicalised?
Youth in general is confused, has identity problems and some rebellious tendencies. Political Islam, Salafism, is a tempting concept. It irritates the older generation, it gives a purpose and black and white certainty. You also get a new set of friends and family. A significant proportion have been involved in criminal activity and they get a completely new life, the same with right-wing extremism, Scientology, left-wing extremism…
But we have millions of people who could say they feel alienated, discriminated against, economically disadvantaged or that their father beat them. 99.9999% out of millions neither sympathise with ISIS or join them. So we have to be very careful about putting the radicalisation factor into policy recommendations.
There has been a surge in support for far-right politics, such as the French National Front or Alternative für Deutschland, across Europe. Could the recent attacks lead to more support for these parties?
Democracy is the most terrible system except for all the others! It’s a constant work in progress. But I think democracy is creating the opportunities to find lasting solutions.
Europe is not new to terrorism, we’ve had much worse. If you look at the Algerian-inspired terrorism in the 1980’s and 1990s, the IRA in the UK, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany or the Red Brigades in Italy – these were groups that were challenging the order of countries and had significant backing from parts of the population.
And Europe survived without electing total nutjobs to powerful positions. We can manage terror without turning to the extreme right wing.