Germany discusses new law to crack down on foreign fighters

German Internal Affairs Minister Thomas de Maizière. [NEXT Berlin/Flickr]

Under a new draft law, German authorities could soon be able to confiscate the IDs of suspected terrorists. But opposition parties in the Bundestag warn against considerable risks for security policy. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The German government on Wednesday (14 January) approved a draft law aimed at preventing travel for individuals involved in terrorist activities.

The legislative initiative is intended to change the country’s existing personal ID law, to introduce a substitute personal ID, which would restrict holders to travel within German borders, and to change existing passport law.

New travel restrictions would be applied particularly to so-called “foreign fighters”, German citizens who belong to the Islamist-jihadist spectrum of persons and go to fight in crisis regions.

In the hopes of preventing these persons from leaving the country, the draft law would allow the German government to confiscate their personal identification cards.

If the proposal becomes law, it would allow for a personal ID to be withdrawn for up to three years. During the period of confiscation, the holder would be given a substitute ID card, prohibiting foreign travel.

Existing law already allows for passports to be withdrawn from persons who have prepared serious acts of violent subversion, by which the security of a country or of international organisations or German constitutional principles could be compromised. Nevertheless, it is still possible to travel to Turkey with only a personal ID.

Data from German security authorities indicates that so far around 550 individuals have traveled from Germany to conflict areas in Syria and Iraq in order to join organisations like the “Islamic State” (IS). At least 180 of them have returned, according to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

In total, the EU estimates that, of around 10,000 foreign fighters in crisis regions, over 3,000 radical Islamists are from Europe.

>> Read: Brussels acts to stem flow of EU’s radicalised ‘foreign fighters’

In a statement, the German Internal Affairs Ministry said that attacks on the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo “sadly show that, more than ever, we must use all constitutional resources to determinedly and sustainably defend our free democratic order against international terrorism, fanaticism and radicalisation”.

Furthermore, changes to passport and personal ID laws would create a legal basis to make these documents invalid, preventing potential jihadists from returning to Germany. As a result, radical persons abroad would no longer hold a valid document for travel. This would make them easier to track down within the Schengen Information System, and in transit countries, and they could be directly reported via Interpol.

“Adventurous symbolic policy”

But the German government’s draft law sparked hefty criticism among opposition parties. Irene Mihalic, Green spokesperson for domestic security, said the “terrorist ID” does not solve any of the problems related to the current terrorism threat. The measure is constitutionally problematic, she said, and holds significant security policy risks.

“There is a threat that suspected terrorists, when asked to give up their old personal ID, will immediately carry out their sinister plans,” Mihalic warned.

Neither does she consider it unlikely, Mihalic said, that suspected terrorists will report the ID as lost or stolen as soon as they are asked to hand it in. “The grand coalition also does not have an answer to this problem,” she contended.

Currently, it is already possible to announce exit bans for suspected terrorists in border data files. When information from such a person’s ID is entered into the system, a notice immediately becomes visible. As a result, the German government should do all it can, to tighten customs inspections along the EU’s external borders, the Green politician said, instead of pursuing “adventurous symbolic policy”.

On the issue of combating terrorism, President of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maaßen, emphasised the importance of cooperation with Turkish intelligence agencies.

In a television interview on Monday (12 January), Maaßen referred to Turkey as a key partner for Germany.

“We are asking Turkey, we are calling on them, to stop travel via the territory of Turkey in the direction of Syria. In certain parts it is successful,” he said, “But you see the high number of 550 exits through Turkey is far too high. It is more necessary than ever before, that the Turks take up additional measures.”

In recent years, European countries have been increasingly confronted with young citizens who are recruited by radical ideological movements to commit terrorist actions in EU states, or who join groups in conflicts outside of the EU (known as 'foreign fighters'). 

The EU adopted a strategy in 2005 for combating radicalisation and recruitment. The European Commission launched the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) in September 2011, which acts as a platform for European researchers, practitioners and NGOs to exchange information on how best to prevent such radicalisation.

The Commission’s communication on 15 January 2014 is a continuation of this process, in which it clarifies concrete steps to be taken to organise the prevention. It follows an earlier call by the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, in January 2013, when she warned EU member states of rising radicalisation in European countries.

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