Opinion: The challenge of determining terrorist threats

When is someone dangerous? How can you tell? Investigating the deadly knife attack in Hamburg is best kept out of the general election campaign, writes Jens Thurau.

Germany, Hamburg. Flowers after knife attack.

A 26-year-old UAE-born Palestinian, denied asylum in Germany, went on a stabbing spree in a Hamburg supermarket. He killed one person and seriously injured six others. The victims were random – as was the weapon, which he grabbed off the rack in the store. It was a terrible incident.

Now we know that the authorities were aware that the suspect was psychologically unstable and had been recently radicalized. He was under surveillance, but was not seen as an imminent threat. He had no apparent links to Islamist groups and he cooperated with authorities as they tried to collect the identity papers necessary to deport him. He appeared friendly at the immigration office, albeit in despair, though he did not show up to psychological counseling. The first hint of any radicalization was 15 months ago, in April 2016, but it did not come to the attention of the authorities until the end of August. A year passed without incident, and now this. It is very difficult to bear.

Thurau Jens DW’s Jens Thurau

Hard to judge

Federal authorities have become more efficient at addressing cases of dangerous people. It is an unfortunate coincidence that on Saturday, just one day after the attack, a new law came into effect allowing authorities to deport dangerous people more quickly. The law also allows those deemed to be dangerous to be swiftly detained and held in detention for longer periods of time, pending deportation. Yet how useful will this be if threats are wrongly assessed and individual German states take vastly different approaches to deportation? What to do when it can take so terribly long to gather the necessary paperwork from a deportee’s country of origin? That in itself would be an excruciatingly slow process to change. Nevertheless, detention is now possible even without all the necessary paperwork.

I would not wish to stand in the shoes of those who have to make decisions on a daily basis about who, in fact, presents a danger to society and who does not. But a clear picture can be pieced together of who these potential threats may be. Generally it is men, between the ages of 17 and 30, who, for the most part, have been denied asylum. This was the case in Ansbach, Freiburg, Würzburg, Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz and now in Hamburg. But, as Lower Saxony’s Interior Minister Boris Pistorius has said, without evidence to show that someone poses a threat, they cannot be taken into detention. This is because in Germany, you are innocent until proven guilty.

What I am pleading for is to remove, where possible, the danger posed by Islamists from the sphere of heated political debate, especially during an election campaign. Lawmakers and experts from nearly all the parties have now contributed. It is obvious that a clear line of action is lacking. Understanding who is responsible is confusing and interagency cooperation is lagging. There is often a lack of awareness that these incidents follow a pattern to which utmost attention should be paid.

No political backing for the authorities

It would be prudent if all parties involved recognized how complex each case can be on its own. In the case of the Hamburg attacker, there are indications that it was more of a crazed act by someone under considerable psychological pressure, where Islamism was only used as a pretext. Mind you, this is not clear. The crime is no less terrible, but it goes to show just how hard it is for authorities to distinguish between genuine threats and those merely claiming to be. A clarification without election campaign bluster would be preferable now, as would support from lawmakers for the authorities rather than the usual immediate partisan accusations.

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