Right-wing threats on the rise in Germany – and police attention too

By Anne-Beatrice Clasmann, dpa

Eight years ago, the neo-Nazi terrorist cell NSU was uncovered in Germany. Outrage erupted at the fact that its members had been able to commit murders for years. Later, public anger shifted to Islamist terrorism. But 2019 has shown that the threat posed by the extreme right is far from gone.

In Germany, the threat posed by right-wing terrorism never really went away. But security authorities say it is now back up to levels not seen in a long time … and they are taking action.

Alarmed by the 2019 murder of Kassel politician Walter Luebcke and an attack in the city of Halle – both believed to be motivated by right-wing extremism – the German parliament in November approved the creation of 600 new posts to help the intelligence and police authorities do more to tackle the right-wing threat.

The BfV domestic intelligence agency has set up a hotline for tips on right-wing extremists. The move has been slammed by the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which drew parallels to the way the Stasi secret police oppressed people in the former East Germany.

The hotline went live anyways. In its first few weeks of existence, it received some serious tips, but also numerous disruptive calls.

The German Interior Ministry, meanwhile, is considering bans on several right-wing extremist groups.

The Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), which is responsible for screening soldiers, is in the middle of a reform that was launched mostly because its handling of troops with right-wing extremist views was considered too lax.

But is all of this commensurate with the actual threat?

Of the approximately 24,100 people in Germany believed to have the potential of being right-wing extremists, only 46 are currently classified by state police departments as posing a threat to public safety.

The numbers are on the rise, however. At the end of 2016, there were only 22; by mid-October of this year, that had reached 43. These are people who police believe could carry out serious acts of violence and possibly even terrorist attacks for political motives.

There are also another 129 people who have been classified as “relevant” because they are leaders in the right-wing extremist world or provide logistical support.

The chairman of the parliamentary committee responsible for intelligence agencies, Armin Schuster, thinks it is likely “that the number of people posing a threat to public safety will increase in the foreseeable future,” given recent attacks and arrests.

He said a comprehensive assessment of the situation would require a closer look at how these people are distributed among Germany’s federal states.

But the states have so far been reluctant to provide exact figures on the extent of the problem.

Sources in the Interior Ministry of the state of Thuringia were willing to say that there are currently “less than five” such people in their state. In the city-state of Berlin, it was said to be a “single-digit” number.

The federal states say that providing more details risks making people who pose a threat to public safety identifiable.

Other explanations are also conceivable, however: Do some interior ministers possibly fear that their state could be seen as a stain on the German map? Or are they worried that it could come out that their security authorities do not pay close enough attention to potentially violent right-wing extremists.

Opposition politicians in the state of Hesse accused its security agency of negligence after Luebcke’s murder.

The politician was shot dead in June on the terrace of his house. Germany’s chief federal prosecutor believes that the killing had a right-wing extremist motive.

The main suspect – identified only as Stephan E under German privacy laws – initially confessed to the murder, but later recanted.

Federal prosecutors also suspect that he tried to kill an Iraqi asylum seeker in 2016 by stabbing him from behind. The question now is why authorities lost sight of Stephan E, who had once been known as a neo-Nazi – and was in 2009 considered highly dangerous.

The circumstances are different in the case of Stephan B, who tried on October 9 to force his way into a synagogue in Halle in a bid to kill Jews. He did not succeed and went on to kill two people outside the synagogue and in a nearby kebab shop.

The right-wing extremist had not attracted any attention in the past, according to what is known so far. But the Saxony-Anhalt state police does face questions about why its officers lost track of the attacker for one hour after the deadly shootings and why the synagogue had not been protected on a significant Jewish holiday.

In the city of Dresden, meanwhile, a trial is still under way against the far-right terrorist organization “Revolution Chemnitz.”

It involves eight men from hooligan, skinhead and neo-Nazi circles who allegedly attempted to procure weapons starting in September 2018, in order to carry out attacks on foreigners and people with different political views.

The case of Franco A also made headlines in Germany, bringing to light in 2017 mistakes by the MAD and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. It had granted refugee protection to the German army officer after he pretended to be Syrian.

Prosecutors say that Franco A was planning an attack that he wanted to blame on refugees.

He had come to the attention of his direct supervisors in early 2014 by writing a master’s thesis that was said to contain “radical nationalist/racist content.” But following a military hearing, he only received a “verbal warning.”

The MAD virtually never resorted to tough intelligence tools such as telecommunications surveillance, regular surveillance or the use of informants. That is now supposed to have changed.

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