What do we know about the extreme right in Germany?
We still have fundamental gaps in our understanding of the radical right and effective policy responses to counter it.
The news of the terror attack in Hanau come amidst a surge in activity to counter the extreme right in Germany, with several arrests and raids having taken place in recent months. Yet in the light of the latest atrocity, what do we know about the extreme right in Germany and how its counter-terror apparatus has responded to the threat?
Recent terrorist attacks in Germany
The attack in Hanau is one of the most lethal in recent years with 11 confirmed fatalities, but Germany is not a stranger to the terrorist threat posed by the extreme right.
On 22 July 2016, 18-year-old Ali Sinboly opened fire against people of Turkish and Arab appearance at a shopping centre in Munich, killing 9 people and injuring 36. He was reportedly inspired by Anders Breivik, to the point that he decided to carry out the attack on the fifth anniversary of Breivik’s own in Norway. As with many similar attackers, including the latest in Hanau by all indicators, Sinboly was inspired by a mix of ideologies – he had also researched on school shootings and was reportedly “honoured” to share a birthday with Adolf Hitler.
In the same year as the Munich attack, another man planted a bomb near a mosque and a convention centre in Dresden, although it resulted in no injuries. Before condemning the perpetrator to 10 years in prison, the court heard that the suspect had in the past participated in a Pegida rally, and had described Africans as “lazy” and foreigners as “criminal”.
Germany is not a stranger to the terrorist threat posed by the extreme right.
Fast forward to summer 2019, Germany woke up to the news that a member of the Christian Democratic Union in Hesse, Walter Lübcke, had been shot dead in his home by a neo-Nazi, in the first political assassination inspired by the far right since the Nazi regime. The perpetrator, who had previously been convicted for attempting to detonate a pipe bomb outside of an asylum seeker’s shelter in 1993, had links to neo-Nazi group Combat 18.
Targeting politicians and public figures has long been a trend in the extreme right. In his terrorist manifesto, Anders Breivik provided a list of “traitors”, which included politicians, public figures, journalists and even doctors. Just last month in Germany, Karamba Diaby, a politician from the Social Democrats in Halle, was sent a death threat by a neo-Nazi group calling itself the “Musicians of the String Orchestra”. It should be noted that Diaby is the only black MP of the Bundestag. Some days before the letter appeared, bullet holes were found in the window of his office.
There have been several high-profile plots that have been thwarted by authorities
2019 was witness as well to the Halle terrorist attack, which saw the attacker targeting a kebab shop after he failed to gain access to a synagogue. The perpetrator, following the trend of others before him, had posted a manifesto justifying his attack and livestreamed it. The selection of targets in this case, as with the Munich and Hanau attacks, again points at religious and racial minorities being a preferred target.
State of alert: plots and trials involving the far-right
Apart from the attacks that have been successful, there have been several high-profile plots that have been thwarted by authorities. In February 2020, the police arrested 12 people whom they believe were planning a terrorist attack against mosques, in emulation of the Christchurch terrorist. The plot was quite ambitious, with members being expected to put together a £42,000 fund to finance the attack.
Another recent trial involved eight neo-Nazis from Dresden, who are accused of plotting terror attacks against immigrants in Berlin. The group dubbed itself “Revolution Chemnitz” – named after the city of Chemnitz, where far-right protests erupted following the murder of a German man by a migrant. Among the chosen targets for the attack were political opponents, reporters and members of the economic establishment.
Other investigations even involved members of the police force in Frankfurt on suspicion of participating in extremist chats online. In 2019, one police officer was arrested after threatening a lawyer representing victims of far-right extremists.
But probably the biggest plot to be uncovered in Germany was back in 2011, when the police found out that the murder of eight ethnic Turks, a Greek citizen and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007 were connected. The culprit was a neo-Nazi group dubbed National Socialist Underground (NSU). By the time the plot was uncovered, two out of the three members of the cell had committed suicide and only one stood trial. Beate Zschäpe was sentenced to life in 2018, but this plot showed that the counterterror apparatus was still getting to grips with the far-right threat.
Counterterrorism in Germany and how it is dealing with the extreme right
The NSU trial exposed some shortcomings in the way German authorities were failing to thwart such plots, especially in light of the revelation that police had a network of informants who were exposed to the activities of the NSU. A parliamentary report concluded that “intelligence agencies had simply refused to recognise neo-Nazi terrorism as a possible motive and explanation”.
Police had a network of informants who were exposed to the activities of the NSU
A similar pattern can be seen in the delayed decision to ban Combat 18, which was given an urgent tone only after the murder of Walter Lübcke. Combat 18 (the number 18 is a reference to Hitler, with the numbers 1 and 8 corresponding to his initials AH) started out in the UK in 1990s out of the British National Party. Early on, the group coalesced with another neo-Nazi movement, Blood and Honour, which already had branches in other countries, including the US and Germany. However, even though Blood and Honour has been banned in Germany since 2000, it was only last month that the German government decided to outlaw Combat 18, a move that so far only Canada had undertaken. Other countries in which Combat 18 has a significant presence, such as the UK, had not yet taken that step.
Again, it was only after the attempted attack on a synagogue in Halle that the police toughened gun and hate speech laws.
In 2019 the chief of Germany’s domestic intelligence service revealed that around 13,000 violent right-wing extremists are believed to be living in Germany, while accepting that the security forces do not have the capabilities to maintain surveillance on all of them. Current estimates suggest that 53 individuals are being actively monitored for extremism, although some institutions such as the military are receiving renewing focus (there are 550 live investigations after 14 soldiers were discharged for holding neo-Nazi groups). This predicament resembles how counter-terrorism forces are also stretched in other countries, with UK authorities claiming that the wider pool of suspects stands at around 20,000.
Of course, counterterror police will (and should) be constantly looking to refine their strategy based on new cases, but this does not take away from the fact that we still have fundamental gaps in our understanding of the radical right and effective policy responses to counter it.
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