The Diverse Dynamics of Terrorism in Germany: A Historical Trend Analysis

Bárbara Diniz is a Researcher at the Research Network on Terrorism, Radicalization and Transnational Crime (TRAC) and at the Center for the Study of Decision Processes and Foreign Policy (CEPDE). She is a FAPEMIG scholarship holder at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais (PUC Minas). She is also a commissioning editor for the Security segment at E-International Relations. Her dissertation and her research focus on contemporary counterterrorism trends in the European Union and its member-states.

Brazil, Minas Gerais | November 1, 2010 | Analysis Article

Terrorism in Germany is not a recent phenomenon. Since late the 1960s, Germany has suffered from a number of terrorist attacks committed by a multitude of organisations that ideologically range from far-right to jihadism extremism.

Common misconceptions about terrorism as an omnipresent threat contributed to widespread xenophobia and to the rise of a global far-right movement.

Therefore, these misconceptions have direct implications on the implementation of state policies and societal actions that tend to present certain parts of the population as hostile and as outsiders.

This article presents the evolution of the dynamics of terrorism trends in Germany from the 1970s to 2018. This analysis of terrorism threats that Germany has had to face helps to de-escalate hostile actions towards a minority and allows direct authorities to set the focus on particular groups and organisations.  In order to construct a profile of terrorism dynamics in Germany, the analysis focuses on the number of terrorist attacks, the perpetrators, the target type, and the weapon types used in the attacks. The data collected for the analysis is derived from the German[1] profile on the Global Terrorism Database[2] provided by the START consortium, the Global Terrorism Index[3] yearly reports published by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), and the TE-SAT Europol[4] reports.

On Definitions

Terrorism is a concept that has been proven very hard to define by both academics and policy-makers. There is no international (or national) consensus on what can be defined as terrorism or not. Therefore, this article understands terrorism as “[…] the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation” (GTD, 2019)[5]. An attack can therefore be considered terrorism if the action is intentional, if it presents some level of violence (or the threat of it), and if it is committed by a sub-national organisation.

Furthermore, Europol presents a systematic categorisation of terrorism ideology that will be used to understand and classify the terrorist organisations in Germany. Europol presents five categories of extremist ideologies: jihadism, far-right, far-left and anarchism, ethno-nationalist and separatist, and single-issue (focused on a specific policy or practice, e.g. animal rights) (EUROPOL, 2019)[6]. Nonetheless, a sixth category was added to this list: unknown. Because of similar modus operandi, there are several instances where the group that committed the terrorist attacks cannot be identified.

The Dynamics of Terrorism  

Since the 1970s, Germany suffered from a total of 758 terrorist attacks; an average of 15 terrorist attacks per year. As seen on Graph 1[7], there are two periods when terrorist attacks peaked in particular: The first and most significant peak took place between 1991 and 1997; a period that marked the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. The attacks during these six years started with a terrorist attack in Berlin in 1991 by the Revolutionary Cells (left-wing) and ended with a terrorist attack in Dresden in 1997 by neo-Nazi extremists (right-wing). The second peak started in 2014 and has been in decline since 2017. The attacks during this period started with a terrorist attack on a government building in Berlin in 2014 by the anarchist group ‘Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei,’ and ended with a jihadist inspired attack in Berlin in 2018.

Terrorist Attacks in Germany Over Time, GTD, 2020[8].

The multiplicity of actors and their varying types of attacks make terrorism a complex phenomenon to analyse. With over 750 attacks in 48 years, Germany has increasingly had to deal with a myriad of different terrorist groups that range from jihadists to right-wing extremists. In 34,8% of attacks, the perpetrators cannot be identified. The presence of unknown perpetrators coupled with the large variety of different targets, and attack as well as weapon types, make it virtually impossible to narrow down a coherent pool of suspects.

A German anti-terrorism approach that simplistically focuses on jihadist groups disregards the diversity of groups that have committed terrorist attacks in Germany.

In fact, the highest number of attacks that can be identified were perpetrated by far-right extremist groups (24,3%). Most far-fight attacks were armed assaults (melee), bombings (arson or explosives) – with a focus on private properties.

Even though 21, 8% of the terrorist attacks in Germany are committed by ethno-separatist groups, none of them are German. Mainly Kurdish groups aim their attacks at private properties and businesses, focusing on an incendiary attack type. Anarchists and left-wing groups are responsible for 11,3% of the attacks since the 1970s. These groups mainly target private property of the police and the German government, with a recurrent preference to incendiary attacks.

Jihadism and single-issue terrorism have, in fact, the lowest number of attacks, being responsible for 2,5% and 2% respectively.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, jihadist terrorism has become the centre of discourse on terrorism within the international system. Even though the perception of the threat is enormous, in the case of Germany, jihadism represents one of the smallest percentages of terrorist attacks.

According to the Global Terrorism Index[9] (GTI), the impact of terrorism and terrorist related activities in Germany has been in a steady decline after the sharp increase between 2013 and 2016. The terrorism index in Germany has on average been: 2,95 (on a scale from 1 to 10). The index was highest in 2003 (4,92) and lowest in 2013 (1,77). Even though terrorism is not necessarily the highest priority on the German security agenda, since it presents a threat of medium magnitude, it is pivotal that counterterrorism measures within Germany are enforced and adapt to the ever-changing dynamics of the phenomenon.

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