BERLIN — Security services followed the Berlin terrorist Anis Amri for months.
They knew he was a terror threat, they knew he was visiting Salafist mosques and they knew him under at least 14 aliases. But somehow, they just couldn’t find enough evidence to lock him up. So he travelled freely between Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia, as regional services got flummoxed over his whereabouts, and domestic spies eventually lost track of his cell phone.
The next time anyone heard from Amri was when he raced a truck through the Berlin Christmas market, in a killing spree that murdered 12 people and injuring many others.
The investigation into Amri’s case is far from complete. He was shot dead in Italy by a trainee cop a few days after the attack. But it’s already an unsettling story, especially when taking into consideration that Germany’s increasingly strained and understaffed security and intelligence services are supposed to be watching 548 other Gefährder: people who have been identified as terror threats, but who are not proven guilty of anything that could land them in jail.
Ministers may have fretted about this inconvenient state of affairs in the past. But now that the so-called Islamic State has executed its first murderous strike in Germany and the usually laid-back Angela Merkel, up for reelection, is taking domestic security very seriously indeed, the pressure is on to change it.
On Monday, Merkel addressed the Beamtenbund, or national association of civil servants, in Cologne. December’s truck attack is a warning to ”act quickly, act correctly and not get stuck in making announcements,” she said. And with these words, she was relying on some speedy teamwork from her conservative ally, Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere and Justice Minister Heiko Maas, a soft-spoken Social Democrat, who made headlines last year when he suggested a national ban on sexist advertising.
The two men met yesterday in Munich with the promise that they would agree on some “very concrete suggestions“ for a “preventative offensive against radical Islam.” And one of their proposals, to monitor suspected Islamist extremists who have not been convicted of any crime with electronic ankle bracelets, is already being described as radical itself— but also as a “sedative pill” or “placebo.”
In Germany, the clunky electronic monitors are traditionally reserved to hug the ankles of convicted sex and violence offenders after their release from prison. But now, according to Maas, using them to monitor Gefährder would make the work of security services, “substantially easier.
Maas and De Maziere also announced plans for rejected asylum seekers who are classified as Gefährder to be detained before being deported, even if their deportation is not possible within three months. It’s another distinctly Amri-inspired measure— the 24-year-old couldn’t be kept in custody for more than two days after his asylum application was rejected in June, because his home country, Tunisia, denied he was a citizen.
However, only 62 out of 548 suspected Islamist extremists in Germany are rejected asylum applicants. Which brings us back to the electronic ankle tag, or Fußfessel (foot chain), as Germans are calling it.
“What has been suggested here is not excessive,“ Thomas Mücke, the head of Violence Prevention Network, tells The Daily Beast. His Berlin-based organization works with teenagers in danger of being radicalised.
The press conference by the interior and justice ministers comes more than a week after New Year’s Eve, when Germans got uneasy about the fact that hundreds of men, whom the police described as “Nafris“ (cop shorthand for North Africans), were being held up at the central train station in Cologne. But it seems in the case of Gefährder, there is little resistance to blurring the lines of presumed innocence and guilt. Given the circumstances, the argument goes, ankle monitors are still better than preventative imprisonment.
But the foot-chain proposal still managed to raise eyebrows for other reasons. The tag, which alone is less effective at monitoring a suspect than surveillance, may be useful for sabotaging dubious meet-ups or setting off an alarm if the wearer gets too close to, say, an airport or a train station. But can it stop a determined jihadist?
One of the two men who stormed the church in the northern French town of St Etienne-Du-Rouvray, took several hostages and killed an 84-year-old priest last July, was wearing an electronic ankle bracelet when he was shot dead by the police.
Indeed, Ulrich Schellenberg, the President of the German Bar Association told Die Zeit that the proposal was nothing but “symbolic politics, to increase the population’s sense of security.”
Political parties seem to have kicked off Europe’s super election year on the mantra that Germans need to feel safer again. The meeting between Maas and De Maziere Tuesday was preceded by a some blame-throwing between the two ruling coalition parties, both of whom want to look tough on terror in the run-up elections in September.
De Maziere, told Bild am Sonntag that he was, “Unfortunately not sure, if everyone in the SPD is ready, to really help carry harsher measures.“ And the Social Democrat’s group leader, Thomas Oppermann, hit back when telling Welt am Sonntag that De Maziere could “deport Gefährder who are suspected of terrorism immediately, with a deportation order. Sadly, he has never done that.”
Anna, a 24-year-old IT student in Berlin, is not afraid for her safety, but she’s still annoyed at the government’s response to the attacks so far. “In Poland and Italy they had ceremonies to honour those who died on Breitscheidtplatz … but here, it felt like there was nothing.” She continues: “Electronic ankle chains just sound expensive.”