The Evolution of German Counter-Terrorism Policy

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Since the 1972 Olympics in Germany, counter-terrorism—the use of military, law enforcement, intelligence, and other aids to identify, avoid, and neutralize terrorist groups within a country—has been among the top security concerns in Berlin. 

On September 5, 1972, eight terrorists entered a flat building that accommodated the Israeli delegation to the Olympics. By the time the day was through, after more than 18 hours in which police encircled the Olympic Village and the terrorists negotiated with officers, nine Israeli athletes, and one German policeman fibbed dead. In the aftermath of the Olympic terror, security evolved as a priority not only for the Olympic Games, whose athletes’ compounds were heavily prearranged thereafter but for nations encountering the threat of terrorism. German counter-terrorist policy thus arose from the painful lessons of Munich.

Running counter-terrorism in Germany is the coordinator for Intelligence, or Koordinierung der Nachrichtendienste des Bundes, who is close to the chancellor—the nation’s head of government—and who conforms state actions under a general national policy. Day-to-day enactment of counter-terrorist activities is the work of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, under whose auspices are police, intelligence mechanisms, and border police. In line with the federal standard on which the German political system is made, each state has its Ministry of the Interior, which also has police, intelligence, and emergency preparedness obligations for local situations.

Many elements of the German counter-terrorism structure are comparable to those of France. However, the French—despite their heavily centralized government—allow a regional political appointee, or préfet, to take control in the event of a local incident. The préfet supervises police and emergency actions on the scene. By contrast, in Germany the federal police, when required to do so by the federal prosecutor or state rules, take control in terrorist situations. They are usually aided by state police, who are likely to be the foremost responders in the event of a local incident.

The Federal Criminal Police or Bundeskriminalamt, an office of the Ministry of the Interior, guards dignitaries and investigates acts of terrorism. Intelligence is collected by several agencies, including the German Intelligence Service, or Bundesnachrichtendienst. Within the states, the State Criminal Police or Ländeskriminalamt performs criminal investigations.

The Federal Border Guard (BGS) or Bundesgrenzschutz, although they operate in a federal capacity, are mandated by the states’ ministries of the interior. 

The BGS must secure borders, transportation sites, and other susceptible federally controlled areas. Within the BGS is an elite counter-terrorist organization, similar to the U.S. Delta Force, the British SAS, or the French GIGN. On the other hand, is GSG 9, or Grenzschutzgruppe 9. An immediate outgrowth of the Munich massacre, GSG has carried part in over 1,300 procedures since its inception. One of the most prominent of these—and one of only a handful of moments when GSG 9 has been directed to use firearms—was the recovery of passengers aboard a Lufthansa flight seized by terrorists in October 1977.

The terrorists, who were operating with Germany’s notorious Red Army Faction seized control of the airplane on its way from the Balearic Islands to Germany. Denied landing in several locations, the plane finally pushed its way to Mogadishu, Somalia. There, after Somali troops diverted the hijackers by lighting a bonfire in the facade of the aircraft, two GSG 9 groups, aided by SAS personnel, stormed the plane. All of the more than 80 passengers endured, and all but one of the terrorists died in the assault.

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