The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency BND gave a rare interview specifically to warn that despite appearances Islamist terrorism remains a real threat to world order, even 20 years after 9/11.
Speaking to the SÃ¼ddeutsche Zeitung on Monday, Bruno Kahl said that although Europe and the United States have not experienced major terrorist attacks like those of two decades ago, âIslamist terrorism has still developed and cost many human lives. actors and the danger they represent has increased. ”
There have of course been major successes in the fight against ISIS in recent years – in particular the 2019 assassination of the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi group and the destruction of the “caliphate” in Syria and in Iraq as a quasi-state entity. But since then, Kahl said, IS has evolved into a decentralized network, much like al-Qaeda, whose sub-organizations are “even multiplying.”
German intelligence chief Bruno Kahl worries about Islamist terrorist threat
That’s not exactly news, according to Mirna El Masri, a researcher on radicalization and terrorism at the German Institute for Global and Regional Studies (GIGA) based in Hamburg. “There had been indications in 2019 after the loss of its territories that ISIS had grown considerably,” she told DW. “On the other hand, new circumstances have made matters worse over the past year, which may explain why Kahl has decided to speak up now.”
On the one hand, the spread of the coronavirus in the Middle East region has weakened the Iraqi government and increased the desperation of many people, which has turned the refugee camps in northern Syria into particularly effective recruitment centers for the IS. The longer the pandemic continues, El Masri said, the more it will help ISIS.
New strategies – military and financial
ISIS has also learned to adapt its strategies, according to El Masri. The commanders were subdivided into specific operational sectors in the region, assuming decision-making responsibilities. The latest reports also suggest that ISIS fighters have completely withdrawn from urban areas, but are able to move freely in the open countryside simply by avoiding state forces, especially near the town around town. Syrian woman from Deir ez-Zor.
IS has also developed new business models, adopting organized crime tactics like demanding illegal taxes along oil and trade routes and using hotels, real estate and even car dealerships to launder money between Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
“This made it more difficult for the visibility and monitoring of German and international intelligence agencies,” said Eric Stollenwerk, terrorism and Sahel region researcher for GIGA, who agrees with Kahl that the group is still very powerful in Syria. and Iraq. âBeyond that, it has close links with other regions of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa and especially the Sahel region,â he added.
Intervention as a remedy – but what kind?
As far as Kahl is concerned, there is only one way to stop the development of terrorist organizations like ISIS: “The imposition of the monopoly of state power, the erection of state structures, the guarantee of safety, âhe told SZ. It is there, he argues, that European and Western powers can help countries like Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria. “We need to help states regain control or at least maintain it where it can be,” he said.
El Masri agrees with Kahl’s assessment: “A weak state is a fundamental engine of terrorist organizations,” she said. âBecause ISIS can act as a kind of alternative state: by providing income, security and social mobility to its members. In other words, they can take on the role of the state. This is where the European Union could and should help, argues El Masri: By helping to strengthen the powers of government.
But Stollenwerk thinks that’s not all. “Only statebuilding will not defeat al-Qaeda or ISIS,” he said. “Because these are areas where autocratic regimes are relatively predominant – if you only strengthen the powers of the state that suppress their own population, it can have the exact opposite effect on fundamentalist movements, namely that you are more likely to play the game of these organizations. “
For Stollenwerk, what matters is to anchor state structures in a democratic civil society. “This means both local and international NGOs and foundations, but also support for religious organizations on the ground,” he said. âBecause I think what Kahl overlooks in this interview is that for most Muslims in these areas, organizations like ISIS are a huge problem. There is great potential for mobilization against terrorist organizations among the civilian population. “
This does not mean trying to impose democracy en bloc. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown how disastrous these undertakings can be – a lesson that has not been lost on Bruno Kahl of BND. “We shouldn’t promise any castle in the sky, like the export of democracy and the rule of law and idyllic conditions,” he told SZ. âThe main thing is to organize security.
El Masri calls this “a very realistic statement”. “I think we are a long way from European-style democracy in the Sahel region,” she said. “It’s a security process first, then everything else follows.”
HÃ¼rcan Asli Aksoy, regional specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), also believes that a European engagement with real “political weight, with clear strategies and clear offers to the parties in conflict” is vital to contain the damage caused by conflict.
But Aksoy is also not convinced by simply focusing on safety. âConflict resolution and management must be endowed with medium and long-term strategies according to a rights-based multilateral order.
It’s more than just putting troops on the ground. As El Masri points out, it also means sending more training units to support local security forces and provide humanitarian aid to refugee camps in Syria and Iraq.
Exporting democracy could be illusory, agreed Stollenwerk: âBut it is equally illusory to think that by strengthening the state you will automatically guarantee security.
IS in Germany
Like its foreign intelligence counterpart, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency BfV also believes the threat from Islamist terrorism is just as high today as it has been in recent years. In its latest report, released last month, the BfV reported minor Islamist attacks in Germany in 2020. Most notable was the knife attack in Dresden in October, when a man suspected of having Islamist sympathies attacked two openly gay tourists with a knife, one of whom later died.
Nevertheless, the BfV warned, “complex and multiple attacks, controlled by terrorist groups abroad, have not yet taken place in Germany, but could occur at any time.”
While he believes IS should not be underestimated, Stollenwerk says the danger of ISIS “returnees” carrying out frequent and large-scale terrorist attacks in Germany is relatively low.
“It is unrealistic to say that if ISIS suffered more casualties in the Middle East, a wave of terror would befall Germany,” he said. “But the danger of so-called ‘lone wolves’ – for example, people who radicalize on the Internet – is extremely difficult for intelligence agencies to monitor or prevent.”
The BfV report, which is usually filled with statistics on the number of extremists suspected of being in the country, makes it clear: it has not been able to establish exactly how many members or supporters of the EI or Al Qaeda currently live in Germany.
While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW’s editors summarize what’s going on in German politics and society, with the aim of understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up for the weekly Berlin Briefing email newsletter here, to stay abreast of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.