German security services could be forced to rethink their counter-terrorism strategy after what experts regard as the first “lone wolf” attack by an asylum seeker on German soil.
A 17-year-old Afghan armed with an axe and a knife attacked passengers on a regional train in northern Bavaria on Monday evening, seriously injuring four Chinese tourists before being shot dead by police.
The Afghan teenager had reportedly been based in Germany for the last two years, and moved only two weeks ago into a foster home in Ochsenfurt, close to the city of Würzburg, where the attack took place.
Early investigations indicate that the attacker was acting with an Islamist motive. According to the Bavarian interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, a handpainted Islamic State flag was found among the teenager’s belongings in his room at his foster home.
Police had also found a text written in Pashtu, which Herrmann said was seen as a strong indicator that the teenager “could be a person who had been self-radicalised”. The text, passages of which are being interpreted as a letter to the 17-year-old’s father, reportedly calls on Muslims to rise up in self-defence.
Isis has moved quickly to take responsibility for the attack, releasing a statement via its online news agency, Amaq, which said: “The perpetrator of the stabbing attack in Germany was one of the fighters of the Islamic State and carried out the operation in answer to the calls to target the countries of the coalition fighting the Islamic State.”
However, there is no evidence that the attack had been organised or coordinated directly by Isis. “There are currently no indicators of the young man being part of the Islamist militia’s network,” said Herrmann.
Michael Ortmann, a terrorism expert for Germany’s RTL media group, said the statement looked above all like a PR measure: “It fits a pattern whereby Isis claims ownership of an attack without showing any detailed knowledge of the incident.”
Directors of the refugee shelter in Ochsenfurt where the 17-year-old had been staying expressed their shock and grief at the news. “We’ve never had any form of incident here,” the website of news weekly Der Spiegel quoted a coordinator as saying. “People treat each other peacefully here, that’s why we are shocked and sad.”
About 250 refugees are stationed in Ochsenfurt, about 60 of whom are unattended minors. According to news agency DPA, the teenager had been on a work experience placement at a local bakery and been receiving support from the German social ministry’s youth welfare service.
The attack is seen as a wakeup call for Germany’s security and intelligence services, after the country appeared to have previously been able to avert attacks of the kind seen in Belgium and France.
Security services in Germany say they have since 2001 managed to successfully avert 12 attempted terrorist attacks with an Islamist motive, by cooperating closely with local community leaders and security agencies in other countries.
Community support schemes aimed at deradicalising young jihadis by working closely with their families had been hailed as a success around Europe.
But the attack in Würzburg appears to be part of a growing trend towards “lone wolf” attacks by individuals who are radicalised suddenly.
German terrorist experts have drawn comparisons between Monday night’s attack and an incident in Hanover on 26 February, in which 15-year-old student Safia S stabbed a policeman in the neck during a routine ID check.
Security agencies in Germany were still investigating the student’s claims that she had been acting upon orders from Isis. Unlike the Afghan asylum seeker shot during Monday night’s incident, Safia S had been raised in Germany.
According to Daniel Köhler, the director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-Radicalisation Studies, “lone actor terrorists” pose “a new challenge that we are struggling to come to terms with”. When newly arrived unattended minors are radicalised over a short period, Köhler said, the security agency’s previous strategy was largely rendered redundant. “We are effectively starting at zero.”
“Over the last few years, counterterrorism strategy in Germany has focused massively on working with families to prevent radicalisation taking place,” Köhler said. “Preventing radicalisation amongst refugees, however, will requite lots and lots of catching up.”
Herrmann appeared to implicitly criticise Angela Merkel’s strategy during the refugee crisis when he said that security agencies in his state were having to cope with the possibility of refugees entering the country under false motives, “a constellation that would have been unimaginable until recently”.
Herrmann is a member of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, a sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats. His party’sleadership has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the German government’s open-borders stance.
Renate Künast, a prominent member of the German Green party and former agriculture minister, earned criticism for a tweet in which she questioned why police had shot the teenager dead rather than merely incapacitating him.
“When police forces are attacked in such a way, they will hardly go for kung fu”, said Rainer Wendt, head of the German police union. “Regrettably that sometimes results in the death of the culprit, but that’s hard to change.”
Wendt said that it was fine for state prosecutors to investigate if police officers acted in accordance with their guidelines, “but we really don’t need parliamentarian smart-arses to do that”.