As the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, Berlin is facing complex challenges. World famous for its open and diverse society, the city has taken comprehensive measures to both protect its people against the threats of violent extremism and terrorism while helping those vulnerable to radicalisation and strengthening social cohesion. To achieve this, Berlin is following a balanced strategy combining both preventive as well as proactive approaches. To deliver these objectives the city is mobilising the full range of its authorities and services while also partnering up with a large number of civil society organisations. In all its efforts Berlin is following an approach of an active engagement in international cooperation, especially within networks of the European Union. Consequently, Berlin joined the Strong Cities Network in November 2017 out of deep conviction.
Two key challenges are currently occupying Berlin in particular. First, Islamist extremism and terrorism pose a major threat. Infamously, a terrorist attack targeted a Christmas market in the heart of Berlin in December 2016, killing 12 people and injuring 70. Since then, the threat of Islamist-inspired terrorism has remained. In recent years the number of home-grown extremists has been increasing, and today Berlin-based foreign terrorist fighters and their families are returning from Syria and Iraq. In recent years Berlin has also taken a high number of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Their integration posed several challenges for Berlin. While the significant inflow of refugees is unrelated to terrorism and extremism, some are considered to be particularly vulnerable for radicalisation by domestic Islamist extremists or other refugees. The city’s role as Germany’s political centre and its symbolic power make Berlin an attractive target for terrorists and extremists. However, the number of incidents has remained low because of concerted actions taken by the security authorities.
Secondly, Germany has seen a strengthening of the far right, giving way to right-wing extremism and terrorism. The uncovering of the neo-Nazi terrorist group NSU in 2011 as well as the assassination of the President of the governmental district of Kassel Walter Lübcke in June 2019 and the attack in Halle in October 2019 demonstrate the deadly and ongoing threat of right-wing extremist terrorism. Moreover, extremist and far-right groups have attempted to capitalise on the migrant issue. While this has been largely unsuccessful, there are nonetheless a significant number of radicals directly threatening and attacking those they deem their enemies. Currently, Berlin is taking this opportunity to review and adjust its measures in order to effectively tackle the phenomenon of right-wing extremism.
In response to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States of America, Germany implemented a series of anti-terrorism laws, refining and enlarging the legal framework for counter-terrorism. Additionally, coordination and communication between various intelligence and law enforcement agencies has been improved, for example by setting up the Joint Counter-Terrorism Centre (Gemeinsames Terrorismusabwehrzentrum, GTAZ) in which all relevant security services work together on Islamist extremism. From 2012, to similarly tackle violent extremism, especially related to the far-right, the Joint Extremism and Counter-Terrorism Centre (Gemeinsame Extremismus- und Terrorismusabwehrzentrum, GETZ) was created under the lead of the domestic intelligence service Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz). Since 2014, stringent efforts have been made to curtail and counter ISIS and other jihadist propaganda in Germany, as well as the propagation of white-supremacist hate speech spread by right-wing extremists. The Federal Ministry of Justice has also worked with major social media platforms to both limit the circulation of, and make it easier to report, online propaganda disseminated by extremist groups.
At the same time, German authorities, together with various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have launched a number of community-based initiatives designed to prevent radicalisation. There are two significant initiatives to mention here. First, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has set up an advice hotline for cases of radicalisation and foreign terrorist fighters. Callers first receive counsel and are then, if necessary, referred to civil society partners who offer further counselling, as well as interventions and case management.
Secondly, the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth is running the large federal programme “Live Democracy!”, which is funding and supporting numerous civil society programmes and initiatives that tackle issues linked to radicalisation. Among other things, these have included counselling hotlines, desistance and disengagement programmes, prison outreach and educational initiatives directed at youngsters from disadvantaged communities.
Berlin pursues a holistic approach to countering violent extremism by combining and balancing preventive and proactive measures. The city has formulated a comprehensive strategy: based on the four pillars of prevention, pursue, protection and preparation, a wide range of measures have been adopted to cope with radicalisation and Islamist terrorism. Additionally, on the issue of right-wing extremism, a Berlin-wide Joint Information and Evaluation Centre (Gemeinsames Informations- und Bewertungszentrum Rechtsextremismus, GIBZ) of Berlin police forces and the Berlin domestic intelligence service Berlin Office for the Protection of the Constitution have been created.
Both the permanent threat of attacks from the Islamist-terrorist spectrum and the high number of people who left Berlin for Syria and Iraq are indicators that Berlin plays a central role for the German Islamist-jihadist scene. For this reason, the Senate Department of the Interior and Sport initiated a deradicalisation network (DeRadNet), which began its work in April 2015. The security authorities work closely with the civil society association VPN (Violence Prevention Network e.V.), which operates the ‘Advisory Centre COMPASS - Tolerance statt Extremismus’, which can be reached via a telephone hotline. In addition, a separate working group was set up in mid-2017 at the Senate Department of the Interior and Sport to deal with the strategic control to combat Islamist terrorism and de-radicalisation as well as prevention of radicalisation. The working group is multidisciplinary and combines prevention, deradicalisation and repression.
As a cornerstone of the Berlin state programme against radicalisation, the Berlin State Commission Against Violence supports projects aimed at preventing radicalisation as well as promoting desistance and disengagement among already radicalised persons. This includes collaboration with think-tanks, universities, and researchers engaged in P/CVE, and on identifying new approaches to countering growing threats while monitoring and constantly evaluating the success of existing programmes.
Currently there is a series of new challenges which Berlin is focusing on. First, the issue of returning Berlin-based ISIS-foreign terrorist fighters and their families requires careful attention. Therefore, a strategic unit has been created in the Senate Department for the Interior and Sport, which coordinates the multi-agency efforts of desistance, disengagement and reintegration work in these very particular cases. As a link between national and local institutions as well as state and non-state actors it ensures that optimal cooperation is taking place.
Secondly, the issue of radicalisation in prison as well as in release and beyond is a growing challenge. Here the Justice Department and the Department for the Interior and Sport are working closely with non-governmental actors to provide desistance and disengagement programmes for radicalised individuals in prison and after release in order to ensure smooth transitions form imprisonment to reintegration. For that purpose, multi-agency case conferences have been set up. Nonetheless, the relevant Senate Departments are continuously reviewing their procedures to optimise and to adjust them to changes.
Thirdly, Berlin is observing the rise of so-called legalist Islamist extremists. Those groups, such as the internationally active Muslim Brotherhood, are promoting Islamist extremism but abstain from using physical violence. In the past they have acted as facilitators of radicalisation.
Berlin is committed to international cooperation and believes that global partnerships strongly support Berlin’s effort to remain a safe and secure city. Cities can learn from each other and support each other by exchanging experiences, knowledge, best-practices and by creating meaningful cooperative relationships.
Key Sources & Further Reading
- Berlin Senate Department for Interior and Sport: https://www.berlin.de/sen/inneres/ (German)
- Berlin State Commission Against Violence: https://www.berlin.de/lb/lkbgg/ (German)
- Federal Government Strategy to Prevent Extremism and Promote Democracy: https://www.bmfsfj.de/bmfsfj/meta/en/publications-en/federal-government-strategy-to-prevent-extremism-and-promote-democracy/115450 (English)
- Country Report on Germany by the Counter Extremism Project: https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/germany (English)