Preventing terrorism: What powers do German security forces have?

In the wake of deadly attacks in Germany and across Europe, the federal government has boosted its security and anti-terror laws. DW looks at the powers German authorities have at their disposal to combat terrorism.

With deadly terror attacks in Europe showing little sign of waning, Germany's threat level remains high. German officials have revised and tightened the country's surveillance laws, while counter-terrorism measures continue to be expanded. 

Terrorism | 25.07.2017

Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has primary jurisdiction for domestic security and combating terrorism, while intelligence work is divided between the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and the Federal Intelligence Service (BND).

All three agencies have seen their powers significantly expanded in recent months.

DW looks at what powers federal police and security forces have in preventing terror attacks.

Politics | 17.05.2017


Perhaps no aspect of Germany's security measures has come under greater scrutiny than its surveillance laws.

For historical reasons, the German government is obliged to protect and respect personal privacy, which is why the country has had some of the most restrictive surveillance laws in the world, with stronger measures often falling afoul of the German constitution.

However, the increased terror threat has seen the government tighten measures on the streets and online.

In June 2017, the German government added an unprecedented spate of new public surveillance laws to Germany's Criminal Code. This saw a major increase in the number security cameras installed across cities and sanctioned federal police to wear body cams while on patrol.

Meanwhile, the BfV is responsible for monitoring "anti-constitutional" and extremist activity by intercepting data sent through telecommunications networks, such as emails, telephones and text messages. It does this either by requesting the data from the telecom providers, or through what is known as the "Trojan Law," which allows malware to be installed on computers and smartphones. Intercepted data is allowed to be stored for up to six months.

Read more: Opinion: Reforming Germany's domestic intelligence service

The BND, by contrast, is responsible for collecting intelligence outside Germany. Because some of the world's largest internet access points are located in Germany, the BND's capacity to tap into these exchanges gives it particularly strong access to international intelligence. The BND is also allowed to share intelligence with foreign agencies, and information sharing with EU partners and the US' National Security Agency is commonplace.

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Stop and search

During any stop and search, German police are by law required to give a reason as to why an individual has been picked out.

However, in many circumstances, police are allowed to frisk individuals as a preventative measure. If there is reason to believe that there could be a risk to public safety at a certain location, this overrides an individual's rights, and police are allowed to stop and search anyone within the vicinity.

Federal states are able to further tighten their own police stop and search powers. In one extreme example, the city state of Hamburg declared entire districts as "danger zones" following riots by left-wing protestors. As a result, anyone walking through those zones could be stopped and searched on site for no specific reason.

Detention without charge

Each state in Germany, with the exception of Bavaria, is allowed to detain suspects without charge for a maximum of 14 days.

However, in 2017 the southern state of Bavaria caused a huge legal stir when its regional government sought to keep suspected assailants indefinitely detained without charge. The state's ruling party, the Christian Social Union, was accused by a number of opposition lawmakers and the press of seeking to undermine the rule of law.

The Bavarian regional government ultimately introduced laws allowing suspects to be held without charge for up to three months at a time. However, every three months, a judge must decide whether the suspect can be released or not. In theory, a suspect could remain imprisoned for years.

Read more: Bavaria ramps up security measures against terrorist threats

Outlawed organizations

The German government's list of banned organizations is mostly made up of neo-Nazi and Islamist groups. Anyone found to have an association to such groups, whether it be through disseminating propaganda material or sporting their symbols, can be prosecuted.

The law concerning the symbols of unconstitutional groups was implemented to deal with Nazi insignia. But in 2014 the flag used by the so-called "Islamic State" was added to the list.

Checks at the border

While Germany is a member of the Schengen area, which allows for the free movement of goods and people across EU borders, in 2015 the federal government introduced controls at its borders as a response to the wave of migrants and refugees entering Europe. 

Read more: ECJ backs Schengen but doesn't quite limit German cops

While German officials are allowed to ask for identification documents, in June 2017 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that border checks could not be used to circumvent Schengen regulation on free travel

According to the ECJ, authorities may demand identification within 30 kilometers of an international border if the check is deemed "proportional" and done to prevent illegal entry into the country.

Deportations from Germany to Afghanistan

By the planeload

On September 12, 2017, a flight left Germany's Düsseldorf airport for Afghanistan, carrying 15 rejected asylum seekers in what is the first group deportation to the country since a deadly car bomb blast near the German embassy in Kabul in late May. The opposition Greens and Left party slammed the resumption of deportations to Afghanistan as "cynical."

Deportations from Germany to Afghanistan

Fighting for a chance

In March 2017, high school students in Cottbus made headlines with a campaign to save three Afghan classmates from deportation. They demonstrated, collected signatures for a petition and raised money for an attorney to contest the teens' asylum rejections - safe in the knowledge that their friends, among them Wali (above), can not be deported as long as proceedings continue.

Deportations from Germany to Afghanistan

'Kabul is not safe'

"Headed toward deadly peril," this sign reads at a demonstration in Munich airport in February. Protesters often show up at German airports where the deportations take place. Several collective deportations left Germany in December 2016, and between January and May 2017. Protesters believe that Afghanistan is too dangerous for refugees to return.

Deportations from Germany to Afghanistan

From Würzburg to Kabul

Badam Haidari, in his mid-30s, spent seven years in Germany before he was deported to Afghanistan in January 2017. He had previously worked for USAID in Afghanistan and fled the Taliban, whom he still fears years later – hoping that he will be able to return to Germany after all.

Deportations from Germany to Afghanistan

Persecuted minorities

In January of the same year, officials deported Afghan Hindu Samir Narang from Hamburg, where he had lived with his family for four years. Afghanistan, the young man told German public radio, "is not safe." Minorities from Afghanistan who return because asylum is denied face religious persecution in the Muslim country. Deportation to Afghanistan is "life-threatening" to Samir, says

Deportations from Germany to Afghanistan

Reluctant returnees

Rejected asylum seekers deported from Germany to Kabul, with 20 euros in their pockets from the German authorities to tide them over at the start, can turn to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for assistance. Funded by the German Foreign Office, members of the IPSO international psychosocial organization counsel the returnees.

Easier deportations

In measures introduced following the botched deportation of Berlin attacker Anis Amri, the government passed legislation in May making it easier todeport failed asylum seekers.

Refugees due for deportation can also be detained for up 10 days, while those deemed potentially dangerous can be made to wear ankle tags and have their movements restricted.

Read more: What is the status of German deportations to Afghanistan?

No German military on the streets

Unlike in many other countries, Germany's constitutional law prohibits the military from being deployed on the streets. For historical reasons, only the police are responsible for internal security, although in extreme circumstances the military can be called upon within "narrowly defined limits."

However, in light of heightened terrorist threats across Europe, there are concerns the German government may amend this law. Several German states have already allowed police and military forces to conduct joint-training exercises. German Interior Minister Thomas Maiziere said the drills were a merely a "precaution for an unlikely but conceivable situation."

Still, despite suffering a string of terror attacks in 2016, Germany has not deployed the military on its own soil since the Second World War for anything other than natural disaster relief.

Germany's biggest Islamist trials

Failed Bonn bomb

The blue bag left on the platform at Bonn's central station in 2012 contained explosives that did not go off, but a city-wide manhunt unfolded. Marco G. was eventually arrested and charged with planting the bomb. Three others are charged with plotting to assassinate a politician from the far-right PRO-NRW party. Their group allegedly drew inspration from an Islamist movement in Uzbekistan.

Germany's biggest Islamist trials

Frankfurt airport bus attack

In March 2011, Arid Uka shot dead two US servicemen waiting for a bus at Frankfurt airport prior to deployment in Afghanistan. "This is indeed the first Islamic-motivated terror strike to have happened in Germany," the judge said, adding Uka had sought revenge for military operations in Afghanistan. Uka, born in Kosovo, acted alone and was sentenced to life in prison in February 2012.  

Germany's biggest Islamist trials

The Sauerland Cell

The "Sauerland Cell" was a German cell of the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a terrorist group on the Pakistani-Afghan border. The four German and Turkish men had planned large-scale bomb attacks against American targets in Germany from their base in the western region of the Sauerland. Arrested in September 2007, they were sentenced in March 2010 for up to 12 years. 

Germany's biggest Islamist trials

Sharia Police

Sven Lau, a Salafist Muslim, was the man behind a well-known Islamist publicity stunt. In 2014, Lau led several men around the city of Wuppertal in orange security vests labeled "Sharia police." Acting as state authorities, they warned people visiting local clubs and bars to adhere to Sharia, or Islamic law. He is currently on trial for backing a terror group fighting in Syria.

Germany's biggest Islamist trials

Big mouth

Nils D., a Salafist from Dinslaken, joined the "Islamic State" in Syria in October 2013. He tracked down the group's deserters - armed with explosives and guns. He returned to Germany a year later, and boastful statements about his time in Syria eventually got him arrested. He confessed the names of other German Islamic extremists and was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail. 

Germany's biggest Islamist trials

"Biggest mistake of my life"

On the final day of Harry S.'s July 2016 trial, he said "going to Syria was the biggest mistake of my life." The Bremen-born Muslim convert spent three months with "Islamic State" in Syria in 2015. He wanted out after civilians were murdered for a short recruitment film he helped make. He was sentenced to three years in jail for being part of a foreign terrorist organization.