BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany will remain at risk of attack in 2011 by Islamist militants trying to erode wavering support for military involvement in Afghanistan and to strike at the heart of the European economy.
For the past month, Germans have trudged about in the snow under the watchful gaze of hundreds of extra police stationed in transport hubs and other public places after the government unexpectedly raised its security alert.
The government did not identify a specific threat, but security officials have described a series of potential scenarios that could occur in Germany, including armed attacks similar to those that struck the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.
The heightened security alert followed the discovery of a parcel bomb sent from Yemen to a U.S. target that passed through Germany, as well as a separate device from suspected Greek militants that reached Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office.
Germany has not suffered a major assault by Islamic militants since the attacks on the United States in 2001, although several attempts have been thwarted and its military presence in Afghanistan has kept it braced for strikes.
“As the third biggest provider of troops in Afghanistan, Germany continues to be a major target for terrorists,” said Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy (IFTUS) in Essen.
“The risk of an attack is still very high,” he said. “The attack in Sweden showed you can’t contain all the risks because it’s impossible to have every lone operator on your radar.”
A suspected suicide bomber of Middle Eastern origin was killed in Stockholm this weekend after one of several devices he was carrying exploded in the Swedish capital.
The blasts have been linked to Sweden’s military presence in Afghanistan. Security experts say Berlin’s contingent of more than 4,500 troops in the war-torn country has helped to win a steady stream of recruits for militant Islam in Germany.
Compounding Merkel’s problems are polls that show a majority of Germans do not believe their soldiers should be Afghanistan, encouraging some radical Islamists to see Berlin as a weak link in the NATO coalition that should be actively targeted.
“It’s not the soldiers whose resolve is wavering on Afghanistan, it’s the German population,” said Berndt Georg Thamm, a Berlin-based expert on Islamic militancy.
By threatening or carrying out attacks, militants could pressure the politicians to end German involvement in a conflict that many voters already had major doubts about, he added.
“They can keep turning the screw knowing this will produce a corresponding reaction,” Thamm said.
Militant confidence in the power of violence to influence Western foreign policy grew in 2004 when bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people affected polls that swept from power a government that had taken Spain into the Iraq war.
Several Islamist militants of German origin have received training in camps in South Asia in order to fight what they regard as NATO forces of occupation in Afghanistan.
Backing for the Afghan mission also suffers from a German mistrust of military operations abroad because of the destruction wrought by the Nazis in World War Two, analysts say.
Berlin is already eyeing up ways out of Afghanistan. On Monday, a government report showed Germany wanted to begin withdrawing its troops by the end of 2011.
Analysts say the latest threats to emerge in Germany, which federal police believe is home to more than 1,000 potentially violent Islamists, may also be part of a plan by militants to damage Europe by striking at its most important economy.
“The parcel bombs look to be part of a strategy of bringing death by a 1,000 cuts,” said Thamm, noting that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has argued that Western powers have for years plundered the resources of the Middle East, Islam’s heartland.
“It makes sense from the point of view of a Jihadi terrorist. With minimum of expenditure, terrorists can do billions of euros in economic damage,” Thamm said. “We can expect many more of these scares in the next few years.”
Berlin briefly suspended air freight shipments when it emerged one of the Yemen parcel bombs had landed in Cologne.
Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is highly dependent on foreign demand. As a result, any disruptions to trade are keenly felt by companies across the German economy, which has been the engine of Europe’s recovery from the financial crisis.
The German chamber of industry and commerce (DIHK) has said that if deliveries of parcels and letters were suspended for a week, the immediate cost to the economy would be 300 million euros — and the collateral damage much higher.
The financial crisis has put pressure on public budgets, and Tophoven at IFTUS said Germany would not be able to keep extra security forces on the look-out for trouble indefinitely.
“However, the high alert will certainly be maintained for a few months as a deterrent,” he said.