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Terrorism – a Global Challenge. The transnational dangers of ideologically driven violence

Hardly a day goes by without fresh reports of terrorism or terrorist attacks somewhere in the world. When we read these numerous news stories and see images of the dead and seriously injured, we feel shocked and unsafe. The fact that Germany, too, was hit by terrorist attacks in recent months only makes things worse. Munich, Würzburg, Ansbach, Berlin just before Christmas in 2016, and most recently the knife attacks in Hamburg have made an impact on the public consciousness. So far, however, the German public has not responded with hysteria.

It should be said that political terrorism in general, and specifically targeted at the Federal Republic of Germany, is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s and 1980s, the campaign of political terror carried out by the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion, RAF) kept the political class and the public in suspense. And yet, as it seemed, this was “our” terrorism, a “national terrorism” so to speak, and it appeared to be controllable. The adversary and their intentions were mostly clear. More­over, people felt fairly certain that this phenomenon would disappear again sooner or later. After a struggle against the Federal Republic’s social order that lasted well over a quarter of a century, the RAF was dissolved in early 1998. As mentioned, this was a form of “national terrorism,” which was essentially limited to the territory of the German Federal Republic. Similar terrorist phenomena have been observed elsewhere, for example in Spain, Italy, France or Ireland.

It is impossible to overlook the fact that transnational terrorism has gained significant momentum over the past two decades in comparison to these terroristic threats of the past. For our country, but also for our allies and partners in Europe and around the world, transnational terrorism presents a considerable security challenge. Having long ago ceased to be limited to individual countries or regions, terrorism has gone global over the last ten years, and can now reach us even in the heart of Europe. Over the same period, terrorist groups – which are globally networked, of course – have exploited processes of state disintegration. In the disorder that the collapse of statehood leaves behind, terrorist organizations have found the perfect environment to withdraw, regroup, and develop. Often there is a power vacuum that they can fill with their own reign of terror. Textbook examples can be found in the “arc of crisis,” such as Somalia. Digital technology, the Internet, mobile phones, and social media spanning the globe provide terrorist groups with all the tools they need to recruit new members, consolidate their following, maximize their propaganda’s spread – and plan and carry out attacks. With close links to organized crime – which also operates globally – terrorist groups have access to almost unlimited financial possibilities. Indeed, this is one of the essential factors that allows them to act globally. Their financial transactions are hard to detect, never mind track, and this poses a major problem for the international community.

Alongside al-Qaeda and its offshoots which formed in the early 1990s, the self-styled Islamic State (IS) was able to gain a foothold in Iraq due to the security and power vacuum left by the withdrawal of American and British troops. The consequences, including the war in Syria, have been a notorious disaster. The intentions of IS are clear: it wants to establish a supra-regional presence – a caliphate – not only in the Middle East, but also in North Africa. Inhuman ideology, paired with backward intolerance and archaic violence, turns these terrorist organizations into an enormous challenge; at the same time, these aspects accurately describe the danger that has now reached us in Europe and even in the Federal Republic of Germany, as noted earlier.

IS generates income mainly by extorting “contributions” from the local population and by plundering banks in areas under its occupation. Its revenues from natural resource exploitation (mainly oil) fell sharply following coalition attacks targeting oil infrastructure, and significant territorial losses. In addition, but on a much smaller scale, IS receives income from selling cultural antiquities, taking hostages and demanding ransom, and from overseas donations – including the money that foreign fighters bring with them.

Transactions such as the procurement, transfer, and distribution of funds largely take place outside of the legal banking and financial transfer sector (e.g. the hawala system, cash couriers), and are therefore difficult for security agencies to trace.

So how should we go about controlling this phenomenon – this transnational terrorism, this perfidious, inhuman terrorism – for which language boundaries, national borders, and distances are no obstacle?

Former US President George W. Bush chose the military superlative after September 11, 2001, declaring a “global war on terror.” Consequently, given the situation at the time, many warned that the Western world would need staying power in its fight against international terrorism. This warning has proven apposite in the meantime.

In its recent 2016 White Paper, the German federal government has spelled out the approach that it believes will be effective in fighting transnational terrorism. First of all, as in other policy areas, there is a need for international, European, and transatlantic cooperation. This entails the use of political and legal means with the involvement of the intelligence services, police, and military. Furthermore, alongside preventive security, extensive measures are needed to ensure success in tackling the causes of radicalization and terrorism – whether ideology and religious fanaticism or social and socio-economic factors.1

In the field of counterterrorism, it is essential to take account of the differences between perpetrators of terrorist violence. Specific counter-strategies should be developed for various types of violent actors. Nevertheless they all share common principles, such as the necessity to dry up sources of financing for the particular terrorist organization.

In this regard, it is vitally important that partners in the region play an active role.

With resolution 2253 (2015), the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) expanded its sanctions framework against IS and al-Qaeda to include a clear focus on combating the Islamic State and cutting terrorism financing. Internationally, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) sets the standards for combating terrorist financing, including the implementation of the UNSC resolutions. The German federal government, to implement the UN resolutions and FATF recommendations, amended the German Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch) to include paragraph 89c, which criminalizes all forms of terrorist financing.

In addition, approaches, strategies, and previously implemented methods for combating terrorist financing are discussed at all kinds of levels – e.g. by the G7 foreign ministers in the Rome-Lyon Group, at the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and as part of the anti-IS coalition in the Counter-ISIL Finance Group, which is co-chaired by the United States and Italy. Germany plays an active role here too.

The European Union, in its counterterror strategies (Council conclusions of October 2014 and February 2015) and regional strategy against ISIS (March 2015), has set out to strengthen external counterterrorism activities (including measures against terrorist financing). Combating terrorist financing is regularly discussed in anti-terror dialogs between the EU and e.g. states in the MENA2 region. The European Commission recently presented an action plan to strengthen the fight against terrorist financing. It includes proposals for regulating virtual currencies, common standards for dealing with non-cooperative third countries, keeping national bank account registers, tackling the illegal trade in cultural goods, and examining the benefits of an internal Terrorist Financing Tracking Program in the EU. The proposals are currently being coordinated and clarified together with the European Union Military Staff (EUMS).

The EU is implementing the UNSC sanctions lists for IS/Al Qaeda and the Taliban sanctions regime in European law. These are then directly applicable in Germany. Last September, the IS/AQ sanctions were supplemented by the EU’s own IS/AQ sanctions regime, although the resolution currently contains no annexes (and is therefore a placeholder resolution). In addition, the EU also has its own terrorist sanctions regime based on Council Common Position 2001/931/CFSP. This currently lists 13 persons and 21 organizations, and imposes asset freezes.

What does all of this mean for the Federal Republic of Germany, and how do we intend to meet this challenge?

Germany and its partners in the European Union are pursuing an integrated approach, in which preventive aspects play a major role alongside policing and law enforcement activities.

Immediately following the publication of the 2016 White Paper, for example, at the end of July 2016, Germany enacted a law to improve information exchange in the fight against international terrorism. The act establishes a framework for better information-sharing between security agencies – on the national level and particularly internationally.

Following the terrorist attacks in Germany, the German Chancellor presented a nine-point plan for greater security. It includes an early warning system to identify radicalization, an increase in staff, establishing a central unit for information technology in the security sector, joint exercises involving the police and armed forces (Bundeswehr) for large-scale terrorist situations, research and prevention, networking existing databases at the EU level, adopting new European legislation on weapons, closer cooperation between intelligence services, and stepping up repatriation efforts.

In August 2016, Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière proposed a raft of new security measures to contain the threat of terrorist attacks in Germany: more personnel for security agencies, restricting the right of residence, criminalizing terrorist publicity, speeding up deportations of foreign potential attackers and criminals, and tightening legislation relating to foreign nationals. To track criminals in the darknet, undercover agents will specifically investigate illicit arms trafficking and communication between terrorists. In the German Bundestag, the grand coalition of the two major parties adopted these measures despite opposition votes.

Furthermore, Germany also implements extensive deradicalization programs, which are discussed with international partners as best practices. These include the Radicalization Advice Center run by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the Prevention Cooperation Clearing House to promote cooperation between police and the Muslim community, and the deradicalization working group in the Joint Counterterrorism Center (GTAZ) for knowledge-sharing between the German federal government and the federal states (Länder). In June 2015, Germany introduced new criminal offences in relation to traveling for terrorist purposes and financing terrorism, and introduced a replacement ID card for individuals found to represent a threat, with the intention of making it more difficult for them to leave the country.

Furthermore, on July 13, 2016, along with the 2016 White Paper, the German federal cabinet approved a “German federal government strategy for preventing extremism and promoting democracy”. This strategy also implemented the “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism” that was presented by the then-UN Secretary-General in mid-January 2016 and welcomed by the German government.

The German Public Prosecutor General (Gene­ralbundesanwalt) is currently conducting proceedings in connection with the civil war in Syria against more than 180 individuals who are accused of belonging to or supporting a terrorist organization. Most of these cases have links to IS. The first court proceedings are now complete.

“Following the massacres in New York, Boston, Paris, Madrid, Brussels, London, Istanbul, Nice, Würzburg, and Ansbach – the list gets longer almost by the week – following the violent territorial struggles between rival Islamists in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and around Israel, these are no longer individual perpetrators. To call these incidents ‘terrorist attacks’ is to play down their seriousness. The situation is worse and more widespread than the expressions of concern issued by Western heads of government would have us believe. We are not victims of a chaotic succession of terror attacks – we are participants in a global war.”3

The journalist Gabor Steingart, as quoted above, is possibly overstating his case. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that the phenomenon of terrorism is here to stay – especially in the international context. Information and education are the first line of defence against ideology and dogma. Like security, information and education do not come without a price. At the same time, we should also admit that many measures are not really effective in fragile or failed states, for all kinds of reasons. Thus, among much uncertainty, one thing is certain: international, transnational terrorism is and remains a global challenge.

1 Bundesministerium der Verteidigung (2016): Weißbuch 2016 – Zur Sicherheitspolitik und zur Zukunft der Bundeswehr (2016 White Paper on Security Policy and the Future of the German Armed Forces). Berlin, p.34.
2 Middle East and North Africa.
3 Steingart, Gabor (2016): Weltbeben – Leben im Zeitalter der Überforderung. Munich, p. 75 (translated from the German).



Martin Lammert holds the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the General Staff (Oberstleutnant i. G.) and is a member of the policy department at the German Federal Ministry of Defense. Following a deployment abroad with NATO in Brussels, he was press officer for the German Federal Academy for Security Policy (Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik, BAKS). As part of the 2016 White Paper project group, he contributed to the development of this fundamental security policy document. He is currently involved in security policy communication and gives numerous talks on security policy.