Today's date:
Summer 1995

Lessons From German Counterterrorism

Hans Juergen Wischnewski was Germany's top anti-terrorist official during a wave of Red Army Faction kidnappings, assassinations and bombings in the 1970s. Among other operations, in 1977 he directed the rescue of the passengers of a Lufthansa flight held captive by Palestinian terrorists at the Mogadishu airport in Somalia.

We asked him to recall the experiences of those years and their lessons for America and Japan, where homegrown terrorism has erupted for the first time.

BONN - Terrorism is on the increase worldwide. This year alone, we witnessed its dramatic climaxes in Oklahoma and Tokyo.

Terrorism can have widely varying motivations. There is rightist terrorism, combined with anti-semitism, racism and xenophobia. There is leftist terrorism, whose main objective is to achieve a total transformation of society There is religious terrorism, which is not limited to Islam but can also be found among Christians and Jews, as well as among active believers of other religions.

There is also state terrorism, where a dictatorial government employs terrorist means to maintain itself in power or to block any developments internationally that it perceives are against its aims and interests. Finally, there are governments which lend active support to terrorism in other countries.

In the vast majority of cases, terrorists draw their motivation from a deep-rooted hatred against their own government-as is the apparent case with the Oklahoma bombing.

Terrorism has been and is still present in Germany. 1977 was by far the worst year for us as terrorists had planned to blackmail the government. It is from this period, when German democracy faced its most severe test, that I believe important lessons can be drawn for all democratic nations, especially for Japan and America as they now grapple with the new outbreak of terrorism on their soil.

Extreme leftist terrorists belonging to the Red Army Faction (RAF) committed these serious crimes between April 7 and October 19 of that year alone:

- On April 7, Federal Prosecutor Siegfried Buback and two of his companions were assassinated by the RAF in Karlsruhe;

- On April 30, RAF terrorists assassinated Jurgen Ponto, Chairman of the Board of the Dresdner Bank;

- On September 5, Hanns Martin Schleyer, President of the Federal Association of Industrialists and the German Employers Federation, was kidnapped and his four companions assassinated;

- On October 13, Arab terrorists, acting on behalf of the RAF, hijacked the Lufthansa aircraft "Landshut" with 86 passengers and five crew members to Mogadishu on its flight from Mallorca to Frankfurt;

- On October 16, the hijackers assassinated Lufthansa Captain Jurgen Schumann in Aden;

- On October 19, Hanns Martin Schleyer was found across the border in Mulhouse, France, assassinated by terrorists.

Chancellor Helmut Schmidt assembled a large and a small crisis management team in his office to cope with these events as they unfolded. The large crisis management team was composed of representatives from A political parties of the German Bundestag, as well as of the prime ministers of the Lander [more or less equivalent to the states in America - ed.].

The opposition party at the time, the Christian Democrats, participated in all discussions and decisions. There were no fights based on party politics. The opposition party at the time shared the responsibility in an exemplary fashion. This had a very positive influence on public opinion in spite of the dramatic situation.

Cooperation and unity of resolve among all democratic forces in such a time is, I believe, of the utmost importance.

The media was urged to show the greatest restraint in reporting on the fight against terrorism. All in all, the media responded responsibly to this appeal. After the events, the federal government gave the public a comprehensive report on its actions and decisions, as well as on the deliberations of the crisis management team.

When it comes to fighting terrorism, an in-depth analysis of its origin is of paramount importance. Above all, serious levels of alienation in society, whether among university students, the ethnically oppressed or any group that feels slighted, must be detected and heeded. A healthy society must include a constant striving for social justice, as terrorism will feed on an unjust society.

The strengthening of democracy is thus one of the decisive prerequisites for a successful fight against terrorism. This effort must begin in the schools, as early control of and a fight against antidemocratic forces are vital to a successful outcome in the long run.

This is especially important with respect to those young people who perceive their lives as being without a future, for they will naturally be more receptive to extreme ideas than those who are firmly grounded in family, school and a secure future.

Also on this fundamental level, the legitimacy of the government's security institutions are of foremost importance. The heightening of their reputation by the general public, through their own performance as well as through all government institutions, the media and all democratically-minded citizens, is truly vital. All citizens must have confidence in their security agencies, not only in the interest of their own individual security, but also because they will be readily willing to pass along vital information and observations to the authorities.

In the wake of the cruel attack of Palestinian terrorists on the Israeli team during the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, the federal government in Germany created a special, voluntary police force (GSG 9) within the Bundesgrenzschutz, or German Armed Forces. With the very best training and the most modern equipment, the GSG 9 was designed to "clean up" in any anti-terrorist fight. The very participation of the GSG 9 troops in any security operation was thus enough to spread fear and terror among terrorists themselves.

After the liberation of the aircraft in Mogadishu in 1977 the members of the GSG 9 rightly became heroes in our country, though, unfortunately, we have also seen rather successful attempts by the private sector to recruit GSG 9 officers for their own purposes after those events.

In the fight against terrorism, the early detection of terrorist groups is vital through early infiltration of contact persons into the groups. In our country, this would be the job of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Politicians must check at regular intervals whether the existing legislation with respect to fighting terrorism is sufficient. Here again, we had a compelling example in 1977. Terrorist organizations can always be expected to attempt freeing incarcerated terrorists through blackmail. Germany was no exception to this rule.

To our great surprise, and considerable dismay, we found out that some attorneys let themselves become accomplices of the terrorists. During these extraordinary times we had no choice but to impose a ban on any contacts between the imprisoned terrorists and their attorneys.

Needless to say, in a country based on freedom and law, this was a most difficult task. Experience, however, made this ban absolutely necessary. The relevant legislation to put in force this ban was passed in the Bundestag by a vast majority margin. Such legislation, passed practically overnight, also has its problems, however. Preferably, governments should create the necessary legal framework in serenity beforehand so it is already a reliable recourse in times of emergency.

It is the government's task to ensure strict control of any and all weapons, explosives and poisons on its territory. With respect to firearms, the opinions of many Americans differ from those of most Germans who have no problem with gun control. Unfortunately the circulation of firearms has nonetheless substantially increased since German unification because many Soviet troops sold their weapons here before being sent back to their country.

One negative factor in the fight against terrorism is the time lag between the crimes and the eventual sentencing of the perpetrators by the courts. Some crimes committed in 1977 are still being tried today. Meanwhile a whole new generation has been raised that is totally or partly ignorant of the events of 1977, their causes and resolution.

Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of terrorist crimes, the debate about introducing the death penalty also resurfaced in Germany. Our constitution does not allow the death penalty, a philosophy shared by the great majority of the German people.

After the liberation of the aircraft in Mogadishu, several incarcerated terrorists, whose liberation was supposed to be obtained through blackmail, committed suicide. Obviously, the fear of death played no part in their lives as terrorists. I do not believe, therefore, that a single terrorist crime could have been prevented by the existence of the death penalty.

A successful fight against terrorism is not possible without strong international cooperation and solidarity. Many terrorist groups' activities already transcend international borders.

German terrorists benefited from international support in 1977, especially during the hijacking of the aircraft, when Palestinian terrorists carried out the operation at their behest. We, in turn, were able to call upon international assistance-from the US to the PLO - against terrorism.

Improving international cooperation in fighting terrorism is a constant task. I do not feel even now that we ourselves give the necessary assistance to those nations in the Arabic world which are suffering greatly from terrorism. Unfortunately, there are governments and politicians who think that religious terrorists could possibly come to power and are more concerned about establishing good relations early on.

There are states which wage a hard battle against terrorism, and then there are those who support terrorism or at least turn a blind eye whenever terrorism is supported by so-called "private" organizations or institutions. Isolating those states which encourage terrorism is a must. The United Nations must establish and make public a list of countries supporting terrorism.

At the same time, I do not hold high hopes for economic boycotts. In most cases, they only strengthen the regime in power while increasing the suffering of innocent citizens. An active political dialogue with these countries will be more productive.

In 1977 we were unable to save Dr. Schleyer's life. We were, however, able to inflict the most severe defeat on terrorism in our country so far, and we saved the lives of the Lufthansa passengers.

The state must never give in to blackmail by terrorism. Unfortunately we let this happen before 1977 and learned our lesson: Those terrorists who were blackmailed into freedom returned to terrorist activities after their liberation.

A democratic state must guarantee its citizens both a high degree of security and of freedom. This constant conflict between security and freedom must be borne and managed, above all, by those invested with the political responsibility for their country.

back to index