A teenager. An axe and a knife. A hand-painted Islamic State flag found in a room. The first major attack committed in Isis’s name on home soil was not what Germans have been bracing themselves for. We feared there would be clandestine cell structures, months of elaborate planning, and then havoc, like in Paris and Brussels. So what happened near the Bavarian town of Würzburg on Monday night when a young refugee severely injured four people and was shot dead by police, is by no means the worst-case scenario. But in terms of political impact, it was huge.
The 17-year-old perpetrator – who was registered as an Afghan but might have been from Pakistan, it has been suggested – was not known to be violent. He had not previously attracted the attention of the intelligence services because he didn’t stick out. There are almost 70,000 unaccompanied children living in Germany, and he happened to be one of them. For two weeks prior to the attack he’d been staying with a foster family. He had also started an internship at a local bakery. In the best of all possible worlds, he would have gone from intern to trainee and then to certified German baker. He could have been a role model.
The fact that he turned into a self-taught jihadi instead comes as a boost for rightwing populists. They have been saying all along that there is a correlation between refugee numbers and the likelihood of a terrorist attack. They’ve also argued that the pro-refugee enthusiasts have been blind to the dangers associated with mass migration. The case of the refugee teenager who went on a rampage seems to confirm those views – and it puts the political left further on the defensive.
This is just one incident, of course. But it does suggest that Germany faces a different kind of threat from some of its European neighbours. German Turks – the country’s main Muslim population – have arguably been less susceptible to Isis propaganda than, say, north Africans in France or Belgium. Relations between Germans and Turks, though strained at times, aren’t tainted by colonial history – and Isis may struggle to gain traction in those long-established communities.
But Germany did accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees last year, and many of them are traumatised by civil wars and long, gruelling journeys to Europe. True, we don’t know much about them yet. But to claim, as some have done, that the influx poses no threat whatsoever seems a little naive.
When Germany’s Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) was still in full swing, its advocates argued that Isis would not dare to target a nation that generously opened its borders to those in need. They also thought refugees coming to Germany would feel such enormous gratitude that they couldn’t possibly turn against their host country. Truth be told, I thought so too, but it doesn’t sound right any more.
The refugees who entered Germany had high hopes. Smugglers told them they’d prosper and find jobs instantly. Now they are languishing in asylum-seeker centres and struggling with bureaucracy, uncertain whether they can stay at all. Many of them are young men who are homesick, angry and frustrated, and extremists are deliberately visiting their homes because they know they are fertile ground for recruiting.
Worse still, Würzburg seems to show that even exemplary efforts at integrating refugees can – in individual cases – turn out to be fruitless and will not prevent attacks. The refugee shelter in Ochsenfurt where the teenager was staying before joining a foster family had a good reputation. There were lots of volunteers around and the local population, apparently, was not hostile. The perpetrator even had a prospective career. Yet he seems to have radicalised himself within a couple of days – it has been reported that the death of a friend back home may have played a role – and then he acted.
The rightwing populists of the Alternative für Deutschland party feel vindicated. For the past few months they’ve been entangled in internal party conflicts and losing ground in the polls. But their work will be a lot easier in coming weeks. In an interview after the attack party co-founder Alexander Gauland said: “The governing Willkommenskultur parties are again saying that there is no relation between refugees and terrorism, but they’re not being honest.”
The AfD’s opponents on the left, on the other hand, have been struggling to come up with a coherent response. Some have been oddly quiet. Others blamed the allegedly inhumane conditions in German refugee shelters or pointed out that, statistically speaking, car accidents are more dangerous than Islamist militant attacks. Green party politician Renate Künast got a lot of flak when she suggested that German police should have incapacitated the perpetrator instead of killing him. Why not just condemn the attack, full stop?
There’s a strong case to be made that, despite Würzburg, taking care of refugees is still far better than sending them back to war zones, and that it’s in the long-term interest of Germans (and other Europeans too) not to shut themselves off. But advocates of Willkommenskultur have been on the losing side of the public debate since the events that unfolded in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. They’d be well advised to acknowledge that the open-door asylum policy was overly idealistic, and that they underestimated some of the challenges posed by mass migration.
Konstantin Richter is a contributing writer for Politico, and writes for the German newspaper Die Welt. He is the author of Bettermann (2007), and Kafka Was Young and Needed the Money (2011).