Germany has been rocked by what media outlets have called the country’s “first attack by [a] radicalised asylum seeker”.((https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/19/germany-train-attack-could-prompt-rethink-of-counter-terrorism-policy)) On the evening of July 18, 2016, a 17-year-old Afghan, who had arrived in Germany in the summer of 2015 as an unaccompanied minor, attacked passengers on a regional train in northern Bavaria with a knife and an axe.
The young man seriously injured four tourists from Hong Kong before the train ground to a halt on the outskirts of the city of Würzburg. After fleeing the scene, the attacker injured a fifth person with his axe, before being tracked down by special forces of the German police. The young man was shot dead when he appeared to charge the policemen with the axe.
Subsequently, Amaq, a news agency close to the so-called Islamic State, released a video showing the attacker pledging allegiance to the organisation with the words “I am a soldier of the Islamic state and about to begin a holy operation in Germany.” In his room, a hand-drawn copy of the IS flag was found, next to what appeared to be a farewell letter to his father, in which he announced his intention to kill infidels in order to make his way to heaven.
Precise motivation of the attacker still in question
The attack’s political significance lies above all in the fact that the perpetrator was a recently arrived refugee. Most worrying to many observers has been the fact that the young man seemed to be poised to become an example of a comparatively successful path: he had been supported by state youth services and had recently moved into the home of foster parents. Moreover, he had begun working in a local bakery in the village of Gaukönigshofen. Distraught local residents described the young man as “always friendly and nice” as they struggled to make sense of his deed and his death. ((http://www.morgenpost.de/vermischtes/article207916573/Der-Axt-Attentaeter-von-Wuerzburg-Immer-freundlich-und-nett.html))
Investigators have tried hard to make out a reason for the perpetrator’s apparent “turbo radicalisation” and the precise motive underlying the attack. A potential triggering moment appears to have been the death of a close friend in Afghanistan a few days prior. His behaviour reportedly changed after this episode; and the state prosecutor hypothesised that the 17-year-old might have wanted to avenge his friend by attacking the ‘infidels’ responsible for Muslim suffering. ((http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-07/wuerzburg-axt-attacke-zug-pressekonferenz-staatsanwaltschaft))
The political fallout from the attack includes the Bavarian interior minister’s demand for tighter border controls,((http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2016-07/joachim-herrmann-csu-fluechtlinge)) as well as a wave of hate mail and death threats against organisations and volunteers working in the Gaukönigshofen area.((http://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article157229563/Ochsenfurter-Fluechtlingshelfer-erhalten-Morddrohungen.html))
The evolving nature of the security threat
In certain respects, the train attack mirrors recent attacks carried out in elsewhere the West. The assailant of Würzburg does not seem to have been overly devout, going to the mosque mainly on holidays and not on a regular basis.((http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-07/wuerzburg-axt-attacke-zug-pressekonferenz-staatsanwaltschaft))
Moreover, as some observers have pointed out, the events in Orlando, Nice, and now the – comparatively low-casualty – attack in Würzburg blur the lines between terrorism and spree killing.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/psychologie-was-einen-terroranschlag-von-einem-amoklauf-unterscheidet-1.3085290)) This is especially true if the death of the assailant’s friend should reveal itself to have constituted a truly transformative moment, thereby giving the motive for the attack a decisively personal-psychological bent.
Finally, the events in northern Bavaria continue a trend in which individuals with only scant or no connection to terrorist networks commit attacks. In the words of leading German analyst Daniel Gerlach, “every criminal, every failure, every individual in the whole world with a penchant for mass murder can basically bestow a higher aim on their deed or somehow endow their deed with metaphysical significance by pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.”((http://www.zdf.de/ZDFmediathek/kanaluebersicht/446#/beitrag/video/2792332/Wie-sicher-sind-wir-vor-dem-IS-Terror))
News coverage and the “IS media trap”
These issues have been at the centre of criticism directed at the media coverage of the Würzburg train incident. German-Egyptian political scientist Asiem El Difraoui has pointed out that many media outlets have been swept away by a wave of hysterical reporting and are concomitantly unable to proffer any calm and meaningful analysis.
How much media reporting is indeed dominated by fears of the Islamic State, and how news coverage indeed works to amplify and aggrandise these fears was on ample display a few days later, when a shooting spree in a Munich shopping mall claimed 10 victims, including the shooter himself. TV, print, and online sources immediately began to report live on the unfolding events and continued to do so for hours without cease.
The almost universally held (and sometimes explicitly stated) assumption underlying this coverage was that this was an IS-linked terrorist attack – until it emerged that the shooter had collected newspaper clippings and books on school shootings and a history of mental health issues, including depression potentially linked to being bullied at school. As this article is being written, police and investigators are officially treating the Munich incident as completely unrelated to Islamic extremism.(( https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/23/munich-shooting-teenage-gunman-researched-killing-sprees-no-isis-links))
This exhibits why, according to El Difraoui, “we have walked right into the IS media trap”, with European news sources spreading panic and thus de facto “making propaganda for the IS”: “The media has created the fertile soil so that psychopaths believe in the IS’s mendacious doctrine of salvation. These lies would not be as big if the terrorists were not given so much space.” ((http://dtj-online.de/islam-versus-dschihadismus-wir-machen-propaganda-fuer-den-is-77574))
Wake up call for Muslim community leaders
Beyond that, El Difraoui also admonished Muslim communities and associations in Europe to be more proactive in matters of theological interpretation and also in their social engagement with often disaffected Muslim youth.
Drawing parallels to the commitment of Christian churches to offer a critical perspective on a purely hedonistic lifestyle in a consumerist society, El Difraoui encouraged European Muslim leaders to develop a “spiritual” challenge to jihadists: “The terrorists from Europe want to become something in this society, no matter what, and they let themselves be led astray by the IS. These boys don’t become Muslims but jihadists – because they don’t even know what Muslim spirituality is.”((http://dtj-online.de/islam-versus-dschihadismus-wir-machen-propaganda-fuer-den-is-77574))
In this respect, the condemnation of the train attack issued for instance by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) and its chairman Aiman Mazyek, as well as their call to stand united against any attempts to divide German society is important.((http://islam.de/27783)) Yet at the moment and amidst the current inauspicious political climate, the splintered and factious Muslim associational scene in Germany still struggles to provide the kind of leadership and public impact that would go far enough in this regard.