Analysis: intelligence has limits in preventing truck-borne terror

In the post-Snowden era, security services find it increasingly hard to track down angry young men like the Berlin truck attacker, argues John Blaxland.

Analysis: intelligence has limits in preventing truck-borne terror
Photo: DPA

The Christmas market truck assault in Berlin, which has left 12 dead and dozens injured, is a disturbing echo of the truck-borne attack on Bastille Day celebrants on the Nice promenade in July.

How could such events be allowed to happen? Why weren’t intelligence agencies in Germany and France able to stay one step ahead of the perpetrators?

After all, we have become used to hearing stories of “increased chatter” and “high alerts”. Doesn’t that mean intelligence agencies should know enough to prevent such attacks?

Several trends are emerging that help explain the latest phenomenon and the limits of the security and intelligence agencies. These include:

– a sense in the security and intelligence business of being overwhelmed by having to trawl through a massive volume of data on potential hostile acts;

– the trend towards greater disaffection among those feeling disempowered; and

-a heightened degree of disaggregation in terrorist activity.

A more complicated monitoring challenge

“High alerts” have become all too commonplace. Reports of “increased chatter” are either hard to discern from the background noise (which has grown exponentially in volume) or simply not heard as frequently or as clearly as before, thanks to greater security consciousness among would-be perpetrators.

In the post-Snowden era, the general awareness of security and intelligence agency monitoring has increased dramatically.

Arguably, the secret of success in the security intelligence business is keeping one’s successes secret. But now that many of the intelligence successes of the recent past are common knowledge thanks to Edward Snowden’s and other revelations, monitoring such plans and intentions has become incalculably more difficult. This has meant, for instance, that would-be terrorists and criminals have dramatically altered their online profile to evade detection.

This heightened level of awareness among would-be perpetrators of such acts has generated a far more complicated monitoring challenge.

Increasing levels of disaffection

The problem is made worse by heightened levels of disaffection.

The trend for violent extremists today is to draw inspiration from material online and through media coverage of the sensational acts of violence – be these in Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Aleppo or Mosul.

The suffering and injustices continue to mount, providing ample sources of inspiration for acts of retaliation.

So a small number of young, often marginalised and disaffected migrants or their first-generation descendants seek to lash out in part against the apparent excess and indifference of the West to their circumstances, and in part out of misplaced zeal for a religious extremist cause.

Actors acting alone

Disaggregation – the fact many would-be terrorists operate alone and not as part of a wider cell – is a key concern.

In all likelihood, there was no direct connection between the perpetrators of the Berlin and Nice attacks that intelligence agencies might otherwise have been able to monitor. Instead, those in the truck in Berlin may have drawn inspiration from the truck attack in Nice: essentially perpetrating a copycat act. This suggests the hierarchical and networked nature of terrorist groups of the past is less relevant today.

Demagogues leading extremist Islamist groups, for instance, are less directly involved in prompting and facilitating such acts. With so many ideas and instructions available online, there is little need to establish the types of direct linkages once considered the norm.

As a consequence, identifying the relatively small number of such seriously disaffected people is a massive challenge that goes beyond the traditional technology-oriented solutions favoured by security and intelligence agencies. In the social media age the task of monitoring for indicators of such behaviour has become harder as the volume of data passed over the internet has gone from an emergent flood to an overwhelming deluge.

In countries like France, Belgium and Germany, where the number of disaffected and mostly migrant youth has been growing, the challenges are stretching the security and intelligence agencies to breaking point.

The expectation is these agencies must get better at their jobs. But, in reality, there are significant limits on what can be expected from them.

What now?

What’s needed now is a new social compact that goes beyond reliance on security and intelligence agencies. We all have a role to play in preventing the fabric of society from tearing further.

The role of the security and intelligence agencies to remain vigilant and seek to monitor extremist elements will undoubtedly endure. The secret of their success will continue to be keeping their successes secret.

However, this does not absolve the rest of society from remaining engaged in community, by being inclusive, welcoming and helpful, while also maintaining a level of vigilance many had come to associate with a bygone era.

By John Blaxland, Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article originally appeared on the Conversation

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.