BERLIN, Germany — Daniel Thiele works five days a week soliciting business on his bicycle rickshaw outside Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, which has just been named one of the top terrorism targets in Europe.
A stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate, the Adlon oozes wealth and importance and is also sandwiched between the United States and British embassies. Barack Obama stayed there when he visited Berlin as a presidential candidate and Michael Jackson infamously dangled his infant son from one of its third-story windows.
So is the 28-year-old Thiele worried by the news that his work area has reportedly been singled out for an Al Qaeda attack — one that the U.S. took seriously enough to issue a rare travel alert on Sunday for the whole of Europe?
“Not really,” Thiele said. “I heard about the warnings, but I don’t think people here are going to let it rule their lives. Maybe after the first attack on Germany, we’d be more concerned, but I don’t think anyone’s too concerned now.”
Despite the U.S. State Department’s travel alert — one step below an actual warning — and subsequent alerts by Britain, Japan and Sweden, calm has broken out on the streets of Berlin. The prevailing attitude is that the U.S. — understandably — has a tendency to overreact.
In fact, the intelligence on which the U.S. alert is based underscores what terrorism experts here say is a cause for genuine concern: the wave of German nationals travelling to jihadist training camps on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. alert was followed up by a drone strike in the border region that reportedly killed as many as eight German militants.
Yet there is a conspicuous disparity between U.S. and German officials’ interpretation of the intelligence, which reportedly points to commando-style attacks against Berlin, Paris or London. The attacks would be modelled on the 2008 siege in the Indian city of Mumbai, in which more than 160 people were killed.
Wolfgang Bosbach, chairman of the security committee of the German parliament and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, said: “That is the American reaction to knowledge which we in Europe have had for quite a long time.”
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere walked a semantic tightrope on Monday by saying there were “no concrete indications of imminent attacks” but there was “a high level of abstract threat.”
That comparative dismissiveness has filtered down through the German populace onto the streets. Around the Brandenburg Gate on Monday, television crews asking people whether or not they were worried seemed to outnumber security personnel. A spokesman for Germany’s Federal Police confirmed that, for now, no additional measures were being taken.
Not a single one of the people quizzed by GlobalPost around the Brandenburg Gate or Alexanderplatz — a large square that was also mentioned as a target — showed any serious concern.
“In one sentence, it’s an overreaction,” said Gert Scharf, 53, who was strolling near the Adlon with friends.
Several people, such as engineering student Dieter Leemhuis, 23, weren’t even aware of the alert.
“I don’t think we’re a big target,” he said after being told the news. “Germany is a very open and tolerant society and I don’t think those people are all that angry with us.”
Yet the key source of the current intelligence, Ahmad Sidiqi, represents a genuinely disturbing trend among young German radicals. The 36-year-old German of Afghan descent is one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of extremists who have travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past few years to train in terrorist-run camps.
Sidiqi reportedly told CIA interrogators that Osama bin Laden personally ordered an Al Qaeda plot to attack European capitals. Until last year when he left for Pakistan with his Indonesian wife and his brother, Sidiqi lived in Hamburg and prayed at the mosque once used by Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks. That mosque, Masjid Taiba, was shut down in August by Hamburg authorities concerned that it had once again become a magnet for extremists.
Sidiqi was arrested in Kabul in early July and has since been held and interrogated at Bagram Air Base.
Islamic extremism expert Guido Steinberg from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said militants such as Sidiqi had made Germany “more dangerous” than it was previously.
“I take [the current warning] very seriously because from 2006 there has been a growing trend for young German radicals to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said. “We’re talking about between 50 and 100 individuals [undergoing training] though many have been killed in 2010.
“Ten years ago when Mohammed Atta was in Hamburg, Germany wasn’t a target, it was a logistics base,” he said. “But now we are a priority target, mainly because of Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan.”
The sharp increase in drone attacks in recent weeks — including Monday night’s attack that killed up to eight Germans — demonstrates how seriously the U.S. took the threat, he said.
Another terrorism expert, Rolf Tophoven, agreed that the flow of German nationals to Waziristan posed a danger to Germany, though he stressed Sidiqi’s claims should be treated with circumspection and believed U.S. officials were probably being overcautious with the alert.
“[Sidiqi] is not some third-class terrorist, so we certainly can’t rule out that he knows something,” he said. “But U.S. authorities do have a kind of trauma concerning security developments. They don’t want to be blamed for not having warned people.”
There may in fact be other reasons for the different reactions between Germany and the United States. News magazine Der Spiegel reported on Monday that German intelligence officials had not yet interviewed Sidiqi themselves and were only now on their way to Bagram to conduct their own interrogation.
There are also indications that U.S. officials are basing their alerts on more than just Sidiqi’s interrogation. A security source who was recently in Washington said additional intelligence — such as intercepted communications — was being discussed there. The source did not want to be identified because they were private discussions.
The message Germans are ultimately receiving is that there is a persistent threat, but no evidence of an immediate danger. Wariness about the U.S.’ proneness to overreaction means that, for now, Germans are going to accept their own government’s assurances.
“Maybe the United States exaggerates it, maybe our government has an interest in playing it down,” said Vocko Seeba, 28, who was walking through Alexanderplatz with his girlfriend. “So who do you believe? I suppose I have to trust my own politicians.”