July 25, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Week of Terror in Germany

• On July 24, a suicide bombing in Ansbach, Germany left the bomber dead and the country once again responding to sudden public violence.

• Though the four incidents in Germany over the last week varied greatly in terms of style and motivation, three of the four attackers were refugees and several had received psychiatric care.

• The immediate rush to find connections and assign meaning to such attacks generates perceptions and narratives that—whether accurate or not—have lasting implications.

• Only the Würzburg train attack appears to have been inspired by the Islamic State, though the initial widespread speculation surrounding recent attacks means even the most isolated of incidents can have global ramifications.


Four violent attacks in Germany in the last week have left the region gripped in fear and scrambling to find connections between the incidents. The recent spike in terror attacks in Europe and the U.S. has led initial reports of public violence to be automatically attributed to the so-called Islamic State, regardless of whether the facts support such assumptions. These rapid attributions—though understandable given the number of recent attacks that have indeed been inspired by the Islamic State—create perceptions that are highly resistant to subsequent adjustments as actual facts become available. 

On July 24, a Syrian refugee detonated a small explosive device after being denied entry into a music festival in Ansbach, Germany, killing himself and gravely wounding several others. German authorities stated the 27-year-old attacker had been denied asylum and was facing eventual deportation. They also stated the attacker had twice attempted suicide. A history of psychiatric issues were factors in several of the past week’s attacks in Germany, though it is a large leap to go from suicidal ideations to attempted mass murder.

On the same day, a Syrian refugee killed a woman with a machete on a street in Reutlingen. Officials stated the attacker was ‘known’ to police but did not elaborate. Though initial reports suggest the incident was domestic violence-related, the timing, shocking nature, and involvement of a refugee mean the attack will likely be folded into the larger timeline of assumed terror attacks.

The deadliest of the four attacks occurred on July 22 in Munich, where a lone gunman at a shopping mall killed nine and injured 35. The shooter, an 18-year-old German-Iranian dual national, also had a history of psychiatric problems. German police have walked back from initial reports that the shooter was somehow linked to Anders Breivik; the Munich attack fell on the fifth anniversary of the attacks in Norway that killed 77 people. Police have stated they believe the incident to be a mass shooting rather than a terror attack, more akin to a mass shooting at a school, which the Munich shooter reportedly had researched. On July 24, police announced the arrest of a 16-year-old acquaintance of the shooter, alleging he had known of the plan but failed to report the shooter until soon after the attack.

The July 18 stabbing attack on a train near Würzburg is the only of the four attacks that thus far appears to have any connection to the Islamic State. Police shot and killed the 17-year-old Afghan asylum seeker after he attacked and wounded five people. Amaq News Agency, an Islamic State-affiliated media outlet, stated the attacker had answered the group’s call to terror, a claim supported by a video of the attacker and a hand-made Islamic State flag found in his room.

Though the initial facts surrounding each of the four attacks indicate they were unrelated, the timing and nature of the incidents will drive perceptions lumping them together, thus having far greater repercussions. The refugee crisis has generated immense tension and fear throughout the EU. The fact that three of the four attackers were refugees will be perceived as collective evidence of the threat posed by refugees, while the individual and differentiating facts of each case will be far less prominent. As any possible terror incident unfolds, initial speculation as to the attacker’s motives or group affiliation—nearly always based on inaccurate reports—often linger and help frame the threat and the response, even in the face of subsequent facts to the contrary.


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