Germans Take Terror Alert In Stride Amid Holiday Prep
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Germany is on high alert after intelligence reports of the increased risk of a terrorist attack. That means security has been tightened in public places, especially tourist sites, just as the country is entering the holiday season. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, that includes the country's famous and beloved Christmas markets.
ERIC WESTERVELT: All but obliterated in a British bombing raid, the Kaiser Wilhelm church's half destroyed steeple stands today as a memorial and iconic reminder of the Second World War. It's also a major tourist attraction along West Berlin's fashionable Ku'Damm shopping artery. And every holiday season, the plaza outside the church holds one of Berlin's 60 outdoor Christmas markets.
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WESTERVELT: The sounds of the market mix with the smells of mulled wine, bratwurst, roasted chestnuts and beer, as colorful stalls hawk handicrafts, hats, jewelry and other gifts.
American expat Richard Simmons is with the company that rents the stalls for holiday markets across the city. This one just opened for the season a few days ago. Simmons wonders whether it's the cold rain or the recent security alert that seems to be keeping crowds, so far, a little light.
Mr. RICHARD SIMMONS: I think it's more because of bad weather. And I think it's dumb to let our lives to be controlled by some terrorists. If they do something, how are we going to stop it? There's no way to stop that anyway. You're just going to have to watch and keep your eyes open.
WESTERVELT: Germany's interior minister, Thomas de Maizierem, last week, bolstered security at airports, train stations and tourist sites after saying the government had credible information of a possible plot by militants to carry out an attack modeled on the kind of gun and grenade assault that killed 166 people the Indian city of Mumbai two years ago. German authorities worry these Christmas markets are a prime target: there are more than 2500 of them across the country, drawing more than 160 million people - locals and tourists alike - every Christmas each season.
Jurgen Lutzen runs a stall selling hot and cold drinks and half a dozen kinds of grilled sausages. The Bratwurstmeister has worked this Christmas market for the last 17 years and says security is the tightest he's ever seen.
Mr. JURGEN LUTZEN: (through translator) The police and private security presence has been raised. Sniffer dogs come through the market every night. And with 200 stalls here, we have 200 extra pairs of eyes keeping watch all the time.
WESTERVELT: Sixty-eight-year-old Ute Ehlras, from Bonn, spent a busy day holiday shopping and stopped by the market for fries and a drink before heading home.
Ms. UTE EHLRAS: Maybe it can be dangerous, of course, but what can I do? I will not stay at home. I will go everywhere.
WESTERVELT: It's not just Christmas markets that are getting extra security. Authorities, this week, closed the historic 19th century parliament building, the Reichstag, to all tourists except pre-approved groups. The Reichstag closure follows a report in the magazine Der Spiegel, that a Jihadist informant warned German authorities militants may be planning to attack the site. The interior minister neither confirmed nor denied the report, but lashed out at the magazine's reporting as irresponsible.
Security analyst Guido Steinberg says the media leaks are minor problems compared to larger structural issues within German intelligence. For example, three years ago, it took a U.S. tip to help foil a Jihadist plot to attack American targets in Western Germany. The suspects were long known to German authorities, yet they were able to freely travel abroad for terrorist training in Pakistan before returning to Germany.
Mr. GUIDO STEINBERG: And it was only then that the American authorities alerted our foreign intelligence service that there was a group plotting an attack.
WESTERVELT: And Steinberg laments that with Germany's history of repressive secret police, there's almost no political support, now, for strengthening the country's intelligence services.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.
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