LONDON — In the case of Syrian refugee and bomb plot suspect Jaber Albakr, it is hard to decide which mishap by German authorities was worst.
Was it the fact that police officials allegedly monitored the suspect so amateurishly that even his neighbors noticed it? Or was it that they watched him flee instead of following him, when special forces moved in on the house last Saturday?
On Wednesday evening, the series of major mistakes by authorities culminated in Albakr's suicide — days after authorities had come to the conclusion that the alleged suicide bomb plotter was for sure not at risk of committing suicide.
“There was no acute risk of suicide,” said the justice minister of the eastern German region of Saxony, Sebastian Gemkow, on Thursday.
Although the responsible officials said that they were not to be blamed for the suicide, experts and authorities from other countries reacted with disbelief to the flawed counterterrorism operation.
In Germany, the series of problems has raised the question of whether the country has simply been lucky to avoid a large-scale mass-casualty incident in recent months, comparable to the Nice or Paris attacks.
Authorities in the country have claimed that they were able to prevent a series of plots, but the decisive hint in Albakr's case appears to have come from a foreign intelligence agency. Moreover, other terror plots earlier this year mainly failed to cause widespread mayhem because of the inexperience of the attackers — rather than the decisive actions of authorities.
Like most other E.U. countries, Germany has little experience in dealing with attackers who became followers of radical Islam only recently. Authorities may be aware of the older generation of radicals that emerged in the early 2000s, but they appear to have struggled to keep up with the changing threat nature: Today's attackers are often former criminals, blurring the lines between crime and radicalization. Whereas officials have been accused of overreacting to hoaxes in several instances, their frequent inaction has at times been perceived as equally worrisome.
It is a problem that has haunted European agencies and authorities for months.
Greece, France, Britain: A series of flaws
Some of the suspects from last November's Paris attacks were able to enter Europe as refugees, allegedly because Greek authorities were not technically equipped to check their passports. One of them, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who had openly threatened to go back to Europe to commit attacks, appeared to be able to pass border controls between France and Britain shortly before the Paris plot. Another suspect, Salah Abdeslam, later fled Paris but was stopped at several checkpoints. Police let him go because Belgian authorities had not added Abdeslam to European databases.
Flawed information sharing between E.U. members states is only one problem. Even within France, a vast number of different intelligence agencies compete against each other. Critics have argued that their unwillingness to share information before or after attacks has played into the hands of militants.
Belgium, Germany: Lack of preparedness
Months after the Paris attacks, authorities in neighboring Belgium faced similar criticism. The small country has been confronted with Europe's largest per capita ratio of foreign fighters. Agencies struggled to keep up with the challenges, trying to fill basic gaps such as a lack of Arabic-speaking employees.
A similar unpreparedness was also reflected in Thursday's news conference in eastern Germany on the suicide of Jaber Albakr: When the suspect entered the prison, no translator was available. Days earlier, Syrian refugees were unable to communicate with German police over the phone when they tried to explain that they had caught Albakr.
Brussels: A flawed attack response
Such anecdotes are hardly amusing. Belgians were outraged when they got to know that an email which was supposed to prevent the Brussels subway attack was sent to the wrong address on March 22. Fourteen people died.
The email ordering the closure of the Brussels subway was sent by the country's police's directorate of operations about one hour after several explosions hit the city's airport.
The mere fact that the directorate had to resort to sending an email was more than embarrassing. Both phone service and internal communication systems failed after the initial airport attack, forcing officials to communicate mainly via WhatsApp.