Police in Munich have insisted they were right to evacuate two major railway stations in the German city on New Year’s Eve, saying they had received a concrete tipoff from foreign intelligence agencies that a group affiliated to Islamic State was planning to carry out a Paris-style attack.
Munich’s police president, Hubertus Andrä, told a press conference on Friday that police had been warned at about 7.40pm the night before that between five and seven Isis-affiliated people, supposedly from Iraq and Syria , were intending to attack the main station, Hauptbahnhof, and the smaller Pasing station west of the city centre.
Both were subsequently evacuated and closed, and trains redirected. Heavily armed police officers were stationed at all entrances and passengers were spot-checked.
By 3.30 am, the stations had been reopened and the terror alert was downgraded later on Friday to the level it stood at before New Year’s Eve. “The alert, the police operations on the scale we saw last night, have been lifted,” Andrä told reporters.
It was the second time in recent weeks that German authorities have taken dramatic measures in response to a terror threat received by the intelligence services. Days after the 13 November attacks in Paris, a football friendly between Germany and Holland in Hanover was cancelled 91 minutes before kick-off after police received “concrete information” of a planned attack in the stadium.
Police insisted that the Munich warning had been so credible that they had had no choice but to act, but they acknowledged that they had made no arrests and had not launched a manhunt for specific suspects. They had yet to confirm, they said, whether the names they had received were correct or, indeed, whether the suspects were real people.
“We can’t rule out that these people exist, but we can’t confirm it either,” Andrä said. Nor could the police rule out the possibility that the intelligence had been “recycled”, that is provided to foreign agencies by the same unreliable source.
Despite the apparent uncertainty, the Bavarian interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, insisted it had not been a false alarm and the police operation had been proportionate and necessary. “I considered this decision to be correct, since we cannot take unnecessary risks in the face of such concrete threats. The situation has relaxed somewhat, after, thank God, no attack was carried out last night,” he said.
Herrmann told Bavarian state television that there was still a high risk of a terrorist attack throughout Europe, but there was currently “no direct indication of an attack today or tomorrow on a specific place”.
Munich police received the federal government’s support. “The Bavarian authorities acted prudently, calmly and decisively, with the support of the federal police,” Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, said.
Various German media outlets, including the regional broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk and the state broadcaster ZDF, cited anonymous sources inside the security services as saying the police had received three similar intelligence tipoffs from French intelligence services in recent weeks, and that they had been dismissed as not credible.
According to the reports, all three had claimed that a team of Isis-affiliated terrorists was planning to attack the Munich stations using the same tactics as in Paris, when men opened fire on crowds with Kalashnikovs before detonating explosive suicide belts. All three warnings were reportedly dismissed following what were described as “intensive investigations”.
ZDF reported, however, the warning received on New Year’s Eve had included at least two important differences, which made the police reconsider the threat. First, it had come from a different foreign intelligence agency, thought to be the US, and second, it included the names of the suspected attackers. With barely four hours to go until midnight, and therefore no time to check the intelligence, ZDF said the police had opted for caution and shut down the two railway stations.
The Guardian was not able to verify the reports independently.
Elmar Thevesse, a terrorism expert and ZDF’s deputy editor-in-chief said: “German security officials regarded the source behind the tipoff ‘rather non-credible’, and parts of the information itself as hard to believe. There were also question marks over the specific references to Pasing train station. From Isis’s point of view, such a relatively small train station would not have ‘made sense’ as a target.”
Rolf Tophoven, the director of the Essen-based Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy (Iftus), said the authorities had had no choice but to act on the intelligence, particularly as the tipoff had apparently been detailed enough to include the number of attackers as well as the time and place of the attacks. “If on top of that it included names of attackers, I see that as a very solid threat,” he said.
Tophoven also said that of all Germany’s police forces, Munich’s has the most experience of providing security for major events. The Bavarian capital is home to the Oktoberfest, visited by 6 million people every year, and the annual Munich security conference, attended by the foreign ministers of all the major global powers.
“At each of these events, the Munich police gets several terror threats. Up to now they have handled them all very calmly and authoritatively,” said Tophoven. “If they are going further now with their public information, then that has a certain logic. There must have been more to it.”
Munich police said they were continuing “to work intensively and with increased personnel on clearing up the situation and investigating potential perpetrators. An increased police presence will also ensure the greatest possible safety for the Munich population in the coming days.”