Germany is as likely as any European country to be hit by a terror attack, European terrorism experts say, and the large presence of U.S. servicemembers living in the country could make it even more vulnerable.

“The U.S. presence makes it a highly desirable target for Islamist groups,” said Daniel Keohane, a terrorism expert with the Centre for European Reform in London. “If they were to choose a more political target, American military people would be an obvious target.”

Islamist terrorists for the past several years have been focusing their attacks on civilian targets, as in last month’s suicide-bomb attacks on London’s transit system. The attacks July 7 killed 56 people, including the four bombers, and injured 700.

Moving away from political targets, such as embassies and military barracks, to kill civilians riding a subway or working at their desks is “a step up in psychological warfare,” Keohane said, designed to maximize fear.

In Germany, officials worry most about Berlin, the capital, followed by other large cities.

“If you speak with German intelligence experts and police, they are absolutely convinced ... it’s not a question of if, it’s only a question of when,” said Rolf Tophoven, a terrorism expert at the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Essen.

“We have troops in Afghanistan. We protected American barracks. The U.S. Air Force was allowed to take off [from Germany] to go to Iraq. And we know we have people who are trained and willing. We are not so safe.”

Moreover, Germany’s post-Nazi emphasis on civil rights and liberties has made it harder to monitor, detain and deport suspected terrorists, experts say. Last month, Germany’s high court refused to extradite a German of Syrian origin to Spain, where he was suspected of being an al-Qaida operative who provided logistical and financial support. He was released instead.

The legal reason was essentially that Germany requires more evidence to detain a suspect than Spain, France or Great Britain, Keohane said.

“It is a psychological victory for terrorists,” Tophoven said. But Tophoven said he was confident the German government would pass laws tightening evidence requirements.

Not everyone is so sure. A Congressional Research Service report to Congress in December stated that German law enforcement and intelligence communities “face more bureaucratic hurdles, stricter constraints and closer oversight than those in many other countries.”

“Many doubt that the German government will be able to institute significant further changes ... so long as Germany does not suffer a large-scale attack,” the congressional report says.

Before 9/11, Germany, an important European hub with a large population of Muslims, was something of a “rest house” for terrorists, Tophoven said. Three of the 9/11 pilot-hijackers, for instance, plotted together at a Hamburg mosque, protected by laws that forbade government monitoring of religious associations.

The German government has since estimated that 31,000 German residents are thought to be members of Islamic organizations with extremist ties, according to a U.S. State Department report. In 2003, Germany was conducting 177 investigations into Islamic extremist-based terrorism, the report stated.

Germany has seized assets of suspected terrorists and detained several for passport forgeries, for being members of terrorist organizations, and for plotting to bomb a Stuttgart Christmas market and an anti-Iraq war demonstration in Berlin, according to the State Department report. Among them was a Turkish citizen sentenced to 18 months in prison for drug charges and illegal possession of explosives.

But, the report noted, the prosecution failed to convict the Turk of a more serious charge: planning a terrorist attack on the U.S. Army’s European headquarters in Heidelberg.

Col. Roger King, U.S. Army Europe spokesman, said the U.S. military has a limited role in Germany’s anti-terrorism efforts.

“Germany is a sovereign nation and they’re also an ally. And so we count on them to be forthcoming with information that would be important for us, and we work closely with them,” he said. “And Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is a threat to everyone. I don’t know of any place that’s immune.”

After the U.S. intensified its force-protection efforts throughout the world, some criticized the fortifications around bases and vehicle searches as excessive.

“Force protection is not designed for the court of opinion; it’s designed for force protection,” King said.

Tophoven said the fortifications and technology-enabled ID checks do dissuade attacks on American bases.

“Their fortifications are very strong; they’re very highly protected,” he said. “[Terrorists] want the easier way. They want a lot of people to be killed, and millions looking.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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