“There’s no use living in constant fear”

13.11.2016 - Interview

Terrorist attacks shook France and the whole of Europe on 13 November 2015. Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier was at the Stade de France in Paris when the attacks happened. One year on, he was interviewed by the German Press Agency (dpa) about the impact of the horrific attacks. First published on 2 November 2016

dpa: One year ago, on the day of the Paris attacks, you were at the Stade de France and were sitting next to French President François Hollande in the VIP stand. Did you immediately think it was terrorism when you heard the explosions?

Steinmeier: When I heard those two extremely loud bangs in the middle of the first half, I, like everyone else in the stadium, had no idea what had actually happened. At first, I thought that fireworks had been set off by reckless fans.

When and how did you find out about the attacks?

Around a quarter of an hour before half‑time, a French security officer came over to President Hollande and informed us that it was likely that there had been more than one explosion outside the stadium. A few minutes later, the security officer came back and reported that people had been killed. That was a shock. Of course, we wondered whether it would be better to call off the match. But after consultations during half‑time, it was decided to allow the game to continue to prevent panic from breaking out. President Hollande left the stadium to oversee the French Government’s crisis unit. We were asked to return to the VIP stand so that the spectators would have no cause for concern. I sat there in the stand with a thousand thoughts racing through my head – none of which were about football, of course. It was a terrible feeling, also because more and more information about the other attacks in the city kept coming in. Despite this, it was important to keep calm to prevent hysteria from breaking out.

Did you fear for your life?

No, but I was greatly concerned, of course – about the people in the stadium and in the city. My greatest fear was that word of the attacks would spread and cause a panic in the stadium. However, the French police did an amazing job in a difficult situation. It is thanks to them that the stadium was evacuated without any loss of life or injuries after the game.

At the time, the attacks were talked of as being Europe’s 9/11. Would you agree with that today, one year on?

You cannot compare such terrible events. However, it’s clear that these attacks were an attack on Europe as a whole – on our way of life, culture and values. This was a feeling that was probably also shared by the Americans after 11 September 2001.

Europe witnessed major terrorist attacks prior to those in Paris: London, Madrid, Charlie Hebdo. Why was the shock of Paris even greater than was the case then?

Each and every one of the other terrorist attacks was shocking. The attacks on 13 November seemed to be especially cold‑blooded in their coordination and ruthless in the way they were executed. You couldn’t help but think that ISIS terrorism had now arrived at the heart of Europe. Don’t forget that we had witnessed ISIS’ advance in Iraq and then Syria from the summer of 2014 onwards. The appalling brutality of this terrorist group had brought the most immense suffering to the people in both of these countries, and this had now reached us in Europe as well.

The Federal Government responded in a similar way to after 9/11, with full solidarity – with the US in 2001, and now with France. At the beginning of 2002, the Bundeswehr was deployed in Afghanistan, and one year ago it joined the fight against IS in Syria and Iraq in response to the Paris attacks. Would this decision have been taken at some point even without the Paris attacks?

The attacks of 13 November did not just hit Paris, but the whole of Europe, including Germany, and even ourselves. Our solidarity with France was never in any doubt at that difficult time. I spontaneously tweeted words to that effect on my flight from Paris to Vienna – just after the game on my way to the conference on Syria that was being held there. But even before this attack, everyone knew that ISIS couldn’t be defeated without military means. The international community had already joined forces to form the Counter‑ISIL Coalition on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in the autumn of 2014. And, prior to this, we had already taken the difficult decision in August 2014 to provide military equipment and training for the Peshmerga alongside humanitarian assistance. That was and remains the right decision from today’s perspective. It goes without saying that it is impossible to defeat terrorism by military means alone, however. What we need are prospects for the people and stability in the Middle East.

Two terrorist attacks have already taken place on German soil this year. One on the scale of the Paris attacks was thwarted. Has the terrorist threat become the norm in Germany?

Germany does not enjoy a state of splendid isolation. Terrorism is an international threat that we also face. While there is no such thing as absolute security, our security authorities are doing everything they can to minimise the risk of attacks. The attacks that were prevented, and also those that were not, have shown that we are reliant upon close cooperation among our European security authorities. We are working to make progress in this area.

Compared with France and Belgium, Germany’s security precautions are still quite moderate. The governments in Paris and Brussels have no qualms about protecting airports and tourist attractions with heavily armed soldiers. Will this also be the case in Germany after a major terrorist attack?

The security authorities are also extremely vigilant here in Germany. However, we will not allow callous murderers to destroy our way of life. While we must assess threats and risks in a realistic way, there’s no use living in constant fear. We are doing our utmost to equip our security authorities with the instruments they need in order prevent terrorist attacks as best as they can.

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