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Germans suspect US overreaction on terror alert

Berliners react with calm to news that intelligence shows their city is being targeted by terrorists.

A street artist dressed up as a storm trooper stands among tourists in front of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate on Oct. 4, 2010. (Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN, Germany — Daniel Thiele works five days a week soliciting business on his bicycle rickshaw outside Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, which has just been named one of the top terrorism targets in Europe.

A stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate, the Adlon oozes wealth and importance and is also sandwiched between the United States and British embassies. Barack Obama stayed there when he visited Berlin as a presidential candidate and Michael Jackson infamously dangled his infant son from one of its third-story windows.

So is the 28-year-old Thiele worried by the news that his work area has reportedly been singled out for an Al Qaeda attack — one that the U.S. took seriously enough to issue a rare travel alert on Sunday for the whole of Europe?

“Not really,” Thiele said. “I heard about the warnings, but I don’t think people here are going to let it rule their lives. Maybe after the first attack on Germany, we’d be more concerned, but I don’t think anyone’s too concerned now.”

Despite the U.S. State Department’s travel alert — one step below an actual warning — and subsequent alerts by Britain, Japan and Sweden, calm has broken out on the streets of Berlin. The prevailing attitude is that the U.S. — understandably — has a tendency to overreact.

In fact, the intelligence on which the U.S. alert is based underscores what terrorism experts here say is a cause for genuine concern: the wave of German nationals travelling to jihadist training camps on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. alert was followed up by a drone strike in the border region that reportedly killed as many as eight German militants.

Yet there is a conspicuous disparity between U.S. and German officials’ interpretation of the intelligence, which reportedly points to commando-style attacks against Berlin, Paris or London. The attacks would be modelled on the 2008 siege in the Indian city of Mumbai, in which more than 160 people were killed.

Wolfgang Bosbach, chairman of the security committee of the German parliament and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, said: “That is the American reaction to knowledge which we in Europe have had for quite a long time.”

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere walked a semantic tightrope on Monday by saying there were “no concrete indications of imminent attacks” but there was “a high level of abstract threat.”

That comparative dismissiveness has filtered down through the German populace onto the streets. Around the Brandenburg Gate on Monday, television crews asking people whether or not they were worried seemed to outnumber security personnel. A spokesman for Germany’s Federal Police confirmed that, for now, no additional measures were being taken.

Not a single one of the people quizzed by GlobalPost around the Brandenburg Gate or Alexanderplatz — a large square that was also mentioned as a target — showed any serious concern.

“In one sentence, it’s an overreaction,” said Gert Scharf, 53, who was strolling near the Adlon with friends.

Several people, such as engineering student Dieter Leemhuis, 23, weren’t even aware of the alert.

“I don’t think we’re a big target,” he said after being told the news. “Germany is a very open and tolerant society and I don’t think those people are all that angry with us.”

Yet the key source of the current intelligence, Ahmad Sidiqi, represents a genuinely disturbing trend among young German radicals. The 36-year-old German of Afghan descent is one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of extremists who have travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past few years to train in terrorist-run camps.