• Carlos Munoz Burgos

Münster attack: terrorism or mental health issue?

A van rammed into a crowd of people outside a restaurant in Münster (North Rhine-Westphalia) Germany on Saturday afternoon at around 3:30pm. Three people were killed in this incident, including the driver who shot himself while still in the car after the crash. An additional twenty people are reported injured, including six with life-threatening injuries.

The driver was a 48-year-old German citizen with a history of mental illness. His suicide has led police to treat the incident as a terrorist attack, but terrorism may not have been the attacker’s motive. North Rhine-Westphalia’s interior minister stated that there is no evidence that the driver had any links to Islamist terrorism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement on Saturday explaining that everything possible is being done to investigate the crime and support victims and their families. She also thanked first responders in her statement.

Analysis

Although the incident is being treated as a terrorist attack, it has not been labeled as such. North Rhine-Westphalia’s interior minister said that “at the moment, there is no evidence that there is any Islamist background” to the attack. This last statement assumes that a terrorist act can only be labeled as such if it has direct association with Islam. It is true that there is no more Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany to associate terrorist attacks with, and that in the past two years, there have been terrorist attacks led or inspired by the Islamic State. However, terror attacks should not be associated with one group only.

Definitions of terrorism vary around the world. According to the FBI, an act must meet the following three criteria to qualify as a terrorist attack: It must appear intended 1) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, 2) to influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion, 3) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

On the other hand, European Union countries do not have a common definition of terrorism or terrorist acts. The regulations and punishment for terrorism, terrorist, and terrorist-related acts are not the same in every EU member country. After the September 2001 terror attacks in the US, the European Parliament defined terrorism as “seriously intimidating a population; or unduly compelling a Government or international organization to perform or abstain from performing any act; or seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organization.” In 2008, the European Parliament expanded its definition to criminalize public provocation to commit a terrorist offence and recruitment and training for terrorism. Germany adheres to these definitions of terrorism.

According to the 2001 definition provided by the European Parliament, the incident on Saturday qualifies as a terrorist attack at least by one measure: the event certainly intimidated the population. However, there is no indication of a political, religious, or ideological motive behind it. This is usually what governments use to categorize an act as terrorism, if it is not directly linked to terrorist group. It is important to point out that in the US, there have been many incidents that meet the three criteria established by the FBI, but ultimately are not labeled as terror attacks. This shows how it is still somewhat unclear as to how governments determine whether an act qualifies as terrorism.

Update: The man who drove the van into the crown was identified as Jens Rüther. He allegedly left a suicide note, strengthening the assumption that he was suffering from psychological problems. The man claimed in his note that everyone had conspired against him, from his parents to doctors who operated on a back surgery. Rüther did not state in his suicide note that he would commit Saturday’s attack.