As fans from around the globe pour into Germany for the World Cup soccer tournament, which begins Friday, security experts from German government agencies and international police groups will be glued to their computer screens evaluating thousands of messages generated daily by security authorities on the ground.
Tucked away in the Interior Ministry in Berlin is the National Information and Cooperation Center (NICC), which this reporter visited on Wednesday. For the duration of the month-long event, the centre will be manned around the clock by security experts from around 20 government agencies, including the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, the Federal Intelligence Service and the Federal Office for Information Security, in addition to Europol and Interpol.
The NICC was tested successfully during the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Confederation Cup games held last year in Germany. The games, which allowed several teams to check their skills in an international competition, also gave the centre an opportunity to test its information coordination service ahead of the World Cup games.
Each of the 22 groups participating in the centre operates its own communications network and, in some cases, has established a special unit to monitor activities during the games. The Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, for instance, has a special unit monitoring possible terrorist attacks, while the Federal Police Office has one focused on hooligans.
Although a substantial amount of IT is involved in gathering, processing and delivering the information that feeds into the services of the various government agencies and international police groups organized under the NICC umbrella, the control room itself is relatively low-tech. Each of the 22 represented agencies has its own terminal located in the control room with its own expert who can turn quickly to an expert from another agency to consult on a situation and react swiftly if necessary. Large displays on the wall facing them show various information, such as stadium floor plans and video footage.
"Interpersonal contact is key," said Christian Sachs, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry "No one is slowed down by having to wait for an e-mail or a phone call from another unit. Here it's all about immediate consultation."
Each group is staffed with four experts working in shifts 24 hours a day for the duration of the 64 games, scheduled to end July 9.
Outbreaks of violence
NICC has no operational powers itself due to the complex structure of Germany's federal government system. But for the first time in the country, numerous federal government agencies concerned with security are under one roof working together to coordinate the flow of information from a big event and to help expedite swift decision-making.
"We came up with the idea for NICC after reviewing terrorist situations such as September 11 in the US and outbreaks of violence at previous international soccer matches where hooligans got out of control," Sachs said. "We saw a need for super swift lines of communication for experts evaluating and coordinating information."
The NICC has created a portal, which consolidates key information generated by the various agencies.
"We have no indication of international terrorist groups planning to disrupt the World Cup games," Sachs said. "But, of course, we also have no guarantees they won't do something."
Bending the law
The situation is different with hooligans and neo-nazis. Polish hooligans have already indicated their intention to cause trouble, while neo-nazi groups are planning demonstrations, according to Sachs.
Should a situation reach a certain "critical" level, such as an unauthorized airplane heading in the direction of a stadium (all planes are banned from flying within 5.4 kilometres of a stadium three hours before and three hours after a game), an Interior Ministry emergency unit would move swiftly to make critical decisions, Sachs said.
For sure, shooting down an airplane could be one of toughest decision the ministry would have to make, given that German law forbids such action against civilian aircraft.
In a recent television interview, however, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble indicated that if necessary, he would consider bending the law to save lives.