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By Paula Grabosch
These are turbulent times in Germany. Last Saturday the news that the police had closed off an entire neighbourhood in Chemnitz, the third largest city in Saxony, in the search of suspected terrorists planning an attack, caused a big stir all across the country. Residents were advised to stay inside their homes as the police raided an apartment in the area.
As is now known, the decisive tip on the planned attack came from the US intelligence services. The Americans had monitored phone calls between the lead suspect, Dschaber al-Bakr, and the IS in Syria. Al-Bakr is said to have reported on the phone that “two kilos are done” (presumably referring to explosives) and a “big Berlin airport” would be a good location. Following this, police set up around the house al-Bakr was believed to live in. The 22 year-old suspect came to Germany as a Syrian refugee in 2015.
Since the police feared explosives to be inside al-Bakr’s flat, the building was evacuated before the raid. Once inside, the police found over a kilo of highly dangerous explosives, as well as metal pipes, igniters and other things required to construct a bomb. However, the main suspect was not present. A spokeswoman of the police later said that al-Bakr was seen at the door of the building on Saturday morning, during the evacuation of other residents. Alerted by the massive presence of police, he fled.
What followed, was a movie-like manhunt. The police did not exclude the possibility that the suspect had more explosives either on him or elsewhere. All surrounding borders and airports were closely monitored, cars, trains and busses checked. On Sunday afternoon then, a different apartment was searched. The police arrested an acquaintance of al-Bakr, but still could not locate the lead suspect himself.
Whilst all German news outlets were flooded with updates on the search, it took almost thirty-six hours for the Saxonian police to translate the search warning into Arabic. Only on late Sunday evening, a translated version explaining the situation was published online. At this time, three other Syrians in Leipzig, just an hour away from where al-Bakr fled, heard of the news. Earlier on in the day, these three men had been approached by al-Bakr at the main train station of Leipzig. Al-Bakr explained that he was a refugee and had no place to stay, urging his fellow countrymen to help him. Unaware of who he was, the men took him back to their apartment. Only after seeing the translated news and police statement in the evening, the three men realised who they had taken in. One of them ran to the nearest police station with a photo of their house guest. Meanwhile, the other two tied the lead suspect down with a rope and waited for the police to come. After midnight, al-Bakr was arrested, thanks to the help of the three Syrian men. The worst of the drama seemed to be over.
Then, on Wednesday evening the shocking news: al-Bakr was found dead in his cell in Leipzig, hung by his own t-shirt. The autopsy confirms that it was indeed a suicide. Having been on a hunger strike as well as being diagnosed as suicidal, it is unclear how and why the lead planner of a terror attack was left unmonitored for long enough to commit suicide. The 22 year-old’s public defender speaks of a legal scandal, the police and department of justice face enormous criticism. What remains are the questions: Was he working alone or might a terror cell be involved? Did someone instruct him or was he instructing others? Are there unknown others who might continue his plan?
What has now surfaced, is that al-Bakr presumably radicalised himself in Germany, not in Syria. His brother claims that before his arrival in Germany, al-Bakr was completely “unpolitical”. According to the brother, who remained in Syria, al-Bakr was watching “horror videos” of his home country once in Germany and was “brainwashed” by an Imam from Berlin. The Imam allegedly urged al-Bakr to return to Syria to fight. In September 2015 then, al-Bakr appears to have left Germany to travel to Rakka, an IS-controlled city in Syria. Calling his family from there, he informed them of now being an IS-fighter- since then they were no longer in contact. It also appears that al-Bakr travelled to Turkey after his arrival in Germany, where he stayed for several months. What he was doing there and why his leaving and re-entering Germany from Syria and Turkey was not further investigated earlier, remains unclear.
What is clear however, is that these dramatic events have re-ignited the refugee debate in Germany. Only in July of this year, the country experienced its first suicide bomber attack, also carried out by a Syrian refugee in Ansbach, Bavaria. Even though no one was killed or severely injured in this attack, the shock was felt intensely amongst the German people. Both the attacker in Ansbach, Mohammed Daleel, and the suspected terrorist al-Bakr came to Germany before the mass influx of refugees into the country in September 2015. This was following Merkel’s controversial decision to allow the thousands of refugees at Hungary’s and Austria’s borders to come to Germany. Prior to this, a welcoming attitude towards refugees was dominant in the population. Notwithstanding that the attack in Ansbach as well as the planned attack from Chemnitz were not direct consequences of Merkel’s much criticised decision to welcome refugees, her opponents from using the events in their favour.
Only recently at the beginning of September, the extreme right-wing populist party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) gained 20% of the votes in a regional election in the North-East, clearly showing that the right-wing sentiment is growing within the population. During the celebrations for the 26th annual day of German Unity in Dresden on October 3rd, Chancellor Merkel as well as the Federal President Gauck were welcomed by over five hundred protesters booing and shouting words and phrases such as “Traitors”, “Merkel dictatorship” and “Merkel has to go”. Particularly in contrast to the initial day of German Unity, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the incredibly celebrated and admired Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the divide between the public and the current regime seems striking.
With over a million refugees already having arrived in Germany over the past one and a half years, and many more on their way, the country has in a sense divided. A lot has changed since those pictures of Germans welcoming and applauding refugees at the train station in Munich, but one can only hope that ultimately humanity, not hate, will prevail.