Foiled Islamist Attack in Germany A Terrorist, Three Heroes and a Bumbling Judiciary
Part 2: A Bungled Arrest Attempt
Mohamed spent three months in a refugee hostel in Munich before moving to Leipzig. In the hostel, he slept in a hall and shared a shower with dozens of people. Ahmed, for his part, stood in line every night for several weeks in Berlin to register as a refugee. "It's completely normal for us to help a compatriot in need," they say. What the three didn't know, however, was that their guest, who they still considered to be harmless, was wanted by the Saxony authorities, who had lost track of his whereabouts.
The initial attempt to arrest al-Bakr had actually been well prepared. Domestic intelligence officials had received indications of a Syrian terror suspect in mid-September and intelligence agents secured assistance from officials in the states of Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt to monitor the residential building at Usti nad Labem Street 97. The communist-style concrete block building was one of many such structures in the quarter, an area which housed 90,000 people during East German times.
Al-Bakr was monitored there until intelligence officials notified the Saxony police last Friday. The police quickly assembled a specialized team and turned up at the site at 9:45 p.m.
They staked out the building throughout the night until a man emerged at 7:04 a.m. An "unidentified person," according to an internal report, "hastily left the target object" heading for the Chemnitz city center. Officers fired a warning shot, but the man disappeared.
The state criminal police office says the officers weren't totally sure it was al-Bakr and that it was impossible to shoot at him because there were innocent bystanders in the field of fire. A pursuit on foot likewise failed: The officers were wearing protection weighing 30 kilograms (65 pounds).
The account raises questions. How could a man wearing a backpack, a person suspected of preparing an imminent bomb attack, be allowed to simply run away? Because the officers were wearing heavy equipment?
Experienced officers who have been part of such operations in the past are astonished by this version of events. "Such operations are always prepared with the assumption that something won't go as planned," says a former member of a state police special operations unit. "Something can always go wrong. That's part of it. But it's unacceptable that a suspect can simply run away and isn't even followed."
'As Short as Possible'
The failures seemingly didn't stop there. According to internal Saxony state documents, a person "identical" to the man who fled later returned to the building, leading police to believe that the suspect was back. Officers raided the building, breaking down more than 30 doors as they searched the entire complex. A spokesman for the Saxony criminal police force would later say the raid was "nevertheless a successful part of the operation."
Still, there was no sign of al-Bakr.
Even as a Europe-wide search for the Chemnitz suspect was underway, Mohamed, Ahmed and Sami were chatting cluelessly with their guest on Sunday morning in Leipzig.
Al-Bakr asked them where he could get his hair cut. "How do you want it?" asked Mohamed. "As short as possible," al-Bakr replied, whereupon Mohamed retrieved a shaver from the bathroom. A short time later, at around 11 a.m., Mohamed, Ahmed and Sami left to go swimming and, afterwards, to visit a friend. Saying he was tired, al-Bakr stayed behind in the apartment.
Until just a few years ago, there were just 200 Syrians living in Leipzig. But since the outbreak of the civil war, that number has risen to 5,000. Most Syrian refugees tend to associate largely with other Syrians and Ahmed says it isn't easy to establish contacts with German residents of the city. He knew nothing of Islamophobic demonstrations and had never heard the word Pegida, the Dresden-based anti-immigration organization that has been staging anti-Islam marches in German cities since the fall of 2014. Nevertheless, Ahmed sensed the hostility of people in Saxony, saying that neighbors would slam their doors shut when they see them. Ahmed and Mohamed avoid public places and spend most of their time at home or at the homes of other refugees.
Throughout Sunday, news of the planned terror attack flooded television and radio broadcasters in Germany, but Mohamed, Ahmed and Sami initially took no note, instead playing cards in their friend's apartment. It was only later that evening that Ahmed looked at his Facebook page on his mobile phone. He noticed a story about the planned terror attack in Germany and clicked on a photo of the suspect.
Tied Up with a Power Cord
What he saw made him dizzy. The man in the photo looked exactly like the guest staying in Mohamed's apartment. "That can't be," Mohamed said. The Syrians looked at more photos until they no longer had any doubts that the man who introduced himself as Khaled was actually Jaber al-Bakr.
The Leipzig-Südwest police station was only sparsely manned shortly before midnight on Sunday night and initially Ahmed and Sami found only a single officer on duty. Ahmed had only been studying German for a few months and he struggled mightily as he tried to explain to the female officer what had taken place in his friend Mohamed's apartment. He was unable to string the words "terrorist," "house" and "help" together in a comprehensible sentence.
Just a few kilometers away, Mohamed, together with the friend with whom they had just been playing cards, slipped into his apartment. Al-Bakr had already gone to bed. Mohamed opened the backpack belonging to the terror suspect and found a combat knife and cash. He took a deep breath and then he and his friend rushed their guest. Al-Bakr tried to fight them off and yelled, but the two Syrians were able to tie him up with a power cord.
In our interview, Mohamed acts out the scene with his hands. "It was actually quite easy," he says.
Al-Bakr offered his captors money if they let him go, telling them that he had received 10,000 euros to carry out the attack. "You can have as much as you want," al-Bakr told them. Mohamed rejected the offer. "The guy was a terrorist," he says. "We fled Syria because of people like him. For us, turning him into the police was the obvious thing to do."
The two Syrians in the apartment in Paunsdorf then sent a picture via WhatsApp of the tied-up al-Bakr to Ahmed, who showed it to the police. Suddenly, they were able to understand the urgency of the situation and called for backup. Half an hour later, the police sped into the eastern Leipzig neighborhood and stormed the apartment. The Syrians were interrogated for several hours that night and were allowed to go only on Monday morning. They were interrogated again -- in a different state -- on Thursday.
- Part 1: A Terrorist, Three Heroes and a Bumbling Judiciary
- Part 2: A Bungled Arrest Attempt
- Part 3: Radicalized in Germany
- Part 4: The Challenges of Terrorist Hunting