A Syrian refugee’s terrorist attempt sows national reproach and alarm
In 2015, nearly half a million Syrians left behind a homeland in rubble and made their way to Germany. Among the torrent was a young man from southern Syria. His name — which would later be plastered across newspapers all over the world – was Jaber al Bakr.
He had some of the building blocks of a new life. The authorities gave him an apartment and some free German lessons. He became friendly with a group of fellow-Syrians and was the first among them to get his asylum claim accepted. He told his flatmates he wanted to become a nurse.
By the end of 2016, however, Jaber had struck out in a very different direction. On October 8, 2016, German police raided the flat he was staying in and found more than three pounds of peroxide-based explosives. It was the same material used by Islamic State attackers in Paris and Brussels. German security officials —who had been tipped off by the Americans– suspected Jaber was planning to detonate it in a Berlin airport packed with travelers. The Germans launched a nationwide manhunt culminating in Jaber’s arrest two days later.
What happened between Jaber’s arrival in Germany and his arrest is still being pieced together. Had he been mixed up with radicals for a long time like Anis Amri, the Tunisian who killed 12 people in a Berlin Christmas market? Or was he a hapless naïf who somehow fell through the cracks of Germany’s integration system?
The answer has profound implications for Germany as it grapples with the million-odd refugees who arrived in 2015. The bulwark of Europe’s political and economic stability faces national elections in 2017, and is buffeted by the same tides of anti-immigrant populism that have upended the status quo in Britain and America. December’s Christmas market attack has brought Germany’s problems into sharp focus.
The idea that a terrorist group like Islamic State has infiltrated the country through its refugee intake is alarming enough. But Jaber’s case suggests a different kind of challenge. If building a life in Germany is so hard that it could cause an ordinary Syrian refugee to fall in with extremists, how will the struggles of several hundred thousand others manifest themselves?
“So many, with no language, in such a short time,” says Manfred Murck, a former Hamburg intelligence chief. “This is a real field experiment.”
Clues about how Jaber ended up in that prison cell are scattered through his life. The story begins far from the industrial wastelands of east Germany, in a little town on the fertile plains of Damascus.
Jaber grew up in a place called Sa’sa’ just north of the Golan Heights. The countryside between Damascus and the Golan is a sleepy place, where it is not unusual to see donkeys plodding through the dusty roads.
Sa’sa’ saw some anti-government protests when the Syrian uprising first broke out in 2011, but has been mostly held by forces loyal to president Bashar al Assad. Jaber’s family were well-known there. An acquaintance said that his father was a staunch supporter of Assad.
The precise reasons behind Jaber’s decision to set out for Europe in 2014 are unclear. The country was falling apart, with more than 100,000 Syrians already dead. Many of the millions of young men who left were wanted by regime authorities, either for suspected links with the opposition or for military service.
Jaber may have been worried about getting called up, or he may simply have wanted out. In the aftermath of his arrest in Germany, one of Jaber’s brothers back home gave interviews to the media. His account is puzzling at points, and may reflect the pressures of living in a government-controlled area of Syria. During an interview with the TV program ARD-Fakt, he seemed to give different explanations for Jaber’s decision: he wanted to get out of Syria, he wanted to study more, and he had seen others going and wanted to join in.
The last picture of Jaber on his Facebook page before he left Syria shows a nice looking boy with a thin mustache looking out rather earnestly from under the orange leaves of an kaki tree.
Jaber’s Facebook posts are a jumble of moods and references. The somewhat kitsch glorification of emotion common among young Syrian men is evident in many — blood, roses and musings on love spill through the pages.
One revealing video from August 2015 — after he’d arrived in Germany — shows a children’s’ cartoon of a barrel-chested hero confronting a pirate. The voices have been dubbed over so that the barrel-chested hero is speaking on behalf of the nationalist rebellion against Bashar al Assad, and the pirate seems to represent the extremist groups which hijacked it. “The people and the revolution hate you, and will never forgive you for betraying them” the hero tells the pirate. Jaber’s sympathy for the side represented by the pirate - if it existed - was either elaborately concealed or did not develop until later.
There are no updates on his Facebook page between April 2014 and March 2015. He is said to have been on the refugee trail for part of this time. According to his brother, he went to North Africa first, then Italy. He arrived in Munich station in February 2015.
Jaber was sent to Saxony to process his asylum claim, where he met Samer, a 38-year-old teacher from northern Syria. Syrians tended to stick together.
“Jaber was funny, crazy,” Samer recalls. “He was like a kid.”
Samer ended up sharing an apartment with Jaber in a small Saxon town called Eilenburg, along with two other Syrians. Jaber was the youngest of the group. He used to stomp around the apartment so loudly it would irritate their neighbor, Samer recalls. He listened to Arab pop music. He had a bike, which would ride up and down the quiet streets without using the handlebars. Sometimes he would go to Leipzig —a university city half an hour a way on the train– to buy supplies for his shisha pipe. He showed almost no interest in praying.
Jaber’s teenage temperament sometimes led to strife in the apartment. Once, one of the older men advised him to calm down a bit, and Jaber retorted: “‘My own brother’s not allowed to talk to me like that!’” He avoided the man for months afterwards.
He was not without a sense of humor, however. On August 6 he shared a home-made video sending up the ludicrous expectations of Syrians arriving in Europe: a young man, barely able to contain his giggles, is picking bank notes off a tree.
Another video Jaber posted that summer shows a clip of a German comedian comparing German and Arabic (it is subtitled in Arabic). “Arabic is a loud language,” the comedian muses. “Perhaps it’s an evolutionary technique. Maybe its because Arabs have always lived near train stations or airports and needed to hear each other.”
Jaber was “really interested” in learning German when he first arrived, Samer recalls. He bought a book on it. In June 2015, he posted an article in German about a Syrian girl who arrived speaking only Arabic and passed the German end-of-school exams with top marks a year later. It’s unlikely Jaber would have understood the article, but it seemed to reflect an aspiration.
Eilenburg, where Jaber and Samer shared an apartment, is a town of about 20,000 people on a tributary of the Elbe. The Allies destroyed most of it during the Second World War, and the town center was rebuilt in a conservative style looking back to past centuries —gabled orange roofs on large cream buildings slope up to the gray skies. One shop on the main street sells bars of chocolate wrapped in an old painting of the town, gifts designed to appeal to the nostalgia of people who left Eilenburg for better opportunities in West Germany after the collapse of communism. One of the street’s two pubs appears to be permanently closed.
The left-behind towns of former East Germany have seen alarming bursts of xenophobic activity since the refugee influx. Fifty-seven attacks on asylum shelters were reported in Saxony in 2015.
In the summer of 2015, Pegida, an anti-immigration movement, staged a small demonstration in the main street in Eilenburg. A sticker is still visible on the lamp post outside the town hall saying kriminelle Auslaender raus –criminal foreigners should leave.
When asked about it, refugees will often say that their interactions with Germans have generally been positive. When anti-immigration protesters gather, they are often met by a counter-demonstration in solidarity with the newcomers.
But on the trams and buses of eastern Germany, the migrants are conspicuous. In towns like Eilenburg, there are few places or occasions where Germans might socialize with them. “Most people don’t have much money,” says a shopkeeper when asked about leisure activities in the town. “And people who have work don’t have much time.”
In the eastern sections of Eilenburg –where the brutalist aesthetic of former East Germany is a bit more apparent than on the main street- there is a job center providing assistance to Germans and migrants unable to find employment. It was here that Jaber drew his monthly benefits.
There were about a dozen people in the job center waiting room one day this winter. Three dark-skinned young men clustered together on one of the four benches. One of them was listening to a vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding pop song on his phone, which echoed tinnily through the room. Their differentness was palpable.
I spoke to two of them at the station outside. In the waiting room they had seemed nonchalant and assertive, but up close they were plainly nervous. One of them eventually volunteered that he was a Yazidi, the minority sect which ISIS sought to ethnically cleanse from northern Iraq in 2014. He started scrolling through his phone to show me photos of a dead friend.
This sense of being exposed, looked at, and judged, can make it hard to practice German.
“I don’t want to speak when I only have a few words, because out there, there is no mercy,” explained Aziz, a young Syrian man living up the road from Eilenburg in Leipzig. Pieces of paper detailing the fiendish machinations of German grammar were pinned to his wardrobe.
One bit of German idiom with which Aziz is all too familiar is the word schmarotzer – scrounger.
“In Syria we had dignity,“ he said. “Now I have to ask for money. You don’t know how much it hurts.”
German is one of the trickier European languages. The articles – ‘the’ and ‘a’ - change form not just according to the gender of the noun attached to them but according to the case being used. Certain words trigger an inversion of the sentence order. Until rules like this have been drilled into you to the point where they are second nature, it is very hard to spontaneously express yourself in German.
Samer, Jaber’s housemate, believes that language is one aspect of a cultural barrier keeping many refugees excluded from German society.
“Let’s be honest, not every Syrian refugee who came here is a doctor”, he said. “I know many Syrians that still struggle to use the train.”
Germany’s policies are more generous than many other countries, but asylum seekers still have to negotiate a labyrinthine bureaucratic system to get whatever limited support with language and training is available after a compulsory integration course.
For those who struggle to get through the barrier, Samer said, there is the black economy –a parallel world where you don’t need German to get by and can circumvent bureaucracy.
Once people enter it, they become enmeshed in networks providing access to low-skilled jobs and other services. If they stay in the ‘black’ world long enough, it becomes hard to move back into normal German society.
Jaber didn’t seem to have what it takes to make it in the ‘white’ economy. “His interest in the language got less and less,” recalled Samer. “Jaber wasn’t disciplined –the new generation hasn’t been disciplined enough because of five years of war. When he came to Germany everything had rules and a system, and he couldn’t cope.”
In September 2015, Jaber asked Samer to help him buy a ticket to Turkey. He didn’t have enough German to manage the purchase himself. He told Samer he was going on holiday.
There are few clues about what happened to Jaber on this trip. Turkey’s southern borders were a staging post for fighters entering Syria. But Jaber was back a few weeks later and bumped into Samer on the street in Elienburg. By then Jaber had his own apartment. Jaber invited him to lunch, and Samer was appalled at what he saw.
“It was chaos,” Samer says. “The bathroom wasn’t clean - there was laundry on the floor.” Jaber asked Samer about selling his German study book -he thought he could get 20 Euros for it.
Shortly afterward, Jaber disappeared again. A source in northern Syria says that on this trip he ended up involved with an Islamist rebel group called Jund al Aqsa.
Jund al Aqsa started as an offshoot of the al Qaeda’s Syrian rebel force, Jabhat al Nusra. It has a mixture of Syrian and foreign fighters, and has managed to establish a presence in different parts of the country.
It’s hard to imagine how the chaotic young man with the messy bedroom fitted in with these hardened fighters. Jaber started to post increasingly austere religious observations on his Facebook page, though he also wrote about missing his mother. A friend in Idlib commented “ha ha ha” under one of his more earnest declarations.
In the summer of 2016, Samer swapped some messages with Jaber on WhatsApp. Jaber said he was living in the suburbs of Istanbul. All the roads were closed that day, he said, because of the coup against Turkish president Reccep Tayep Erodgan.
He told Samer that it had been necessary to get his family out of Syria after two of his brothers were killed by regime bombing (this was almost certainly a lie -his brother gave an interview to German television from inside Syria and didn’t mention any deaths in the family). Jaber said he was working in a clothing factory to support them.
Whatever Jaber was really doing then, Germany was on his mind. He asked several times about the job center in east Eilenburg –what was his status there, did Samer think? Would he still be able to get money? He asked about his old housemates, and about a teenage girl he had a crush on in Eilenburg.
It was the last contact Samer had with him.
It is hard to establish anything about what happened to Jaber between this conversation in July and his encounter with the Saxony police in the autumn, at which point the story descends almost into farce.
By October 2016 Jaber was back in Saxony, living in apartment rented by a Syrian man later identified as Khalil A. He was also being watched by the police. They knew he had researched bomb-making on the internet.
Yet somehow on October 8 Jaber gave them the slip. The police put out an alert (according to Der Spiegel, it took them nearly 36 hours to translate in to Arabic). Later that day Jaber showed up in Leipzig, and asked some Syrians to help him. The Syrians recognised him from the police alert, tied him up and handed him over to the police.
The German press hailed the three Syrians who captured Jaber as heroes. But inevitably, the story added fuel to the narrative that Merkel had made life for ordinary Germans more dangerous by welcoming in hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Anti-immigrant right-wingers gleefully tweeted about how the case represented a setback for the “gutmensch” – a sarcastic reference to the liberal consensus.
The ‘gutmensch’ jibe bubbling up through German social media is a worrying trend for Angela Merkel, the term’s primary object of scorn. Disdain for the ‘gutmensch’ has gone into overdrive since the Berlin Christmas market attack. The newly-formed anti-immigrant party Alternativ fuer Deutschland (AfD) is expected to make an unprecedented breakthrough in to the national parliament after October’s federal elections. A few commentators even fear the AfD’s surge could be big enough to make Merkel’s job untenable.
Saxony is ground zero of Germany’s new politics. It took in nearly 70,000 asylum seekers in 2015 –a more than six-fold increase on the previous year. Protests by the right-wing movement Pegida started in the Saxon city of Dresden. Even people who say they find the AfD dangerous grumble about Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis.
“She said ‘we can manage it’, but nobody’s managing it,” mutters a drinker in one working class pub in Leipzig. “Paris, Brussels, it’s coming nearer.”
When refugees poured into the country in 2015, German security services were prepared for Islamic State to have hidden sleeper agents among them. They also were prepared for some members of Germany’s existing Muslim communities to go and fight in Syria, and then return radicalized.
But Jaber al Bakr’s case suggests there may be a new kind of threat: genuine refugees from 2015’s historic influx going off the rails after failing to fit in.
“(Jaber) is probably one of the first guys of a new insecurity,” said Manfred Murck, the former head of the Hamburg intelligence service who was also a national coordinator for intelligence.
“People came here with a lot of hopes and promises they can make their luck in Germany. Most have a chance to integrate but a certain amount will not.
And the question is: what are they going to do?”
Even though the vast majority have no interest in religious extremism, frustrated refugees may end up burrowing deeper in to the black economy or developing mental health problems.
If Jaber did begin with the intention of trying to live a normal life in Germany, it’s not clear who or what swerved him off in to extremism. His brother told Reuters he thought he had been radicalized by imams in Berlin, without giving details.
Samer, his former flatmate, still can’t believe how Jaber’s story turned out. “He was a totally normal guy at the beginning,” he says. He believes Jaber must have been radicalized after they lived together, his naiveté exploited.
Jaber himself can’t provide answers. On the second day after being arrested, he fashioned a noose out of his T-shirt and hanged himself from the bars of his Leipzig prison cell.
For the rest of the refugees, the effort to build a new life goes on. Their struggle –already tough –is made harder by the souring atmosphere in Germany. “There is a big gap between us,” says Samer. “Germany is hard. It takes work.”
This story was produced with support from Robert Bosch Stiftung