Foiled Islamist Attack in Germany: A Terrorist, Three Heroes and a Bumbling Judiciary

At the end of each week, Hans-Georg Maassen, the president of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), receives several rolls of paper from his staff. They look not unlike rolls of wallpaper — and are full of tables with information about the domestic intelligence agency’s current investigations.

Changes from the previous week are color-coded to make it easier to see how operations are progressing. The multitude of colorful blotches indicates how seriously the agency takes signs of possible terror attacks in Germany.

Last week, a case depicted on Maassen’s tables suddenly triggered extreme concern. A tip received from American intelligence agencies led German officials to Jaber al-Bakr, a Syrian citizen born on Jan. 10, 1994 in Saasaa, a town near Damascus. He was thought to be living at Usti nad Labem Street 97 in Chemnitz, though that wasn’t his officially registered place of residence. And there were indications that he was planning a bomb attack on an airport in Berlin, perhaps in just a few days.

The drama surrounding his failed arrest, his ultimate capture by Syrian refugees — who bound up al-Bakr and handed him over to police — and his suicide while in the hands of the Saxony judiciary: All of that has transfixed Germany during the last several days.

A team of SPIEGEL and SPIEGEL TV reporters met with the three Syrians who captured al-Bakr — widely celebrated as heroes in Germany — at a secret location and spent several hours talking to them. Their fates, and that of Jaber al-Bakr, touch on some of the most important issues facing the country: the tragedy of the Syrian war, the fear of Islamic State terror in Germany and the worries and hopes both of refugees and of their German hosts.

Their story also shines a spotlight on the work of Germany’s security agencies. It appears that a major attack was prevented, one perhaps modeled on previous terrorist assaults on Paris and Brussels, but the performance of justice officials in Saxony was an embarrassment. Their failure to prevent al-Bakr’s suicide will make it more difficult to completely clear up one of the most significant terror cases to have emerged in Germany in recent years.

Were al-Bakr still alive, investigators could perhaps learn in detail how he came to Germany, how he became radicalized, whose orders he may have been following, who was financing his activities, how he was able to obtain highly explosive material and how, exactly, he was able to communicate with IS via chat.

His testimony could very well have helped Germany’s leading security officials glean vital information that could help track down other possible terrorists. But with Jaber al-Bakr’s suicide, the most important source of such information has gone silent.

‘Really Tired’

It’s day three after the spectacular arrest in Leipzig and Mohamed, Sami and Ahmed are sitting in the apartment of a friend in a large German city. Worried that Islamists could take revenge on them in Leipzig, the three are in hiding and have declined to provide their full names. One of them doesn’t even want his first name printed, so we have used the pseudonym “Ahmed.” Nevertheless, they are eager to share their version of the story.

Are they proud or relieved? Mohamed, who worked as a hairdresser in Syria, shrugs his shoulders. “No,” he says. “I’m just tired. Really tired.” He has hardly slept since Sunday night, he says.

Too much has happened since then. He and his two friends have been celebrated in the German press as “the heroes from Leipzig.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has thanked them for their actions and politicians from a variety of parties have suggested they be given the Order of Merit, Germany’s only federal decoration.

The heroes themselves are less effusive. “We only did our duty,” says Sami.

More than anything, they want to counter the accusation made by al-Bakr before he committed suicide. The terror suspect told Leipzig police that, far from being heroes, the three were accomplices who had supported his plot. Security officials, though, say that the three have not been connected to any of the preparations al-Bakr made prior to his arrest. By the time SPIEGEL went to print on Thursday night, officials continued to view the three as witnesses and not as suspects.

“Al-Bakr is crazy,” Ahmed says angrily. “He wanted to kill us too. We had absolutely nothing to do with him.”

After the two attacks this summer — one in Würzburg, which saw a 17-year-old Islamist from Afghanistan attack train passengers with an axe, injuring five, and another in Ansbach, where a Syrian refugee blew himself up, injuring 15 people — many in Germany have begun seeing refugees as potential terrorists. The case of al-Bakr in Chemnitz has further confirmed such suspicions. But the three men from Leipzig would like to change these impressions and show that the vast majority of Syrians in Germany are, like them, interested only in the safety and peace their host country has provided them.

A Mysterious Phone Call

Thirty-six years old Mohamed A. is a sturdily built man with shoulder-length, black hair with a fear of dogs. He has a wife and five children who remained behind in Syria. Ahmed E. is 28 years old and his family — wife and three children — is likewise still in Syria. He wears a goatee and has black curly hair. In Syria, he studied mechanical engineering and now dreams of being able to continue his studies here in Germany. Sami M. is 26 years old and used to work as a truck driver. He is a big fan of FC Bayern München.

All three are from the same city in Syria and came to Germany last summer and fall by way of Turkey, Greece and the Balkans. Some of their statements are contradictory and others are difficult to confirm, but on the whole, the story they have to tell seems credible.

Mohamed says he was invited to dinner on the evening of Saturday, October 8 by a Syrian acquaintance in Leipzig and brought along Sami, who was visiting from Stuttgart. At around 6 p.m., his phone rang. According to the story told by the three refugees, the Syrian caller introduced himself as Khaled and claimed that he had received Mohamed’s number from a man at the train station. He said he was new in the city and needed a place to stay for one or two nights, even offering to pay. That telephone conversation is one aspect of the story in which investigators are particularly interested.

Mohamed asked Sami to pick up the visitor at the Torgauer Platz tram stop, not far from Leipzig central station. As would later become clear, the visitor was not actually named Khaled, but Jaber al-Bakr. Sami recalls that the man seemed confused — his clothes were dirty and his hair mussed. “I pitied him,” he says. The men offered their guest lamb with rice and al-Bakr ate ravenously, they say, telling them that he hadn’t eaten the whole day.

After eating, Mohamed took Sami and al-Bakr back to his apartment in a complex in the Paunsdorf neighborhood of eastern Leipzig. Later that evening, Ahmed joined them. The four of them sat together in the kitchen drinking tea and talking about Syria and life in Germany. Al-Bakr said that he wanted to find a job in Leipzig. Because he didn’t have any clean clothes, Mohamed loaned him clothes to sleep in.

Didn’t they have reservations about taking in a man that none of them knew? Mohamed raises his eyebrows and sticks out his lower lip. “I didn’t think about it too much,” he says.

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