In Germany, Refugees Provide Terror Tipoffs but Investigations Prove Tricky
BSSB.BE wsj.com 02.11.2016
BERLIN—When Syrian terror suspect Jaber Albakr escaped a police raid in the Eastern German town of Chemnitz in October, authorities posted an Arabic version of their wanted notice online 30 hours later.
By then, hundreds of Syrians had already shared their own translation on social media. Two days later, it was three Syrian refugees who captured and turned in the suspect.
“I came from a place where many people were killed; I don’t want anyone to die here,” said Abdalaziz al-Hamza, one of the first Syrians to post his translation of the notice onFacebook.
Refugees from the war-torn Middle East have been banding together to hound suspected terrorists and war criminals hiding among the nearly two million who have settled in Europe over the last two years, most of them in Germany.
The help, which ranges from tipoffs in immigration interviews to networks of amateur investigators, has been both a blessing and a burden for officials.
In Frankfurt, a Syrian human rights activist is collecting files on suspected war criminals and Islamists. In Bavaria, a refugee is sharing information on his former Islamic State captors. Online, refugees are posting pictures of suspected war criminals at a pace authorities can barely keep up with.
Some of the information from refugees is invaluable, security officials said, given authorities are often investigating crimes rooted in distant and inaccessible countries. But many of the tips are vague or unsubstantiated, evidence that is too thin to justify an investigation let alone a trial.
And some have been found to be false alarms based on personal agendas, leading at times to a fruitless strain on already tight resources, the officials said. The patchy effectiveness of the efforts has frustrated both the refugees offering the help, and officials still figuring out how to best use it.
“We have to be careful, we can’t simply go after someone just because one person thinks he did something,” said Jochen Hollmann, head of the state intelligence agency in Saxony-Anhalt.
In Germany, authorities have received 445 tips on potential terror and Islamist supporters over the past 18 months, and another 1,250 on suspected war criminals alone this year, according to the federal criminal agency BKA. Of the 445, 80 have led to in-depth investigations, the BKA said.
Islamic State has boasted of directing three attacks in Germany this year—two by refugees this summer and a murder by an unidentified knife-wielding suspect in Hamburg in October. The militant group claimed the Hamburg attack last weekend, and authorities said they are looking into the claim.
German authorities have also dismantled several terror cells involving refugees. The attacks and arrests have boosted support for populist, anti-immigration parties and fanned fears about the security implications of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to let in so many refugees.
“So many people come from places where Islamic State was in control, in most of the cases, they know something,” said Masoud Aqil, a 23-year old Kurdish journalist, who was once a prisoner of the extremist group. In Germany, he shared information with police about people he came across while in captivity.
Syrian human rights activist Abdelkarim Rihawi has set up a team tracking potential war criminals and terrorists suspected to be in Europe from his new home of Frankfurt. They have passed on names of some 150 suspected war criminals and one Islamic State fighter to authorities so far, he said.
‘[The refugees] might very well have some proof that could help us.’
Lawyer Rami Hamido, now in Sweden, founded the private Facebook group “Criminals not Refugees,” where members publish information about suspected Syrian war criminals and terror supporters believed to be in Europe. They claim to have tracked some 250 suspects across the continent, including seven alleged Islamic State fighters in Germany, Greece and Italy.
The BKA said it couldn’t comment on individual tipsters. One German official said authorities were aware of Mr. Aqil’s tips but couldn’t say if they had helped in inquiries.
Despite doubts about the veracity of some of the tips, German authorities have been actively reaching out to refugees for their cooperation. In the state of Hesse, intelligence officials and social workers are training refugees to spot signs of radicalism. In Bavaria, the interior ministry is translating into Arabic brochures about the dangers of fundamentalist strains of Islam.
In Saxony-Anhalt, Mr. Hollmann, the state intelligence chief, is in close contact with the heads of two large Muslim associations who agreed to relay any suspicions on newcomers, he said.
“Sometimes we get stuck in an investigation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing there,” said Mr. Hollmann. “[The refugees] might very well have some proof that could help us.”
The arrest of a Syrian asylum-seeker suspected of ties to Islamic State in the city of Dortmund last year showed the difficulties German authorities face in pursuing information shared by migrants.
After a website run by Syrian opposition activists published accusations about the refugee, police detained the man. A day later, he was released again for lack of evidence. Federal prosecutors later took over the probe but only found evidence that the man had once joined the Free Syrian Army, a U.S.-backed rebel group fighting the Syrian government, according to people familiar with the case.
Refugees say they are frustrated at the glacial pace of investigations.
“I understand there is the rule of law, but it’s distressing for us that there seems to be no way to put some criminals in jail,” said Mr. Rihawi, the activist tracking potential suspects.
A case in Italy showed help from migrants can be decisive. In March, a 22-year Somali asylum seeker was arrested on suspicions he was advocating acts of terror after a tip from another migrant living in the same shelter.
The informant provided a dozen recordings of the suspect praising Islamic State and exhorting others to commit acts of terror in Italy. Six asylum seekers later testified against the suspect. In August, the Somali was sentenced to two years and six months in jail.
—Giovanni Legorano in Milan contributed to this article.
Write to Ruth Bender at [email protected]
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