How Berlin’s crime clans are targeting refugees: Special report

Berlin crime gangs of Arab origin have long earned infamy with violence and brazen robberies but now, police warn, they have targeted a new generation of refugees for recruitment.

How Berlin's crime clans are targeting refugees: Special report
A police car in front of the mural of Nidal Rabih, a well-known figure in the criminal underworld who was shot and killed in September near Tempelhof Field. Photo: DPA

Known in the media as Berlin's “clans”, whose founders themselves fled war in Lebanon in the 1980s, they have long controlled much of the city's illegal drugs trade, street prostitution and protection rackets.

While East European and Asian organized crime and homegrown biker gangs are also active, the clans have been especially visible, given many members' love of gangster bling and muscle cars.

The dozen or so Arabic and Kurdish-origin extended families, with their patriarchal structures and codes of honour, have also been mythologized by rap artists and portrayed in the TV series “4 Blocks”.

Now police warn that the clans have sought out new members from among the over one million asylum-seekers who have arrived in Germany since mid-2015, half of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The clans “are trying to get others to do the dirty work” such as selling drugs or committing small burglaries, said Benjamin Jendro of the GDP police union.

Many refugees, he said, are “men who have arrived alone in Germany” and who “have not yet had to do with the justice system,” making it less likely they will go to prison if caught.

An undercover police investigator also told Die Welt newspaper that “above all, it is the young, physically strong men who are in the sights of the clans, who make them do the dirty work”.

Actors of the series “4 Blocks”, Kida Khodr Ramadan, Frederick Lau and Veysel Gelin. The series is based on crime gangs in Berlin. Photo: Handout/2017 Turner Broadcasting System Europe Limited & Wiedemann & Berg Television GmbH & Co./DPA

'Parallel societies'

The migrant wave that peaked three years ago sparked a xenophobic backlash in Germany, and stoked heated debate about integration efforts and crimes committed by foreigners.

This has thrown a new focus on the clans and raised questions about how Berlin's police could let them openly flout the law for so long in a generally fairly low-crime country.

Germany's best-known rapper, Bushido, long boasted about his close ties to one Berlin clan — until they had a falling out this year and he sought the protection of a rival group.

Bushido's wife, Anna-Maria Ferchichi, told news weekly Stern that the couple now feared for their lives from gangsters who had formed “parallel societies right here in Germany”.

The clans' latest show of force was the September 13th funeral of an infamous underworld figure, when 2,000 mourners congregated in the Islamic section of a Berlin cemetery, watched over by some 150 police.

In scenes Stern described as “worthy of a mafia movie”, they paid their last respects to Nidal Rabih, a 36-year-old violent repeat offender who had been shot dead in front of his family days earlier, next to the public park Tempelhof.

Rabih, a Palestinian born in Lebanon, had achieved cult status in the Berlin criminal underworld.

Boasting more than 100 offences from robbery to attempted manslaughter, he had spent more than a decade behind bars but avoided a 2004 deportation attempt when Lebanon refused to issue him a passport.

SEE ALSO: Berlin police confiscate 77 properties connected to crime family

Days after his death, Berlin municipal workers guarded by police whitewashed over a wall mural at the murder scene that depicted Rabih in the style of a martyred Islamic fighter.

Guns and machetes

Sociologists say the story of Berlin's clans is a cautionary tale about failed integration.

Their patriarchs mostly arrived in the 1980s as refugees from then war-torn Lebanon, among them Palestinians and members of Turkey's Arabic and Kurdish minorities.

Many had only temporary protection status and “did not have access here to education or work”, said Islamologist Mathias Rohe, arguing that this sped up the descent into delinquency.

The extended families, aside from now running large chunks of Berlin's illegal economy, have also committed some of the city's most headline-grabbing criminal stunts.

In 2010, masked men wielding machetes and guns robbed a poker tournament in the Berlin Grand Hyatt, making off with about €240,000.

In 2014, robbers rampaged through Berlin's KaDeWe luxury department store, smashed glass displays and stole watches and jewellery worth €800,000.

And last year, clan-linked bandits stole a 100-kilogramme Canadian commemorative gold coin worth over €3.75 million from Berlin's Bode museum, around the corner from Chancellor Angela Merkel's apartment.

'Spoiling their fun'

Berlin's police is now under fire for having long neglected the problem — something researcher Ralph Ghadban blames partially on a “fear of stigmatizing and discriminating against certain minorities”.

In recent months, authorities have started to hit back by stepping up raids of shisha bars and betting shops, many in Berlin's Neukölln district, and confiscating expensive cars for speeding.

In August, police and prosecutors seized 77 properties worth €10 million, alleged to have mostly been bought with proceeds from a major 2014 bank robbery.

Some of the properties were officially owned by one convicted bank robber's 19-year-old brother whose only declared income was state welfare.

The confiscations still have to stand up in court against challenges from the clan's expensive lawyers, but authorities believe they have struck a first blow.

“We're stepping on their toes,” said Berlin interior minister Andreas Geisel. “We're spoiling their fun in Berlin.”

 By Yannick Pasquet and Frank Zeller

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”