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Refugees Detain Syrian Suspected Of Planning Attack, German Police Say


In Germany, a rare nationwide manhunt for a Syrian refugee thought to be planning a terror attack inspired by ISIS ended with his capture by other Syrians. This leaves Germany with two images of its huge migrant population - one threatening, the other heroic. We go to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin for the latest. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Who was this guy, and what did the German authorities, the police, say he was planning to do?

NELSON: His name is Jaber al-Bakr. He's 22 years old, and he came in with the wave of asylum-seekers that came in to Germany last year. He was granted asylum for three years, so basically refugee status. And what the German domestic intelligence agency reports is that they linked him to a planned terror attack against one of Berlin's airports. And so they told local authorities about this, and they built enough of a case so that on Saturday morning they decided to go ahead and raid his apartment.

MONTAGNE: And what did they find when they got to this guy's apartment?

NELSON: Well, this was in the town of Chemnitz, I should point out. This is in eastern Germany where there's been a lot of anti-refugee sentiment. And so in this apartment building where this guy lived, they found fuzes and three pounds of explosives, including what authorities think is TATP, which is that highly volatile chemical, a similar kind that was used in earlier bombing attacks in Brussels, in Paris. What's also interesting is that police saw al-Bakr running away. They fired a warning shot, but they said they couldn't give chase because they were wearing very heavy gear and just couldn't get after him.

MONTAGNE: So how did these three Syrians who ultimately captured him and turned him in end up with him?

NELSON: Well, it's interesting because authorities aren't saying much about this, and they're refusing to identify them, saying that they fear that there might be retaliation from ISIS or somebody against these three Syrians. But one of the guys spoke with a local network here, n-tv, and he identified himself only by his first name, Mohammad. He wore a hood so they couldn't see his face. And he said that he had gotten a call from al-Bakr, who he didn't know, asking if he could have a place to stay at his place, which is not abnormal. Apparently, refugees help each other out quite a bit here.

So he spent the night Saturday, and then by Sunday, Mohammad figured out that this guy was the one that police were looking for. Apparently, he saw his image online. There were online posters, wanted posters in Arabic and English. So he called a couple of his friends who came to the apartment. They tied him up. Apparently, al-Bakr was pleading with them to let him go. He offered them money, which they refused to take. And so he (laughter) called the police up. Mohammad called the police up. He said the police couldn't understand his German.

So then he went down to the police station with a picture of this guy on his cellphone. And he still had to wait an hour until the police actually figured out who this guy was talking about, who they had at the apartment. So Mohammad said that the reason he would turn in a fellow refugee is that he feels terrorists aren't Syrian and that they aren't humans.

MONTAGNE: And, Soraya, I gather that all of this transpired in a state that has a reputation for being very inhospitable to refugees.

NELSON: Yes. This is in Saxony, which is the home of Pegida, which is this very large anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim group that does marches all the time. There's also strong support here for nationalist parties and nationalist candidates. And what's been happening - I mean, initially there was a lot of favorable response toward the refugees who stopped this person, al-Bakr. But already the mood is changing, and there are growing calls to do more about vetting refugees and to make sure that these asylum-seekers are not in fact terrorists.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking to us from Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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