German authorities have launched a crackdown on Middle Eastern crime families in Essen, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia where some 70 Turkish, Kurdish and Arab-born clan members regularly engage in racketeering, extortion, money laundering, pimping and trafficking in humans, weapons and drugs.
Middle Eastern crime clans now control large swathes of German cities and towns — areas that are effectively lawless and which German police increasingly fear to approach.
The crime families, which have thousands of members, have for decades been allowed operate with virtual impunity: German judges and prosecutors were unable or unwilling to stop them, apparently out of fear of retribution.
The nascent crackdown comes nearly a year after the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and replaced the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which, apart from one legislative period, has ruled the region since 1966.
Observers say that the clans have become so powerful and ruthless that the government's only solution is to wage all-out war to utterly annihilate the clans. If the initial raid in Essen is any indication, however, the Middle Eastern crime families in Germany have little to fear.
On April 12, more than 300 police officers, accompanied by dozens of customs, tax and anti-money-laundering agents, searched nearly 100 commercial businesses, hookah bars, gambling halls and betting offices in downtown Essen. After questioning 600 individuals and searching 60 vehicles at checkpoints, police arrested eight people, most of whom were wanted on open arrest warrants. Another 20 people were charged with drugs and immigration violations.
Many of the so-called Lebanese clans actually consist of ethnic Kurds from Southeastern Anatolia who migrated to Lebanon in search of work, and then moved to Germany during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. In Germany, they built parallel societies based on tribal and clan customs and Islamic honor codes.
Many clan members receive unemployment benefits while they launder profits from illegal activities through bars, restaurants and the used-car trade.
Police have been no match for the clans, whose members use cellphones to summon backup support. Within moments, dozens of clan members form mobs to insult and intimidate law enforcement officers.
"Respect for the police tends towards zero with these clans," said Arnold Plickert, head of the GdP police union in NRW. "These people live in their own parallel society and have no regard for the German constitutional state."
Focus magazine described the brute-force methods used by the clans to gain control over the sports betting sector in Essen:
"Five years ago, three leading clan members harassed the operator of several betting shops. They demanded 10,000 euros per month in protection money. In addition, he was told to open two new betting offices for blackmailers and pay another 150,000 euros. Moreover, he was told that he could not operate any business in Essen without participation by the clans. If he refused to comply, he would be killed.
"The businessman turned to the police for help but the investigation dragged on. After a while the police stopped the telephone monitoring. The judge took three years before scheduling the trial. In the end, the accused were found not guilty for lack of evidence.
"Abdou Gabbar, the victim's lawyer, has now appealed the verdict: 'The experience with the Essen police and justice in matters regarding the Al-Zein clan was frustrating. The district court did not even want to translate the incriminating telephone calls properly, and simply pronounced the defendants free.'
"Further charges against the protagonists, including for insulting police officers, were also dropped. The judge deemed the risk was too high that clan members would riot in the courtroom."
In nearby Gelsenkirchen, Kurdish and Lebanese clans are vying for control of city streets, some of which have become zones that are off-limits to German authorities. Senior members of the Gelsenkirchen police department have held secret meetings with representatives of the clans to "cultivate social peace between Germans and Lebanese."
According to a leaked police report, clan members informed Police Chief Ralf Feldmann that "the police cannot win a war with the Lebanese because we outnumber them." They added: "This applies to all of Gelsenkirchen, if we so choose."
When Feldman countered that he would dispatch police reinforcements to disrupt their activities, the clan members laughed and said: "The government does not have enough money to deploy the numbers of police necessary to confront the Lebanese." The police report concluded that German authorities must be realistic about the actual balance of power: "The police would be defeated."
In Duisburg, a leaked report prepared for the NRW state parliament revealed that Lebanese clans do not recognize the authority of the police and have divided up neighborhoods to pursue criminal activities. Their members are males between the ages of 15 and 25 and "nearly 100%" of them are known to police.
The report described the situation in Duisburg's Laar district, where two large Lebanese families seem to have taken over control: "The streets are actually regarded as a separate territory. Outsiders are physically assaulted, robbed and harassed. Experience shows that the Lebanese clans can mobilize several hundred people in a very short period of time by means of a telephone call."
Police say they are alarmed by the aggressiveness and brutality of the clans, which are said to view crime as leisure activity. If police intervene, hundreds of clan members are mobilized to confront the police.
"If this is not a no-go area, then I do not know what is," said Peter Biesenbach (CDU), now NRW Justice Minister. Before assuming his current post, he repeatedly called for an official inquiry to determine the scope of clan activity. Those pleas were rejected by the previous NRW Interior Minister Ralf Jäger (SPD) because such a study would be politically incorrect:
"Further data collection is not legally permissible. Both internally and externally, any classification that could be used to depreciate human beings must be avoided. In this respect, the use of the term 'family clan' (Familienclan) is forbidden from the police point of view."
The new NRW Interior Minister, Herbert Reul (CDU), has pledged a course correction: "We will not tolerate any illegal activities or parallel justice. We have a zero-tolerance-strategy. We will use all means of the rule of law to fight crime." How effective his strategy will be remains to be seen.
Ralph Ghadban, a Lebanese-German political scientist and a leading expert on Middle Eastern clans in Germany, said that the only way for Germany to achieve control over the clans is to destroy them. In an interview with Focus, he explained:
"In their concept of masculinity, only power and force matter; if someone is humane and civil, this is considered a weakness. In clan structures, in tribal culture everywhere in the world, ethics are confined to the clan itself. Everything outside the clan is enemy territory.
"I have been following this trend for years. The clans now feel so strong that they are attacking the authority of the state and the police. They have nothing but contempt for the judiciary.... The main problem in dealing with clans: state institutions give no resistance. This makes the families more and more aggressive — they simply have no respect for the authorities....
"The state must destroy the clan structures. Strong and well-trained police officers must be respected on the street. In addition, lawyers and judges must be trained. The courts are issuing feeble judgments based on a false understanding of multiculturalism and the fear of the stigma of being branded as racist."
An Emnid poll published by Bild on April 14 found that 51% of those surveyed were worried about German no-go zones, areas where the state is unable or unwilling to enforce the law; 77% said that they wanted the state to take more forceful action against the clans.
"The state has not managed to get the problem under control," said Ghadban, the clan expert. The reason for this is the prevailing political ideology: "The police can only act as politicians allow. The multicultural atmosphere, in which everything is to be tolerated, leads in practice to the fact that the clans are not pursued."