Refugee? Jihadist? After Suicide Bombing, Germans Question Migrant Policy

MUNICH — To the German authorities, he was Mohammad Daleel, a 27-year-old Syrian traumatized by war who arrived in Europe seeking refuge.

To the Islamic State, he was Abu Yousef, a jihadist who went to Europe for medical treatment after being wounded, intending to return to battle.

Nearly two weeks after he became Germany’s first suicide bomber, detonating a backpack filled with chemicals and sharp metal bits outside a music festival in the southern town of Ansbach, his actual identity and motives remain unclear.

That fact has raised troubling questions about the refugee policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel as Germany works to integrate nearly a million migrants and she faces calls for a firmer approach, led by a surging far right.

Even before the recent spate of attacks by refugees, the German authorities and others in Europe were concerned about infiltration by terrorists. But Mr. Daleel’s case has brought home to Germans the danger of former fighters, from any of the numerous sides in Syria’s multicornered conflict, who have arrived along with civilians.

It has also reinforced doubts about whether the authorities actually know whom they have admitted into the country, and highlighted the challenges of verifying the identities, documents and back stories of those allowed to stay. A 17-year-old who carried out an ax attack on a train the same week that Mr. Daleel blew himself up, for example, has yet to be properly identified, even though he had already been assigned to a foster family in Germany.

As he sought asylum in Europe, Mr. Daleel appears to have either embellished or omitted key parts of his history in constantly shifting accounts.
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“Based on what we know right now, it is not clear when he radicalized,” Joachim Herrmann, interior minister for Bavaria, said this week. “There is the possibility that he self-radicalized; there is a possibility that he was radicalized a long time ago, perhaps even years ago.”
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Documents show that Mr. Daleel entered Europe illegally in July 2013 through Bulgaria, where he arrived with a Sony Xperia mobile phone and charger, two two-gigabyte memory cards, two sets of earbuds, a one-gigabyte flash drive and eight $100 bills.

One of the people Mr. Daleel turned to for help when he arrived in Europe was Iliana Savova, director of the program for legal protection of refugees and migrants at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights organization. In her office in Sofia, Bulgaria, she confirmed that Mr. Daleel was one of 290 asylum seekers who had appealed to the organization for help in November 2013. Mr. Daleel told the organization that he had no money and nowhere to live, and that he required medical treatment for his knee.

“I particularly remember this case because we don’t see people with shell fragments in their legs very often,” Ms. Savova said. “He told us he got the fragments in his legs when a shell exploded in his house and killed his wife and children.”

Mr. Daleel did not claim he had been tortured during the two months he was detained in Bulgaria, as he later told the German authorities. The Bulgarian authorities said they knew of no abuse. Mr. Daleel showed them shrapnel wounds on his legs. But they noted no signs of psychological instability or indications of radicalization.

Mr. Daleel was granted asylum, but was unable to get the medical treatment he sought. He then flew to Austria, where he again applied for asylum in the spring of 2014. The application was rejected because he had protection in Bulgaria.

Several month later, he went on to Germany. Here, he first made the claim that he had been abused in Bulgaria to Axel von Maltitz, a therapist in the southwestern city of Lindau, who, along with his wife, Gisela, runs an association that offers counseling to victims of trauma and to refugees.
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The couple refused to accept the idea of Mr. Daleel as a terrorist who supported the Islamic State.

“He was a very calm, very pleasant patient, without any further problems,” Ms. von Maltitz said in a telephone interview. “He would always come punctually with his bicycle on the train.”

Mr. Daleel received six sessions from her husband over the course of a year starting in January 2015, she said. He had been granted another session for the end of July, but was left on his own in the meantime.

Ms. von Maltitz refused to comment on his motives. “This simply doesn’t fit into the picture of the patient who we knew,” she said.

Last year, a German volunteer who works with refugees brought Mr. Daleel’s case to the attention of a lawmaker, Harald Weinberg, who holds a seat for the Left party in the German Parliament. Mr. Weinberg wrote to the authorities in Ansbach on Nov. 15, urging them to allow Mr. Daleel to stay, saying that Mr. Daleel had been hospitalized “several times” for psychological treatment and was suicidal after being ordered to return to Bulgaria.

On July 24, Mr. Daleel detonated a bomb in his backpack at the music festival, wounding 15 and killing himself.

A video found on his phone showed a masked man claiming to be Mr. Daleel, but using a nom de guerre and swearing allegiance to the Islamic State. It was later also circulated by the terrorist group. Federal prosecutors took over the case because of the apparent terrorism links, although Mr. Daleel had been unknown to them before the attack.

Other people who have carried out recent attacks, including the one in Nice, France, that killed 85 people in July, had long histories of psychological troubles but scant, if any, links to the Islamic State, even as the group declared them “soldiers.”
Police officers secured the area after the Ansbach explosion. Credit Michaela Rehle/Reuters

The Islamic State called Mr. Daleel a soldier, too, but in his case, it also provided a long account of his ties to the group, including as a fighter in Aleppo, Syria. Last week, the group said Mr. Daleel had first joined its ranks in Iraq and later fought in Syria, “where he was injured by shrapnel of a mortar.”

After seeking treatment in Europe, it said, Mr. Daleel wanted to return to Syria to fight but was unable to do so, and instead “started creating accounts” on the internet to support the Islamic State.

The German police say Mr. Daleel opened six Facebook accounts, at least one of which was under a false name.

The Islamic State also claimed that Mr. Daleel had studied how to make a bomb for three months, was in contact with a handler and had visited the site of the attack the day before.

Even before the attack, Germany had tightened laws to register and share data about newly arriving refugees. It has also been sending out teams of customs officers or soldiers to locate unregistered asylum seekers.

The teams record basic personal information and country of birth, and take biometric photos and fingerprints, said Andrea Brinkmann, a spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Those are checked against the domestic intelligence office’s databases and data on refugees already registered elsewhere in the European Union. Since February, all offices dealing with refugees, from the border police to state and local officials, have been able to review that information.

But whether those steps will be sufficient remains to seen. Officials and humanitarian groups say they have long tried to balance the protection of refugees against security.

“The challenge, then,” said Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, “is to find those individuals who may have had different motivations, and those whose motivations may have changed since they arrived.