On 15 April, German magazine Focus published on the growing problems with criminal ‘Lebanese clans‘ in Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW). Using a zero-tolerance strategy, the Minister of the Interior, Herbert Reul, wants to combat the criminal extended families in the Ruhr-area. The aim is to prevent the creation of lawless zones in the cities such as Essen, Duisberg and Gelsenkirchen. Focus calls this quite the challenge, as the influence of these crime families is steadily increasing, and says it offers an analysis of the problem.

Focus opens the article with a description of large-scale police raids in the inner city of Essen. Police, in cooperation with city officials (health and safety, tax and customs officers), check out the betting offices, Shisha-bars, ‘oriental’ snack bars and all other small shops of the Lebanese family-clans.

The list of offences committed by members of these clans is long: robbery, theft, bodily harm, threats, protection rackets, drugs trafficking, illegal possession of firearms, right up to murder. In many areas, the clans control the streets, with critics going as far as to speak of ‘no-go areas’.

During the raids, Reul was interviewed by Focus in front of Shisha-bar Hookah INN, which is considered a meeting places for members of the clans. While police were checking the identities of guests and staff, and putting a suspect in a van, the Minister talks about the aims of his ‘security offensive’.

Zero-tolerance, consistent action. We want to show that the police is taking an interest.

The results? That night 800 persons were checked, an arrest warrant was fulfilled and several persons who have been obligated to leave the country were taken into custody. The day after, Reul announces in another interview:

We will allow no respite to the criminal clans.

History of the clans

Most of the so-called Lebanese-clans actually consist of Kurds from Turkish South-East Anatolia. Engaging in the fruit- and vegetable trade, they moved to Lebanon. When civil war broke out there, at the beginning of the 1980’s, they were displaced, with many coming to Germany. Because of a lack of valid papers, they were at first considered to be stateless. They built a parallel society, ruled by an archaic code of honour. The family is considered the main organisational unit, comprising, in some cases, many thousands of members. Meanwhile, many of the criminal members are officially registered as depending on benefits (Hartz IV).

The turf wars between the different gangs make headlines repeatedly. In 2016, Mahmoud M., member of the infamous El-Kadi-Clan, killed a 21-year-old adversary in Essen in broad daylight. Mahmoud was sentenced to life in prison for what the court considered to be an act of ‘blood revenge’. The murder was the high point in a decade-long, smouldering conflict within the widely branched clans. At the end of September 2016, 175 clan-members got into a mass-fight with rivalling Hells Angels in Düsseldorf-Erkrath, while all over NRW, clan-members feature in the verdicts of local courts.

Criminal activities and money laundering

The money made by criminal activities has to be laundered. The clans use it to finance their trade in second-hand cars, or invest in the shops raided: the Shisha-bars, restaurants, betting offices, gambling halls. Many of the criminal masterminds buy up so-called Schrottimmobilien: derelict buildings that they convert into dormitories, where they rent out primitive sleeping arrangements to ‘economic refugees’ from the Balkans, or migrants from their home countries. This threatens the balance in quarters of towns already struggling with social problems. Mayor Thomas Kufen, also accompanying the raids, knows the problem well. He wants the city to end the abuses, but how? One thing is for sure:

These profiteers have no scruples in taking advantage of the poorest of the poor.

Problems for law enforcement

Focus writes that in Essen the clan is an authority in itself. When clan-members get into conflict, amongst themselves or with members of other clans, they can call on mediation from a sort of Justice of the Peace. Often an older, respected member, who can reach a verdict in the name of the clans. This organisation affects the clans’ relationship with competing systems of authority. When there is a conflict with the police, a mobile telephone tree is used to mobilise, if necessary, thousands of clan-members. These form a mob, insulting or intimidating police officers.

In Gelsenkirchen a female police officer was hit to the ground with a fence post. When the police in Essen forced a clan-member, who had a record of many previous convictions, to his criminal trial, he mocked them, calling them ‘Nazi’s’ and threatening them with a beating. According to Arnold Plickert, the Chief of the NRW police union (GdP):

The clan’s respect for the police hovers close to nought. These people live in their own, parallel societies and have nothing but contempt for the German rule of law.

The lack of respect also comes from a lack of competence with law enforcement and the judiciary. Take the Al-Zeins clan, known for their spectacular crimes, such as the 2014 robbery of the Berlin department store KaDeWe, where they managed to steal €800.000 worth of luxury watches and other jewellery. For years, this clan has been employing brute methods in order to gain control over, amongst others, betting offices. For five years, three leading members of the family threatened the manager of Tipico betting offices.

According to his statement, the family demanded €10.000 each month for ‘protection’. He was also ordered by his blackmailers to open two new betting offices and pay an additional €150.000. He was told he couldn’t do any business in Essen, without cutting the family in. If he didn’t pay, they would kill him.

The entrepreneur informed the police, the investigation proceeding at a snail’s pace. After some time, the police proceeded with wire-tapping. The prosecutor took three years to take the case to court. In the end, the career criminals were freed, because of lack of evidence. Abdou Gabber, defence counsel for the victim, has taken the case to the German Supreme Court. When asked by Focus about his experiences, Gabber reacts angrily:

My experiences with the Essen Police and prosecutor in the Al-Zein case were an exercise in frustration. The District Court didn’t even want to get the few incriminating wire-tap confessions translated and just let the accused go.

Further accusations against the clan-members, including those for insulting police officers, were also dropped by the magistrate in charge. The security risk was too high for him, in view of the expected turmoil from those parts of the clan and present in court.

It is clear that the battle against clan-related crimes didn’t have the highest priority with the Public Prosecutor in NRW. In Düsseldorf the trial against another member of Al-Zein recently got under way. The charge is attacking a competitor with a knuckle duster, and demanding €1000 from him. He is also said to have threatened his victim with “bashing his skull in“. All this took place on 19 May 2006, twelve years ago. Why the wait? Previously, the Düsseldorf District Court was understaffed and focused only on the most pressing of cases. Only increased capacity has made it possible to work older cases, according to a spokeswoman.

NRW Minister of Justice, Peter Biesenbach has recognised the problem. The CDU politician wants to send two special prosecutors to the clan area in the Ruhr, to increase law enforcement there. It seems like they have their work cut out for them.