Politics

Gang crime still ‘a huge problem,’ says top criminal investigator

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Deutsche Welle: Mr Fiedler, today German police carried out a dawn raid against the Iraqi Al-Salam-313 motorcycle gang. Have hierarchically organized gangs like these grown more dangerous in recent times?

Sebastian Fiedler: Judging by the number of gang members overall, the problem remains constant. But it must be said that overall this whole scene has changed drastically. Certain groups were disbanded; some were outlawed. In the past, we used to focus on large gangs like the Hells Angels, Bandidos and Freeway Riders. Today, however, numerous new new gangs have emerged. Some of them have members with migrant backgrounds, but it’s hard to generalize.

What’s the difference between older and more recent motorcycle gangs? After all, members of Al-Salam-313 seem more likely to drive Mercedes cars than ride motorbikes. 

Sebastian Fiedler, head of the Association of German Criminal Investigators (picture alliance/Eventpress Stauffenberg)

Detectives’ association boss Fiedler: Politicians cannot continue just thinking of the next legislative session if they want to truly tackle gang crime and its effects

Crimes perpetrated by the Hells Angels are still an issue. But when you look at the history of the gang you see many were war veterans. Their motorcycles gave them a sense of identity. This phenomenon is less common today. I’d say that these older groups are now more like illicit businesses. Today, they are essentially focused on controlling certain illegal markets and using violence to keep other gangs at bay. So they operate and recruit members like a business involved in illicit activities. What is different today is that biker gangs tend to have members from various ethnic backgrounds, and some gangs have ties to extremist groups, or sometimes follow a foreign agenda. In sum, the biker gangs have become much more heterogeneous.

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The Osmanen Germania group has members of Turkish descent and Al-Salam-313 is a predominantly Iraqi gang. Do these groups have links to foreign actors, or are they even controlled from abroad?

Yes, some certainly have ties abroad. It is known that the Osmanen Germania gang has received financial assistance from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party. The gang has essentially functioned as [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s armed wing in Germany. Many biker gangs who are making headlines today are similar. Most are no longer just interested in controlling illicit markets but now have larger goals. These always have a financial dimension.

Have biker gangs become more violent?

Not really. These groups have always been brutal since they emerged in the first place. Even in the beginning, when the first groups were created, some used weapons of war. So, unfortunately, it cannot be said there has been any change with regard to gang violence.

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What is the police doing against these groups? Is the state taking sufficient action?

Police raids and bans are just not enough for dealing with bike gangs. These are appropriate measures, and we support them; the state must use all legal means at its disposal. But just like in the past, the police still lack resources to carry out in-depth and undercover investigations. The government is not providing enough resources for this. We should be adopting a long-term perspective if we want to permanently break up and weaken these groups, and not think from one legislative period to the next.

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Are investigations more difficult when suspects have a shared ethnic background or speak the same language, such as Arabic?

Going after such gangs is already hard enough because they make an effort to isolate themselves. They are very particular about whom they allow to join. New members are carefully vetted and at some stage forced to commit crimes so they become attached to the group. And like the mafia, these gangs observe the “omerta” — a code of silence. Anyone who violates this code, who cooperates with state agents and exposes illicit dealings, is severely punished. So all this already makes it hard enough to investigate biker gangs. And when certain cultural and linguistic barriers are added to the mix, this just make things even more difficult for us.

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Do you think these sorts of gangs will become an even bigger threat in future?

I have to say I am not very optimistic, to be honest. Because at the moment, we do not have the resources to go after all these new groups, to put them under pressure, and make sure our investigations deliver results. Decades of neglect mean we now face this situation. That is a huge problem. And, on top of it all, new groups are increasingly discovering that forming a biker gang can allow them to successfully engage in organized crime.

Sebastian Fiedler serves as the head of the Association of German Criminal Investigators. The union represents some 15,000 investigators.

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