Germany grapples with framing of extremist attacks after three women stabbed to death

Three months to election day, tortured immigration debate back on political agenda

A makeshift memorial in tribute to the victims of a deadly attack on Friday evening in the city centre of Wuerzburg, southern Germany. Photograph: Getty

A makeshift memorial in tribute to the victims of a deadly attack on Friday evening in the city centre of Wuerzburg, southern Germany. Photograph: Getty

 

A 24-year-old Somali-born man stabbed three women to death and injured seven more; a 42-year-old Kurdish man risked his own life to intervene and prevented much worse.

Three months to election day, Germany’s tortured immigration debate is back on the political agenda as politicians and journalists grapple with how to frame a horrific kitchen-knife attack in the southern city of Würzburg.

Police say their only suspect in Friday’s attack is a man who arrived in Germany six years ago and had been treated at a local psychiatric institution.

On Friday evening he entered a discount store and stabbed three people with a knife. His victims were all women: a 24-year-old shopping for a dress for a friend’s wedding; a 49-year-old stabbed while protecting her daughter from the attacker; and an 82-year-old pensioner who tried to overpower the man. 

Identified locally as Abdirahman J, the suspect was born in Mogadishu in 1997 and applied for asylum in Germany in 2015. He remained in Germany with subsidiary protection status after his application was rejected.

Investigators say the man, who was shot in the thigh and overpowered by police, has no known Islamist links. However, an eyewitness report, that the suspect cried “Allah Akbar!” (God is greatest!) during his spree, sparked speculation of an extremist motive.

The attack shocked the country and brought back unhappy memories of a series of nine violent attacks stretching back to 2016, which left 14 dead and more than 100 injured, that were carried out by young men who arrived during the refugee crisis.

On Monday the Bild tabloid accused the rest of the German media – and much of the political establishment – of downplaying the possible Islamist connection. It claimed Islamic State material had been found in a homeless shelter where the man lived and that, after his arrest, he told police he was planning his own “jihad” or holy war. 

He was already known to police and had spent time in a closed psychiatric facility. But his lawyer, Hajo Schrepfer, told Bild the “doctors clearly assumed there was no acute danger for himself or others”.

The attack has echoes of another incident, in July 2016, an hour from Würzburg, when a Syrian asylum seeker attempted to blow up himself and others with a self-made bomb.

Police registered that attack as the work of a psychologically disturbed perpetrator rather than a political extremist. A similar tag was added to the 2017 Christmas market attack in Berlin that left 12 dead.

AfD reaction

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) says fear of being dubbed racist has inhibited proper discussion of the phenomenon of extremist immigrants.

“Mass immigration is also knife immigration,” said Gottfried Curio, an AfD Bundestag MP after Friday’s attack.

But leading German politicians have pushed back against the AfD strategy of highlighting when attackers are “people with a migrant background”. 

They pointed on Monday afternoon to the eastern city of Erfurt, where police detained a 32-year-old German man after he stabbed two people at a tram stop.

Among the heroes of the Würzburg attack is Chia Rabiei, a Kurdish-Iranian man in Germany for nearly 18 months. Video footage shows him trying to tackle the knife-wielding man and slow him down as he ran through the city.

“I tried to stop him with my rucksack, I tried to take the knife from him but didn’t succeed,” said Rabiei.

On Sunday, Bavarian state premier Markus Söder thanked Rabiei personally for his bravery and has nominated him for Germany’s highest civil honour, adding: “Good and evil are not an issue of nationality, religion and ethnicity.”