Justin Huggler, The Telegraph, November 22, 2020
The arrest of three men this week in connection with last year’s €1bn (£892m) jewel heist at Dresden’s famous Green Vault museum has shone a rare light on the “Arab clans” who increasingly dominate organised crime in Berlin.
The arrested men are all members of the Remmo Clan, a single extended family that is one of the most feared in the German capital and has been implicated in a series of spectacular crimes in recent years. Two more family members wanted in connection with the Dresden robbery remain on the run from police.
Among those arrested this week is believed to be Wissam Remmo, who was convicted in February of the theft of a giant solid gold commemorative coin worth €3.75m (£3.3m) that disappeared without trace from one of Berlin’s best guarded museums on a spring night in 2017.
Another member of the family was convicted over a 2014 raid on a savings bank in which he and his accompices got away with €10m in cash before blowing the bank up on their way out.
The Remmo Clan are just one of the so-called “Arab clans”, extended families of Middle Eastern who control much of the drugs and illegal prostitution trade in Berlin, and defend their various turfs around the city with violence and intimidation.
Alongside the Remmos, there are the al-Zeins, the Abou Chakers, and the Miris, among others. Tourist shops even sell maps showing the city divided into their territories. Clan members are often unemployed and claim benefits, yet they flaunt their wealth, living in villas in Berlin’s most expensive neighbourhoods and driving Porsches and high-performance Mercedes.
When it comes to the clans, It is hard to tell where real life ends and urban legend begins. One popular story tells how the current godfather of the Remmo Clan was stopped by police twenty years ago for driving with a defective tail light. Ten clan members immediately gathered around the car, and police had to call for reinforcements before they could take down his details. “I’ll f*** you in the ass, and your president too,” the godfather is said to have told officers.
Police who investigate the clans are said to take extraordinary precautions, travelling only by public transport and changing train several times to throw off tails. Prosecution cases against clan members have a habit of collapsing as threatened witnesses retract their accounts. The former leader of the al-Zein clan, a man popularly known as “El Presidente”, was found guilty of threatening the Arabic interpreter at the trial of his cousin with the words: “There are people here who want to die.”
The clans present a particular social problem for a country that has seen a huge influx of mostly Syrian asylum-seekers in recent years. The clans are the most visible face of Arab culture for many Berliners, and have done much to turn public feeling against asylum-seekers.
Yet the clan families have nothing to do with the 2015 migrant crisis, and many are not even Arab. They came to Germany in the Seventies to escape the civil war in Lebanon. The Remmos and the al-Zeins are members of an Arabic-speaking Kurdish minority that had previously fled to Lebanon from Turkey.
They and the other clans took advantage of the Cold War division of Berlin to enter the West without paperwork. They flew to communist-controlled East Germany and bought cheap transit visas on arrival. Then they crossed to West Berlin, where authorities did not check their papers because they regarded the city as one. They could not be send back because of the turmoil in Lebanon, and were allowed to settle in Germany.
Ahmad A. Omeirate, an economist who has studied the clans, has argued that Germany is the victim of its own failure to integrate the clan families, and that many turned to crime because they were not given work permits, forcing them to live on benefits.
“The Lebanese were not wanted, it was thought that they would return to their homeland after the end of the war,” Mr Omeirate told Berliner Zeitung newspaper in June. “As we can see today, that didn’t happen. We are reaping the fruits of the politics of the Eighties.”
The result is a parallel society where children are raised in a world of crime. In one case, a child from the Remmo clan is said to have taken live ammunition to school. Police in Berlin have spoken of the difficulty in dealing with families who aren’t afraid of arrest.
“These families completely reject the German rule of law,” Michael Kuhr, a security expert, told BZ newspaper. “Problems are not solved in court, but within the clans. Conflicts are resolved with money without outsiders’ knowledge. And if one of them ends up getting convicted, they’re not bothered. German prisons are considered places of relaxation and part of the CV.”
In one notorious example, a prosecutor tracked down the mother of several clan members and asked her to use her influence to keep her sons out of trouble. Her response: “Jail makes men”.
Yet for all the lurid stories that have made them a staple of the German popular press, for many years the clans were not a priority for the German police. In part, that’s because while they may dominate the Berlin scene, on a national level they don’t actually account for a particularly high proportion of organised crime in Germany.
According to official figures, organised crime cost the German economy €691m in 2018, but the Arab clans only accounted for €17m. Until recently, most of their business has been relatively small-time: street level drug-dealing, pimping for illegal prostitutes, smuggling tobacco for shisha pipes. In a country with a history of kidnapping for ransom, and where former members of the far-Left Baader-Meinhof Gang still carry out regular bank robberies, that kept them off the authorities’ radar for many years.
But that has begun to change as the clans have moved into higher profile crime. It’s not just the Remmos. In 2017, members of the al-Zein clan were convicted of a 2014 raid on KaDeWe, Berlin’s anwer to Harrod’s, in which masked robbers sprayed teargas in a security guard’s face, smashed display cases and got away with €817,000 (£750,000) of jewellery.
Those sorts of incidents have spurred the authorities into action. Andreas Geisel, the Berlin regional interior minister, has ordered a zero tolerance policy towards any crime by clan members, however trivial. Police have pursued members for double parking. Mr Geisel describes it as a “policy of pinpricks”.
It hasn’t just been pinpricks, though. In 2018, prosecutors used a new law on the proceeds of crime to seize properties and other assets worth €9.3m (£8.3m) from the Remmo Clan.
If family members are found to be responsible for the €1bn Green Vault heist, a crime Roland Wöller, the regional interior minister for Saxony, described as “an attack on the cultural identity of all Saxons,” the chances are the Remmo Clan can expect more heat from the authorities in future.