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Clan crime in Germany: How dangerous is it really?

June 26, 2024

The word "clan" controversially triggers fears in many Germans. Yet statistically speaking, the phenomenon of organized crime among German immigrant communities is marginal. One researcher warns against cliches.

Berlin police arrest a man
German police occasionally carry out raids against organized crime, as here in Berlin in 2018Image: Paul Zinken/dpa/picture-alliance

Mahmoud Jaraba conducts research on extended Arab, Turkish and Kurdish organized crime families, networks which German media and police often describe using the controversial term 'clan'.

While presenting an analysis this week for the Mediendienst Integration media service on these families, Jaraba, an academic at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, uses the words criminality, parallel society and violence. 

Two spectacular museum break-ins are examples of organized crime families, Jaraba said, the thefts from the Green Vault in Dresden in 2019 and of a €4.2-million ($4.5-million) Canadian gold coin from the Bode Museum in Berlin in 2017.

"These thefts required professional criminal organization and can be classified as 'family-based crime' in criminological terms," Jaraba's report said. These crimes also required well-connected family members in Germany and abroad.

The Big Maple Leaf coin
The Big Maple Leaf coin was stolen from Berlin's Bode Museum in 2017 and never foundImage: Marcel Mettelsiefen/dpa/picture-alliance

Family members pressured

And if the police detain members of such families, members can often be replaced by others within the family.

"They usually recruit relatives who join them voluntarily or who put under pressure," writes Jaraba, whose findings are partly based on conversations with those affected. He also conducted numerous interviews with experts who work for the police or in the social sector.

But the political scientist considers the term "clan" problematic. The extended families are not homogeneous groups. The originally close family relationships have often become more distant over the decades. "Today, most family members don't know each other," he said. His research has shown that family-based crime is organized by a few small families. "There are therefore no 'clan leaders' who organize, lead and direct the criminal activities and strategies," he said.

The police define clans as "ethnically segregated subcultures," something Jaraba criticizes this as misleading. It is true that parts of the extended families do indeed live in a kind of subculture, but where crime occurs, they are not isolated, he said.

Through his interviews, the researcher learned that the vast majority of members of such families reject crime and would like to see an effective fight against it. "Muslim people and members of extended families should not be placed under general suspicion," his study warned.

A police officer in Germany wears a police vest, helmut and balaklava
A police officer is deployed in Germany's capital BerlinImage: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

Raids on shisha bars and barber stores

Jaraba took a closer look at the German states of Berlin, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia, where the fight against so-called clan crime has been named a priority. That now includes regular police checks on individuals and businesses as well as raids, particularly in shisha bars and barber stores. This tactic, sometimes called the "policy of 1,000 pinpricks" by the police, is meant to increase the pressure on this milieu.

Reports on the development of clan crime are published every year in the three states, in which the measures taken by the police are explicitly justified by the "subjective sense of security" of the population. When asked by Mediendienst Integration, the North Rhine-Westphalia Interior Ministry explained: "Criminal members of extended families of Turkish-Arab descent have increasingly succeeded in the past in intimidating the population and apparently claiming certain regional areas for themselves through aggressive behavior, disorderly conduct and the commission of crimes, often from larger, closed groups of people."

Crimes are statistically well below 1 percent

This perception contrasts with objective figures from crime statistics: According to these, the proportion of all crimes allegedly committed by so-called clans in Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony is between 0.17% and 0.76% of all crimes.

Criminologist Daniela Hunold from the Berlin School of Economics and Law (HWR) considers the strategy adopted by politicians and the police to be questionable: "Using ethnic groups is not only legally problematic, it is also ineffective in terms of policing," she said.

Hunold worked at the Bremen State Office of Criminal Investigation from 2019 to 2022, where she dealt with the phenomenon of organized crime. Her conclusion: the impression is being created that a certain police approach is needed to combat this form of crime. "I cannot confirm this either from a policing or a criminological perspective," she said.

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.