LEIPZIG, Germany (AFP) - A Syrian man suspected of plotting an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) bomb attack was arrested on Monday (Oct 10) by German police with the help of three of his compatriots, in a case that sparked fresh calls for greater checks on asylum seekers.
Jaber Albakr, 22, had narrowly slipped through the police net on Saturday (Oct 8) when commandos raided his apartment and found 1.5 kilos of TATP, the home-made explosive used by Islamists in the Paris and Brussels attacks last year.
The explosives were "almost ready, or even ready for usage", said Mr Joerg Michaelis, chief investigator in the eastern state of Saxony, adding that the suspect was apparently preparing a "bomb, possibly in the form of a suicide vest".
After a manhunt over the weekend, police finally got their man with the help of three of Albakr's fellow Syrians, who had detained him in their apartment in the eastern city of Leipzig.
"A witness came to the police station and said he had recognised Albakr... and had a photo of Albakr on his mobile phone," said Mr Michaelis.
"He also said that his flatmates have overpowered Albakr and tied him up, and that we should come to his apartment."
Police declined to give further details on the Syrian informants for fear of reprisals against them.
German media reported that the fugitive had approached two Syrians at the main train station in Leipzig, seeking shelter.
The men had invited Albakr to their apartment, but later realised that their guest was being sought when police broadcast an appeal for help in Arabic, the Bild newspaper said.
When police finally stormed the apartment, the officers found one of the Syrians kneeling on Albakr to hold him down, said Bild.
Germans hailed the three Syrians who helped the police capture the suspected terrorist, with social media coming alive with jibes against anti-migrant protesters.
Chancellor Angela Merkel led praise for the Syrians, with her spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer pointing to “recognition for the Syrian who informed police about the suspect’s whereabouts”, leading to his arrest.
The deputy chief of the Federation of Police Officers, Sebastian Fiedler, also called it a “very positive sign that shows that one must not place all refugees under suspicion”.
Meanwhile, others took a dig at police for not immediately pointing to the contribution of the Syrian informants in their first tweet announcing the arrest.
“Syrian turns Syrian in to police. And Saxony police is celebrating itself on Twitter,” grumbled a user called ergu28.
“Syrian turns in terror suspect. I’m celebrating this. What about you, Pegida and co?” said Julia Frick on Twitter, in reference to the Islamophobic movement that has been ranting against migrants in the eastern city of Dresden.
Another Twitter user took a dig at the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has been running an aggressive campaign against asylum seekers.
“Syrian turns in terror suspect tied up to police – that’s precisely the kind of citizen watch that AfD and Pegida like to drone on about,” tweeted Florian Flade.
Another using the handle Kraftklub quipped that “the foreigners are taking jobs away from police”, turning around a common stereotype used by anti-migrant politicians.
“Detained terrorists: Pegida and company: 0, refugee: 1,” said another user with the handle likedeeler.
Meanwhile, other Syrian refugees voiced relief that their fellow countrymen had caught the fugitive.
Mr Jihad Darwish, 47, who lives near the Syrians who overpowered Albakr, stressed that “not all Syrians are like” the terror suspect.
Lauding the man who who overpowered and restrained the suspect, Mr Darwish said: “That guy is a hero.”
Acting on information from the domestic secret services, investigators had sought to swoop on Albakr on Saturday in the eastern town of Chemnitz, about 85 kilometres south of Leipzig.
But he narrowly evaded police and ran off carrying a backpack, local media said.
Preliminary investigations suggest that Albakr was probably linked to the the ISIS group, investigators said.
"The approach and behaviour of the suspect point to an IS context," said Mr Michaelis, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the plot "resembles what we know of the preparations for the attacks in Paris and Brussels".
Albakr's Syrian flatmate in Chemnitz, named only as Khalil A., was formally taken into custody on Sunday (Oct 9), a day after being detained, as a suspected co-conspirator.
The 33-year-old accomplice is accused of allowing Albakr "to use his apartment and for helping to order the necessary material on the Internet in full knowledge of his plans of attack", according to a statement from the federal prosecutors.
Police on Sunday also raided the Chemnitz home of another suspected contact of Albakr and took away a man for questioning.
Albakr had entered Germany on February 18, 2015, and two weeks later filed a request for asylum, which was granted in June that year.
Khalil A. had filed for asylum in December 2015 and was granted refugee status in March this year.
Germany has been on edge since two ISIS-claimed attacks in July - an axe rampage on a train in Wuerzburg that injured five, and a suicide bombing in Ansbach in which 15 people were hurt.
The bloodshed has fuelled concerns over Germany's record influx of nearly 900,000 refugees and migrants in 2015, heightened by a number of foiled attack plots this year.
Last month, police detained three men with forged Syrian passports who were believed to be a possible ISIS "sleeper cell" with links to those behind the November Paris attacks.
They also arrested a 16-year-old Syrian refugee in Cologne on suspicion he was planning a bomb attack in the name of ISIS.
German authorities have urged the public not to equate refugees with "terrorists", but have acknowledged that more terrorists may have entered the country among the asylum seekers who arrived last year.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party on Monday called for greater rights for security services to carry out checks on asylum seekers.
"We see that the German secret service and federal intelligence service have no access currently to the main files of applicants," said the deputy leader of the CDU's parliamentary group, Mr Michael Kretschmer.
"That needs to change, we want the German secret services to have access to these files," he told local broadcaster MDR.