I started my new job in Eilenburg in early September 2016. EilenburgÂ is a quiet little town. It seems to be populated mostly by pensioners who all wear the same grey, brown and beige jackets.
In fact, I find Eilenburg a little too quiet. I stand out like a sore thumb just by wearing a shirt when I go to work. Or maybe by being below fifty. I donâ€™t know, but people give me suspicious glances and I donâ€™t feel particularly welcome. And my face is northern European.
Imagine what Eilenburg must be like a for a 22-year-old Arab.
I had no idea terror suspect Jaber al-Bakr lived literally a stoneâ€™s throw away from where I work. His house was a skilfully renovated apartment building from the 1920s. When al-Bakr looked out the window, he would have seen the glorious Eilenburg Castle.
I went around to investigate what he was like. At first, I randomly approached people I met on the street, asking them whether they knew him.
“Sure, Iâ€™ve seen him once at the farmerâ€™s market. Looked pretty normal to me, just like any other guy. He was all by himself,” one person told me.
“Iâ€™ve seen him once at the Stadtfest. Nothing unusual about him,” I heard from someone else.
I decided to ring the doorbell of some of his neighbours. There are eight apartments in his building. Most of his neighbours either ignored me or werenâ€™t at home, but one elderly lady let me in and talked to me.
She lived right across the hallway from al-Bakrâ€™s flat, whose door had been visibly sealed by the police. If there was anyone who knew him in this building, surely I had come to the right place.
“He was a normal person. He rode his bike, always said hello, was always tidy and never really caused any trouble. There was never any noise from his apartment and I think he rarely had guests.”
His neighbour was a refugee herself. She was driven out of East Prussia after World War II and had found a new home in Eilenburg.
“I understand that refugees need a roof above their heads. I was one myself, you see? And people helped me then.”
Beyond that there wasnâ€™t much she could tell me. He seems to have been very quiet.
“I heard he was a student, but I donâ€™t know whether that was true or not. He never really said anything to me. About four weeks ago, he grabbed two bags and a backpack and left. That was the last Iâ€™ve seen of him.”
Before al-Bakr lived in that building, he stayed in a WG, also in Eilenburg, with a couple of other Syrian refugees.
I found the building he once resided in, but everyone had moved out in the meantime. Via the newspapers, I knew that al-Bakr had been seeing social workers when he needed help. After a bit of research I finally managed to speak to Torsten PĂ¶tzsch, a local youth worker who knew both al-Bakr and his flatmates.
“There was absolutely nothing unusual about him,” he also said. “I felt that he was happy to be in Germany. I remember well how enthusiastic he was about finally moving into his own place. He got nice furniture and set himself up like young people do. I felt like he was starting a new life.”
Apparently his flatmates had become a bit fed up with him. He was quite a bit younger than they were, and significantly less independent.
“They took him shopping and took care of him, but I think they were quite relieved when he moved out. He was a bit too young for them I guess,” said PĂ¶tzsch.
Wanting to know how this quite ordinary guy became a radical extremist, I asked PĂ¶tzsch about al-Bakrâ€™s attitude towards religion.
“From what I know he wasnâ€™t religious,” he replied. “Quite to the contrary, actually. When his flatmates did their prayers, he never joined. The group went to Leipzig sometimes for the Friday service.”
PĂ¶tzsch then added:
Al-Bakr went along, but he didnâ€™t go to the mosque. He stayed at the train station, used the free internet, and downloaded dirty films from the internet.
PĂ¶tzsch was shocked when he learnedÂ what happened.Â The Jaber al-Bakr he knew was neither an extremist, nor suicidal.
I donâ€™t know if there is more to find out from the people who knew al-Bakr in Eilenburg.
His brother, who still lives in Syria, claims that al-Bakr was indoctrinated by an imam from Berlin, but that heâ€™d never have blown himself up. His brother also wants to take revenge on the Syrians who captured al-Bakr in Leipzig, blaming the Saxon ministry of home affairs for his death. Other media reports state that al-Bakr travelled to TurkeyÂ earlier this year, possibly having been trained by Daesh in Syria.
But one thing seems clear. Al-Bakrâ€™s religious attitude seems to have had little to do with what happened. Al-Bakr watched porn, wore shorts (which conservative Muslims deem forbidden), did not pray regularly and, most importantly, committed suicide (radical Islamists consider suicide a ticket to hell, while suicide bombers go to paradise).
But no matter what really happened, Eilenburg is part of the story that explains how al-Bakr changed from being an apparently delightful young man to a potential terrorist.