Germany is outraged over the suicide of Syrian terror suspect Jaber al-Bakr. Al-Bakr, who was suspected of plotting a bomb attack with Islamic motives on a Berlin airport, strangled himself in his cell with his T-shirt. It shouldn’t have happened, German officials say – but it did. Stefan Bogaerts, professor of forensic psychology at Tilburg University, explains why he is not surprised.
Earlier this week, Jaber al-Bakr was arrested after a two-day manhunt. The 22-year-old Syrian refugee was suspected of plotting a bomb attack on a major airport in Berlin, possibly in the coming days. On Thursday, he was found dead in his prison cell. According to Al-Bakr’s lawyer, the prison was aware he was a suicide risk. But the prison psychologist did not consider him an ‘acute’ risk.
“He must have been the best-guarded prisoner in Germany”
What went wrong?
According to Rolf Jacob, head of the prison where Al-Bakr was detained, his team followed prison regulations. Still, the death in custody has sparked national and international outrage. Al-Bakr was on a hunger strike and had tampered with light bulbs and sockets in his cell, possibly attempting to electrocute himself. The psychologist who assessed Al-Bakr considered this behavior to be vandalism rather than a suicide attempt. Al-Bakr, who wasn’t moved to a special cell, was able to strangle himself by tying his T-shirt to the bars of his cell door on Wednesday night.
Al-Bakr’s lawyer wants to know how this could have happened. “He must have been in the best-guarded prisoner in Germany”, he said, referring to the fact that his client could have provided valuable information on terrorist networks and activities.
The incident doesn’t surprise Stefan Bogaerts, professor of forensic psychology at Tilburg University. He explains that suicide prevention measures are often lacking or inadequate in prisons. “In detention centers, there is no effective monitoring of potentially suicidal prisoners. Staff members are often insufficiently trained, or simply not alert enough. In special facilities like TBS clinics or forensic centers, the suspect or patient is intensively monitored if he or she is a suicide risk. But in prisons, suicides are much more likely to occur.”
But, as Al-Bakr’s defense lawyer pointed out, this wasn’t just any prisoner. “Right now, we don’t have clear protocols specifically regarding terror suspects”, Bogaerts explains.
Failure of the system
It has been reported that Al-Bakr had no or limited access to an interpreter. “If there was no interpreter present during the psychological assessment, that is obviously very problematic”, Bogaerts says. “As a psychologist, language is your only tool. If you can’t talk to a patient or a suspect, you simply can’t do your job.”
“This incident points to a wider problem”
Still, Bogaerts doesn’t think Al-Bakr’s suicide can be merely considered a failure of the psychologist who assessed him. “I think this points to a wider problem”, he explains. “But at this point, we know very little about radicalization and signals indicating that somebody is planning a terror attack. When it comes to handling radicalization and monitoring potential terror suspects, our system is failing.”
Bogaerts says we shouldn’t treat the incident in Germany as an isolated event. Instead, we should look for ways to improve the system in its entirety. “First and foremost, we need to invest in prevention. In the Netherlands, we see a strongly polarized ‘us and them’ culture, which is a phenomenon that stands apart from ISIS. We need to involve vulnerable youth at an early stage.”
But, Bogaerts adds, protecting vulnerable youths from radicalization and extremism costs money. “I don’t think the Dutch government will make more funds available any time soon, but in my opinion, that’s an absolute necessity.”