Halle suspect planned to carry out 'massacre' in synagogue

A German prosecutor says that the Halle gunman had four kilograms of explosives in his car.

Marion Payet/Deborah Cole/AFP ,

People lay flowers as they mourn outside the synagogue in Halle
People lay flowers as they mourn outside the synagogue in Halle

The gunman in the attack in Halle, Germany on Wednesday intended to carry out a "massacre" in the synagogue on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and had around four kilograms (almost nine pounds) of explosives in his car, a German prosecutor said on Thursday.

Peter Frank, Germany's chief federal prosecutor, said that there are still many unanswered questions about the suspected gunman, identified as 27-year-old German citizen Stephan Balliet. Investigators are exploring how the suspect acquired the explosive materials and whether he had any accomplices.

Frank said that "what we experienced yesterday was terror," adding that the gunman tried to "create a worldwide effect" by livestreaming the attack in an effort to encourage others to copy his actions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed Thursday there would be "zero tolerance" for hate in Germany after an attempted massacre at a synagogue, as Jews demanded action to protect the community from the rising threat of neo-Nazi violence. Two people were shot dead in the eastern German city of Halle on Wednesday, with a synagogue the prime target.

The suspect, 27-year-old German Stephan Balliet, filmed the assault and streamed it online. The victims, reportedly a German man and woman, appeared to be chosen at random when the assailant failed to gain access to the temple he had besieged with gunfire and homemade explosives, as the frightened congregation barricaded itself inside. The rampage was streamed live for 35 minutes on Twitch, and eventually seen by some 2,200 people, the online platform said, in a chilling reminder of the mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand in March which was also played out online in real-time. Police subsequently captured the Halle suspect after a gun battle that left him wounded.

Merkel told a trade union convention that the German state and civil society must do everything in their power to stand up to "hate, violence and contempt for human life."

"There must be zero tolerance," she said. Late Wednesday, Merkel joined a solidarity vigil at a historic Berlin synagogue, and firmly condemned the anti-Semitic rampage.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, joined by Israeli ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff and local officials, laid flowers Thursday at the Halle temple before meeting Jewish community representatives inside. He later told reporters that the country had a duty to protect Jews on its soil, also in light of its historical guilt for the Holocaust. "It must be clear that the state takes responsibility for Jewish life, for the security of Jewish life in Germany," he said.

Federal prosecutor Peter Frank said Balliet would be charged with two counts of murder and nine counts of attempted murder in what he called a "terror" act that had been planned to be a "massacre". Balliet had packed four kilograms (nine pounds) of explosives in his car, and "wanted to enter the synagogue to kill many people," added Frank.

'Action not words'

But Jewish leaders said that words were not enough, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joining calls for Germany to "act resolutely" against anti-Semitism.

The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany ripped into the authorities for failing to provide adequate security on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. "It is scandalous that the synagogue in Halle is not protected by police on a holiday like Yom Kippur," said Josef Schuster. "This negligence has now been bitterly repaid."

Germany has taken pride in the rebirth of Jewish life since the Nazis' World War II slaughter of six million Jews across Europe. The community has grown to about 225,000 thanks in large part to an influx from the ex-Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Without mentioning the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) by name, Merkel and Steinmeier condemned xenophobic rhetoric they said had grown increasingly mainstream and dangerous. AfD parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel pushed back, saying critics were "exploiting this horrible crime to defame their political rivals with baseless defamation".

'Saw through the camera'

In a copy of a 35-minute video obtained by AFP the gunman filmed himself launching into a diatribe against women and Jews and denying the Holocaust, before carrying out the attack. The gunman also published an anti-Semitic "manifesto" online more than a week ago, according to SITE monitoring group director Rita Katz, who said the document showed pictures of the weapons and ammunition he used.

Halle Jewish community leader Max Privorotzki told the Stuttgarter Zeitung of the harrowing minutes as the synagogue came under assault with 70 to 80 people inside. "We barricaded our doors from inside and waited for the police," he said. "Then we carried on with our service."

'Failure', 'loser'

Among those in the synagogue were 10 Americans, as well as several Israelis, who had turned up in Halle especially to join the small local population in celebrating Yom Kippur. "We've made it out with our lives, in health and amazing spirits," wrote Rebecca Blady, a Jewish American community leader, who was in the synagogue.

Bild daily spoke to relatives and neighbors who described Balliet, a former soldier, as a loner and computer junkie who lived with his mother. In the streamed video he repeatedly calls himself a "failure" and a "loser".

Wednesday's shootings came three months after the assassination-style murder of local pro-migrant politician Walter Luebke in the western city of Kassel, allegedly by a known neo-Nazi. Luebcke's killing has deeply shaken Germany, raising questions about whether it has failed to take seriously a rising threat from right-wing extremists.