We've been wandering around a nondescript industrial lot in northern Berlin for about ten minutes when we finally spot them by a gate: Two men, built like bouncers—in leather cut-off jackets, their hair cropped very short. We approach them a tad uncomfortably, and they shake our hands without smiling. "Just go around the back to the little door. They'll give you a warm welcome there," one of them says, grinning. I start to wonder whether it was a mistake to arrange to meet the Osmanen Germania—the Germania Ottomans, in English. They're Germany's latest biker gang.
The group—whose name combines both the Ottoman and the German empires in allusion to its many members with Turkish background—was virtually unknown to the public until very recently. That changed when on the evening of January 25, around 80 members of the Germania Ottomans met in the city of Neuss and another 40 gathered in Duisburg two days later. The media went all out with it: "New Biker War Threatens Düsseldorf," one local newspaper's headline read. Other headlines included "Ottoman Bikers Expanding in Germany (Bild)" and "The Osmanen Germania Biker Gang Is Growing Rapidly (Die Welt)."
All articles seemed sure of one thing: the Germania Ottomans are an aggressively expanding biker gang claiming a cut from what are normally considered traditional ventures of the established biker gangs. "The new biker gang is advancing more and more into red-light districts, which increases the likelihood of a bloody territorial battle with established gangs like the Hells Angels and the Mongols," reported the Hannoversche Allgemeine, only to qualify in the next sentence: "Experts on biker culture warn that it is important not to overreact and spread an unnecessary panic."
The police in North Rhine-Westphalia are considerably more reserved: "We're still in a state of acquiring intelligence," says Klaus Zimmermann, spokesperson for the organized crime division of North Rhine-Westphalia's state police. The police might not be talking about "biker wars," but they are taking the new group seriously: "We can't eliminate the possibility of conflicts. We've seen that happen repeatedly when hostile gangs set up shop in another gang's territory with the intention of doing business."
But are the Germania Ottomans interested in that kind of business? According to Zimmermann, there's no concrete evidence supporting that yet. The group is still young and hasn't really made its mark yet. But at least on Facebook, members of the Germania Ottomans vehemently deny being a criminal biker gang. "We started the Germania Ottomans in order to give something back, not to take anything away from anyone," one of the group's founders, Selcuk S., writes on Facebook. Other members also emphasize that the Germania Ottomans are not a biker gang. In fact, the members like to point out that they're not an MC (motorcycle club) but a BC—a boxing club.
So is the German media panicking over nothing? Are the Germania Ottomans just a sports club with a wild name? If so, why the outfits? The Germania Ottomans haven't been quick to run to the press to answer these questions: The only interview given so far was to a relatively obscure insider website.
Which made it so surprising that the group not only responded to my email but also invited me to its clubhouse. Apparently, the Germania Ottomans now want to take control of its public image.
The little door opens, and we are led through a well-lit hallway, into a very tidy gym. There are about six men in leather cut-off jackets, most of them with the same build as the two guys we met outside. They all shake our hands, and one of them—who, according to his jacket, is the "road captain"—shows us around the brand new gym while we wait for the group's president.
The Berlin president, who's even bigger than the others, wants to be called "Tiger." He's also the Germania Ottomans' world sergeant—which means that he's one of the most important men in the club, after founders Selcuk S. and Mehmet B. We're sitting in some kind of rec room, when he explains to us how he sees the Germania Ottomans. "We're a boxing club. We're about sports, nothing more." Apparently, they all wear the jackets to be able to recognize each other. "The media only writes trash about us," he maintains. "It's all lies."
The tone of this video might be a bit aggressive, but I am told that's the whole point with hip-hop videos. As one member of the Germania Ottomans explains to me: "When [rapper] Bushido sings that he's going to kill someone, he's not actually going to kill someone."
"The biker scene in Germany is shifting—which is partly why the rise of the Germania Ottomans are causing such a stir," explains Stephan Strehlow, the head of Berlin's police division fighting biker crime and crimes related to prostitution. "On the one hand, you have the old school bikers, mostly German, who are closely bound to the idea of biker code," he explains. "Emerging biker groups are made up primarily of people with immigrant backgrounds or of other nationalities, who have a different understanding of what it means to be a biker." For a lot of these new biker groups, membership is a way to get respect and to commit crimes under the protection of a larger group.
One example of this last kind of biker is career criminal Kadir P.—from Berlin's Hells Angels—who is currently facing a murder charge for having a rival killed with eight bullets. He was originally recruited by the Bandidos gang, but when he noticed that the Hells Angels were increasing in numbers in Berlin, he abruptly took all his followers and crossed over. He was accepted almost instantly, even though he had just led a brutal attack on the Hells Angels, in which one biker almost had a leg hacked off with a machete and the boss of Berlin's Hells Angels, André S., was stabbed in the back—literally.
Another important reason for the way the Germania Ottomans are being perceived is a recent escalation of the tension between old school bikers and bikers with immigrant backgrounds, in Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia. In July 2014, the leader of Frankfurt's Hells Angels, Schnitzel Walter, forbade the ambitious member Aygün M. from venturing out on his own and starting his own chapter in Giessen. When Aygün M. stole some bouncer contracts to boot, Walter responded with a shoot out in front of Frankfurt's Katana Club, which left five bikers dead.
Things have since calmed down in Hesse, after an intervention from International Hells Angels. Aygün M. was allowed to keep his chapter in Giessen, which is now considered a hangout of the infamous, former "Godfather of Cologne"—"Neco" Arabaci, who was released in 2007 after a six year prison sentence in Turkey. Back in 2013, Der Spiegel reported that the Nomads Turkey—a Hells Angels sub-chapter run by Neco—was behind an attack on the Hells Angels in Krefeld, directed by Arabaci.
According to newspaper Der Westen, the Germania Ottomansoriginated from the Nomads Turkey. But members strongly deny that claim. "It's just speculation," says Tiger. Stephan Strehlow adds: "We don't have any indication that the founding was directed from the outside."
But from its Facebook page and other pictures one can find online, the Germania Ottomans seem to at least have a very friendly relationship with Aygün M. and the Hells Angels in Giessen. "The Germania Ottomans are very clear about sympathizing with the Hells Angels," clarifies Stephan Strehlow. "The group in Berlin has declared its support for Hells Angels MC Giessen."
But Tiger denies this claim: "We were privately involved with some of them—so we've had dinner together this one time. But other than that, we're not involved with anybody." The only photographs from that dinner show both bosses proudly standing side by side.
One of the founders of the Germania Ottomans is a former member of the Hells Angels, and the group has adopted the same ranks and a lot of the same imagery from the biker scene. Tiger has "13" tattooed on his hand, which is Hells Angels code for the letter "M" (for marijuana). Tiger claims that for the Germania Ottomans, 13 stands for its 13 secret laws—apparently, "all good ones—like loyalty."
He would rather talk about the group's successes with youth outreach work, which to the Germania Ottomans is a central element of its operation. "A lot of us used to be street kids, and some of us have been to jail. We want to give young people opportunities, so that doesn't happen to them." That's why the members came together to convert an old factory building into a training gym. The Germania Ottomans are also strictly against alcohol and drugs: "People selling drugs or poisoning others with drugs get kicked out." The same goes for members who are involved in prostitution rings.
But if a member would struggle with a drug problem, they can count on support from the group: "We're a socially-minded club," claims Tiger. That's supported by the fact that the club volunteered to handle the security at the funeral of Mohamed, the refugee boy who was kidnapped and murdered in Berlin-Moabit last year. "And we have regular barbecue evenings for our members with families, where only people with girlfriends, fiancés, or wives are invited."
However, the police in Berlin and in North Rhine-Westphalia aren't convinced that the Germania Ottomans are purely part of a social club. "These are people known to the police," says Klaus Zimmermann about the Germania Ottomans in North Rhine-Westphalia. "We know they are active in violent crime, and some have a record of offenses involving narcotics or weapons." But is it impossible that these people just came together and started a boxing club? "That's what they say," says Stephan Strehlow. "We can't confirm that."
The German authorities don't seem to know what exactly to make of the the Germania Ottomans—they don't even know how many of them are in Germany at the moment. Tiger and his followers claim they have over 2,500 members in Germany, and more across Europe. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the police only know of about a hundred members; in Berlin "30 to a maximum of 50 people"—which Tiger claims is 70.
While we're getting ready to go, Tiger emphasizes again that "everything I've said is the truth. We make an honest living here, our conscience is clear." Later, he sends me a message on WhatsApp, in which he insists I add this to the end of my article: "If something happens, we'll stand and fight to the last drop of blood."
Scroll down for portraits of all the guys we met that day: