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Germany

Alleged teen terrorist in state care mentored by Salafist

A boy who had planned an attack on a Christmas market was looked after by an Islamist extremist for weeks. The blunder by a local youth care agency is likely to severely impact his de-radicalization.

In December 2016, the then-12-year-old German-Iraqi is said to have filled jars with fireworks powder, taped nails to them and placed them close to the town hall and on the Christmas market in the southern-German city of Ludwigshafen. Fortunately, the home-made explosives didn't detonate. The boy was caught and put into a closed facility at an undisclosed location, where he is receiving intensive psychological treatment. 

On Tuesday, journalists with the TV magazine "Report Mainz" reported that one of the people looking after the boy is believed to be an adherent of the Salafist ideology. Salafism is an ultra-conservative and often violent branch of Islam.

In other words: One of the psychologists in charge of de-radicalizing the young aggressor is an extremist himself.

The youth and integration ministry of Rhineland-Palatinate, the boy's home state, confirmed in a statement to "Report Mainz" that a background check on the caregiver led authorities to suspect that he "could be close to Islamist circles."

Six weeks with a Salafist

Pierre Vogel and other Salafists in Frankfurt/Main (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler)

The caregiver worked as a security guard at rallies held by well-known German Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel

A spokeswoman for the city of Ludwigshafen explained in a statement to DW on Tuesday that an independent agency is in charge of the boy's care. The authorities at this agency were the ones who hired the employees to take care of the now-13-year-old after regular police background checks. On March 3, 2017, the psychologist in question began to work with the boy.

A few weeks later, he agreed to a voluntary, more thorough background check, which was set in motion on April 19. It is unclear why he was allowed to take care of the boy before this measure was completed. On May 19, the city was informed that the man had participated in a now-illegal Quran distribution initiative, shared Islamist videos on Facebook and worked security at rallies of German Salafist preachers.

"The caregiver was immediately removed from the case," Ludwigshafen's spokeswoman stated. "He was one of several employees, who work [with the boy] in shifts. He was not the boy's primary caregiver."

Prioritizing prevention

Susanne Schröter, director of the Frankfurt Research Center on Global Islam, says the slip-up is still likely to have dramatic consequences for the boy's social reintegration process.

Susanne Schröter, director of the Frankfurt Research Center on Global Islam (Frankfurter Forschungszentrum Globaler Islam)

Schröter: Disenchanting young Islamist extremists is hard enough without mistakes like this

"He must have felt basically validated in his extremist mindset" by having a Salafist mentor, Schröter told DW. "That means that the efforts to de-radicalize him now have to start from scratch again."

It is a disappointing setback in a process that is protracted and difficult to begin with. Trying to re-socialize a young person so enamored with radical Islamist ideals that he was ready to bomb a Christmas market requires patience and resilience. Educating youth before they fall for extremist ideologies is much simpler, according to Schröter.

"The focus has to be on prevention," she said. "Success in de-radicalization doesn't come easy. You have to be able to deal with many disappointments."

IS targets children

While 12 years is the youngest age of any Islamist attackers who have been arrested in Germany, Susanne Schröter points out that there have been several attacks by teens in recent years. "Islamic State" (IS) supporter Safia S. was 15 years old when she stabbed a police man in the throat at the Hanover train station in February 2016. Just two months later, two 16-year-old boys with Turkish roots planted explosives at a Sikh temple in Essen - another attack motivated by violent IS ideals.

"The IS is currently running a massive campaign to recruit extremely young people," Schröter said. "There are many IS Youtube videos in which 8-year-olds or 9-year-olds are already seen killing prisoners. They are clearly instrumentalizing children."

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