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Salafists in Germany
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ W.Steinberg

Abstract threat

Rainer Sollich / dc
September 12, 2014

German 'IS' fighters in the Middle East, a “Sharia police force” in Wuppertal, attacks on Yazidis in Herford: Germany is also being affected by the latest wave of Islamic terrorism. But how big is the threat?


Tarik S. hails from Bielefeld, a city in the middle of north-central Germany. Judging from photos of him on the Internet, he appears to be a friendly young man. But recently, his name made the rounds at the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). Only now, he is referred to by his assumed "fighter" name of Ibn Osama al-Almany. He is one of around 400 Islamists who have left Germany for Syria to wage jihad.

The Office for the Protection of the Constitution - Germany's domestic intelligence service - has an entire dossier on Berlin Islamist, Dennis Cuspert. By examining his biography, officials hope to comprehend how a former rapper is now committing horrific acts of violence on the side of the "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist group in Syria.

It is examples like these that have alarm bells ringing at the offices of authorities across Germany. "My gut is telling me that we're sitting on a cannon ball and the police have only uncovered a square inch of the surface, " Thomas Hochhaus, police detective for the city of Bielefeld, told a local newspaper.

Could IS reach Germany?

The jihad that seemed so far away not so long ago, and which only penetrated German homes in the form of televised images, now seems to be a much more present threat.

Denis Cuspert
Dennis Cuspert was once the German rapper 'Deso Dogg'; now, he is a violent IS fighterImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Many experts say there is a real danger of attacks being carried out in Germany by German Islamists who sympathize with the IS terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

"In security circles, the talk is no longer of whether an attack will occur in Germany, but rather when, " the head of the Federation of German Police Officers, André Schulz, told the business news website, Handelsblatt Online.

The state of NRW has long had a reputation for being a hub of the Islamist scene in Germany. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution says the state is home to some 1,800 followers of an extreme Salafist group that is prepared to use violence; the group has approximately 6,000 followers nationwide.

The civil wars being fought in Iraq and Syria "increase the threat of extremist Salafist activity and violent conflicts between religious groups in Europe, Germany, and NRW," reads a report by NRW's interior minister.

Burkhard Freier, the head of the state Office for the Protection of the Constitution in NRW, concedes that the mission of IS terrorists in the Middle East is feeding propaganda in the Salafist scene in Germany. "This goal of establishing an Islamic State really speaks to many young Salafists who are prepared to use violence," he said. He added that young men in search of stability and a purpose are the most susceptible. In an interview with DW, Freier said that it's less about religion for these young men, and more about the status that being part of this group gives them.

Travel bans to counter jihad

Many security experts maintain that Germany has long been a target for violent Islamists, and could become even more of a target now that the German parliament has decided to supply weapons to Kurds fighting against IS in Iraq. Freier, however, doesn't believe that the decision has increased the likelihood of an attack at home. "Islamic extremists will look for any reason to take action against a Western state - whether it's a weapons shipment, or diplomatic assistance, doesn't really matter, " he said.

Der versuchte Terroranschlag von Bonn vom 26.12.2013
A failed bomb attack took place at Bonn's main train station in 2012Image: picture-alliance/dpa

He does agree, though, with other security experts who say that German citizens returning from the civil wars in Syria or Iraq do pose a threat. According to reports, there are 40 such returnees in the country. Some of them are seen as "ticking time bombs" and are therefore under close observation. "From our observations it's clear that they identify even more closely with the political Salafist ideology, they have been brutalized, and they have been trained in how to use weapons, " Freier said. "For this reason, they are considered to be a threat to national security because we have to assume that they will either take action as an individual, or that they will be motivated as a group to carry out an attack. "

German officials are aiming to counteract this threat by preventing such people from leaving the country. In NRW alone, officials have so far stopped 40 men en route to Syria, and taken their passports. "However, we have to be able to prove in court that someone is going to Syria in order to fight, " said Freier. And that isn't always possible.

Another problem is that roughly 80 percent of the men trying to leave the country have German citizenship. Often, they are German converts to Islam, and not immigrants. Such men only need a German national identity card to travel to Turkey. Once there, they can continue their journey. It's a loophole that is tricky to close, since German law prohibits anyone from taking away a person's identity card. "We shouldn't fool ourselves - the travel ban is not very effective, " Rainer Wendt of the police officers' union told the business daily Handelsblatt. "Anyone who is prepared to go to war will not be stopped in this way. "

Warning against over-dramatization

Authorities are also considering the threat posed by individuals who quietly become radicalized and remain off the radar while planning an attack. Although such people are difficult to identify, they sometimes make themselves known over social networks. "I don't see them as that big of a threat, " said Werner Schiffauer, cultural studies researcher at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an der Oder.

Prof. Werner Schiffauer
Professor Werner Schiffauer thinks moderate Salafists could help combat the problemImage: picture-alliance/dpa

He advises people to remain rational in the face of a potential attack on German soil. "My feeling is that, by over-dramatizing the threat, you actually contribute to radicalization, " he said. "You increase the pressure on the scene, which creates a growing sense of mistrust among society, and that in turn unleashes a cycle of radicalization. " An example, he said, are demonstrations that escalate tensions between Salafists and the police.

Statements from politicians who ratchet up the rhetoric and call for a tougher stance on potential perpetrators also don't help matters, he added. "That only cements the impression many Muslims have that politicians are anti-Islam. " The result could be that radical youths who are critical of the West then feel compelled to cross the line into committing acts of violence.

The necessary differentiation is sometimes lacking in the discourse. Only a small number of the Salafists in Germany pose a potential threat, said Schiffauer. "Painting them all with the same brush is not only analytically wrong, it also destroys any chance of de-radicalization, " he said. That's something he thinks can only happen when people from the Salafist community are part of the dialogue. "We have to win over those who are accepted in the scene, the ones who are seen as authentic. If they are marked from the start as the troublemakers, then you can't expect to make any progress with the politics of de-radicalization. "

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