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Denis Cuspert - Berlin's own criminal, rapper, and jihadist

Ben KnightOctober 30, 2015

Germany's most famous jihadist, Denis Cuspert, has been killed by a US rocket in Syria. The former petty criminal and rapper, once known as Deso Dogg, was a minor celebrity in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin.

Deutschland Denis Cuspert IS
Image: SITE Intelligence Group/Twitter/dpa

This time it seems the rumors are true. After previous reports that Germany's most famous jihadist, Denis Cuspert, had met his end in the Syrian war remained unconfirmed, all the latest signals suggest that the former Berlin rapper and gang member is indeed dead. A US Defense Department official confirmed on Thursday evening that the former Berlin rapper had been hit by US rocket on October 16 (two days before his 40th birthday), in a car somewhere on a road not far from Raqqa, the unofficial capital of the so-called "Islamic State."

The US verdict on the killing might not have pleased Cuspert much. "He was not considered a high-value target (and) we were not specifically targeting him," an anonymous official told the AFP news agency. This would have come as a disappointing martyrdom to someone who, according to Berlin's "Tagesspiegel" newspaper, once told a local youth worker, "Someday I'll make it big. Someday..."

Denis Cuspert - then Deso Dogg, and finally Abu Talha al-Almani - was once a minor celebrity in Berlin. The half-Ghanaian, half-German was a member of the gang 36 Boys, based in the Kreuzberg district of the city, and served time as a youth for drug-related offences. Though his three rap albums, released between 2006 and 2009, did not garner the kind of nationwide success enjoyed by peers such as Bushido (who he knew), he was famous enough to appear as a gang leader on a strange 2008 TV reality-soap called "The Bluff," in which a hapless boy from Munich was schooled in Berlin's "gang life."

Deutschland Denis Cuspert IS
Cuspert's rap career spanned three albums, but no record dealsImage: imago/S. Lambert


But then, around 2009 and 2010, Cuspert's life changed. According to a profile in "Exberliner" magazine from February this year, "he dropped out of sight." It was then that he began to take Koran classes at a conservative mosque in the Neukölln district, and posted a YouTube video of his official conversion to Islam. His rapping continued for a while - his lyrics became more radical and violent - but he soon renounced music as "haram," appearing in yet another YouTube clip to plead tearfully to his friends in the music business to give it up.

Not that many of them would have listened. "Now no one wants to have anything to do with him," one acquaintance told "Exberliner." "They don't want to call him up because they know that his phone is being tapped by the police."

One imam who knew Cuspert in those days was Abdul Adhim Kamouss, who taught at the Al Nur mosque that Cuspert attended. "I had two conversations with him," Kamouss told DW. "I told him that someone who is new to Islam has to be careful what direction they go in. With young people who come to me, I am often afraid that they can become radicalized on the Internet."

"Then after a month or two he stopped coming to my lessons, and I heard that he went to Solingen [a hub of Germany's Salafist scene], and that's when I think the radicalization began," said Kamouss. "Up until then he still had a lot of respect for me. I saw him on videos singing jihadist songs, and I phoned him, and said, 'What are you doing; this is the wrong way,' and he said, 'Oh, don't worry, I'm not like that.' Then after that he changed his number, and since then I have not had any contact with him."

Kamouss blames Cuspert's radicalization partly on his criminal past. "I think what Cuspert had was a past, and he just put on a coat - a coat of Islam," he said. "He might have that coat on, but certain parts of his character stayed firmly in his roots."

Salafisten Islamisten in Deutschland polzei Festnahme
The Salafist scene has been under intense scrutiny in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Flight to Syria

By late 2011, Cuspert had become a militant Islamist, a member of the Solingen-based Salafist organization Millatu Ibrahim (which was subsequently banned) and something of a public figure. He gave several media interviews that year, including to the "New York Times," and German state TV network ZDF, in which he said, "To Merkel, the interior minister and the foreign minister: You are waging jihad in our countries, and we will bring jihad to your countries. You are not safe. You will no longer be able to live in safety. And that's why this country, the Federal Republic of Germany, is a war zone."

Unsurprisingly, such quotes drew increased scrutiny from the German authorities, and in August 2011, after he appeared on video holding a gun, he was convicted and fined 1,800 euros ($1,970) for illegal weapons possession. Within months, he had made his way to Syria via Egypt (which at the time was governed by a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government). German authorities claim now that they were on the verge of arresting him when he left.

According to investigators, Cuspert initially joined the al-Nusra Front in Syria, and only switched allegiance to the rival and militarily more successful group "Islamic State" in 2014. In any case, he appeared in several video messages (at least once among corpses), threatening violence against Germany. In November 2013, the German Foreign Ministry delivered a warning that Cuspert could launch a suicide attack on German targets in Turkey. "It cannot be ruled out that Cuspert could deploy a vehicle loaded with explosives," the warning read. There were also several reports of his death, either in suicide attacks, or in enemy attacks - but none were as final as the one on Thursday.