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German Islamists

Arne Lichtenberg / gswSeptember 8, 2013

Germany's domestic security agency has recorded what experts regard as an alarming trend. A growing number of young Germans are traveling to Syria to aid the opposition, potentially getting radicalized along the way.

An armed fighter of the Free Syrian Army stands atop a destroyed Syrian army tank ((c) SAM TARLING/AFP/GettyImages)
Image: Sam Tarling/AFP/GettyImages

As the international community weighs its response - if any - to a chemical weapons attack on August 21 suspected to have come from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, some young Islamist Germans seem to be taking matters into their own hands.

They include men who have traveled the thousands of kilometers from Hamburg to Syria in order to support rebel groups' fighting against Assad. Some arrived by car, while others flew to Turkey before venturing across the border to Syria. Evidence gathered by public broadcaster, North German Radio (NDR), indicates that around a dozen young Islamists from Hamburg alone have gone to fight in the Syrian civil war since the start of 2013.

In this image released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian forces tank fires during a battle against the Syrian rebels at an unidentified location (AP Photo/SANA)
The fighting continues in SyriaImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/SANA

"The striking thing about them is that they are very young. In some cases, they are just 18 or 19 years old," said Carolin Fromme, who researched the story for NDR.

Most of them have German citizenship but come from immigrant families, Fromme pointed out.

Suspicious associations

"We know from security officials that they have partly been active in youth associations in Hamburg," the journalist said. Some, she continued, have been in contact with the Hizb-u-Tahrir group, which is banned in Germany for its opposition to constitutional principles. The pan-Islamic political group is suspected of recruiting young men in Germany.

A mosque in the city of Kiel, northeast of Hamburg, has been under scrutiny by Germany's domestic security agency for years. Most recently, the Ibnu Taymiya mosque made headlines when a German-Chechen man, Aslanbek F., died in Syria in 2013. Aslanbek F. reportedly joined an organized network of jihadists after having first made contact with the group at the mosque in Kiel.

Torsten Voss is deputy head of Hamburg's division of Germany's security agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, and he has followed the country's Islamist scene closely. Describing its members' motives, he said, "It's people who support jihad. They want to get radicalized by taking part in combat actions," he said, noting also that some of those under observation by authorities merely lend financial support to Islamist groups.

Members of the Free Syrian Army talk as they sit with their weapons REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman
Rebel groups in Syria are believed to include a number of GermansImage: Reuters

Leaving in growing numbers

However, many of those associated with the groups have not yet been classed as Islamists. Voss believes the young men traveling to Syria are doing so in part because they want to be seen there by friends and followers on social networks. They often pose with weapons, which helps cement their reputations in Hamburg's extremist scene, Voss said.

Numbers kept by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence service, suggest that interpretation may be accurate: Six of the men returned home to Hamburg after just a few weeks in Syria. However, what they did on the way to and in Syria cannot always be determined. It's also unclear whether all of them did, in fact, reach their destinations.

The security agency has recorded 120 people from throughout Germany who have traveled to Syria and are suspected of supporting Islamist groups. This number has risen dramatically in recent months. The Schleswig-Holstein State Interior Minister Andreas Breitner expressed concern about the risk stemming from such individuals should they get radicalized further and return with a greater propensity for violence. Breitner noted that many of them have also received training in terror camps.

The head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen, has taken a similar view, saying, "When they come back, they are often celebrated as heroes in the scene. Emotions run so high among many of those who return that there's a danger of them preparing attacks in Germany or encouraging others to do the same."

Syrian rebels clash with government forces (unseen) at a military airport in Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor ((c) KARAM JAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
More than 100,000 people have died due to fighting in SyriaImage: Getty Images

Risks for Germany?

NDR journalist Carolin Fromme believes there are no concrete plans for attacks in Germany, but added, "six of those who have returned to Hamburg from Syria have also learned how to use weapons or met new contacts. And security officials are watching that very closely now."

German authorities have ways to try and hinder suspected Islamists from going abroad, including suspending travel documents, but some manage to leave the country anyway. It is easy to reach Syria from Turkey and many are capable of traveling close to Syria without a passport, just using personal ID cards.