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German Islamists

Jeanette Seiffert / reJune 17, 2014

More and more Germans are fighting as part of ISIS in Iraq. Their participation carries little significance militarily, but the German authorities are on alert. Will the radicalized fighters become a threat for the West?

A large group of young men, some with raised hands (Foto: Boris Roessler/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Previously, Denis Cuspert - alias Deso Dogg - from Berlin was active in the German hip-hop scene. Now he is fighting for the extremist group Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) under the name Abu Talha al-Almani.

That makes him the most prominent example of a German who emerged as a Salafist preacher and then joined the so-called Holy War to fight on the side of violent Islamists. The former rapper is regarded as the leader of a combat unit called the German Brigade of Millatu Ibrahim.

German federal prosecutors are now investigating the combat group, according to the magazine "Focus." Meanwhile, Spanish authorities have arrested a group of alleged ISIS terrorists that tried to recruit combatants for war in Syria and Iraq.

It's long been known that ISIS has drawn fighters not just from the Arab World but also from Europe and the US. A study by King's College in London estimates that 3,000 foreigners from Western states are actively involved in ISIS, with 320 Germans among them.

"These are mainly young men who have been attracted by the ideology," said Falko Walde, an expert on Iraq at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Amman. "ISIS is seen as the most radical and most aggressive militia active in the region. And apparently this is of particular interest for young people who are looking for orientation."

Men on stage at a Salafist rally in Germany (Foto: Marco Müller/DW)
Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel speaks at a rally in CologneImage: DW/Müller

Salafists as recruitment base

The majority of these recruits are converts who identify with Salafism, an especially conservative movement centering on an idealized concept of early Islam. But what is prompting German teenagers to grow long beards and go off to war in a foreign country on the basis of medieval commandments? Young, male, poorly educated and from difficult family environments - those are features of many violent Salafists' biographies, says Islam expert Michael Kiefer, adding that a variety of negative factors must come together to radicalize youth.

"When young people in a difficult development situation meet others who show them respect, impart camaraderie and tell them what to do, then such a life can take a dramatic turn," said Kiefer to Germany's Hessian Broadcasting Corporation. "A very clear picture of right and wrong emerges with the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other."

From there, Kiefer says, moving toward armed struggle is a smaller step.

More 'terrorism tourism'

Even shortly after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, German and US authorities began registering that German Islamists were traveling to Chechnya to fight alongside Islamic terrorists against Russians. What started as just a few volunteers from Germany grew in number once the war in Afghanistan began. The war in Syria has since become the draw for violent jihadists from the West.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere (CDU) believes that Islamists from Germany are cooperating with ISIS in Iraq. "When you know that ISIS is the same organization that is fighting in Syria, then you can easily establish that European fighters are also being deployed in Iraq," said de Maiziere at a recent conference. "That is a big worry for us."

Thomas de Maiziere (Foto: Oliver Berg/dpa)
German converts are seen as a problem by Interior Minister Thomas de MaiziereImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The interior minister remained very vague on the question of what can be done to prevent German jihadists from traveling unhindered to crisis regions. It's a sensitive issue for his minstry. After all, the individuals in question are generally German citizens capable of traveling with identification documents to the Turkish border and then back to Germany. By then, they are radicalized and potentially traumatized, but certainly experienced in war. A working group is now set to discuss what legal options are available to deny them re-entry.

Marketing European support

The German Office for the Protection of the Constitution has also discussed what it calls an "increased threat" by the returnees. In Germany, they are regarded as heroes by likeminded individuals. "Those returning from Syria are already celebrated as pop stars" in the Islamist scene, said one investigator to the "Bild" newspaper.

Since ISIS has more than 10,000 fighters, a few hundred badly trained fighters from Europe play little role in the group's military success, says Iraq expert Falko Walde. "But they are important to ISIS for propaganda purposes. It's important for the terror group to say its fighters are not just from Iraq, Syria and the Gulf states, but also from Europe."

Five men with machine guns (Foto: Radwan Mortada)
ISIS fighters in the Middle EastImage: Radwan Mortada

ISIS exploits that information to draw in new followers, Walde adds, explaining, "Propagandistic messages including that information spread incredibly quickly on social networks, and that helps to recruit new fighters."

A safety risk

A primary fear for German security authorities is that jihadists will use their battle experience from the Middle East for attacks in Europe. There has already been an alarming example, says Falko Walde, in the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels at the end of May. "It was carried out by fighters who were trained by ISIS. That shows how transnational this conflict really is," he said.

Walde adds that reports indicate the young people become totally indoctrinated during the combat mission. "We're talking about a radical, fundamental interpretation of Islam that penetrates all areas of life. And everyone who completely commits to the cause might be ready for a terror mission in Europe."