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North Rhine-Westphalia: Germany's Salafist hotbed

Esther Felden | Matthias von Hein
October 22, 2018

There are more Salafists in North Rhine-Westphalia than in any other German state. The scene has all but vanished from the public eye in its stronghold. But it is still very active, as DW is told by numerous sources.

Köln Salafisten Veranstaltung
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Speak after me," the red-bearded German convert and Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel says as he publicly summons the young woman. Cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd in the pedestrian zone of the western city of Offenbach, she does exactly that, and repeats the words of the Islamic profession of faith. That was in 2010. The conversion was filmed and uploaded to YouTube — just one example of the many videos shared online from the heydays of Salafist missionary work in Germany

Until 2016, the scene had a self-confident and sometimes aggressive public appearance. Bearded men in baggy pants and flowing white robes such as Pierre Vogel regularly distributed free German-language editions of the Koran in market squares and pedestrian zones. As part of their "LIES!" campaign (German for "Read"), key figures of Germany's Salafist scene publicly preached their radical interpretation of Islam as converts were invited to join "Islam seminars" up and down the country. Vogel's people also offered leisure activities such as barbecues and football in an effort to create a parallel Islamic society.

Submerging after the ban

Today there are no more "LIES!" booths on German market squares. In 2016, the Ministry of the Interior banned the Salafist association The True Religion, which had organized the national Koran distribution campaign. The association, as Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, wrote at the time, "represented an ideology that strikes out the constitutional order without replacement, advocated armed jihad and represented a unique recruitment and collection basin for jihadi Islamists in Germany as well as for those who wanted to leave for Syria or Iraq out of jihadi Islamist motivation."

"LIES!" booths on German square in Berlin
"LIES!" booths on German market squares are no longer seen todayImage: Getty Images/A. Berry

Since the ban, radical Salafists have avoided public gatherings. But they have not disappeared. "Most activities take place beyond the field of vision of the majority of society," notes Kaan Orhon, a consultant for the deradicalization agency Hayat, which works throughout Germany.

Orhon works out of a barren conference room on the third floor of an inconspicuous house in downtown Bonn. The name Hayat does not appear on the door of the building, nor is there an address on the internet. There is only a telephone number. Anonymity is important for Hayat's clientele: Orhon works with people who have already been radicalized by Salafist or jihadi ideas, but have since left the movement.

Read more: Mosques in Germany: Statistics hard to come by

"The recruitment of young talent is increasingly taking place in private. Communication takes place via encrypted WhatsApp or telegram channels," says Orhon. This makes it harder for police and intelligence officers to keep an eye on the scene.

"Salafism is geared towards missionizing and gaining new members," explains Burkhard Freier, head of the BfV in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Open missionary work has declined. So how much of a danger is today's Salafist scene to German democracy?

Different shades of Salafism

No other German state has more Salafists than North Rhine-Westphalia. In the past few years, almost 1,000 people in Germany have been radicalized to such an extent that they joined the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia. Nearly 300 of them came from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.)

Practically all Islamist-motivated attacks and attempted attacks in Germany in recent years were committed by people who had radicalized themselves through Salafism. This also applies to Anis Amri, who committed the 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin, in which 12 people lost their lives. It was the bloodiest Islamist attack in Germany to date.

IS fighters in Raqqa
Roughly 1,000 people have left Germany to join the Islamic StateImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

"Of course, not every Salafist is automatically a terrorist, but every Islamist terrorist was previously a Salafist." This sentence is repeatedly used in our conversations with the various people who deal with the scene on a day-to-day basis — with the BfV, with teachers in the classroom, with advisors in a deradicalization office or at the integration office of the city of Bonn, which is regarded as a relative stronghold of Salafism in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Read more: In Berlin, Salafist extremist scene nears 1,000 members

Salafism is an extremely conservative current within Islam. Its followers interpret the Koran literally and orient themselves exclusively on how the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors lived the religion. The Islamist ideology has been turned into a breeding ground of an extreme Salafist counterculture, which above all aims at one thing: demarcation.

Within the Salafist spectrum there are many believers who simply want to live their strict interpretation of Islam privately and spiritually. But a considerable number belong to the group of political Salafists who want to establish a fundamentalist theocracy. They reject secular laws such as the German Constitution, or Basic Law. Only Sharia, or Islamic law, is acceptable to them.

Recruits of the 'caliphate'

There is a permeable border between political and jihadi Salafism. Jihadi-inspired Salafists are prepared to use violence for their vision of an Islamic state. The Salafist scene in North Rhine-Westphalia has around 3,000 adherents according to the state's BfV office, 800 of whom are classified as ready to use violence.

Salafist women in Offenbach
Nearly a third of Salafists in Germany who left for Syria and Iraq have been womenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

Twelve percent of all Salafism adherents in North Rhine-Westphalia are female. And among those Salafists who left for Syria and Iraq, the proportion of women, at 28 percent, is more than twice as high. That is why Salafist women and their children are now under special state observation. This applies above all to those who have returned from the territory controlled by the now largely-defeated IS. Returning children are already going to schools and kindergartens in Bonn. Kaan Orhon of the Hayat deradicalization initiative advocates for an "infrastructure of help, such as child psychologists who can deal with trauma but who can also tackle religious aspects."

Read more: The legacy of the 'Islamic State'

Coletta Manemann, the integration officer for the city of Bonn, also deals with IS returnees and their children. "In all cases where families are affected, the youth welfare office, the day care centers and primary schools must be sensitized," she says. "On the one hand, we must give returnees the chance to find a place in society again. But we also have to be vigilant that returnees do not continue to try to radicalize children and young people."

Broken or dangerous

Hayat's Orhon says that the mindset of women returning from the war zones in Syria and Iraq varies greatly from individual to individual. Some of them have completely broken with their past, some are confused, disillusioned and disappointed. But there are also women who continue to function as bearers of the IS ideology. "It is sometimes difficult to determine whom we are dealing with — whether she is a disillusioned dropout or still a highly radicalized dangerous person," says Orhon.

This is particularly difficult to determine when German authorities do not have enough evidence to take criminal action against particular female returnees, such as charging them with "support for a foreign terrorist organization."

Unlike women, the authorities find it easier to gather evidence for male returnees — often because they fought actively, can be seen in propaganda videos, or bragged about their deeds on social networks. In the past five years, Germany's attorney general has investigated 24 returnees from IS.

The number of members of the Islamist-extremist scene in German prisons is also rising, in large part due to so-called Salafist prisoner assistance. "From the point of view of the security authorities, this care for prisoners poses a great danger," says the BfV's Freier.

In concrete terms, prisoners receive visits from Muslim "brothers and sisters." They also receive regular letters of support. Donations are collected via the internet — for legal aid, gifts and for the prisoners' families. "The aim is to keep the prisoners inside the closed scene instead of allowing them to reintegrate into society during imprisonment," says Freier.

Hayat's Orhon describes prisoner assistance as the "most important growth area" of Germany's Salafist scene. "There are more and more people to take care of," he says. "However, you don't have to expose yourself in public. It's exactly what the scene is currently looking for. Something that has an acute effect, but at the same time can happen relatively anonymously."

German police check a Salafist
Authorities keep a close eye on Salafists and their familiesImage: Getty Images/M. Wienand

The Salafist 'capital' 

Salafist hotspots in North-Rhine Westphalia include cities such as Mönchengladbach, Wuppertal, Dinslaken and Dortmund, but also the former West German capital Bonn, where Salafists have repeatedly produced headlines — for example in 2012, when an Islamist demonstration turned violent. Cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed were shown at an anti-Islamic rally staged by the right-wing extremist splinter party Pro NRW, and during a counterdemonstration by radical Salafists, a young participant attacked two policemen with a knife and seriously injured them.

Read more: Germany tolerant of LGBT neighbors, but not Muslim ones

As early as 2008, the brothers Yassin and Mounir Chouka had traveled from Bonn to the Afghan-Pakistani border region, where they appeared in threatening videos calling for attacks in Germany.

Bonn is also the home of preacher Abu Dujana, one of the two leading figures in the national "LIES!" Koran distribution campaign. Other Salafist star preachers have also had regular appearances in Bonn — such as the red-haired ex-boxer and probably most influential German convert, Pierre Vogel.

Vogel continues to preach regularly on his YouTube channel and lectures on Facebook. But he no longer hangs out in front of the secondary school in Bonn's Tannenbusch district like he used to, teacher Aziz Fooladvand told DW. He says Vogel regularly used to wait on the street until class was over and then approach students.

Aziz Fooladvand (DW/M. von Hein)
Fooladvand: 'Religion is not a static element, but a dynamic process'Image: DW/M. von Hein

'Religion is not a static element'

Iranian-born Fooladvand teaches Islamic Studies. More than half of the residents in Tannenbusch have an immigrant background, a reflection of a larger trend in Bonn. According to the latest population statistics, every 10th inhabitant of the city is Muslim.

"My most important task is to give the pupils the feeling that they are free to think in their lessons with me. I want to offer them a space for discussion," Fooladvand says. "They should understand that religion is not a static element, but a dynamic process." For many children, especially from patriarchal societies and educationally disadvantaged strata, this is entering new territory, he explains.

Fooladvand has repeatedly observed identity problems, especially among young people with foreign roots. "They don't know: Am I German, or am I a foreigner? Am I a Muslim, am I a European?" Fooladvand describes this as a critical moment in which young people are easily susceptible to the messages of Salafists. "They can find themselves in the scene. They suddenly have a role to play. They suddenly belong to an elitist group. The Salafists give them orientation."

A look at the Facebook pages of Salafists shows how everything is dominated by one question: What is forbidden, what is allowed? What is haram, what is halal?

Ridwan Bauknecht
Bauknecht believes state and private efforts to curb Salafism in Germany have had an effectImage: DW/A. Ammar

Bernd Bauknecht is also a teacher of Islam, at a comprehensive school in Bonn, and understands the lives of many of his students outside the classroom. "It happens that I have two or three children in class who come from a family where there is a proximity to Salafist ideas," he says.

Both teachers describe the competition to capture young people's minds as a macrosocial task. Once young people are "infected," it is difficult to get back to them.

Bauknecht believes that the measures taken by state authorities, but also by civil society prevention and deradicalization campaigns, are having an effect. "When a young person entered the keyword Islam in an internet search engine three years ago, five of the first 10 hits were Salafist," he says. "Not because there are so many Salafists, but because they made very clever use of [the internet]."

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Meanwhile, says Bauknecht, young Muslim YouTubers are increasingly undermining the Salafists' sovereignty of interpretation. In their own language. Pragmatic, open, unagitated. 

A new Salafist generation

Overall, the Salafist scene in Germany has changed considerably since its beginnings in 2003 and 2004, says the BfV's Freier. "In the beginning, we mainly had a German-speaking scene. The primary goal in the early stages was missionary work." Many of the protagonists at that time had previously been "religious illiterates" who knew very little about Islam — even if their parents were Muslim.

Pierre Vogel giving a speech in Frankfurt/Main
Vogel is one of the most well-known Salafist preachers in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

In the ensuing years the scene has become more and more violent. "The climax was reached with the many trips in the direction of Syria, when it was no longer about changing our democracy, but about establishing a caliphate state in the Middle East," Freier explains.

With the military decline of IS, Freier has observed the formation of "whole Salafist families" who are "gradually consolidating the scene. We now have a Salafism here, which no longer needs a caliphate state, and which needs no ideologization from outside. It is developing more and more into a domestic extremism."

The scene has closed itself further off from mainstream society. Families grow into networks. Missionary work happens privately and indoors — in contrast to the past, when new Salafist converts recited the profession of faith openly in German market places.

On Tuesday, read part II of our series on Salafism: From Germany to Islamic State: Christian's journey