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IS 'headhunting' minors online

Jefferson Chase
January 19, 2017

The head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency says that Islamists are increasingly recruiting adolescents using social media. It's one of many internal security threats the country currently faces.

Jugendliche Islamisten Tätowierung Jihad
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Martin Lejeune

At a special Q&A session with foreign media in Berlin on Thursday, Germany's president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Hans-Georg Maassen, highlighted teenage and even younger Islamic radicals as a growing problem in the country.

Maassen compared the "jihadist movement" with both communism and National Socialism as totalitarian ideologies that specifically targeted young people. He said that groups like the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) were trying to exploit the immature personality traits of adolescents by going after "narcissistic young people searching for black-and-white truths, underdogs who want to be top dogs and part of the social avant-garde, and people who rebel against their parents and the system."

To illustrate his point, the BfV chief invoked a 15-year-old girl from the city of Hanover who attacked a policeman with a knife in February, seriously wounding him.

"We see that IS is specifically searching for such people - on social media you can say that there are veritable headhunters who contact young people and try to get them hooked on the ideology," Maassen said. "That was a case with Safia, the young girl from Hanover. She was introduced to the Salafist community by her mother but we now know that she was led to commit her crime by instant messenger groups. She was coached."

Verfassungsschutz-Präsident Hans-Georg Maaßen
Maassen is Germany's highest domestic intelligence officialImage: picture alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

The girl has been charged with attempted murder, and on Thursday, Hanover prosecutors asked for her to be sentenced to six years in prison. The case, Maassen said, was just one of a series of possibly Islamist attacks carried out or attempted by minors in various parts of Germany in 2016. Last year, three 16- and 17-year-olds attacked a Sikh Temple with explosives in Essen, a 16-year-old in the Porz district of Cologne was arrested for trying to build a bomb, and a 12-year-old sought to put a clumsily-constructed, non-functional nail bomb in a Christmas market in Ludwigshafen.

Maassen said that the common thread in these incidents was not just the perpetrators' age but the role played by the internet.

"These are all people who were radicalized and recruited not in the real world but in cyberspace, where such headhunters satisfied their desire for instructions from a leader and for black-and-white categories of what's right and good," he told journalists.

But Maassen also criticized the influence of online culture on a very different scene within German society.

The self-radicalization of the center

Maassen said he was also concerned about the effects of same social media mechanisms IS seeks to exploit on the supporters of anti-immigration movements like Pegida and the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). He said that the medium was often more important than the specific messenger.

"I wouldn't pin the reasons for this radicalization on any one party - I think one very significant aspect is social networks and the internet," Maassen explained. "We talk about so-called echo chambers in which people with radical views meet likeminded others and receive affirmation and motivation. In this way, a social group arises that increasingly radicalizes itself."

Protest gegen Thügida-Aufmarsch
Many supporters of groups like Pegida don't come from the traditional far-right sceneImage: Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/J. Meyer

He said the new media possibilities had, in effect, created a new class of highly angry, politically active people in addition to the traditional extremist right-wing fringe.

"We in Germany and not just in Germany have an increasing radicalization of people that can't be classified as right-wing extremists, people who used to be politically indifferent and didn't have an opinion," Maassen said. "This radicalization also leads people to act violently. We see with attacks on refugee homes that the majority of the attackers weren't known to us as right-wing radicals. They're people who in terms of their background actually don't have any relationship with right-wing extremism. That concerns us because these are people from the middle of society who've radicalized themselves."

Germany is holding a national election this year, and the AfD is currently attracting up to 15 percent support in polls, although it is suspected of tolerating neo-Nazi views and one of its local leaders attracted broad criticism on Wednesday for deriding Germany's culture of Holocaust remembrance.

Russia, Turkey and Trump

Maassen also addressed worries that Russian-sponsored hackers could try to influence Germany's election as they are believed to have done last year in the United States presidential vote.

"We note that there was a cyberattack on the Democratic Party in the middle of the election and that US intelligence services think it highly probable that the attack came from Russia," Maassen said. "You can't help but think that a similar scenario is possible in Germany, especially because Germany is an important EU country and we have a national election this year. So we're trying to increase the sensitivity among politicians and the public that such attacks are possible."

Russland Karikatur zum Thema Russische Hacker in den USA
Maassen said Russian cyberattacks could feature in Germany's election

He said his body was also worried that Turkey, with its increasingly intractable conflict between the government and the opposition and Kurdish separatists, was also carrying out operations in Germany.

"We're concerned not just about the situation in Turkey, but the fact that there seem to be operations aimed at influencing the Turkish minority in Germany and German citizens from Turkish backgrounds," Maassen said. "Germany cannot tolerate intelligence services carrying out activities here that run contrary to German interests. That's why we defend ourselves, even when a NATO partner like Turkey pursues intelligence operations in Germany."

Maassen spoke positively about Germany's intelligence relationship with the US despite a raft of incidents of spying on Germany and President-elect Donald Trump's run-ins with American intelligence agencies.

"I can't yet render any judgement on the successor to CIA director [John] Brennan or president-elect Trump's statements on the American intelligence services," Maassen said. "But the fact that two of his first appointments were the national security advisor and the director of the CIA, and that these people possess an unbelievable know-how, suggests to me that he definitely sees these as important positions."

Maassen added that the high probability of Russian involvement in politically motivated cyberattacks had made both the German and American intelligence services further appreciate the need to work together.

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