German current affairs magazine Der Spiegel has reported that another German Islamist appears to have been killed in Pakistan. How do German citizens get involved with radical terrorist groups?
Breininger was killed while fighting for a radical group
According to a report in the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, German security authorities believe another German Islamist was killed in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The news comes just days after Eric Breininger, a German-born Islamist, was killed while fighting in Pakistan. Breininger's memoirs of how he went from life in Germany to joining a radical terrorist group were also recently posted online.
Elmar Thevessen is a terrorism analyst for German public television channel ZDF. He explained to Deutsche Welle the process of how young German citizens can become radicalized and fight alongside Islamist militias and terrorist groups.
Deutsche Welle: What do radical Islamist views offer to young German converts to Islam?
Thevessen: What we've seen over the last two years is that the converts are looking for some kind of inspiration and guidance on what to do with their lives. Pursuing jihad and fighting injustice gives them a sense of purpose. Many of them, we've seen in their biographies, have had problems in their personal lives. They feel they have been treated badly, so they feel an injustice has been committed against them. They see parallels between what they experience themselves and what others experience in some other parts of the world. Islam acts as a kind of a blueprint, which helps them to bring together this cause.
How exactly does someone join a movement that is so culturally different from their upbringing?
Number one of course, many of them have problems in their personal life. There might have been a divorce in the family, or there might have been really big problems within the family and they've lost their orientation. In several of the cases we've seen, they're looking for someone else for guidance, and quite frequently they find guidance from Islamists within Germany who basically give them what they need. They give them orientation, they tell them Islam is the solution, but the problem is that the Islamists are preaching a very extreme form of Islam.
The other way, which is becoming more troubling, is through the Internet. On the Internet, you have everything that helps you to radicalize. You can get theoretical background and ideology through pamphlets and information available online. It can even give you instructions for building bombs so that you can become a terrorist in your own home without having to go to Afghanistan or Somalia.
Do you think these limited cases affect the on-going cultural disputes between European and Islamic values?
The big problem is that the number is increasing. It's still a very small number, but for example in Germany in 2009 there were 40 people who went to training camps in Afghanistan or other places to become extremists. Once you see the number of people and propaganda increasing through the Internet, there will be others who might feel that it's important to join or support the cause.
We have seen cases last year in Germany where for one person it only took four months from being in touch with this extreme form of Islam for the very first time, to travelling to a terrorist camp in Afghanistan. It is faster than it has been in the past, and the big problem is that the extremists are telling those young people that we have a clash of civilizations and cultures here, which in my view is totally wrong. But they are just telling them that this is the case, and unfortunately in Western countries some parts of societies are feeling that there is a clash of cultures. The more people believe in that, the bigger the problem will get in the end.
The Internet is often used to draw in new recruits
How do these German-born fighters deal with barriers such as language or nationality?
Quite frequently, there is a longing to learn the Arabic language and to read the Koran in its original version. So many of them, after they have converted in Germany, find ways to get to language schools in Syria, Saudi Arabia or other countries. They end up going to schools where a very extreme form of Islam is taught, and they are in touch with other extremists from around the world who might have connections to the terrorist training camps.
How exactly do these foreign-born fighters see themselves?
They personally feel they are the vanguard of the fight against injustice. They feel they are elite and most of them have intellectual capacities that make them believe they should join the fight because it's a higher purpose. That's the reason they forego much comfort in their personal lives for this higher cause, it gives them a meaning to their lives. Even if they are not successful in travelling to a training camp or to fight abroad, they might look for the next opportunity to try again.
What kind of measures can the German government take against these groups without infringing on privacy rights and things like that?
Number one is of course putting them under surveillance, but the biggest problem is an increasing number of those young people are not part of a larger group. Therefore, it is very hard to find them on the security radar in Germany.
Number two, once you have identified some of them, you make sure they cannot travel. You make sure they are turned back from the airport; some of them might have their passports taken away. But then some individuals simply drive to another European country and try from there.
So number three, it's important to also look at de-radicalization, to stop them in their tracks before they really become so extreme that they don't see any way back. That's something Germany has just started to focus on.
Many feel their fight is for a higher cause
Do you think recent discoveries of German-born extremists are isolated cases, or is this the beginning of more German youths crossing over and radicalizing?
It's really starting to become a trend. The numbers are increasing, although they are still low at around 40 people per year. But the number of sympathizers is growing and from what intelligence services see, we will probably have three-figure numbers this year or next year. This seems to be very low, but if you take into account that one person is enough to plant a bomb in Germany, you can imagine how dangerous this can be for society.
Interview: Matthew Kang
Editor: Chuck Penfold