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German jihadists

Klaus Jansen / gsw
November 5, 2012

A study by the Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) examines how many jihadists and sympathizers live in Germany as well as the new means by which propaganda is being spread.

Screen shot from a jihadist video (picture: dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

On March 2, 2011, 21-year-old Arid Uka shot dead two US soldiers at the Frankfurt airport and severely wounded others. His motive was hatred against soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

Previously Uka had seen a video on YouTube purporting to show Muslim women being raped by US soldiers. The young man frequented Islamist discussion forums online and regularly watched videos of radical preachers. However, he never had direct contact with jihadists.

Arid Uka represents a typical case of self-radicalization by way of the Internet, says Alexander Eisvogel, vice president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's internal security agency. Eisvogel told the daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" this year that he has observed what he dubs "jihad 2.0 - a kind of virtual jihad."

The Internet offers a platform for what was once the domain of certain preachers, prayer circles and schools: Indoctrinating a social group against others.

From fax machines to Facebook

This represents a relatively new development in Germany. The Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) undertook a close study of the last 15 years of Jihad propaganda, producing a summary of its results. SWP experts say that around the year 2000, the Internet played just a small role. Al Qaeda sent its declarations via fax or recorded videos, which where then sent to TV broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

But shortly after the attacks on September 11, 2001, various Arabic forums advocating jihad gained influence.

SWP terrorism researcher Guido Steinberg notes that a number of materials published online between 2003 and 2008 attracted lots of attention. They included the execution of American businessman Nicholas Berg in 2004. At the time, the Berlin study reports that terrorist groups still published their videos themselves. However, the authors add that sympathizers and supporters are becoming more and more active.

As the popularity of Facebook and Twitter escalated in recent years, jihadists have gotten active in social networks, and propaganda is now being generated from many countries around the world.

Transition to terrorism

Jihadist Internet propaganda in the German-speaking world began in 2005. In the early phases, propagators of the materials did not work very professionally, terrorism expert Steinberg told DW. They created convincing propaganda videos and translated Arabic texts in to German to reach a broader public.

"But on the other hand, it was often quite easy for security officials to see who was behind these activities," he explained.

A number of influential people within the movement were put in jail within the last ten years in Germany. But the displaced members were often quickly replaced, Steinberg said, citing the example of a group banned in summer 2012 called Gemeinschaft Abrahams (The Abraham Alliance). Its leaders have now left Germany, moving abroad to continue publishing propaganda from abroad.

"That raises concerns because this content is constantly being spread online," he said. Steinberg fears that the jihadists may not just be disseminating anti-Western materials but actively trying to build up terrorist structures.

Peculiarities in Germany

The development of terror groups has taken a different form in Germany compared with other countries in recent years. Apparently the language barrier to propaganda written in Arabic was very high for many radicals living in Germany, Guido Steinberg said.

"The German scene is heavily shaped by recruits with Turkish or Kurdish backgrounds, and in most cases they have gone on to join organizations based in Uzbekistan."

The Turkish and Uzbek languages have the same roots, just as certain segments of the Turkish and Uzbekistani populations. By eliminating the language barrier, groups like the Islamische Dschihad-Union (Islamist Jihad Union) or the Islamische Bewegung Usbekistans (Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan) have been able to attract young men to train as fighters.

Modern tools targeting modernity

The case of Arid Uka is a reminder that terrorist groups can persuade their followers remotely, with no physical contact. Uka was fascinated by German-language propaganda online. That's no surprise to Guido Steinberg: "The producers of these materials have become enormously professional."

Videos have come into favor as a tool for radicalization, and they've shown their effectiveness, Steinberg argues.

Researcher Nico Prucha expresses his astonishment about propaganda of this sort in the SWP report: "Ironically, Jihadists are using the most modern methods of communication in order to fight against modernity."

The SWP study estimates Germany is home to just a few hundred jihadists as well as several thousand supporters and sympathizers. With numbers that small, Steinberg suggests that when influential figures in the scene are arrested, attempts should be made to convert them. They might then help stop messages supporting armed conflict.

A still from a video calling for jihad in German (picture: dpa)
A video calls for jihad in GermanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Intelcenter
Guido Steinberg (c) DW
Steinberg warns the videos are becoming ever more professional
German Islamist Abu Askar in a propaganda video (picture: dpa)
German Islamist Abu Askar in a propaganda videoImage: picture-alliance/dpa
Fredrik von Erichsen (picture: dpa)
Alexander Eisvogel talks of "jihad 2.0 - a kind of virtual jihad"Image: picture-alliance/dpa