Security forces in Germany are on high alert. On Wednesday (13.03.13), four Salafists who are said to have been planning an attack on the right-wing extremist party "Pro NRW," were arrested. The term "Salafist" is frequently being used as a synonym for terrorist.
But not all followers of Salafism are extremist. Nor are all of them prepared to commit acts of violence, says Guido Steinberg, an expert on Islam from the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). "There are a lot of Salafists who are very peaceful here in Germany," he said. "In my view, they have the right to complain about being lumped together with the violent ones who are always being talked about."
The Federal Interior Ministry and Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution estimate that there are almost 5,000 Salafists in Germany. Other experts say there as many as 10,000. Though their estimates vary, they do agree that only a minority - some 1,000 Salafists - would support acts of terrorism. From that group of 1,000, Steinberg said, only a few hundred are prepared to actually commit those acts of violence.
The interior ministry also recommends differentiating between "Salafists" and "terrorists." There are definitely links between terrorist suspects and Salafism, but those links must be clearly defined, said Jens Teschke, a spokesperson at the ministry. "Not all Salafists are terrorists, but all terrorists with an Islamist background were at least at one point oriented toward Salafism."
In Germany, Salafists divide themselves into three groups: the purists, the politically-oriented Salafists and the jihadists.
For purists, the model is based on leading a religious life in practice. They want to live as Muhammad and his followers did in the 7th century. Experts do not consider this group to be dangerous, since followers focus on living according to the Koran and most of them have no concrete political goals.
Things are different for politically-oriented Salafists. In countries that experienced the Arab Spring, these Salafists were largely responsible for bringing about the fall of a regime so that they could implement their own understanding of an Islamic state and society. In Germany, their main goal is to spread their own position throughout society and to create their own pockets of autonomy, says Guido Steinberg.
The jihadists are the smallest but most dangerous subgroup of the Salafists in Germany. They want to impose Sharia, or Islamic law and to create an Islamic state. To do so they are ready to commit violence against non-believers. And they are gaining more adherents.
"The biggest problem in Germany is the conservative edge of political Salafism," Steinberg said. "Starting a couple of years ago, you've seen more and more of the politically-oriented Salafists, who don't believe in violence, slip into the more violent category."
Salafism, the German way
Of the three branches, the violent branch of Salafism has for years had the most firmly-entrenched international network. Future jihadists were sent to Pakistan to be trained for terrorist attacks back home in their countries of origin. Over the last few years, says Steinberg, that has changed. The violent arm of Salafism has become more German.
"We're seeing a disproportionate number of German converts," the expert said. "Most of the time it's people who've spent their whole lives in Germany."
Such individuals tend to lack military training. In that sense they present less of a danger. At the same time, however, the Salafist scene in Germany becomes more difficult to monitor.
Also worrying is the fact that, at least in the eyes of young Muslims in Germany, Salafism has become "cool." Many young Germans gravitate toward radical Islam due to its clear and uncompromising religious philosophy. "Salafism has become a part of youth culture now," Steinberg said. "It used to be cool to be leftist. In eastern Germany it's cooler to be 'right.' And with a lot of Muslims or converts today, it's pretty darn cool to be a Salafist."
Conflicts of interest
In an attempt to fight back against violent Salafists, the interior ministry has banned three Islamic associations and their associated websites. Yet such measures, Steinberg warns, can ultimately prove counterproductive. "The German government should make sure their countermeasures don't end up radicalizing people who were previously on the fence."
In addition, such propaganda sites constitute some of the most importance sources of information on radical, violent Salafists, Steinberg believes. "My plea would be that the government ban such websites only when they have a complimentary measure to fight against - and ultimately prevent - such terrorist propaganda from popping up at another location."
Jens Teschke, the interior ministry's spokesman, feels it's important to work closely with Muslim groups and associations, encouraging them to reject violence and to raise interest in the peaceful exchange of religious and cultural ideas. Doing so would also serve to alert them to the dangers of extreme Salafism.
"When you see young people reject the foundations of democracy overnight, and then fall in line with radical Islam and Salfism, then it's time to start impressing upon them that they're taking the wrong path."
In Teschke's view, the German population as a whole doesn't have to worry about attacks, such as the thwarted attempt on the head of the "Pro NRW" group, Markus Beisicht.
"Panic is not in order, but we do have to stay alert," he said. "We've seen before what radicalized individuals can do."