Self-described 'hooligans' have teamed up against a new enemy: Islamic extremism. For months now, they have lashed out online - and now they're taking to the streets.
It began on Facebook, where anti-Islam soccer fans have been venting their anger in online forums for months now. But lately, in German cities, like Essen, Nuremberg, Mannheim, Frankfurt and Dortmund, hostile self-proclaimed "hooligans," usually at odds with each other, have united against a new enemy: Salafists - a radical and militant branch of Islam.
Their initiative, currently known as Ho.Ge.Sa. - "Hooligans gegen Salafisten" ("Hooligans against Salafists") - has seen its profile repeatedly blocked by Facebook, but it always reappears under another name. It's here that the group is stoking the flames against the hard-line Salafist movement. Next stop: a demonstration planned for October 26 in front of the Cologne Cathedral.
The current mood and the protests organized by Kurds across Europe are giving hooligans and right-wing sympathizers the chance to "apparently demonstrate against the Salafists, but really only to express their own Islamophobia," Olaf Sundermeyer, a journalist and author, told DW .
"We are 'hooligans against Salafixxxx.' Together, we are strong," reads the group's Facebook page. They see themselves as "a movement that has brought together hooligans, ultras, soccer fans and ordinary citizens in a common fight against the worldwide 'Islamic State' terror campaign and the nationwide Salafist movement."
In Facebook posts and on banners at their demonstrations, they call their group the "resistance" against "the true enemies of our shared homeland." The latest protest in Dortmund drew around 400 people. "On 26.10.2014 in Cologne, we will significantly increase this number of participants," a moderator recently announced on the site. "Peaceful, unmasked and without rioting."
'Salafists are the greater evil'
These slogans have actually served to bring together opposing hostile fan bases, who usually meet up before and after sports events to fight each other. Gunter A. Pilz, an expert on fan behavior from the Sport University in Hanover, calls this phenomenon "a temporary fighting alliance." However, he said that this coalition will only last as long as the common enemy: the Salafists.
Sundermeyer, who points out that anti-Islam attitudes are widespread in the soccer fan scene, said there's a risk that extreme right-wing groups will be tolerated because the brutality of "Islamic State" militants in Syria and Iraq is proof to many that Salafists are the greater evil.
In an interview with German public radio Deutschlandfunk, Sundermeyer said that "Hooligans against Salafists" is still a relatively small group, but stressed that it could attract more followers - even those with less radical viewpoints. Soccer, he said, is the ideal environment to radicallize and recruit young people to the extreme right-wing cause. Officially, though, the league has distanced itself from the right-wing extremist movement.
Mobilizing apolitical hooligans and soccer fans
But there's an obvious overlap with the neo-Nazi scene: Ho.Ge.Sa. is backed by Dominik Roeseler, a member of the right-wing Pro NRW party who sits on the Mönchengladbach city council. He plans to be at the demonstration in Cologne. Roeseler is considered to be quite extreme and is, like all right-wing party members, under observation by German security officials.
And there are further connections: At the protest in Dortmund, many shirts, jackets and banners were adorned with neo-Nazi symbols. The next day, a post on the Facebook group backtracked, saying that "unfortunately, we have found out that many neo-Nazis came to this event. We want to once again make it clear that we are not political."
There doesn't even seem to be a consensus over Dominik Roeseler among the Ho.Ge.Sa. members. A few days ago, they announced that they had parted ways with him. But one thing is certain: the Cologne demonstration is being organized by right-wing political officials. Is Ho.Ge.Sa., therefore, an attempt by right-wing extremists to drum up new members from within the ranks of hooligans and extremist soccer fans?
At the most recent count, the number of Ho.Ge.Sa. fans had risen to more than 16,000. "We continue to grow, the media can hound us all it wants. This time, you will not be able to stop us," wrote a follower on the site.
Until recently, soccer associations, clubs and other fans had been able to keep the hooligans in check, said Sundermeyer. Now, however, faced with the threat posed by the Salafists, the cause of the right-wing extremists is seeing increasing support.