Searching for Islamists

Searching for Islamists

Germany has banned ISIS, but this doesn’t seem to have stopped ever more youth from joining the jihad in Syria. Who are Berlin’s recruits? I went looking for extremists.


Behind a huge cigarette factory in south Neukölln, there is a mosque called Al-Nur. From the outside, it’s like a run-down, unforgiving secondary school from the 1970s, all decaying concrete slabs set functionally on top of each other. If you walk in on a Saturday morning, that impression is only reinforced, since the upper floors of the building are a school where children study the Quran, learn Arabic, and get after-school help with their German and maths. Outside the classrooms, there’s a waiting area with sofas where mums and dads wait to pick up their children.

This mosque has probably the worst reputation in the whole of Germany. Hardly a single major German national news outlet has failed to link the place to what they have gotten used to indiscriminately calling “radical Islamists” or Salafists. In 2011, Der Spiegel published an article that described the mosque as a “refuge for radicals”, where Salafists were indoctrinating hundreds of children into a particularly conservative brand of Islam that was alienating them from mainstream German society. Since the spread of “Islamic State” in Syria and northern Iraq, the reporting on the mosque has become simpler. The Berliner Kurier tabloid, for one, has taken to calling it “the terror mosque” at any opportunity because Denis Cuspert, aka Deso Dogg, the rapper turned ISIS jihadist (see page 20), once attended Al-Nur. This, as far as the media is concerned, is the mother lode of radicalisation in Berlin.

All that seems to have passed by at least one dad, who is waiting for his daughter to come out of her Arabic lesson. He looks surprised when I bring up the mosque’s extremist reputation. “I look at all my daughter’s textbooks, and there’s nothing in there,” he says, looking slightly worried, then turns to the dad next to him to ask if he’s heard that. Then, suddenly defensive, he talks about how terrible the situation in Syria is, condemns ISIS and expresses his concerns about how the group is destroying Islam’s reputation.

In the mosque itself, you step over dozens of children’s shoes onto a big expanse of carpet, where, in between prayer times, you’re free to pad around among the chattering kids and the men sitting on the floor against the walls, checking their smartphones. If you walk all the way to the back, you get to a large office filled with more families and shelves of leather-bound books with gold Arabic writing. This is where the mosque’s administration sits – in this case a man with an impressive, beautifully curled beard. Unlike the dad upstairs, he definitely knows about the mosque’s bad reputation. “It’s the press!” he says. “If we were anything like what they write about us, the police would have shut us down long ago. It’s libellous.” Then he says that the board is considering taking legal action against the papers.

On the lookout

Part of the reason Al-Nur has attracted such media attention is that it appears in the annual reports of Berlin’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution). Though the latest one admits that “non-Salafist Muslims” also attend the mosque, “German-speaking Salafist preachers” have spoken there. In particular, the report drew attention to Muhammad al-Arifi, a guest preacher from Saudi Arabia who has, the report says, “repeatedly become noticeable for his anti- Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic views”.

Isabelle Kalbitzer, spokeswoman for Berlin’s Verfassungsschutz office, has no doubt what this means. The agency takes up an upper floor of the Berlin interior ministry, an imposing 19th-century Prussian building. To get to talk to Kalbitzer, you have to give up your ID, pass an airlock-type of door, and follow her along endless corridors to her spacious room at the back.

“The numbers have risen. We’re now at 570 Salafists in Berlin – of which 290 are violenceoriented,” she says. By “violence-oriented”, Kalbitzer means “there are indications that they have at some point expressed themselves along those lines, or that a ‘certain distance from violence’ is not there.” The Verfassungsschutz distinguishes this group from two other groups of Salafists: those they call “purists”, strictly Islamic but not politically oriented, and the political Salafists, who want to “change basic elements of a free democratic state” but are not ready to resort to violence. The Verfassungsschutz relies on a number of different indices to make this definition. “We learn, for example, that they go to a particular mosque, or can be associated with a particular preacher, or there is telephone information, or they are active on the internet, or they’ve been to certain demonstrations.”

“Of course, you see it from external signs, too,” Kalbitzer adds. “If you suddenly see beards or shorter trousers on the men, or veils on the women, and they withdraw further from social life. It’s not like a checklist – ‘okay, you look like this, you’re a Salafist’ – but a lot of them do look like that.”

Nebulous definitions

One man whom the Verfassungsschutz defines as a Salafist is Abdul Adhim Kamouss, an imam who preaches at several Berlin mosques, including, until recently, Al-Nur. In September he appeared on the ARD’s Günther Jauch political chat show, where his lively argument with Neukölln Mayor Heinz Buschkowsky and Christian Democrat MP Wolfgang Bosbach caused an intense reaction. Many German viewers and newspapers were annoyed that this “extremist” had been offered a “platform”. But Kamouss wasn’t happy either. “I thought I had been invited to talk about radicalisation. Instead, they just talked about me,” he says.

Most Muslims were equally upset about the way Kamouss had been represented. “I thought, and all my Muslim friends thought, that they had chosen Kamouss because he was a Muslim who spoke out against ISIS,” said one student close to the community. In fact, the imam was cornered into representing the radicals. That has become a pattern – normal Muslims are pushed by the German media under the same umbrella as the people they themselves are scared of.

“No, I’m not a Salafist. I see myself as a moderate Muslim. I’ve never been part of any current or party or political movement. I see that as a division of our great nation of Islam,” says Kamouss, sitting in an Eiscafé in a Wedding shopping mall.

What is a Salafist, anyway? “That’s the problem. They are slowly taking away all our Islamic words – they’ve taken away the word salaf and dragged it through dirt,” says Kamouss. The word is rooted in an 18th-century doctrine created by the scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab – which still determines government policy in Saudi Arabia – that advocates a return to the Islam of the salafs, or ancestors, the generations closest to the prophet Muhammad. The word “Salafism” was not used until the 20th century, and it’s hard to find any Muslims in Germany who would self-identify as Salafists. “There is a movement in the whole world called Salafia, but not as described by the Verfassungsschutz – they are people who concentrate on the classic learning and who try to dedicate themselves to it,” says Kamouss. “They have nothing to do with jihad – they are completely normal people in the mosques. There probably are people in Germany who would have described themselves as Salafists, but they wouldn’t do it anymore, because they know that this word has a different meaning in Germany.”

Kalbitzer also gets a little exasperated over wrangling with the definition. “I find it tiresome to talk about – whether you call them Salafists or whatever,” she says. “You can call it something else as far as I’m concerned, but the ideology is still the same.”

So if the definition is unclear, can we at least agree on the numbers of radical Muslims travelling to Syria? According to the Verfassungsschutz, around 550 people are thought to have travelled to Syria and Iraq from Germany, 65 from Berlin. But those numbers don’t go any further, as Kalbitzer admits. “They are people who have gone to Syria – that doesn’t mean they all take part in fighting,” she says. “It also doesn’t mean they have automatically joined ISIS. It includes people who want to provide logistical support. They’re not all fighters, but we can assume that they are all Salafists, and that they have gone there for political reasons. Of course, there are also Islamists who travel there for humanitarian reasons. Not all of these people are dangerous.”

Salafists against ISIS

So the Al-Nur mosque is not just for Salafists, Salafist doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and the authorities admit that not all of those travelling to Syria are violent – all ideas you wouldn’t get from reading the German media. But there is another mosque mentioned in the Verfassungsschutz reports, that definitely is “Salafist” by their definition. This is the As-Sahaba in Wedding, occupying a cramped ground-floor retail space on Torfstraße.

From outside, it looks a lot more secretive than Al-Nur – only a few posters in the windows with Quran quotations reveal what it is at all. And you don’t get invited in if you knock on the door. When I go there, a German man comes out in full Salafist attire – straggly beard, white smock, ankle-length trousers, little cap. He introduces himself (he doesn’t want his name printed) and says he is a “member of the board”. His whole demeanour is wary. “You probably think we’re all monsters in here, don’t you?” is almost the first thing he says. Then he announces that the board has stopped giving interviews to the press because of “bad experiences”, and adds that he’s noticed much more hostility towards himself in the past few months “because of my appearance”. Eventually he agrees to answer a few questions by email. “We are constantly demonised in the media and presented as the breeding ground of radicalisation, etc.,” he writes a few days later. “Even though our efforts have always been to explain religion to Muslims as well as non-Muslims – old and young, mainly in German.”

“We don’t promote or support any militant group in any crisis regions,” he adds. “Since our position is wellknown in the Muslim ‘community’, up until now no young people have turned to us to ask if they could join the civil war in Syria.”

His verdict on ISIS is clear: “To name yourself as the head of the entire Muslim nation and to demand that Muslims recognise it isn’t some trivial matter that can be decided in an Iraqi bunker,” he says. “To declare a state like that in the middle of a civil war zone without consulting any leading Islamic scholars is completely illegitimate and therefore void.” That’s the opinion from the mosque at the top of the Verfassungsschutz’s watch-list.

Kamouss does know at least one person who has gone to Syria to join ISIS – Denis Cuspert, though the last time he had any contact with him was three years before the ex-rapper travelled there. “In the last three years, maybe three young people have come to me and said, ‘I want to go to Syria, what do you think?’ And I ask myself: Is this someone from the Verfassungsschutz, a spy, or is it really a young man who thinks this? And then I advise them against it. I say, Allah has kept you distant from it – stay away, and look after your family.”

Why is he suspicious of spies? “Because anyone who wants to go wouldn’t talk to someone like me – a public person in the community,” he says. “The ones who are already radicalised say I am just an apostate and a hypocrite anyway.”

Finding recruits

So where does ISIS get its German recruits from? The mosques themselves don’t radicalise Muslims, but radical Islamic groups can certainly use mosques to find recruits, especially large, popular, conservative-influenced ones like Al- Nur. “Like any company who wants to sell something, they go where young people are,” says one anonymous source. “So they go to the mosque and say, ‘let’s meet in the café to smoke shisha’ – even though that isn’t exactly pious.” They’re also known to meet in universities. “They invite students to ‘learning groups’.”

But these extremist groups include several factions with different nationalities, religious affiliations, political standpoints, and views on the legitimacy of violence. Not all of them are considered terrorist, some of them are not even illegal, many of them are hostile to one another – and none of them are directly linked to ISIS. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière made activities of “Islamic State” in Germany illegal earlier this year, but so far it is effectively a symbolic gesture, since no one seems to know if there are any active members in Germany at all. The federal Verfassungsschutz report published this year does not even list the “Islamic State” as one of the Islamist groups in Germany (al-Qaeda is on the list, as is the vague term “Salafist movements”, but for both of these there are “no certain numbers” when it comes to actual members).

One less nebulously defined Islamist group identified by the Verfassungsschutz is Hizb ut- Tahrir (“Party of Liberation”), which has been banned since 2003, and which, according to the report, “favours violence, but hardly makes any violent public appearance”. The intelligence agencies say this group has 300 members in Germany, 35 of whom live in Berlin. And some of these men are said to frequent the Salam Café on Nettelbeckplatz in Wedding. “This café is monitored 24/7,” said one source. “When this Iraqi guy I know was arrested, and they found this WhatsApp group on his phone, the entire café went crazy because they were all in this group, and they thought ‘we are all now on the list.’”

It is within this kind of group that the Islamic State can hope to find recruits – though not directly. Instead, they use the internet. “In groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, people start to watch videos from ISIS, start to get in contact via Facebook and Twitter with people in Syria, and those people in Syria then tell them, ‘You are on the right track, but beware of Nusra, they are traitors.’ They know the discourse, the clashes between al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and ISIS.”

In Syria and Iraq, of course, all these internecine rivalries are on a much bloodier scale, and involve a whole other bewildering dimension of name-calling. “You have to keep in mind that the conflict between radical groups is much older than what we have in Germany,” said the student. “And they label each other – call each other Salafists, and the regimes label them back. You have a hardcore militia leader like Hassan Nasrallah, from Hezbollah, calling those people fighting in Syria takfiris [infidels].”

There are no clear reasons why this handful of people go. Kamouss’ theory is that there are three different ways radicalisation happens: “Some radicalise directly, in banned groups like Millatu Ibrahim in North Rhine-Westphalia,” he said. “And some do it indirectly, like these – I call them ‘internet imams’, who have no theological training, who just have a camera and a Youtube account. And then there is German politics, which also radicalises – this Islamophobia among the politicians, and the way the media reports on Islamic issues. People feel like they’re on the margins, they’re hated, they’re not listened to.”

There are also moral and emotional forces at work, he adds: “Why do they go there? For over three years, the Syrian people have been massacred, murdered with chemical weapons, butchered by all kinds of different groups, especially by Assad. And then the highly civilised European Western world watches while it happens… You know how many people have been killed there? 550,000. That’s a catastrophe. And the young people watch and say, ‘I have to help.’”

What’s being done?

Given the attention that’s paid to the dangers of Islam in Germany, it’s a bit bizarre how neglected all of Germany’s prevention programmes are. The nightmare is that young German Muslims will become radical enough to travel to Syria or Iraq, be trained to use a Kalashnikov by a brutal militia, witness beheadings and then return to Germany with their heads full of religious frenzy. But if a parent is worried their child might be thinking of that, there is only one official government number in the whole of Germany they can call: that of the Hayat programme, run by Claudia Dantschke. With minimal staff, Hayat has dealt with 31 cases since it was started in 2011, counselling and helping worried families to win their sons and daughters back from the temptations of extremism. “Two-thirds of these cases concern Syria and especially the jihadist organisation ‘Islamic State’,” says Dantschke. “In four cases we managed to help de-radicalise the young person – so that there was no longer a danger they would travel abroad or participate in armed jihad.”

After one exchange with Dantschke, it becomes clear how different ISIS is from al-Qaeda, especially in Germany. While the perpetrators of 9/11 were a hardcore cell who spent several years in Hamburg training in secret and evading intelligence agencies, ISIS’ presence in Germany is as a youth subculture that thrives on Youtube accounts, WhatsApp groups and Twitter feeds. “For them it’s not about the search for spirituality and religion, but much more profanely about community, orientation, clarity, acceptance, identity and the so-called meaning of life,” she says.

While the youths she deals with are from all kinds of social backgrounds, Dantschke says they have one thing in common: “Not a single one of them has been socialised in a religious or theological sense,” she says. “At the most, their experience of religion, whichever one, is more part of a family culture, even when they did go and pray in church or mosque. They didn’t grow up reflecting on their religion. They are ‘religious illiterates.’”

There are other prevention programmes that work directly with young people in schools, places which, by Kalbitzer’s own admission, the Verfassungsschutz does not have the same kind of access to. One programme, which works without any government funding from a tiny office on a ground floor in Neukölln, is called Ufuq (“Horizon”). Here there are two desks where Jochen Müller and Sindyan Qasem sit and plan workshops. Ufuq was founded six years ago as a project purely about preventing religionmotivated extremism, but it soon became clear to them that you can’t talk about Islamism or Salafism without talking about Islamophobia as well. So now the workshops are simply designed to get Muslim and non-Muslim teenagers to talk about everyday issues – headscarves, the role of men and women.

“There wouldn’t be much point in going into a workshop and saying, ‘okay, today we’re going to talk about ISIS’, because then their shutters would just come down,” says Qasem. “Because they’re confronted with those stereotypes every day.”

“Our concept of prevention is much broader – we start much earlier,” he says. “Prevention at the moment in Germany is all about ‘how can we stop more people going? What do we do with the people who come back? How can we make sure that nothing happens here?’ But for us, political education is prevention. By dealing with this huge issue of Islam in Germany and giving young people space to talk about it, we sensitise young Muslims and non-Muslims to anti-democratic or anti-human viewpoints.” Ufuq also trains what it calls “multiplicators” – teachers and social workers – to tell the difference between religious behaviour and radical behaviour. “People see that someone starts praying five times a day and think it’s the first stage of radicalisation. It isn’t.”

The fact that programmes like Hayat and Ufuq are chronically overworked and underfunded shows that the Muslim community does have a problem with radicalisation. But, as Kamouss – the “Salafist” imam ridiculed by the German media – says, the Muslims themselves know that better than anyone. “Claudia Dantschke isn’t a Muslim,” he said. “For non-Muslims to make projects for us Muslims, and then expect the Muslims to take part… no! No! And a thousand times no! It’ll never work, especially the way Muslim issues are reported on in Germany. The Muslims all look on it with suspicion. Look at the way I was treated on TV! Do you know how many thousands of people were hurt and offended by that? And then they expect those people to trust the state? Without direct cooperation with influential people in the Islamic community they won’t get anywhere. My hand is extended.”

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