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Germany’s fight against domestic radical Islamism


The German Government recently presented a report about the social programs aimed at preventing and combating radical Islamism in the country. Although large investments have been made in recent years, the results are not particularly good.

The programs aspired to involve German Muslim associations and families in the prevention of radicalization. But the government initiatives have not been met with much trust and participation. Germany is therefore still struggling against the growing attraction of radical Islamism among younger people of ethnic minorities – one of the core target groups of the Islamists’ propaganda. Despite these difficulties, and since repression can’t be the only solution, Germany wants to keep investing in the social prevention of religious extremism. For the year 2018, the government has planned a new budget of €100 million for social programs to be developed in schools, youth centers, sport clubs, mosques, and prisons. While police and intelligence agencies have been confronting radical Islamism for a long time, it seems that for years the political debate underestimated the extent of its infiltration and dissemination in German society. Up to now, the concrete spread of extremist Islamism has been a recurring vision of everything that could go wrong with integration and multiculturalism in Germany. Only a minority of German Muslims embraces, supports or sympathizes with radicalism. But it’s evident that the phenomenon is becoming an ever greater threat to social peace in the country, not least in view of the explosive reciprocal fuelling of Islamist extremism and the xenophobic and neo-Nazi violent groups that are on the rise again in Germany.

Salafism keeps growing in Germany

Last April, the German national newspaper Die Welt reported that, for the first time, the official estimate of the number of radical Salafists in Germany had exceeded 10 thousand. Only five years ago there were half as many.

Awareness of radical Salafism in Germany started to emerge in 2012 when, during an Islamist protest in Bonn, two German policemen were stabbed with a knife. In the years that followed, various Salafist groups have been outlawed and photos of policemen raiding locations linked to Islamic extremism have become very familiar to Germans. The main areas concerned in the spread of Salafism are the states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia. As early as 2013, Hans-Georg Maassen, the current director of the Verfassungsschutz – the German domestic intelligence agency – stated that “Salafism can be considered the stepping-stone to terrorism”. Although a substantial number of the Salafist groups are not directly linked to jihadist activity, the apolitical, “quietist” branch of the movement is rather weak in Germany, while the “activist” sector continues moving and operating in a grey area in which freedom of religious expression constantly overlaps with direct hostility towards the German society and its constitution.

Links between Salafist groups and terrorism have become undeniable with the Syrian war. In recent years, various Salafist preachers have been investigated in Germany for recruiting foreign fighters for terror militias in the Middle East. One of them is the prominent German Islamist Abu Adam, a convert whose original name was Sven Lau. The Verfassungsschutz director Maassen confirmed that more than 890 Islamist foreign fighters moved from Germany to Syria during the conflict, and at least a third of them have already returned to German towns and cities.

Pop-Salafism and radicalization hubs

Last November, another well-known Salafist group, called “The True Religion”, was proclaimed illegal by the German minister of the interior, Thomas de Maizière. The group was well known for its activity of distributing free copies of the Quran in the streets. Behind this seemingly normal form of proselytism, the authorities discovered activities in support of terrorism and the so-called Islamic State.

But declaring specific groups illegal seems to be not enough. At the moment, state and federal police are trying to understand whether a newborn group called “We Love Mohammed” could be considered a direct successor to “The True Religion”. Like the Lernaean Hydra, religious extremism keeps coming back under new names and forms, strategically exploiting the most fundamental Western civil rights, starting with freedom of assembly and expression.

One of the biggest problems is the slow pace of the juridical resistance compared with the fast and highly digital dissemination of the Islamist message. Germany is facing the challenge of what could be called a pop-Salafism, which unites a mostly simplified religious philosophy with efficient propaganda via social media, YouTube, Whatsapp groups and even dedicated apps. In pop-Salafism, Islamic theology is stripped of its internal differences and debates, to be compacted in an easy-to-consume and ready-to-use product characterized by extremist fundamentalism.

On the top of this, the real and complete radicalization of individuals is based on another element: the physical presence of a radicalization hub. One of the most recent and deepest analyses of Islamist radicalism and terrorism in Europe, published by the Italian think thank IPSI, has underscored the crucial importance of hubs developed “around organized structures (militant Salafist groups, radical mosques), charismatic personalities or, in some cases, tight-knit groups of friends”. The IPSI analysis also found that the “presence or absence of these hubs rather than social conditions (is) the main factor determining the higher or lower levels of radicalization and mobilization of a country or a town”. This factor is definitely visible in Germany, for example in hotbeds of radicalization like the small town of Hildesheim, in the strong Islamist network in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia or in individual Islamist associations such as “Fussilet 33” in the Berlin borough of Moabit.

Between drug-dealing and radical Islamism 

Both the Salafist scene in Hildesheim and “Fussilet 33” in Berlin were frequently visited by Anis Amri, the Tunisian man responsible for the terror attack at the Berlin Christmas market, where 12 people were murdered. The “Fussilet 33” group was shut down in February by the Berlin state government.

In the case of Amri, the main misinterpretation of security risks was the failure to understand his double profile as a petty criminal and a jihadist. While the link between criminality and Islamist terrorism in Europe is known, security analyses sometimes still tend to separate criminals from jihadists and to consider people as active either in one field or the other. This is changing now. In recent months, the deep and intricate interconnection and overlapping between the radical Islamist and criminal scenes – especially drug dealing – has been repeatedly underscored.

Another problem which emerged after the Christmas market terror murders is that the perpetrator had been able to move for several months in the wide nets of the different German state bureaucracies, taking advantage of the German legislation in regard to repatriation.

Now, the German domestic intelligence agency wants to overcome the main problems related to its federal division into 16 separate state offices. The BKA, the German federal police, is already centralizing the monitoring of terrorism and religious extremism. In the past year there have been a growing number of terror plots which were stopped by police actions developed or coordinated by the BKA. For months, the same agency has been issuing precise warnings regarding the possible execution of new attacks in the country.

Given the persistent nature of the threat, Germany may need an additional effort in bringing together state and federal intelligence forces. One option could be to increase the activity of structures like the GTAZ, a Berlin-based joint counter-terrorism center created in 2004. GTAZ concentrates the efforts of more than 40 police and intelligence agencies, all put together with the single goal of combating radical Islamist terrorism. 

Follow the money

If repression can’t be the only solution against religious extremism, and social prevention isn’t an easy job, there is another crucial aspect that can no longer be ignored. A prerequisite element to any radical Islamist penetration in European societies. What is it? In a word: money.

Not even the smallest semi-clandestine prayer center could survive without a flow of money and some generous financier supporting it. The self-made preachers and the YouTube-style propaganda too are part of an ideological strategy which is pushed by continuously financed networks. The importance of financial backing is all the greater for bigger hubs of radicalism. One example among many is the project of an enormous Salafist Islamic center in a former industrial zone in the small German town of Fellbach, Baden-Württemberg. The project was recently stopped when it emerged that the company which had bought the site for €1 million was a front for the “Revival of Islamic Heritage Society” (RIHS), a Kuwaiti group already declared illegal in the US. Similar strategies are carried out in Germany by groups like the Qatari “Shaykh Eid Charity Foundation” and the Saudi “Muslim World League”.

The Gulf kingdoms have been under scrutiny for years for their more than ambiguous relationship with radical Islamism and with terrorism, as numerous studies, investigations and reports have shown. In 2015, the German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that “Wahhabi mosques are financed all over the world by Saudi Arabia. In Germany, many dangerous Islamists come from these communities.” The inconvenient truth is that, although the words of Gabriel were clear enough, they were also without substantial effect in a world heavily doped by petrodollars and by related geostrategic effects.

In a period when it is common to talk generically about a vague “Islamization of Europe”, it would be much more precise and consistent to observe the real ongoing process: the “Wahhabization” of Islamic communities in Europe and in the rest of the world. While the mainstream narratives keep referring to Muslims as a monolithic bloc, the spread of Wahhabi and Salafist fundamentalism continues to force an imperialist hegemony on the many and heterogeneous forms of Islam.

In December 2016, a leaked report by the Verfassungsschutz and the BND, the German foreign intelligence agency, confirmed that financing coming from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait is the substantial motor of radical Islamist ideology, groups and propaganda in the German territory. Officially, the funds don’t come from directly state-related sponsors, but many analysts consider this the result of a typical shadow play.

Given this scenario, it is clear that Germany is stuck in regard to radical Islamism in the same geopolitical paradox as other Western countries, a paradox generated by their relationships with specific so-called allies.

The recent geopolitical metamorphosis could change some of the customary toxic balances. That being said, an undeniable point remains: without a confrontation of the concrete geopolitical and financial dynamics behind Islamist extremism, there will never be a good anti-terror strategy. Neither in Germany, nor in Europe, nor in the rest of the world. 


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