Middle East

Islamic Radicalism in Germany

Radical Islamists from Germany have been pouring into Syria to fight in the civil war, the German newsmagazine Focus reported recently. Disquietingly enough, some of the Islamic fundamentalist fighters who’ve joined the rebel movement trying to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad are German Christian converts to Islam.

Guido Steinberg
Guido Steinberg

This may come as news to most people, but to Guido Steinberg, one of Germany’s leading experts on terrorism, it’s probably an old story.

The author of German Jihad, published by Columbia University Press, he claims that the “jihadist scene” in Germany has become the most “dynamic” in Europe, and that the biggest Western contingent of  foreign fighters in Pakistan’s tribal areas is comprised of Germans.

In this timely and informative book, billed as the first analysis of German jihadism, he investigates jihadist networks in Germany and their global reach.

"Oh, Allah, I love you"
“Oh, Allah, I love you”

Steinberg, a member of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, begins his survey with an overview of the first terrorist attack in Germany since the days of the Red Army Fraction.

On March 2, 2011, a young Kosovar Muslim, Arid Uka, killed two American soldiers in Frankfurt airport. The year before, Uka turned increasingly to religion, began studying Arabic and logged on to jihadist sites on the Internet.

Under questioning, he disclosed that an Islamist propaganda film, in which American soldiers had sexually assaulted Muslim women in Iraq and Afghanistan, had prompted him to vent his rage. According to Steinberg, the Uka incident put Germany on notice that it has become an important target for jihadists, who demand the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan.

Steinberg points out that Germany was also awakened to the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism by a highly publicized trial that ended in March 2010. The four defendants, charged with planning attacks against nightclubs frequented by American soldiers in Germany, were given sentences of between five to 12 years in prison. Led by a German convert to Islam, Fritz Gelowicz, they were members of what the German media described as the Sauerland cell.

Fritz Golowicz
Fritz Golowicz

Gelowicz and his accomplices, Daniel Schneider, Adem Yilmaz and Atilla Selek, studied Arabic in Syria and Egypt, lived in Iran and fought in the Pakistani tribal areas, an epicenter of jihadism, before returning to Germany.

In Steinberg’s judgment, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 radicalized young Germans and changed the ethnic composition of active jihadists in Germany from exclusively Arabs to an amalgam of Kurds, North Africans, Turks and German converts.

He reminds us that one of the participants in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the United States, Mohammed Atta, was an Egyptian national who resided in Hamburg. Atta’s colleagues, Said Bahaji, belonged to Al Qaeda as well. A German citizen, he was the son of a German mother and a Moroccan father.

Before Al Qaeda attacked the United States, Steinberg notes, Germany served as a logistics base for the organization. During the first years after 9/11, the majority of jihadists in Germany were members of distinct groups, but after 2005, they tended to be independent. More often than not, they were born or raised in Germany.

The “Salafist scene” in Germany developed in three phases, he says.

During the first phase, from the mid 1990s to 2001, young Muslims came under the influence of two imams, a Syrian and a Moroccan. The second phase, which lasted until 2005, was dominated by yet more Arab imams. During the third phase, Muslim preachers of German and Turkish origin appeared on the scene. One of the most charismatic figures, Pierre Vogel, was a former boxer who converted to Islam in 2001.

In passing, Steinberg describes  jihadists in Germany who’ve had an impact.

Cuneeyt Ciftci, a Turkish citizen born in Germany, was the first German suicide bomber, having killed two Americans and two Afghans in Afghanistan in 2008. Mevlut Kar, a resident of Ludwigshafen, worked as a logician for the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Aleem Nasir, a German citizen of Pakistani origin who lived in Freiburg until his arrest five years ago, was the most important financier and recruiter for Al Qaeda in Germany. Eric Breininger, known as the “German Taliban,” was killed in 2010 in Pakistan at the age of 22.

Eric Breininger
Eric Breininger

Steinberg claims that the threat posed to Germany by Al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations is high and will remain high for the foreseeable future, at least as long as the German government maintains a military presence in Afghanistan. He predicts that jihadists will continue to target Germany even if German troops are brought back home.

In closing, he writes that German security officials, who’ve had trouble identifying and watching Islamic radicals, will have to improve their counter-terrorist strategy.

As he puts it, “The Salafist scene will have to be monitored much more aggressively than it has until now in order to control the situation.”