HOW GERMAN ISLAMISTS RECRUIT YOUTH FOR JIHAD: OZEM GEZER
Young Muslim men in Germany are systematically trying to recruit their peers for jihad using sophisticated rhetoric and psychology and by targeting vulnerable youths who are searching for direction in life. Two men who have quit the scene tell their story to SPIEGEL, providing a rare look into a dangerous underground.
He worked at his uncle’s falafel stand and read Immanuel Kant, and later Plato and Nietzsche. In the end, he became a radical Islamist, recruiting new talent for a Muslim holy war in the middle of the German city of Hamburg. Djamal was the hunter.
Djamal is sitting on a cushion in the dim light of a basement bar in Hamburg. He sucks on a plastic tube, causing the water to bubble in his hookah, a water pipe made of delicate glass decorated with gold paint. His head is shaved, he has the broad back of someone who lifts weights, and he keeps his beard neatly trimmed. He blows the smoke from the orange-mint tobacco into the air above his head and passes the tube to Bora, a quiet young man sitting next to him.
Bora, 23, grew up on the Reeperbahn, a street in Hamburg’s entertainment and red-light district. His parents are from Turkey. His mother sells Tupperware and his father has a store. For a long time, Bora didn’t know what to do with himself. He wanted to have fun, but he was always searching for something meaningful. Then he met radical Islamists. Bora was the prey.
The basement bar where they are now sitting was their common territory for about a year. It was a place where hunters could find their prey.
The bar used to be a hangout for radical leftists called “Hinkelstein.” First-year students would go there to listen to radical leaders, and it was a gateway of sorts on the path to the left-wing extremist milieu.
By the time Djamal had hit upon this basement bar as a place where he could do his work — namely separating his prey from German society — the leftists were long gone. The bar’s new clientele were also looking for answers, but in the Koran instead of in the writings of Marx and Lenin.
‘The Perfect Moment’
The dartboard was replaced with Arabic calligraphy. There are Persian rugs on the floor. The old “Hinkelstein” is now a hookah café, only a few meters away from the Hamburg State Library.
“It’s the perfect place to chill with friends,” says Bora.
“When they’re chilling, it’s the perfect moment to catch them,” says Djamal.
When asked how he did it, Djamal responds: “First you have to catch them. But then they’re like rechargeable batteries: Charge, discharge and recharge.”
Djamal and Bora left the scene 20 months ago. They often ran into each other in this basement bar, even though they never actually met. Although Djamal was a hunter, Bora was never his prey. But the stories the two men relate from that part of their lives, each from his own perspective, offer very precise insights into a world in which German law doesn’t apply. In this world, life on earth is a punishment, a test for the afterlife. Those who move around in it are yearning for the afterlife, not an apprenticeship in an engineering company. This world divides society into the Ummah, or Islamic religious community, and the Kuffar, or infidels. Its denizens don’t even use toothbrushes to brush their teeth, just tooth-cleaning twigs known as miswak.
Reading Kant and Nietzsche
Those who enter this world are continually charged until their batteries are full enough for holy war. The German soldiers of jihad are the most radical members of a youth movement that has German domestic intelligence experts worried.
Djamal arrived in this world three years ago, when he was 19. He was reading Kant and Nietzsche at the time, but he felt frustrated, because they hadn’t written anything that could guide him in a society in which he often felt confused. He had studied their works for months, writing down sentences that appealed to him, hoping that they would help him overcome a difficult time. His father had left his mother and he wasn’t doing well in school, but the philosophers’ clever words were useless.
Djamal kept searching for meaning: at high-school parties, on the Reeperbahn and sometimes in a bottle of vodka.
When his mother married a German convert to Islam, Djamal loaded verses of the Koran onto his iPod. As the son of Lebanese immigrants, it bothered him that a German was more familiar with the Koran than he was. He went to the former “Hinkelstein,” where he smoked hookahs, and where someone eventually invited him into his group. Before long, he had gained access to the inner circle.
A Real Mission
Djamal, who had no idea what to do after finishing high school, had, for the first time in his life, a real mission: recruiting young men for the Hamburg branch of the Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. The group has been banned in Germany since 2003, but its members are still active underground. They spread Salafist Islam and want to establish a theocracy. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s “catchers” are young, educated and, most of all, articulate. They are people like Djamal.
It was a time when Djamal was looking for “mistakes,” as he called it, in the Bible and the Torah. He memorized verses from the Koran. His only rule was that he had to come across as omniscient. He was determined to prevail over the infidels. At first, he says, sitting on a pillow in the basement bar, his goal wasn’t to spread Islam, but rather to silence the others.
“The Germans have no religious foundation, and yet they like to philosophize,” says Djamal, noting that their most common argument is: “I can’t see God; therefore, he doesn’t exist.” Then Djamal would show up with his talk about Immanuel Kant and his conclusions about the limitations of man. “You just have to be creative. Then you can tell them anything.”
His listeners, young men between 15 and 25, were fascinated, even if they didn’t understand half of what he was saying — but that too was part of the principle. Djamal’s words conveyed the impression of knowledge, direction and meaning.
Part of a Cause
No one instructed Djamal to become a catcher. There are no bosses in this world, no fixed hierarchies. But those who proselytized gained respect within the group. Djamal could feel important, part of a bigger cause and not just a part-time falafel seller in his uncle’s snack bar.
It was a hobby for him at first, says Djamal, a game for which he prepared himself meticulously. He would surf the Internet for weeks, listening to speeches by Pierre Vogel, one of the most important preachers among German Islamists. At the hookah café, Djamal would talk about how women are treated with even less respect in the Bible than in Islam. The Asian tsunami, the Love Parade disaster in 2010 and the crazy shooters going on rampages around the world, he said, were all signs from Allah that the Kuffar were on the wrong path. It was usually very easy, and no one asked any questions.
Sometimes, if his listeners were black, Djamal would follow his talk about God by mentioning Malcolm X, the US civil rights activist and idol who was also a Muslim. References to Malcolm X were always effective.
As a rule, Djamal and the other catchers met boys like Bora. For Djamal, boys like Bora fell into the category of “easy prey.”
‘Come and Sit with Us, Brother’
Bora liked to go to Turkish parties and enjoy himself on the Reeperbahn, but the hookah café was his favorite place. There were no bouncers there who would refuse to let him in because his skin was too dark or his shoulders too wide from Thai boxing. Bora and his friends also referred to the café as their “cave.” When they were there, they played computer games like “Fifa” and “Counter Strike” on the PlayStation, which was connected to the flat-screen monitors. In the evenings, they would rent movies like “Avatar” and “Kickboxer” from the video store and drink vodka they had brought along.
Every evening, when the bar filled up, Djamal began his shift. Bora clearly remembers the day when Djamal’s friends showed up. It was in January 2010. They were wearing Adidas jackets and New York Yankees baseball caps, G-Star pants and Nike Air Max shoes. They looked like him, but Bora quickly noticed that there was something different about them.
They were quiet and peaceful, and they treated each other like brothers. While his friends talked about women, sports cars and soccer, the new guys discussed the meaning of life and the existence of God. They used terms like the Big Bang and the theory of evolution. Bora couldn’t stop listening to them.
“Why don’t you come and sit with us, brother?” one of the new ones asked. He was part of a group of five men between 18 and 30. For Bora, it seemed perfectly normal to be meeting these men, but for the others it was a well-practiced procedure.
Targeting Santa Claus Muslims
“Our strategy was always the same,” says Djamal: sit down, start talking about God, take a look around to see if anyone seems interested, and invite “the brother” to join the group. Then a process began that Djamal and his fellow proselytizers had worked out in role-playing games in a motel room in an industrial part of Hamburg. In the exercises, one person was always the “victim,” or infidel, while the others would try to “catch” him. A person is considered caught when he believes in the existence of God and starts to become interested in Islam.
Bora, the “easy prey,” is part of a generation of young children of immigrants who were born in German cities and grew up there. Their parents have raised them in traditional Islamic ways, but the children tend to work out their own version of Islam. Pierre Vogel calls them “Santa Claus Muslims.” They know that pork is forbidden for Muslims, but they’ve tried it anyway, perhaps at their first soccer match. They know that drinking alcohol is a sin for Muslims, as is sex before marriage, and yet they party every weekend.
They only go to the mosque on holidays, and when they do they awkwardly imitate their elders, because they don’t know how to pray. Boys like Bora always have a guilty conscience, because they sense that they are not sufficiently serious in fulfilling their religious obligations.
“But they believe in God, so the rest is easy,” says Djamal.
Learning Rhetorical Tricks from Bismarck
“Brother, you work so that you can go to the disco and complete the mating dance. Surely that’s not all there is to life?” Djamal would sometimes ask. He had cobbled together his spiel from a manual. For practice, he read speeches by the former Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the Social Democratic politician Philipp Scheidemann, the second chancellor of the Weimar Republic.Djamal copied down phrases that he liked and kept them in his pocket. You have to be prepared for anything, he says. And when the conventional methods didn’t work, he would use the ace up his sleeve — the fingerprint trick. It worked every time, says Djamal.
“One day you will be recognized by your fingertips,” he said, telling his potential recruits that this had been stated in the Koran for many hundreds of years, and that today it is indeed possible to identify individuals by their fingerprints. The Koran, he said, had known this all along. And if the truth is written in the Koran, he added, Allah must exist.
Djamal says that the fingerprint speech worked with everyone: the boys from the old street gangs, the pimps from the neighborhood, and those who would have liked to be pimps. “That’s when you can start discharging them,” says Djamal, continuing with his battery metaphor. Then he would explain to them that their athletic bodies were like a Mercedes that they were allowed to drive but that they would also eventually have to get out of. Or like a nice shirt that becomes torn or goes out of style. He told them not to rub eucalyptus oil on their skin while practising martial arts, because it numbs the pain and deceives your opponent. Muslims, he said, don’t use deception, because deception is idolatrous and sinful.
It was always about the how, but never about the why.
Bora remembers the first things his catchers suggested that he do. They wanted him to remove his good-luck charm, a leather pendant from his dead grandmother that he wore around his neck. There was no such think as luck, they said. Everything that happens is fate, they said, preordained by Allah.
Bora’s star sign is Aquarius. He used to read his horoscope in the Hamburg newspaper every morning. The brothers suggested that he stop doing this, because only Allah knows what is hidden. He stopped using his favorite cologne, Number One by Hugo Boss, because the brothers told him it contained alcohol.
“They never forced us to do anything, it was all just recommendations,” says Bora, sitting behind his water pipe in the basement bar.
That was precisely the trick, says Djamal.
Sometimes Bora had his doubts about his new friends from the café. But they had told him that doubt came from the devil, and that the devil was as close to him as the soles on his shoes. He accepted what they said, because he liked the concept of paradise. During their lives, people collected bonus points so that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. Bora was familiar with the principle from computer games.
No Time to Think
By now, his new friends were hardly leaving him any time to think. His mobile phone was constantly ringing: before work, after work, at night and when he was playing sports. Whenever they saw him they would embrace him and kiss him on the cheeks. They went on walks around town and along the waterfront together, but they spent most of their time in the hookah café.
“You take away their everyday life and give them a new one,” says Djamal.
Djamal explained to his recruits that if they became Muslims, all of their sins from the time of jahiliyyah, the state of “ignorance of divine guidance,” would be forgotten. Game over. Start again.
Bora’s group included Georgians who had taken Islamic names. There was a waiter from Sri Lanka who wore a T-shirt with the words “I love Islam” printed on the front, and an Armenian who knew verses from the Koran by heart. Bora wanted to participate in their discussions, and to talk about things like the hair of the Prophet and how he parted it. Bora, who had always avoided writing reports in school, was now actively searching for information to impress his friends.
Now everyone in his new circle was a Muslim. Their nationality was Islam, and their compatriots were members of the worldwide Ummah, or Muslim community. Bora had never felt that Germany was his home. He felt especially alienated in high school, when a teacher asked him about the conflict between ethnic Kurds and Turks in “his homeland.” Bora, 16 at the time, was born in Hamburg and raised near the fish market, a boy who knew the St. Pauli neighborhood like the back of his hand.
Bora’s new brothers also began to resemble each other physically. He grew a beard, because he thought that beards stood for knowledge among Islamists. “We wanted them to grow beards so that they wouldn’t get into clubs anymore,” says Djamal.
Bora says that his speech changed within a few weeks. Instead of calling each other “Digger,” a Hamburg slang word used to address a male, they said “achi,” or “my brother.” The typical German slang word “geil” (“cool”) became “Masha’Allah,” or “God has willed it.” Whenever he walked through a doorway, he would now say “Bismillah,” or “in the name of Allah.” “They were cassette recorders that were supposed to spread Islam,” says Djamal.
During this time, Bora started having problems with customers in his father’s store, because he was talking about Islam too much. The store, which sells cheap imported goods, is on Hamburg’s Steindamm, a busy main road where Arab shops stand next to mosques and sex shops. Bora tried to convert prostitutes and drug dealers while they were buying lighters and mobile phone cases. He says that all he did was discuss things, including with his father. His new friends said that the objections of others were a sign that he was on the right path. He felt good about himself.
Sometimes his new life came into conflict with the old life. For example, he had booked his 2010 summer vacation long before the new friends had entered his life. When he arrived at the all-inclusive resort on the Turkish Riviera, he stayed inside the hotel for six days, determined not to encounter half-naked women and infidels on the beach. Plagued by a guilty conscience, he would roll out his prayer rug in his hotel room five times a day, begging God for forgiveness. Outside, it was 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade.
A Kind of Street Gang
Back in Hamburg, he returned to the hookah café and watched videos on YouTube. He began to hate the infidels who had allowed the Muhammad caricatures to be shown. He watched documentaries on the flat-screen TVs that portrayed Sept. 11, 2001 as an American conspiracy.
Then preparations began for Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. “The month in which the devil is shackled and the mosques are full,” as Djamal describes it. His responsibility was in fact to deliver the prey to the Taiba mosque on the Steindamm. Regarded by authorities as a focal point of the jihadist scene, it was the same mosque that was frequented by some of the Sept. 11 conspirators and which has been shut down in the meantime. Djamal chose not to accompany the recruits, because he knew that those who spent too much time at the mosque ended up attracting the attention of the authorities.
He enjoyed the game of hide-and-seek. He felt a little like James Bond. Djamal sent a message to a Turk from the mosque to let him know which recruits he was going to send. Recruiters like him were part of a street gang of sorts, says Djamal, doing grassroots work with the aim of building critical mass. Their job was to fill the pool from which recruits would later be drawn for jihad. The question as to which of the recruits would later embark on holy war mainly depended on chance, says Djamal, noting that he had nothing to do with it.
After three months at the hookah café, Bora followed his group to the Taiba mosque. It was the same as it had always been: The boys on Bora’s street smoked pot, and Bora smoked pot with them. They would go to the football pitch, and Bora went along because he didn’t want to be considered a wimp.
They went to the mosque and prayed. Afterwards, they would sit together in small groups. “Come on, Bora, you look strong. Let’s wrestle,” one of the older members of the group said, pointing out that the Prophet had also exercised. Bora liked it at the Taiba mosque. There were lots of young people and it had a nice atmosphere.
The Hamburg authorities closed the mosque in the summer of 2010. This made Bora nervous, because he had spent so much time there. His supposed friends often came to his father’s shop, and they would ask him how business was going. They suggested that he stop selling alcohol, and they told Bora that it was his duty to donate money, for his brothers and sisters in need, and for the organization.
This made him suspicious. “If they had asked for money two months later, maybe I would already have gotten in too deep by then,” Bora says. “I might have ended up in a training camp,” he adds, referring to the camps in remote areas of Pakistan that have attracted dozens of German Islamists in recent years.
He stopped going to the hookah café. He stopped answering the phone when his new brothers called. He didn’t want anything to do with them anymore. He just wanted out.
Losing His Freedom
At the same time, in the summer of 2010, Djamal, the catcher, had an experience that turned him into a prisoner himself. At the time, he was wearing a pendant from Lebanon around his neck, a reminder of his homeland, and one of his friends told him to take it off. Nationalism was a sin, he said. Besides, Djamal was told, he was spending too much time doing sports, which left too little time for Dawah, or Islamic proselytizing. For the first time, he felt that he was losing his freedom. He couldn’t stop thinking of one word: cult.
He started listening to sermons in English on the web, and he read the old religious texts in their entirety. He read that people were supposed to travel to other countries to learn from other cultures. In essays by religious scholars, he read that it was the duty of the Prophet to spread religion. In one text, he read: If you live in a country that is governed by infidels, you must abide by their rules.
Djamal didn’t believe his brothers anymore. He changed his phone number and cut off ties to the Islamists.
Nowadays, when Djamal wants to pray he goes to the Imam Ali mosque on the Alster River, where there is a lot of peace and quiet and not much in the way of politics, he says.
Bora and Djamal ran into each other a few months ago in a hookah café in Hamburg’s central Schanzenviertel neighborhood. It isn’t as dimly lit as the former “Hinkelstein,” and the patrons go there primarily to smoke, not to talk about paradise. Bora and Djamal became friends.
‘He Would Be Easy to Catch’
On a sunny day in August, they meet a few friends for a barbecue in Hamburg’s Wohlers Park. Djamal has made fruit salad with pomegranates. There are two barbecues on the lawn, one for pork sausages and one for halal meat. An Armenian, a Jordanian and a Russian are drinking vodka. Djamal unrolls his prayer rug for evening prayers. Bora takes out some fruit-flavored tobacco. The men wait for Djamal to finish praying, while the meat cooks on the barbecue. “He does the best hookah,” says Bora.
One of them knocks a spider off the water pipe. Another one says: “The spider is sacred for us in Islam. It spun a web and saved the life of the Prophet.”
Djamal winks at the SPIEGEL reporter. “He has a latent guilty conscience, superficial knowledge. He would be easy to catch,” he says. Djamal still knows how to spot prey. But now he’s searching for a more meaningful purpose, something with more structure.
Djamal has applied to join the German military, the Bundeswehr.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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