Hazim Fouad is an analyst for the Bremen branch of Germany’s Office of the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz) where he focuses on the threat from Islamist extremism. He is writing a Ph.D. thesis on contemporary Muslim criticism of salafism at the University of Kiel. Dr. Behnam Said is an analyst for the Hamburg branch of the Verfassungsschutz where he focuses on the threat from Islamist extremism. He has a Ph.D. in jihadist nasheeds from the University of Jena. In 2014 Said and Fouad published the first German anthology on salafism, Salafismus: Auf der Suche nach dem wahren Islam. Also in 2014 Said published the first German book on the Islamic State, Islamischer Staat – IS-Miliz, al-Qaida und die deutschen Brigaden.
CTC: You both have a unique vantage point of the terror threat today—on the one hand working on the frontlines of counterterrorism in Bremen and Hamburg and on the other conducting academic research into Islamist extremism. From where you sit, how has the terrorist threat to Germany evolved?
Said: Germany has been in the crosshairs of jihadi-minded terrorists since it contributed troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan after 9/11. One of the first signs of increasing jihadi mobilization in Germany was the establishment of the German branch of the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) in 2006, which translated al-Qa`ida propaganda—mainly videos by al-Qaida in Iraq—into German. Its founder, Muhammad Mahmoud, an Austrian citizen with Egyptian roots, was later critical for the jihadi mobilization for Syria in Germany. In 2007 GIMF produced a video message in which they demanded the withdrawal of Austrian and German troops from Afghanistan and threatened Germany and Austria with “Mujahidin operations.” After that, radicalization and recruitment accelerated. We saw German Mujahidin groups emerge in the Pakistani-Afghan border region, link up with al-Qa`ida-affiliated groups, and plot attacks back home. The jihadi message also resonated inside Germany. In 2011 we suffered our first jihadi terrorist attack when a lone-actor extremist killed two American servicemen at Frankfurt airport, claiming he wanted to take revenge for western “atrocities” committed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fouad: While there has not been a deadly jihadi terrorist attack since the Frankfurt attack, the large number of German residents who have traveled to Syria and Iraq has created a significant potential threat. Germany is the second biggest exporter (after France) of foreign fighters in Europe by absolute numbers. Eight hundred and twenty people have left Germany to join jihadi groups there, first and foremost the so-called Islamic State. The majority of those who left are under 30 years old and 20 percent are female. One hundred and forty persons have most probably died, and about 270 have already returned to Germany. Of these, about 70 have been involved in fighting or have received military training. These are the highest numbers in jihadi activity Germany has ever been forced to deal with. It seems that for some segments of the salafi movement in Germany, especially the youngsters, militant jihad has become more attractive than peaceful dawa (preaching) activities.
This is why the threat of an attack by the Islamic State or by its local supporters has been growing over the past year, although it seems to be not as high as in Great Britain or France. In February a 15-year-old girl, who had previously attempted to go to Syria but was stopped in Turkey, attacked a federal police officer in Hannover, injuring him critically. In April this year there was an attack by two young extremists on a Sikh temple in Essen. Fortunately, nobody was killed. Earlier this month, a young refugee with an Afghan background attacked passengers in a regional train in Würzburg with an ax, injuring five people. He was later shot dead by the police. The Islamic State claimed that the attacker was one of its soldiers, but the investigations are ongoing so this cannot be verified yet. Just a few days ago, an asylum-seeker from Syria carried out a suicide bomb attack, killing himself but fortunately nobody else, outside a bar in Ansbach after recording a cell phone video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader. So we have all three scenarios here: returnees, home-grown radicalized persons, and refugees.
CTC: To what degree are German counterterrorism agencies equipped to deal with the threat posed by the Islamic State?
Fouad: During the past few years, a wave of foreign fighters, a general increase in the salafi movement as well as a sky-rocketing of right-wing-motivated criminal offenses stretched security agencies up to and beyond their limits. This is why the various agencies have increased their numbers of employees with the Federal Agency for the Protection of the Constitution offering 500 new jobs in 2015. But it will take some time until these new colleagues are able to contribute to some load relief. At the moment they need to be trained by those already under stress, which is very challenging.
CTC: Mohammed Atta and other residents of Hamburg played key roles in the 9/11 attacks. What is the threat picture today in the city? And how does Bremen compare?
Said: I think former U.S. Ambassador in Germany Daniel Coats was right when he pointed out that the 9/11 attacks were prepared in Germany but also in many other countries, even the United States. The history of jihadism in Hamburg started off mainly as a phenomenon associated with foreign residents in Germany. We saw that with the 9/11 cell and radical preachers in the al-Quds mosque, which was shut down by securities in 2010. But over time more local residents became involved as seen with the 11-person “travel” group that left Hamburg in March 2009 for the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where several connected with the al-Qa`ida-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
When it comes to radicalization and foreign fighter mobilization the situation today in Hamburg is pretty much the same as in other major cities in Germany. As we know from the last analysis of the federal police agency (BKA) half of all German jihadis who left for Syria came from just 11 cities. Those are also the cities from which double digits left. Jihadi mobilization in Germany is a mainly urban phenomenon. Ninety percent of those who traveled to Syria or attempted to do so had lived in an urban center before they set off. Hamburg in this sense is no exception. Out of a population of 1.7 million our security agency estimates the local salafi scene to number around 580 of which 305 are viewed as jihadi-orientated. As of July (since 2012) around 70 people from Hamburg and the outskirts have set out to support or participate in the war in Syria and Iraq. Around a third of them came back to Germany and around 20 Hamburg residents have supposedly died in Syria or Iraq.
Fouad: Bremen also has a very active salafi scene. In comparison to the other “Bundesländer,” Bremen has both the largest number of salafis (360) and people leaving to Syria (26) compared to the total number of inhabitants (just under 700,000). But again, one has to be very careful here. Bremen is a city state, and when compared to other cities in Germany the numbers look quite different. To paint you a picture we have a mainstream salafi mosque that hosts up to 450 people for Friday sermons. It is very much ideologically oriented toward Saudi Arabia, and Saudi preachers visit the mosque every now and then. In 2007 a radical splinter group broke with the mosque and established its own. These people generally belonged to the takfiri stream within salafism (i.e. they considered everybody outside their group to be an unbeliever). The establishment of the “caliphate” led to a split within the group, with some regarding global jihad now to be legitimate and the others still clinging to the traditional takfiri mindset, which does not even recognize the Islamic State as sufficiently “Islamic.” After 20 people who had relations with the mosque had left for Syria, the authorities outlawed the association supporting the mosque, and it was closed in December 2014.
CTC: You joined forces a few years ago to co-author a major study on salafism. To what degree has it been spreading in Germany? What is the link between salafism and violent Islamist extremism?
Fouad: There has been a steep rise in number of salafis in Germany. In 2011 there were about 3,800 while in 2016 there are 9,000, about 1,000 of whom are considered to be violent. Salafi activities in Germany are regarded as unconstitutional since core elements of its doctrine run counter to the human rights guaranteed under our constitution. Freedom of speech allows people to be against democracy but the moment somebody engages in activities that aim to abolish the existing legal and political system, they will be monitored by the intelligence services, including our agency, which has a mandate to protect the constitution. In Germany the intelligence services have no executive powers and are therefore separated from the police. If these activities turn out to run against a specific law, especially if they are violent, they are considered a criminal offense and the matter is handed over by the intelligence services to the police.
The growth of the movement is due to a mix of pull and push factors. On the pull side, German salafi websites are dominating the discourse on Islam on the internet, which is a major problem. Their appeal is also increasing because of their free dissemination of the Qur‘an in German cities, open-air sermons by popular preachers, and their seminars in mosques tailored for young people. Many imams in the traditional mosques do not even speak German, let alone know what challenges the third generation of immigrants face and what matters to them. On the other hand there are “push” factors. The public discourse on Islam and Muslims in Germany is largely negative and often highly superficial, and this is contributing to the alienation of some Muslims from mainstream society. Salafism offers them a new identity.
Said: The links between salafism and violent Islamist extremism are complex. Salafis are vulnerable to the pull of jihadism because both refer to the same authorities of Islamic legal and doctrinal knowledge. Jihadis are in many cases salafis who have come to the conclusion that society is waging war against Islam and has to be combated by every means. It is important to stress only a minority of salafis have adopted this jihadi mindset, as the numbers quoted by Hazim indicate. The salafi scene in Germany is quite diverse and at the moment also quarreling about several critical points, most importantly the stance toward the Islamic State and toward violence and the legitimacy of certain jihadi groups in general. As a rough scheme you could say that there is a small minority of Islamic State supporters, but they are aggressive and speaking with a loud voice. There is also a network open toward al-Qa`ida and its positions. And then you have “mainstream” salafis who are not supportive of either the Islamic State or al-Qa`ida, with some even outspoken opponents of the jihadi trend. But the main problem is, as Hazim mentioned, that all salafi trends share a framework that has a perspective toward society that is at odds with basic values of our constitution.
I find a useful analytical framework for understanding the rise of salafism is “strict church theory.” Back in the 1970s, Dean Kelley was one of the first scholars who pointed to factors like complete loyalty, unwavering belief, and rigid adherence to a distinctive lifestyle to explain why small sects, cults, and ultra-conservative churches have grown in the U.S. since the 1950s, whereas liberal denominations have lost members.
CTC: You are both of Muslim background. How has this helped you to understand the challenges faced by violent Islamist extremism? How important is it to have people of Muslim faith or people with deep cultural understanding working on counterterrorism in the West?
Fouad: Being a Muslim does not make you an expert in terrorism studies. What security agencies and other governmental bodies dealing with these issues need are professionals with an academic background who can help them assess the phenomenon better and also in some cases prevent overreactions. Cultural sensitivities are useful when engaging in a dialogue with Muslim communities in order to avoid being stigmatized and put under general suspicion. Having the Muslim communities as partners is crucial, but it should be clear that jihadist radicalization is a threat involving all segments of civil society (schools, social workers, prisons, etc.) and not a “Muslim problem” to be solved by the communities alone.
Said: I totally agree with Hazim. But of course, knowing religious or local traditions from within makes it easier to assess and understand certain behavior and situations intuitively. This in turn is helpful when it comes to build trust with your Muslim interlocutor, Muslim community representatives, or if you have to analyze some information about personal behavior of a person of interest. More fundamentally in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society it is desirable to have state employees with different backgrounds.
CTC: There has been extensive media coverage of Harry Sarfo,[a] an Islamic State recruit from Bremen who provided details of his time in Syria after he returned to Germany in July 2015. What light has Sarfo shed on Islamic State attempts to attack Germany and Europe?
Fouad: The testimony of Harry Sarfo has been a watershed moment in understanding the structures of the Islamic State and its plans with regard to Europe. I was one of the officials who interrogated him. It was striking, for example, that he told us that just after having entered Islamic State territory he was asked if he would like to return to Germany in order to conduct an attack, which he declined. He also said that the Islamic State facilitates an institution whose sole task is to coordinate attacks outside its borders. This external operations unit wanted to build up a capacity to attack Germany.
With regard to France, Sarfo was told there were already enough cells that had been dispatched from the so-called caliphate to France, and they just needed to be activated. One month after he told us this, the Paris attacks happened. Sarfo indicated the threat to Germany was less acute than to France, since, according to him, the majority of German foreign fighters have no ambitions to return in order to commit attacks. At least according to his description, they do not seem to hate their country of origin to the degree the French do.
CTC: Sarfo has said that some of the foreign fighters he encountered in Syria and Iraq have become disillusioned with the Islamic State. Have you detected a decline in the numbers of German Islamist extremists traveling to Syria and Iraq?
Said: There’s no doubt the Islamic State, as it loses territory, is also starting to lose its appeal. The number of foreign fighters who have left Germany this year so far is also considerably lower compared to 2014 and 2015. As a consequence of Islamic State losses on the one hand and barbaric behavior on the other hand, divisions have deepened between jihadis all over the globe, including Germany, and this has led to a crisis within jihadism. In Germany, and elsewhere, many adherents of jihad have become preoccupied with discussions about the legitimacy of the Islamic State or al-Qa`ida and are in a wait-and-see mode when it comes to traveling overseas to join a jihadi group. We’ve seen significant divisions emerge here in Germany. For example, Pierre Vogel, a popular mainstream salafi preacher who has often been in the media spotlight, has repudiated the Islamic State and was recently declared an apostate who deserved to die by the Islamic State in Dabiq magazine. This led to a heated debate between supporters of al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State in Germany, which is continuing to this day.
Fouad: The violence committed by the Islamic State as well as the crude rhetoric of its supporters in Germany seems to have alienated a significant number of those within the salafi scene who might otherwise have been sympathetic. What we see to some extent is that the Islamic State tends to attract another profile of people than al-Qa`ida. The first wave of German jihadis who traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region had at least some ideological grounding. Many of those going to the Islamic State do not seem to know much more than some basic tenets of its ideology, sometimes just some slogans. They represent more a kind of Rambo or gang-image, which obviously lacks any profound theological grounding and has an extremely aggressive and often simplistic rhetoric toward anybody who disagrees with them, including those supportive of jihad.
CTC: Several members of the Paris and Brussels attack cell transited through Germany, including through a refugee center in Ulm. To what degree has the migrant crisis produced a security threat to Europe?
Said: There has been a public outcry bringing together the two big current issues of terrorism and migration. And of course Paris, Brussels, and also Würzburg and Ansbach showed us there has been a link between the two in some particular cases. But paranoia and hysteria are at risk of overshadowing the actual facts. Since 2015 more than one million refugees have come to Germany, but the federal police office (BKA) has so far received terrorism tips on 400 individuals and has undertaken 40 investigations in this context. The majority of the hints turned out to be unsubstantiated. So when it comes to refugees, you can speak of a very small and dwindling number of suspicious persons who are subject to investigations. Of course there is the danger that persons whom security authorities are not aware of might be involved in plots. But this was also the case before the exodus of Syrian and Iraqi people began, and it should be noted we also had a history of failed or foiled plots in Germany by German citizens or residents well before the recent migrant flows. All in all you can say that the migration wave is an additional challenge for the security apparatus, but it is not the cause for the unprecedented terror threat. The cause for that is the Islamic State and its global supporters.
Fouad: Exactly. Ironically, what we have to deal with in many cases is recruiting and radicalization efforts among refugees by radical Islamists already living in Germany. These activities include the provision of clothing and food as well as logistical help when dealing with the authorities and administrative bodies of the state. Since many of the German salafis speak both German and Arabic, they often work as interpreters and take refugees by car to the places where they may have official appointments. The primary aim of these activities is not so much to help the people but to lure them into the salafi scene by making them thankful for and dependent on their benefactors.
CTC: How have you worked to build partnerships with local communities to counter violent Islamist extremism?
Fouad: In Bremen we’ve taken the approach that collecting information, while important, is not an end in itself. We’ve reached out to other governmental agencies such as the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Social and Youth Affairs as well as the Ministry of Justice. We have also established contacts with different civil society organizations and the Muslim community. The aim was not to motivate them to send us every single piece of information or even worse to spy on their fellow colleagues, neighbors, students, or whomever. On the contrary, our aim was to raise awareness of radicalization and motivate the institutions to develop internal procedures to deal with the issue in an effective and independent way, without necessarily involving the security agencies. I believe such capacity building is the only way we can face the challenge of an increased jihadist threat because the security agencies, no matter how many employees they have, will never be able to deal with this issue on their own.
Said: Hamburg has established a local network for prevention. Our approach, and that of all relevant German agencies, is to tackle the problem as early as possible and long before radical mindsets can lead to the legitimization or use of violence, understanding that low-level civil society organizations are key. Our local network puts several authorities (social affairs, prison, school, police, intelligence) in touch with each other and helps to exchange information. On the other hand there are also non-state actors included, for example social work organizations and Muslim communities. And as a further feature the network has its own counseling service for family members of radicalized people and for those who want to leave the radical movement. The value for us as a security agency is that the network and the counseling service are targeting the soft edges while allowing us to focus more on our core tasks.
[a] Sarfo was recently sentenced to three years in prison for joining the Islamic State.