Germany has witnessed a growth of Islamist extremism in recent years. Before looking at the causes, it is useful to map out the landscape:
The Key Islamist Groups in Germany
According to Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA) report in 2018, the main Salafist jihadist groups are:
- Ansar al-Asir (Supporters of Prisoners): an ostensible prisoners’ rights advocacy group, it is a Salafist organization that agitates on behalf of Muslim prisoners, most of whom are jihadists and terrorists, held in Germany and abroad. The group is active among the detainees themselves, proselytizing their version of Islam. The group’s website provides information on prisoners and ways that readers can support their cause by putting pressure on the state and so on.
- Milli Gurus (National Vision): Founded by Turkish Islamist Necmettin Erbakan in the 1960s, Milli Gurus is one of the largest Islamist movements among the Turkish diaspora in Europe, with, it claims, more than 300 mosques and 30,000 members in Germany. Erbakan’s doctrine is an extreme one, virulently anti-Western and antisemitic, but he did not preach violent revolution. Erbakan instead instructed his followers to focus on dawa (proselytism), creating the ideological basis for a future Islamic state. This concept was based on the ideas of Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb and the Indian Islamist theorist Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi, both of whose books continue to be distributed at places like the Islamic Center of Munich (Islamisches Zentrum München) where the Milli Gurus and other Brotherhood-derived forces are very powerful.
- The Wolfsburg terrorist cell: The group of about fifty people, centred on Hamburg, that was influenced by an Islamic State (ISIS) operative who attracted them online. Two defendants face prison sentences after what was left of the cell—most of it having gone to Syria—was broken up in Germany in early 2015. So far, at least seven of the Wolfsburg group have been killed in Syria.
- Die Wahre Religion (DWR, The True Religion): Ibrahim Abu Naji, one of its most prominent leaders based in Cologne, has been accused of hate speech and inciting violence. Quite a number of people in and around the group have ended up in the ranks of ISIS.
- Abu Walaa network: led by a 34-year-old Iraqi, “Abu Walaa”, whose real name is Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah Abdullah, this extremist network—based around Dortmund and Hildesheim in western Germany—became possibly the key ISIS recruitment and operational division in Germany after the rise of the “caliphate”.
Rise and Growing of Salafist Jihadists in Germany
German police and intelligence agencies regard nearly 800 German Islamists and Salafists as potential terrorists, according to the 2018 BKA report. Of these, 450 are currently in Germany, and the others have left the country. Meanwhile, the spread of “non-violent” extremist is noted by BKA to have become an increasing problem.
Germany was struck by a number of terrorist attacks in 2016, which brought attention to the burgeoning Salafi milieu in the country. Since 11 September 2001, more German citizens have died in Islamist terror attacks than were killed in the thirty-year terror campaign by the Soviet-supported Communist terrorists of the Red Army Faction, often known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
As early as 2014, security services were warning that terrorism from Islamists, whether organized or individual, had become Germany’s biggest threat. According to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz or BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence service, there were nearly 26,000 Islamists in Germany as of April 2018, though as mentioned above the number assessed as comprising the “Islamistische Gefährder” (Islamist threat), that is those who are believed to be motivated and capable of executing a terrorist attack, is much smaller, around 800, with about half of them already outside the country and another 150 in custody.
Among the Islamists and Salafists in Germany, the BfV believes that the jihadi-Salafist contingent was comprised of approximately 10,800 individuals in 2017.
One important jihadi-Salafi group was The True Religion (DWR), which was banned in November 2016 after authorities found that 140 of the group’s supporters had gone to fight with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The group’s founder, a Palestinian named Ibrahim Abu Naji, has been largely contained, and his operations reduced from their international scope—with his activities in Switzerland and Austria largely shut down—to conducting occasional “street dawa” in Germany. The BfV believes that the current radicalization threat from DWR has been pushed out of the mosques and national Salafi organizations, and now resides mostly online.
The Germans are also struggling to cope with a contingent of around 500 extremists from the Caucasus—Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. These men are battle-hardened and zealous after their long struggle with the Russian government, and have been involved in recruitment for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But when they set up physical training centres, such as for martial arts, or begin acquiring weaponry, there is little the authorities can do about it since these are protected activities for all citizens.
The fact that the number of adherents to Salafist ideology has “risen to an all-time high” has drawn concern in Germany because even if it begins non-violently it is feared Salafism can normalize ideas and concepts that lead to violent extremism. The problem for German authorities is that even as the Salafist scene grows, it is fragmenting and more-and-more becoming a personal, online phenomenon, which makes it very difficult for authorities to track.
Support to Jihadi-Salafists from Germany: The Online Threat
The Internet, particularly the so-called Dark Web, has allowed “financial jihad” to proliferate, with weapons and training manuals openly sold in this secretive corner of cyberspace, and militants in place to direct would-be terrorists in their mayhem and violence. Thanks to the Dark Web, capabilities and technologies that individuals and small cells would have found impossible to acquire are now a few mouse-clicks away. Still, the most important resource that moves in the Dark Web is the fungible item that makes all the others possible: money.
For Germany, the threat of local radicals being directed from abroad has become more acute since the massive migrant wave of 2015, which has already resulted in a known 340 cases of terrorists looking to attack the country at the behest of jihadist organizations guiding them from outside. As one German security official stressed, “These are just the cases we’ve learned about, and there may be more cases”.
The worry that the horrific attacks in Paris in November 2015 could be replicated is not unfounded, given that it is likely there were terrorist teams among the migrant flows—that is, after all, how the network that attacks Paris and went on to attack Brussels in March 2016 was smuggled into Europe. Added to that are the up to 40,000 people who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and other extremist groups, about 800 of them Germans, who might now look to return as the “caliphate” has been swept away.
Support to Jihadi-Salafists from Germany: The Offline Threat
Peter Neumann, an expert on counter-terrorism at King’s College London, has called for the closure of extremist mosques in Germany as soon as possible on the grounds that they are recruiting young people and building terrorist networks.
“In the past, [extremist] mosques have proven to be ‘hotbeds’ for the radicalization of Salafist [terrorist] perpetrators”, Neumann said. “For a long time, German federal security agencies have pursued a strategy of non-interference against Islamic mosques so that they can monitor the Salafist scene in its ‘crystallization points,’ but in light of the threat of extremism, this is considered unacceptable”.
“The charisma of violent preachers has repeatedly succeeded in building terrorist networks from mosque communities and developing ways to attract young Muslims abroad,” Neumann continued. “Nowhere else are there so many Salafist risks as in Germany”, albeit with fewer recruits flowing to ISIS and other jihadi groups as compared with France, Britain, and the United States.
About one-tenth of Germany’s mosques are being monitored by the BfV due to documented or suspected extremist activities. In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, 109 mosques are under intelligence surveillance. Of these, 70 mosques are believed to be Salafist and 16 of them under the influence of Muslim Brotherhood extremists. This state surveillance does not go unnoticed, however, and for that reason a great deal of extremist activity takes place outside mosques.
Still, eliminating extremist influences in mosques would considerably curb the problem of domestic Islamist militancy for Germany. Mosques have functioned at times as the headquarters of the recruitment efforts for ISIS under the cover of humanitarian work. It is for this reason that sixteen states have signalled support, in principle at least, for the idea of extending Germany’s “church tax” (Kirchensteuer), to Islam, since the law as it stands only applies to Christianity and Judaism.
The interior ministry of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state, for example, said it was open to “mosque financing based on the church model” to reduce foreign influence, including “the danger of possible radicalisation”. And a spokesman for the interior ministry of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg echoed this, saying that “theological content and political opinion” was being driven in negative directions, including in “radical Islamist or anti-democratic” ways, by external funding.
Raising the revenue from the local community in this way would help marginalize the extremists: the primary reason this fringe minority is able to have such disproportionate power over the Muslim population is that it has most of the funding, and significant amounts of it come from abroad, specifically from Turkey. Cutting this off and making Islamic institutions reliant on the tithes of German Muslims would make them responsive to the views of this majority-moderate community. A further security advantage is that it would reduce the ability of the Turkish government in particular, which controls a number of German mosques through the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), to carry out espionage.
German Government Efforts to Confront Domestic Salafist-Jihadists
The German government established the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (Gemeinsames Terrorismusabwehrzentrum or GTAZ) in 2004 to coordinate 40 internal security agencies that were focused on identifying and neutralizing the threat of jihadi terrorism. The Joint Internet Center (Gemeinsames Internetzentrum or GIZ) plays a similar role in the cyber realm. This “hard” power approach is not all that Germany has tried to do.
The “soft” power approach of the German authorities has included the creation of several community-based programs in partnership with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to try to prevent radicalism ever taking hold. A counselling centre on radicalization (Beratungsstelle Radikalisierung) has been set up; it is open to anybody concerned about a social relation who appears to be drifting into extremism, but it focuses on the more vulnerable populations, like the refugees. There is also a hotline for the same purpose that seeks to connect at-risk individuals with imams, school teachers, police, or others who can help arrest their descent. The Information and Competence Center against Extremism in Hesse (Hessisches Informations und Kompetenzzentrum gegen Extremismus or HKE) coordinates these preventive, early intervention efforts.
It is clear that the spread of Salafist ideology in Germany has had a significant impact on the local Muslim population. The mechanisms of this spread are various, from the Internet to in-person social networks, translated books, and other publications, which promote Salafist interpretations of Islamic concepts, often amplified by translations of fatwas (Islamic rulings) from Saudi scholars. The jihadi version of Salafism has spread in Germany over the last three years and thrown a serious challenge to the influence of official Islamic institutions.
As this radicalism has spread within the German Muslim population it has provoked a counter-radicalism from the rest of society. A study by the Bundestag found that anti-Muslim sentiments had grown in Germany and were not related only to the crisis caused by Chancellor Merkel’s open-doors policy for a million, mostly Muslim refugees. A clear majority of Germans, 55.7 percent, now say they do not want a mosque in their areas and 70 percent called for banning the veil in schools and public institutions. Nearly one-third of those surveyed were unhappy with the idea of Muslims as neighbors.
De-escalating this polarization has to start with the prime mover, namely the Islamist challenge in Germany.
To move toward social harmony, German authorities should:
- directly combat the jihadi-Salafist infrastructure in the country, penetrating its networks to gain information that can be used to damage the extremist cause;
- increase the oversight of mosque funding, controlling if not eliminating foreign funding; and
- expel any foreign imam who preaches hatred and subversion against the state or is involved in suspicious activitiy.
This is not a comprehensive list, but it would begin to curb the problem.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA) report, 2018.
 David Vielhaber, “The Milli Görüs of Germany”, 13 June 2012, Hudson Institute.
 Georg Heil, “The Berlin Attack and the ‘Abu Walaa’ Islamic State Recruitment Network”, February 2017, CTC Sentinel.
 Bundeskriminalamt, 2018.
 Verfassungsschutzbericht, the yearly report of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, BfV), 2017.
 “Number of Salafists in Germany reaches record high”, 10 December 2017, Deutsche Welle (DW).
 Verfassungsschutzbericht, 2017.
 Richard Barrett, “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees”, October 2017, Soufan Group.
 German “dom radio”, 23 April 2018.
 “More Than 100 Mosques Under surveillance in a German State”, 3 July 2009, News One.
 Verfassungsschutzbericht, 2017.
 Justin Huggler, “Police raid Berlin mosque as ‘Isil’ jihadists try to recruit refugees”, 22 September 2015, The Telegraph.
 “Germany mulls ‘mosque tax’ to cut out foreign funding”, 12 May 2019, The Local.
 “Germany: Extremism & Counter-Extremism”, 2019, Counter-Extremism Project.
 “Germans tolerant of LGBT neighbors, but not Muslim ones”, 16 August 2018, Deutsche Welle.