European Eye on Radicalization is very pleased to have been able to interview Dr. Hans-Jakob Schindler, currently a senior director at the Counter-Extremism Project (CEP) and previously the coordinator of the United Nations’ sanctions monitoring team for jihadist terrorists like the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. EER’s interview focused on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Question 1: Are the Brotherhood networks in Germany still demographically similar to those of decades past, or has the composition changed?
HJS: I have not conducted demographic research into Muslim Brotherhood (MB) networks in Germany and therefore, will not be able to elaborate much on this point. However, in 2020, my organization, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), conducted research into MB networks in a range of countries in Central and Eastern Europe (see here, here, and here). This research demonstrated that while these networks have been growing since the end of the Cold War, their size, political influence in the respective countries, as well as their influence within the wider community, has been reduced in the past few years, and that other, less structured extremist Islamist networks have been taking their place.
As far as Germany is concerned, the influence of MB networks continues to be a factor. However, there is an ongoing and very lively debate about which networks can be considered part of the Muslim Brotherhood. This results in a diverse picture, as far as the size and number of members of the MB in Germany is concerned. One rough guideline comes from the annual public reports of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).
The BfV, the German federal domestic intelligence agency, is tasked with monitoring the activities of extremist and terrorist groups and networks in Germany, and assesses that the “Deutsche Muslimische Gemeinschaft e.V.” (DMG) is the main network of the MB in Germany. In its recent report, the BfV counts around 400 active members of DMG and an overall milieu of members and sympathizers numbering 1,450 individuals.
On the other hand, the Offices for the Protection of the Constitution in the federal states of Germany (LfVs) also monitor the activities of MB networks in Germany and if these numbers are combined, a slightly different assessment emerges. For example, if the reports of only three LfVs are combined, the number of active members of DMG is higher than 400, since the LfV Berlin counts 150 members of MB for Berlin alone, while the LfV in Bavaria counts 140 in Bavaria, and the LfV in North Rhine Westphalia counts 350 in that federal state (including members and sympathizers of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the MB).
While this diversity of data makes it a challenge to arrive at a precise overall assessment as to the precise size and influence of MB networks in Germany, what emerges clearly from the various official datasets is that MB networks remain a factor within the extremist Islamist community in Germany.
Question 2: What kind of threat does the Muslim Brotherhood network in Germany pose, ideologically, to the stability and safety of the German state and society? And to what extent is the group responsible for the radicalization of people in Germany?
HJS: MB networks are characterized by the German security authorities as belonging to the “legalistic extremist Islamist” strand. This denotes a difference between networks that promote and use violence on the one side, such as, for example, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), and on the other side, networks, like the MB, that, while actively working towards undermining the basic freedoms and democratic structure of Germany, do not openly propagate or use violence towards this end.
However, while in a country such as Germany the MB networks are not propagating violence, it is important to note that this is a tactical, not strategic, decision. When observed on a global level, the MB networks’ relationship with violence is varied, with some MB networks justifying and even conducting violence.
Therefore, while German security authorities agree that there is not a threat of violence emanating directly from the MB networks within Germany, the activities of these networks undermines the basic pillars of the free and democratic order (freiheitlich demokratische Grundordung or FDGO) in Germany. This is the reason why the BfV and LfVs in Germany continuously monitor the activities of MB networks in Germany.
The situation is more complex if Hamas networks are seen as part of the MB networks, as, for example, the LfV of North Rhine Westphalia is doing (see above). Hamas is included on the EU terror list, which only comprises a handful of groups, indicating the elevated risk that the European Union assigns to this organization. Since Hamas also maintains networks in Germany, one can argue that there is at least an indirect threat of violence emanating from this connection.
Question 3: Has the Brotherhood in Germany been linked to terrorism by groups like Al-Qaeda?
HJS: I am not aware of a direct connection between MB networks in Germany and Al-Qaeda in a structural sense. However, a splinter groups of the MB, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), was a founding member of Al-Qaeda. EIJ’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was one of the signatories on Osama bin Laden’s “Declaration for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” in 1998, considered one of the founding documents of Al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri was, of course, Bin Laden’s successor as Al-Qaeda leader until he was killed in July. Therefore, while there may not be a direct link between MB networks in Germany and Al-Qaeda, there has certainly been an indirect link outside Germany. Furthermore, as pointed out above, if one considers Hamas a part of the MB, as the LfV North Rhine Westphalia and CEP do, then there is a more direct link to a terror organization. (Hamas’ own Charter defines the group as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brothers in Palestine”.)
Question 4: How does the foreign finance for the Brotherhood in Germany affect the evolution of this group? And what kind of measures has the German state taken to cut foreign financial support?
HJS: For any extremist activities, finances are indispensable. Without financing, the influence of any extremist group will be very limited. Therefore, having a strategic understanding of the incoming and outgoing financial flows from and to MB-linked networks would be an important element in any complete risk assessment concerning these networks. Unfortunately, data concerning the financing of MB networks in Germany is anecdotal and incomplete. This is based on a range of factors that I will outline in my answers to questions 6 and 7 below. Fairly regularly, media reports in Germany describe large scale financial support from abroad via organizations that have been linked to MB, such as for example the UK-based “Europe Trust”.
However, as I will outline below, since MB networks in Germany do not advocate the use of, or directly perpetrate, violence, the ability of government authorities to collect and analyze financial data is limited. This is coupled with an overall lack of financial transparency in Germany for charitable organizations. This presents a significant challenge when countering the financial flows of violence-oriented, as well as non-violent, extremist networks incorporated as charitable organizations under German law.
Question 5: How does the Muslim Brotherhood in Germany connect with and assist extremists abroad?
HJS: MB networks in Germany are part of the overall global network of MB branches. It will be important to monitor if the death of Yusuf al-Qaradawi in September 2022 has an influence on the overall functionality of the connections between the networks. As arguably the most prominent and visible MB thinker, Al-Qaradawi’s activities, writings, and sermons were crucial for the global MB networks. His death may therefore also have at least indirect consequences for the functionality of MB networks in Germany as well.
Direct financial support from DMG for terror organizations abroad has not been publicly documented. But German authorities have disrupted several other networks that channeled financial support from Germany to Hamas and other terror groups abroad, such as for example the organization Ansaar International, which was banned in Germany in 2021.
Question 6: Have the German states’ measures trying to combat the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood and mitigate the threat posed by this group been effective?
HJS: Countering extremist organisations presents a different challenge to countering terrorist organizations. The last 20 years of global counter-terrorism efforts have resulted in multiple national, multilateral, and international structures that can be used to counter terrorist activities, ranging from hard executive action all the way to civil society-based deradicalization work. Instruments for countering extremist organisations, which are not (yet) legally classified as terrorist, are much more limited. German security authorities have adopted an administrative definition of extremism, which denotes networks that actively work to subvert the FDGO in Germany. This enables the domestic intelligence authorities (BfV and LfV) to monitor such networks using intelligence means. In turn, this also increases the chances that illegal actions of such networks, such as for example money laundering or tax evasion, can be detected and then followed-up by law enforcement action. Furthermore, in the past years the Federal Government of Germany has repeatedly passed large-scale funding programs aimed towards efforts to strengthen societal cohesion and disengagement and deradicalization efforts, such as for example the federal program “Demokratie Leben” (Live Democracy).
Therefore, Germany is attempting to tackle extremist groups, such as MB networks on multiple levels. These efforts could, of course, be further improved by requiring greater transparency, in particular as far as financial flows of charitable organizations in Germany are concerned. Currently, the financial data of all charitable organizations is reported only to their respective local tax office and is not centrally available. From 2024 onwards, Germany plans to introduce a central and public register of all charitable organizations in the country (Zuwendungsempfängerregister). This registry will be an important first step towards greater transparency in this sector. This will also be an important element in the fight against the financing of other extremist organisation, such as for example violence-oriented far-Right extremist networks, which the current federal government has defined as one of its priorities.
Question 7: A number of EU countries, such as Austria, have taken serious actions against political Islamism. What kind of measures do you think the German policy makers should adopt in the future to counter the threats posed by the Muslim Brotherhood?
HJS: As outlined above, in my assessment, it would be a wrong characterization to argue that Germany has not undertaken substantial efforts to counter MB networks in the country. However, given the fact that German security authorities continue to argue that MB networks in Germany actively work to undermine the FDGO and have quite substantial numbers of members and sympathisers, more could be done, in particular when it comes to the monitoring and disrupting financial flows to and from these networks.
A first necessary step would be to put the category of “extremism” on a firmer legal footing in German criminal law. This would also enable Germany to have a clearer definition of “extremism financing”, which is currently not a legal category at all. Given the fairly narrow provisions of the German terrorism financing law (§ § 89c Federal Criminal Code), which demands linking each individual financial stream to a concrete offence, it is a significant challenge to cover general financial support from extremist organisations to terrorist organisations within the existing legal framework.
Furthermore, the ability to monitor financial flows from and to extremist networks in Germany by the domestic intelligence services is curtailed as long as the respective network does not use or espouse violence or promote hatred and denigrate human dignity (Menschenwürde). Therefore, currently, German domestic intelligence agencies cannot fully monitor the financial activities of MB networks in Germany and have a consequent challenge detecting potential illegal financial activities by these networks that could lead to law-enforcement investigations. A revision of this provision would be helpful.
In addition, obtaining general data, as well as financial data, on charitable organisations in Germany remains an uphill battle. German association law requires such organizations to register only with the respective local tax office; this is required to annually to confirm the group’s charitable status and to receive their annual financial reports, which are treated as confidential (Steuergeheimnis). Delegating this matter to the respective tax office is due to the tax-exempt status that charitable organizations in Germany enjoy. The problem is that delegating the monitoring of the financial activities of charitable organizations in general to the local tax office puts, in my assessment, an undue burden on the already overstretched resources of the German tax authorities. Requiring public disclosure of annual financial statements, as is for example the case in the United States, would create greater overall transparency in this sector and therefore enable better monitoring, including monitoring of financial support from outside Germany towards these organizations. This would also be a helpful mechanism in countering the financial activities of other extremist networks, such as violence-oriented far-Right extremist networks that are known in many cases to receive foreign financial support from Russia.
Furthermore, as outlined, from 2024 onwards the Zuwendungsempfängerregister will at least require the central publication of the basic data of charitable organizations in Germany—name, purpose, registration number, etc. This register will be maintained by the Federal Central Tax Office. There is a concern, since currently no information available on how the Federal Central Tax Office will maintain the accuracy of its data. More works needs to be done to ensure adequate and continuous quality control if this register is to be effective.
Finally, with the Joint Counter-Extremism and Counter-Terrorism Centre (GETZ), Germany maintains an administrative structure that allows the various law-enforcement and domestic intelligence authorities to exchange data on extremist trends in the country. However, the mandate of the GETZ is limited to far-Right and Left-wing extremism, as well as extremism connected to foreign organizations (such as extreme nationalist groups) and counter-espionage. The Joint Counter Terrorism Center (GTAZ), on the other hand, is currently only tasked with Islamist terrorism cases. This means Islamist extremism, in particular legalistic Islamist extremism, does not have a dedicated structure that allows for the exchange of information between the federal- and state-level law enforcement and domestic intelligence services. This should be rectified.