'Leaderless Jihad' German Islamists Target Youth on the Internet
A growing community of German-speaking Islamists has developed on the Internet. Aiming to find new recruits, they glorify jihad and call for attacks on Germany. A new study warns that such online propaganda might foster a new generation of terrorists.
As a rapper, Denis Cuspert was a bit player, but as a propagandist for jihad he is a star in some circles. He has gained considerable prominence since 2010, when he transformed himself from a Berlin hip-hop artist named Deso Dogg into the Islamist Abu Malik.
Actually, not much has changed since he became a Salafist. He still makes music, and distributes it primarily through the Internet. But instead of performing rap songs like "Gangxta" and "Ich und mein Baby" ("Me and My Baby"), he releases so-called Anasheed, or Islamic vocal music in which he glorifies jihad.
Cuspert's songs have attained cult status among radical Islamists in Germany. At the request of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Berlin, three of his jihadist songs were labeled as being harmful to minors in early 2012.
Today, the ex-rapper is one of the most prominent German-speaking propagandists for jihad on the Internet. A new study by the Berlin-based Foundation for Science and Politics (SWP), which advises the German government, addresses the development of the Islamist scene on the Internet in detail for the first time.
International terrorist groups like al-Qaida recognized the importance of the Internet for recruiting new supporters early on. But it wasn't until the end of 2005 that the German arm of the "Global Islamic Media Front" (GIMF), which saw itself as the mouthpiece for all jihadists worldwide, emerged.
The German offshoot of GIMF was founded by Mohamed Mahmoud, an Austrian with Egyptian roots. In addition to Cuspert, Mahmoud is still one of the most colorful figures in the German Islamist community. Mahmoud quickly attracted the attention of authorities when he began spreading al-Qaida propaganda on the Internet in 2005.
After GIMF posted a video in March 2007 threatening possible attacks in Germany and Austria, Mahmoud and his wife were arrested. Because he had used his own computer to place the video on the Internet, all Austrian authorities had to do was establish the connection between Mahmoud and the computer's IP address.
After his release in September of last year, Mahmoud quickly joined his new friend Cuspert in Berlin. Soon thereafter, the two men went to the western German city of Solingen, where Mahmoud transformed the Millatu Ibrahim Mosque into a nationally known meeting place for Salafists.
But the Internet remained far more important than the mosque. Mahmoud, Cuspert and their supporters have set up sophisticated websites. "Especially noteworthy are the high degree of technical professionalism and the targeted use of elements of current youth culture," the SWP study, published on Wednesday, concludes.
According to the study, shutting down the websites and arresting the people behind them will hardly curb the growing number of Salafists in Germany. On the contrary, Mahmoud only developed into "a star in the scene" as a result of having spent time in prison. After the federal government banned Mahmoud's Millatu Ibrahim group in June, its website was shut down, but new blogs and sites soon popped up to spread the same messages.
Mahmoud, Cuspert and their cohorts depend on these sites to stay in touch with their supporters in Germany. In the wake of the Millatu Ibrahim ban and growing police pressure on the Salafists following bloody clashes at a rally in Cologne, Mahmoud and Cuspert, together with many other key figures in the German Islamist community, have disappeared and have presumably fled to Egypt.
Cuspert made another Internet appearance in September, with threats of attacks in Germany. "You spend millions and billions for the war against Islam," he said in a video. "And that's why this country, the Federal Republic of Germany, is a war zone."
Taking Inspiration from Others
German authorities are taking the dangers posed by jihadist propaganda on the Internet very seriously, especially after the case of Arid U. The young man from Frankfurt had never had any physical contact with known jihadists, and became radicalized exclusively through the Internet. In March 2011, he killed two US soldiers at Frankfurt Airport. In addition to YouTube videos of alleged and actual crimes committed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, Anasheed supposedly played an important role in his actions.
U. is the perfect example of a phenomenon called "leaderless jihad." These militants do not travel to terrorist training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan, nor do they receive direct instructions from al-Qaida leaders. Instead, they act on their own, inspired by jihadist websites.
For the authorities, this web-based propaganda offers both opportunities and risks. On the one hand, according to the SWP study, "they can trace the networks of sympathizers and even pinpoint some of their physical locations."
Intelligence services can also take advantage of the anonymity of Internet forums to deliberately plant false information or obtain insider information. But all of this requires a lot of personnel, and for each website that is shut down, a similar one appears before long.
Until now, attacks by "leaderless jihadists" have been relatively minor in comparison to others, because the attackers had not been trained in camps run by militant Islamist movements.
But Guido Steinberg, editor of the SWP study, warns: "We can assume that the jihadists will also draw lessons from attacks like those committed by Anders Breivik in Norway, or by the National Socialist Underground (NSU), and will become more effective in the future."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.