Islamist Mind Games How Young German Men Are Lured into Jihad
Part 2: 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
- Part 1: How Young German Men Are Lured into Jihad
- Part 2: Learning Rhetorical Tricks from Bismarck