Islamist Mind Games: How Young German Men Are Lured into Jihad
Young Muslim men in Germany are systematically trying to recruit their peers for jihad using sophisticated rhetoric and psychology and by targeting vulnerable youths who are searching for direction in life. Two men who have quit the scene tell their story to SPIEGEL, providing a rare look into a dangerous underground.
He worked at his uncle's falafel stand and read Immanuel Kant, and later Plato and Nietzsche. In the end, he became a radical Islamist, recruiting new talent for a Muslim holy war in the middle of the German city of Hamburg. Djamal was the hunter.
Djamal is sitting on a cushion in the dim light of a basement bar in Hamburg. He sucks on a plastic tube, causing the water to bubble in his hookah, a water pipe made of delicate glass decorated with gold paint. His head is shaved, he has the broad back of someone who lifts weights, and he keeps his beard neatly trimmed. He blows the smoke from the orange-mint tobacco into the air above his head and passes the tube to Bora, a quiet young man sitting next to him.
Bora, 23, grew up on the Reeperbahn, a street in Hamburg's entertainment and red-light district. His parents are from Turkey. His mother sells Tupperware and his father has a store. For a long time, Bora didn't know what to do with himself. He wanted to have fun, but he was always searching for something meaningful. Then he met radical Islamists. Bora was the prey.
The basement bar where they are now sitting was their common territory for about a year. It was a place where hunters could find their prey.
The bar used to be a hangout for radical leftists called "Hinkelstein." First-year students would go there to listen to radical leaders, and it was a gateway of sorts on the path to the left-wing extremist milieu.
By the time Djamal had hit upon this basement bar as a place where he could do his work -- namely separating his prey from German society -- the leftists were long gone. The bar's new clientele were also looking for answers, but in the Koran instead of in the writings of Marx and Lenin.
'The Perfect Moment'
The dartboard was replaced with Arabic calligraphy. There are Persian rugs on the floor. The old "Hinkelstein" is now a hookah café, only a few meters away from the Hamburg State Library.
"It's the perfect place to chill with friends," says Bora.
"When they're chilling, it's the perfect moment to catch them," says Djamal.
When asked how he did it, Djamal responds: "First you have to catch them. But then they're like rechargeable batteries: Charge, discharge and recharge."
Djamal and Bora left the scene 20 months ago. They often ran into each other in this basement bar, even though they never actually met. Although Djamal was a hunter, Bora was never his prey. But the stories the two men relate from that part of their lives, each from his own perspective, offer very precise insights into a world in which German law doesn't apply. In this world, life on earth is a punishment, a test for the afterlife. Those who move around in it are yearning for the afterlife, not an apprenticeship in an engineering company. This world divides society into the Ummah, or Islamic religious community, and the Kuffar, or infidels. Its denizens don't even use toothbrushes to brush their teeth, just tooth-cleaning twigs known as miswak.
Reading Kant and Nietzsche
Those who enter this world are continually charged until their batteries are full enough for holy war. The German soldiers of jihad are the most radical members of a youth movement that has German domestic intelligence experts worried.
Djamal arrived in this world three years ago, when he was 19. He was reading Kant and Nietzsche at the time, but he felt frustrated, because they hadn't written anything that could guide him in a society in which he often felt confused. He had studied their works for months, writing down sentences that appealed to him, hoping that they would help him overcome a difficult time. His father had left his mother and he wasn't doing well in school, but the philosophers' clever words were useless.
Djamal kept searching for meaning: at high-school parties, on the Reeperbahn and sometimes in a bottle of vodka.
When his mother married a German convert to Islam, Djamal loaded verses of the Koran onto his iPod. As the son of Lebanese immigrants, it bothered him that a German was more familiar with the Koran than he was. He went to the former "Hinkelstein," where he smoked hookahs, and where someone eventually invited him into his group. Before long, he had gained access to the inner circle.
A Real Mission
Djamal, who had no idea what to do after finishing high school, had, for the first time in his life, a real mission: recruiting young men for the Hamburg branch of the Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. The group has been banned in Germany since 2003, but its members are still active underground. They spread Salafist Islam and want to establish a theocracy. Hizb ut-Tahrir's "catchers" are young, educated and, most of all, articulate. They are people like Djamal.
It was a time when Djamal was looking for "mistakes," as he called it, in the Bible and the Torah. He memorized verses from the Koran. His only rule was that he had to come across as omniscient. He was determined to prevail over the infidels. At first, he says, sitting on a pillow in the basement bar, his goal wasn't to spread Islam, but rather to silence the others.
"The Germans have no religious foundation, and yet they like to philosophize," says Djamal, noting that their most common argument is: "I can't see God; therefore, he doesn't exist." Then Djamal would show up with his talk about Immanuel Kant and his conclusions about the limitations of man. "You just have to be creative. Then you can tell them anything."
His listeners, young men between 15 and 25, were fascinated, even if they didn't understand half of what he was saying -- but that too was part of the principle. Djamal's words conveyed the impression of knowledge, direction and meaning.
Part of a Cause
No one instructed Djamal to become a catcher. There are no bosses in this world, no fixed hierarchies. But those who proselytized gained respect within the group. Djamal could feel important, part of a bigger cause and not just a part-time falafel seller in his uncle's snack bar.
It was a hobby for him at first, says Djamal, a game for which he prepared himself meticulously. He would surf the Internet for weeks, listening to speeches by Pierre Vogel, one of the most important preachers among German Islamists. At the hookah café, Djamal would talk about how women are treated with even less respect in the Bible than in Islam. The Asian tsunami, the Love Parade disaster in 2010 and the crazy shooters going on rampages around the world, he said, were all signs from Allah that the Kuffar were on the wrong path. It was usually very easy, and no one asked any questions.
Sometimes, if his listeners were black, Djamal would follow his talk about God by mentioning Malcolm X, the US civil rights activist and idol who was also a Muslim. References to Malcolm X were always effective.
As a rule, Djamal and the other catchers met boys like Bora. For Djamal, boys like Bora fell into the category of "easy prey."
'Come and Sit with Us, Brother'
Bora liked to go to Turkish parties and enjoy himself on the Reeperbahn, but the hookah café was his favorite place. There were no bouncers there who would refuse to let him in because his skin was too dark or his shoulders too wide from Thai boxing. Bora and his friends also referred to the café as their "cave." When they were there, they played computer games like "Fifa" and "Counter Strike" on the PlayStation, which was connected to the flat-screen monitors. In the evenings, they would rent movies like "Avatar" and "Kickboxer" from the video store and drink vodka they had brought along.
Every evening, when the bar filled up, Djamal began his shift. Bora clearly remembers the day when Djamal's friends showed up. It was in January 2010. They were wearing Adidas jackets and New York Yankees baseball caps, G-Star pants and Nike Air Max shoes. They looked like him, but Bora quickly noticed that there was something different about them.
They were quiet and peaceful, and they treated each other like brothers. While his friends talked about women, sports cars and soccer, the new guys discussed the meaning of life and the existence of God. They used terms like the Big Bang and the theory of evolution. Bora couldn't stop listening to them.
"Why don't you come and sit with us, brother?" one of the new ones asked. He was part of a group of five men between 18 and 30. For Bora, it seemed perfectly normal to be meeting these men, but for the others it was a well-practiced procedure.
Targeting Santa Claus Muslims
"Our strategy was always the same," says Djamal: sit down, start talking about God, take a look around to see if anyone seems interested, and invite "the brother" to join the group. Then a process began that Djamal and his fellow proselytizers had worked out in role-playing games in a motel room in an industrial part of Hamburg. In the exercises, one person was always the "victim," or infidel, while the others would try to "catch" him. A person is considered caught when he believes in the existence of God and starts to become interested in Islam.
Bora, the "easy prey," is part of a generation of young children of immigrants who were born in German cities and grew up there. Their parents have raised them in traditional Islamic ways, but the children tend to work out their own version of Islam. Pierre Vogel calls them "Santa Claus Muslims." They know that pork is forbidden for Muslims, but they've tried it anyway, perhaps at their first soccer match. They know that drinking alcohol is a sin for Muslims, as is sex before marriage, and yet they party every weekend.
They only go to the mosque on holidays, and when they do they awkwardly imitate their elders, because they don't know how to pray. Boys like Bora always have a guilty conscience, because they sense that they are not sufficiently serious in fulfilling their religious obligations.
"But they believe in God, so the rest is easy," says Djamal.
- Part 1: How Young German Men Are Lured into Jihad
- Part 2: Learning Rhetorical Tricks from Bismarck
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles