By Hubert Gude, Souad Mekhennet and Christoph Scheuermann
Mahmoud enjoys high credibility in international jihadist circles, because he spent four years in an Austrian prison. "I had a lot of time to study during my incarceration," he says. He was convicted in Vienna of membership in a terrorist organization and for his role as the leader of the German-language Global Islamic Media Front. The group's website was used to post al-Qaida and Taliban videos for the local Islamist community.
Mahmoud studied with an imam in Italy named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, aka Abu Omar. The imam became internationally known when it was revealed that CIA agents had kidnapped him in Milan in February 2003, and that he was later tortured in Egypt.
"My interest in jihad began early on," says Mahmoud, as he describes how, as a child, he saw videos of the fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya, and of mutilated corpses, raped women and beheaded men, all of them Muslims. "I was already on the side of the mujahedin in those days," he says.
In October 2002, when he was 17, he disappeared for eight months. It's presumed that he traveled via Italy to Iraq, where he was trained in a terrorist camp. He was detained in Iran, near the border with Iraq, and sent back to Austria. The police became aware of Mahmoud in 2007 when he bought chemicals that could have been used to assemble a suicide bomb.
Mahmoud showed no remorse after his conviction in Vienna. He reportedly converted several young prisoners to Salafism at the Simmering Prison. "I will continue along my path," he told a police officer, according to a report by the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation, "and I would even die for that path." If he "got a bullet to the head" as a result, Mahmoud said, "it would be fine with me." That was shortly before his release in September.
Islam as Pop Culture
A few days later, Mahmoud drove to Berlin and went to see a man he didn't need to convert: Denis Cuspert, 36. Cuspert had performed as a rapper under the stage name Deso Dogg. Then he converted to Islam, and now he calls himself Abu Malik.
The former prisoner Mahmoud and the ex-rapper Cuspert are now all but inseparable. They launched the "Millatu-Ibrahim" ("The Community of Ibrahim") missionary project and went from mosque to mosque, selling Islam as pop culture. They want the young men they approach to distance themselves from the kuffar, be proud of their religion "and not be ashamed to carry a weapon," Mahmoud tells his supporters on YouTube. He claims that Millatu-Ibrahim already has branches in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Flensburg and Solingen, and that others will follow. He has also met with like-minded people in Antwerp and London.
Former rapper Cuspert provides the inspired Islamist community with the songs for their new pop culture -- not rap, but a chanting that remains faithful to the Koran. "We know exactly how to address these young people," says Cuspert, "we speak the same language and we know how they feel, because, just like them, we also grew up in Europe."
The religious songs Cuspert sings today are called nashids. The lyrics are about Muslim women in prison and Osama bin Laden. "Your name flows in our blood," Cuspert sings, referring to the al-Qaida leader who was shot and killed last year in Pakistan.
The case of Arid Uka, who shot and killed two US soldiers at Frankfurt Airport in 2009, shows how much influence the ex-rapper has, especially on second- and third-generation Muslims. The killer was one of Cuspert's Facebook friends. A video was posted on the ex-rapper's website that showed men in US military uniforms raping a Muslim woman. The video enraged Uka, who saw it the night before the attack. The scenes were from a film and were not real, but Uka didn't know that.
Taking Care of His Brothers
Mahmoud, Cuspert and their organization act as a catalyst to young men like Arid Uka. Most of their followers are uninterested in violence, but a small number are drawn to the radical language schools in Egypt and, from there, some continue to Pakistan, Afghanistan, al-Qaida and similar groups. "My duty is to use my voice to tell people the truth, and the truth is jihad," sings Cuspert. "Jihad is a duty."
Cuspert, like Mahmoud, grew up in the West. He was born in Berlin as the son of a German mother and a Ghanaian father. But the father left the family when Denis was still an infant. His mother married a former American soldier, but the boy and his stepfather didn't get along, and Denis was eventually shunted to institutions. Cuspert tried to find a home with street gangs in Berlin at first, and he was arrested a number of times.
Today, Mahmoud and Cuspert are something of a dream team for the radical Islamist scene. There is a photo that depicts the two men with a pair of Berlin Islamists who were arrested shorty before a local parliamentary election last September. A judge had to release the suspects before long due to a lack of sufficient evidence. Mahmoud and Cuspert picked the men up from prison, and the four men posed for a photographer making the victory sign. The prison veteran takes care of his younger brothers -- that was the message.
How does the government deal with such detractors of Western society? The Berlin branch of the BfV prepared a study about ex-rapper Cuspert, but unless he issues a public call for violence or makes other mistakes, the authorities can do little more than keep an eye on him. In the Mahmoud case, the government uses administrative tools as a means of defense.
'We Love Death'
Following his arrival, the Berlin officials initiated deportation proceedings against the Austrian. The obstacles to deporting a fellow European are high. Under European Union law, anyone can settle anywhere in the EU. And only after an intensive review of an individual case can a delinquent EU citizen be deported from Germany. This would be the case if he constituted a "serious threat" to public safety. In the Mahmoud case, the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation collected evidence from the start. Mahmoud, the investigators noted last November, praised the martyrdom of al-Qaida leaders and stressed that he would "fight to the last drop of blood."
Perhaps one reason Mahmoud is traveling around Germany is to take advantages of the bureaucratic confusion inherent in the country's federalist system. After a hearing in Berlin, he traveled to Solingen in western Germany to preach to the Islamic community there -- with success: Within a short amount of time, the mosque had been renamed the Millatu-Ibrahim Mosque. Following protests by locals, Mahmoud eventually moved to his current apartment near Frankfurt. The authorities forwarded his files as he crossed state borders and proceedings against him are now continuing in Hesse.
Mahmoud boasts that he isn't afraid of deportation and, in fact, that he isn't afraid of anything at all. There is an important difference between his enemies and him, the devout Muslim: "They love life. We love death."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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