The Path to Radicalization: Following a German Salafist to Egypt
A year ago, a SPIEGEL editor met a Salafist in Hanover. Following several meetings in Germany, he traveled with him to his new home in Egypt. He could not have anticipated the danger he would encounter there.
It's night in Alexandria, and I can hear the Salafist breathing in the dark. He's tiptoeing across the room.
The man approaching my bed picked me up from the airport yesterday. His name is Dennis Rathkamp, and he is a 24-year-old auto mechanic who used to play guitar in his church confirmation class. He moved to Egypt a few weeks ago to learn how to become a good Muslim.
On this morning, my body is lying between Rathkamp and Mecca. He drops to his knees and lowers his forehead to the floor. It's 6:30 a.m., time for early prayers. I hear Rathkamp moving his lips silently. He promised me he would try to be quiet while praying.
I am lying in this bed in a stranger's apartment because I am searching for an answer to the question of what drives the Salafists, a group of people who are feared in Germany. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, estimates that 60 German Salafists emigrated to Egypt last year. Many chose the city of Alexandria as their new home, and they now live in the Mandara neighborhood in the north of the city.
Rathkamp says that he moved to Alexandria because he wants to learn the language of his prophet -- and because he could no longer endure the discrimination in Germany.
I met him when he was handing out Korans in the northern German city of Hanover last spring. I asked him if he would take me to his mosque, because I wanted to learn more about Islam. I accompanied him to Friday prayers many times after that. We drank tea together and had long conversations. Afterwards, he would drive me to the train station and give me pamphlets explaining women's role in Islam to take home to my girlfriend.
A New Life
Rathkamp digs around in the suitcase in front of his bed. His beard frames his face like a pale red ring of fire, and he is wearing a crocheted cap on his head. He slips into a white robe and greets the morning with a smile. He looks dressed up like an imam.
In Germany, he lived in Hohenhameln, a town of 9,630 inhabitants in the northern state of Lower Saxony, in a house with garden gnomes outside the front door. There are two church towers on the town's coat of arms. Rathkamp says that some of his neighbors thought he was a terrorist.
Rathkamp is a Salafist, although he doesn't like the word and prefers to simply call himself Muslim. He thinks it's a good idea for women to conceal their bodies under black robes. He believes it's important to God that the legs of his trousers end above the ankles. He says that Sharia law is perfect. He thinks that cutting off the hands of thieves, under certain circumstances, is the right thing to do. In addition, says Rathkamp: "I reject violence." Amid the contradictions, he is trying to find a place for his new life.
When he lived in Germany, people avoided him, recognizing immediately that he didn't share their religious convictions. They were afraid that Rathkamp was wearing an explosive vest under his robe. He could see it in their eyes.
Rathkamp fell asleep after praying and is now snoring softly on this morning in Alexandria. The door opens and our host, a man with a long beard and a shaved head, walks into the bedroom. "Saalam alaikum," he says. "Do you know who I am?"
His name is Sven Lau, but he calls himself Abu Adam. He is 32, was born in the western German city of Mönchengladbach, served in the German military and trained to be a professional fire chief. He converted to Islam 14 years ago, and Germany's BfV has had him under observation for an unspecified period of time.
He is allowing Rathkamp and me to sleep in the room normally occupied by his three children until Rathkamp can find his own apartment.
Lau, considered to be one of the leaders of German Salafists, ran a mosque in Mönchengladbach and was chairman of a fundamentalist group called "Invitation to Paradise." He was once charged with setting his own mosque on fire to simulate arson, but was later acquitted. Civil rights advocates oppose him because they believe he would introduce Sharia in Germany. The BfV is watching him because it believes that Lau wants to abolish the democratic constitutional state and establish a theocracy. German prosecutors are also looking into accusations of aggravated battery against Lau, who allegedly beat a reveler during Germany's Karneval festivities.
"Do you want to have breakfast?" Lau asks. "My wife will make you an open-faced sandwich with cold cuts, and then we'll talk about how this will be a pleasant visit for you."
Nothing to Hide
Rathkamp had questioned whether it was smart to let a journalist into their lives. They discussed the issue in prayer, and in the end Lau told Rathkamp that they had nothing to hide because, after all, they are not terrorists.
"But not everyone in this neighborhood is as tolerant as we are, so please don't go anywhere without us," says Lau. He stares into my eyes for a long time. "You don't want to be the match that falls into a can of gasoline."
It's cold in the dusty alleys below. Curtains to block out the light hang in front of balconies. A street vendor is selling chicken from a charcoal grill in the building next door. Cats dart across mountains of garbage, and a donkey cart passes by. It's a good place for people whose lives are based on 7th-century values.
The Salafists in Alexandria structure their days around the rhythm of their prayers. According to Rathkamp, the purpose of creation is for people to worship God. The men in Mandara wear slippers. They pray so much that it isn't worth tying their shoes. Rathkamp wears Nike Air Max shoes to keep his feet warm.
At the end of the week, he plans to start taking Arabic at the Easy Language Center. Language schools in Alexandria have trained German Salafists in the past. Daniel Schneider studied there. He was a member of the Sauerland terrorist cell and was sentenced to 12 years in prison for planning attacks in Germany. Two Salafists from the western German city of Solingen, Robert B. and Christian E., also studied in Alexandria. They were arrested in England last year, and a court later convicted the two men for having bomb-making instructions in their luggage.
A language school in Alexandria can be a place where students learn a language. But it can also be a place where they become radicalized, a guide for a journey into "holy war." The Easy Language Center where Rathkamp wants to study posts the following message on its Facebook page: "Venture the step into a Muslim country or treat it as a first step to go to Saudi Arabia later if you don't like Egypt. To our brothers: Do it for your families, your children or take along your (Muslim) parents. Don't let yourself be snowed by Shaitan. See it as your personal obligation to emigrate."
Shaitan or God. Hell or paradise. Haram, halal. Forbidden, permitted. There are no gradations in Salafism.
'Not Everyone Is Pleased'
I sit outside in the sun as Lau and Rathkamp attend noon prayers. The faithful stand in front of the mosque after prayers, and Rathkamp speaks to a man with a black beard. The two men approach me. The man, who Rathkamp says is from the Easy Language Center, says: "Nothing against you, but we don't want any journalists in the school." I notice how the faithful standing in front of the mosque glance over at me. They all notice right away that I am not part of their religion. They look at me as if I were an enemy, a man who wears jeans over his ankles, an infidel, a Kuffar, or nonbeliever.
Islamic law, depending on how strictly it's interpreted, distinguishes among three types of non-Muslims: Dhimmis, people who are permitted to live in an Islamic territory, but with limited rights; Mustamins, people who are granted similar rights as the Dhimmis, through a temporary protection agreement; and Harbis, people who live outside an Islamic territory, without rights, including the right to life. I don't know what I am to the Muslims of Mandara.
Rathkamp says: "Not everyone is pleased that you're visiting me. Perhaps I should pray at a different mosque as long as you're here." Then he suggests taking a drive into downtown Alexandria. He wants to buy a scrubbing brush for his new apartment and a gift for Lau to thank him for his hospitality. But what does one give a Salafist?
Clothing for Salafists can't be found in a supermarket, except perhaps socks and underwear. Wine isn't an option, because alcohol is haram, or forbidden. Neither is a CD, because music is also haram. A DVD of a Hollywood film is out, because Hollywood is haram. Lau already has a Koran.
Rathkamp buys three metal cans shaped like Spiderman for Lau's three sons. He doesn't think Allah has any objection to Spiderman.
He receives the keys to his new apartment the next morning. He is currently trying to sell his BMW online so that he'll be able to pay the rent. He is living on his savings at the moment. The apartment consists of four rooms, two bathrooms, a balcony and an enormous living room. Rathkamp says that he needs room for the family he plans to have. He tells me that his imam has already arranged the marriage. The girl will soon graduate from high school in Braunschweig, Germany, and is coming to Alexandria in the summer.
A Book About Which There Is No Doubt
While Rathkamp scrubs the floor, he tells me how a boy from Lower Saxony came to call his god Allah today. He grew up in a house that his grandfather built. There were two cherry trees in the garden, one sweet and the other sour. Rathkamp's father assembled engines for a Volkswagen supplier, while his mother took care of Dennis and his younger sister.
Rathkamp spent his childhood on the soccer field and in the woods. He attended confirmation class as an adolescent. The pastor, a woman, directed the children in plays based on passages from the Bible. He remembers that he was once allowed to play Jesus. He also accompanied the church choir with his guitar, singing "Laudato si, o mi signore," or "Be praised, my Lord."
Rathkamp says that he always knew that God exists. He read the Bible, and the more he became immersed in Christianity, the more doubtful he became. Why was the New Testament written in Greek, even though Jesus couldn't speak Greek? If there is an almighty God, why did he allow his son to be nailed to the cross? Why does the First Commandant read: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," and then along comes Jesus, and we worship him like no other god?
Rathkamp thought about converting to Catholicism, because he suspected it was more authentic, but he noticed that Catholics, with their incense, were even stranger than Protestants. Rathkamp secretly decided to continue believing in God, but to stop believing that Jesus is the son of God, to stop believing in the Trinity and in Christianity.
He finished high school and began a training program to become a financial advisor, selling retirement plans and insurance policies. He found a girlfriend and was together with her for three years. He slept in the same bed with her, ate dinner with her parents and went for walks along the lake with her. She left him, but they remained friends.
He had washboard abs and wore a gold cross around his neck, mostly as a fashion accessory. He drank beer, but only occasionally. He noticed that there were other people who were worse off than he was, and because he thought this was unfair, he joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD). He wanted to run for office, he says, but he never got that far.
You can spend a long time searching in vain for something in Dennis Rathkamp's past that may have triggered his radicalism.
Four years ago, his girlfriend sent him a link to a YouTube video by the Islamic preacher Pierre Vogel, entitled "Why don't Muslims eat pork?" Rathkamp watched the video, in which Vogel explains that pork is toxic. Then he looked at the list of linked videos in the column to the right, where he found a video titled: "According to the Koran, Christians will go to hell." After watching that video, he thought: That Vogel has a lot of nerve saying these things.
He decided to learn more about this religion that wanted to send him to hell, and ordered a German-language Koran. He read the first Surah and the beginning of the second Surah, which reads: "This is the Book about which there is no doubt."
He was awestruck by that sentence. No person could write a sentence like that, Rathkamp thought, and from that day on he never ate pork again.
- Part 1: Following a German Salafist to Egypt
- Part 2: Hiding in the Darkness
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