Emrah and his Brothers: Germany's Struggle for the Soul of Returning Islamists
German Islamists are returning from war abroad, some reformed but others more dangerous than ever. Social workers, imams and extremists are fighting for their souls -- and for Germany's safety. Government officials have few answers to the problem.
When Emrah was furious at Germany, he used the name Schmitz and called the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). He said that al-Qaida was planning to attack the Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin. It was during the autumn of 2010, and Emrah was often making calls to Germany, his old home, which he had left to fight against. It was a fight for al-Qaida, against the West.
Emrah, a 27-year-old convicted terrorist, is now back in Germany. His journey, which began in the western German city of Wuppertal and took him to Asia and Africa, ended in a cell in a Frankfurt maximum-security prison, with 17-meter (56-foot) walls, barbed wire, motion detectors and surveillance cameras. Emrah's cell in Unit B measures 11 square meters (118 square feet), has gray bars in front of the windows, and is furnished with a blue mattress, a water kettle, a refrigerator and a radio. Emrah now communicates with the German state through a metal button he can push in his cell.
Now that he has returned from fighting abroad, a new battle has begun. At the center of this new struggle is Emrah the returnee, his future, and security in Germany. It is a battle being waged by Islamists like Bernhard Falk, extremism experts like Claudia Dantschke and prison chaplains like Mustafa Cimsit. They are fighting for the souls of Emrah and his brothers in spirit.
For some of them, the goal is to ensure that men like Emrah don't find new brothers in German prisons, brothers they could recruit for terrorism. For others, the goal is to ensure that the struggle against all things Western continues, and that Emrah doesn't give up. And for Germany, the goal is to ensure that the country continues to avert terrorist attacks, that Germany never has to see bombs exploding in suburban trains, as occurred in Madrid, or on buses like the ones that were targeted in London, that journalists are not executed the way they were in Paris, and that people are not shot dead the way they were in Brussels. But the real issue is that the German state has many demands but is doing nothing to ensure they're met.
Forces of Good and Bad
Emrah is looking for help. From his cell, he writes a letter with a blue pen on white paper. He wants to be put in touch with Claudia Dantschke, a woman he saw on TV and whose voice he heard on the radio. He hopes that she can help him. Dantschke is Germany's best-known expert on extremism. She has advised German President Joachim Gauck in his office in Bellevue Palace and attended a security conference in Washington hosted by US President Barack Obama. She's a chain-smoker, likes to wear denim shirts and travels around Germany to train prison guards in how to handle inmates like Emrah. She also responded to his letter.
She has been fighting for young men like Emrah for years, determined not to lose them to war abroad or to extremists at home. But pulling him in the opposite direction are people like Bernhard Falk. He doesn't want to see Emrah and his brothers return to civil society. He wants them to serve as soldiers in his war.
Falk is a large man with a long beard. He typically wears a black shirt and dark trousers that never reach beyond his ankles, so that they do not come into contact with the dirt of the streets, in accordance with Muslim religious laws. Falk is a former left-wing extremist who spent twelve and a half years in prison for attacks he had committed against German politicians in the 1990s. Today he is an Islamist extremist considered by German security officials to be a significant "threat" within the German Islamist community.
Falk attends terrorism trials in German courts, analyzes judges, writes letters to convicted terrorists in prison, finds the right attorneys for them and comforts their mothers. Falk doesn't see Emrah as a terrorist, but as a "political prisoner of the Federal Republic of Germany." His rhetoric doesn't seem to have changed much since his left-wing extremist days.
Falk wants to support and "strengthen" Emrah. He doesn't want him to believe that everything he did may have been a mistake, and to give up fighting against the West and Western life. For Falk, men like Emrah are "jetsam." The Germans, he says, cannot sell their weapons around the world without expecting terror to return to their soil, to their cities, streets and prisons.
In recent months, Emrah often sat across from Mustafa Cimsit -- during Friday prayers, in the prison's group room and in his cell. Cimsit, an imam, is also fighting for him. He has told Emrah that it was cowardly to travel to a faraway place and fight a war that has nothing to do with him.
Cimsit is a Muslim prison chaplain, and the only one in Germany who preaches behind bars five days a week, with his own office and a transponder on his key ring. The imam is a short man, but he says that he doesn't need to be any taller. He has a soft handshake and a calm voice, sports a beard and wears a bomber jacket and tight jeans. When he walks through the prison's security doors, Cimsit looks like one of the guards, except that he is wearing a turban.
Radicalizing and Going to War
Emrah is one of the first returnees to have found their way back from the Islamist war to Germany. He and his story represent a new generation of young men who become radicalized in cities like Bonn, Ansbach and Wuppertal and then go to war. Since the conflict in Syria began, the Islamists' fight has moved closer to Europe. It's no longer restricted to Afghanistan or the mountainous regions of Pakistan. The war is now only a few hours' flight away. Ever since this war became so close, up to 700 young Germans have left the country to join it. A third of them have now returned.
They are greeted by prosecutors and indicted on terrorism charges, and their wives, friends and relatives are investigated. There are more than 300 suspects nationwide who stand accused of funding terror, being members of foreign terrorist organizations or fighting abroad and possibly killing people. But what they have done abroad isn't the only issue on the minds of German judges these days. One of their objectives is to determine whether they are looking at disillusioned fighters who have returned to Germany disenchanted and reformed, or whether these young men are potential killers, members of terrorist sleeper cells who pose a mortal threat to Germany.
Much depends on the answers to these questions -- for Germany, for its security and future, and for the way people view life in their own country, one where 82 percent of citizens believe that these returnees pose a serious threat.
The real battle for Emrah and his brothers doesn't take place in the courtroom, but outside it, even if society hardly takes notice. Individual players are competing with one another, insiders like Falk, Cimsit and Dantschke. They know that it doesn't make sense to place a social problem solely in the hands of the courts; they know that parking returnees in prisons doesn't help; they can see how an anxious society is worried about the fact that it cannot keep men like Emrah behind bars indefinitely, and that the returnees will eventually be released back into society.
Prison is a platform of missed opportunities, even in Germany. Prison is also an important battlefield -- and not just in Germany.
Two of the Paris attackers met in prison.
Omar El-Hussein had only been out of prison for a few days when he swore allegiance on Facebook to the leader of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and killed two people in Copenhagen.
Mehdi Nemmouche, who shot four people to death at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, had returned from Syria a few days before committing the murders.
Almost all these perpetrators have one thing in common: They started out as petty criminals and only became extremists while behind bars. In prison, they became fanatics willing to commit acts of violence.
'I Have Zero Prospects'
In a letter dated Jan. 1, 2013, Emrah writes: "I don't know what will happen to me when I get out of here. I don't have a job or a qualification, and I have zero prospects in the job market." The letter is addressed to the Interior Ministry of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Emrah writes that he had heard something on the radio about a program for reformed Islamist extremists. Emrah ordered brochures and catalogues, keen to read up and speak out. "I practiced a very strict interpretation of Islam and gave up my career as a criminal. I asked myself a thousand questions after my brother's death. I am very interested to know and read about what you have to offer."
In the letter, Emrah describes bits and pieces of his life, and his words seem to contain a first inkling of regret. He says that his radicalization didn't happen overnight; it was a journey that happened in stages and was littered with traps. "I was naïve and young," Emrah writes, "and untrained in matters of human understanding and the future." But then, he says, he saw this woman who tries to "help people like me. If you can find the address of the woman I have described, please send it to me."
The woman is Claudia Dantschke. Emrah's letter sat on a desk at the Interior Ministry for a while and only reached Dantschke four weeks later. To this day, she is furious about the missed opportunity. She replied to Emrah's first cry for help immediately, but he never responded. German bureaucracy held up his letter for so long that her reply came too late. Dantschke knows that windows can open for short periods of time, but then they close forever.
Dantschke isn't trying to whitewash men like Emrah, and she's no bleeding heart. But she does want to free them from the clutches of extremists and turn them into "ex-extremists." She doesn't like the fact that Germany treats its extremists like foreign bodies, and that the country wants nothing to do with the causes of radicalization, and with the question of why young men are willing to join a faraway war against the kafir, or infidels, against the West and against Western ways.
Sitting in a German high-speed train, Dantschke sticks a nicotine patch on her shoulder, opens her laptop and reviews a PowerPoint presentation. She's on her way to a lecture. Of the two phones lying on the table in front of her, at least one is always ringing.
The calls are usually from mothers who are in despair, because their sons are now refusing to enter rooms when women are present. From teachers who complain that their students are refusing to say "Je suis Charlie" and are saying "Je suis Muslim" instead. And from fathers who are worried that their children will soon leave Germany to go to war. Dantschke asks them which mosque their children attend, which books they are reading and what they have on their walls. She wants to know if they have changed the way they dress and what websites they are visiting. These are all elements of a rough checklist she uses to determine how radical the children of these despairing parents already are. Her conversations with them sometimes go on for hours.
Learning A Script By Heart
She tells parents to remain calm and not to criminalize their children. She doesn't want them to lose touch with their children and simply let go. She knows that there are far too few people like her -- advisers, prison chaplains, experts. She knows that they can patch things up but cannot be there constantly. "If people have close bonds with their families, it becomes more difficult for them to leave," she says. To ensure that they decide to stay, the parents need to ask the right questions.
Dantschke trains them. She knows exactly when the German community of militant Islamists began to take shape. She knows the leaders of the movement and which jihadist organizations in Syria have just disassociated themselves from which others. She provides the parents with the information they need on the terrorists' war, and she quotes verses from the Koran that forbid it. She wants parents to help their children begin to question their decisions to leave and join terrorist groups.
Dantschke runs Hayat, an advice center against radicalization. The word hayat means life in Arabic, and the group's telephone hotline is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Dantschke organizes weekends for the parents of returnees and brings them together with parents of young people who have left Germany and are still abroad. She wants them to learn from each other. After the meetings, they tell their children, when they call from war zones, that it's time to say goodbye forever. They explain that they, the parents, are infidels who will go to hell, while their children, the fighters in faraway countries, as jihadists, will end up in paradise.
Dantschke writes scripts for the parents, who learn them by heart. It sounds simple, but it works. "Everyone gets homesick," she says. Many parents have Dantschke's personal mobile phone number, and they call her when she's giving a seminar in Vienna or visiting parents in Berlin. Sometimes she uses her phone to quickly search for a gas station at the Syrian border, where a lost son has told his father to meet him and bring him home from the war. She uses Google Maps to give the father directions to the gas station. She types quickly.
Dantschke is often under great stress, but she's determined to be there for her callers. They are German parents, and they are desperate. Most of them are only familiar with Turkey as a vacation destination, and their only experiences with terrorism date back to the days of the left-wing Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist group in Germany. With Dantschke's help, these parents are now traveling to a war zone to bring back their children, to a Germany that doesn't know what to do with them.
Dantschke also wants to help Germany to better cope with the situation. She wants people to finally understand that they are not losing men like Emrah to Islam but to militant Islamism, to a new extremism that is dubbed jihadism, and that the debate revolves around a religion with which it has little in common.
'We've Seen All This Before'
She is standing at a lectern in the Pfalzgalerie Museum in the southwestern city of Kaiserslautern. She opens her laptop, checks the sound, puts her right hand into her pocket and holds a microphone in her left hand. "We are no longer talking about Superman, but about Supermuslim," she says. She wants her audience to understand that this is a new youth culture, one with its own codes, an environment in which extremists fish for recruits, and do so successfully. Young men like Emrah leave Germany, she says, because they are unsuccessful there. They leave a world in which rappers like Bushido receive awards for promoting integration and convicted criminals are awarded internships in the German parliament.
The Islamists also want to make history, if not in Germany then in the Middle East, as the first generation in a new caliphate, even though, as Dantschke is convinced, most of them are "theological and ideological illiterates." She clicks through her slides, rattling off terms like: obedience, structure, community, identity, rebellion and protest. At some point, an older man says: "It's beginning to dawn on me. We've seen all of this before. This is the RAF."
For Dantschke, these are the moments when she feels that it's worthwhile to drive around Germany and explain to people that men like Emrah are not some import from abroad, but products of German society. She is pleased to see her listeners nodding their heads and taking notes. It gives her the strength she needs for days when she has to sit down with mothers, hold their hands and say to them: "Your son is most likely dead. He isn't coming back from Syria." At times like these she needs to be both a psychologist and a family counselor. Sometimes it gets to be too much for her. But she won't give up. Such conversations are often on her mind, on the train, on the phone or at night, standing outside a hotel, smoking, after giving yet another presentation. "Sometimes I think to myself: It's good that I don't have any children."
She speaks fondly of those days. "The Turks integrated me into West Germany," she says, with a laugh. She soon began doing research on right-wing Turks and Islamist movements. Dantschke doesn't like it when people try to tell others how to live their lives. Her exposés led to the banning of radical groups and the removal of certain newspapers from the market. She became an expert, so well-known that even Emrah, in his prison cell, heard of her.
- Part 1: Germany's Struggle for the Soul of Returning Islamists
- Part 2: Pressing the Reset Button
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015
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