Therapy and Prevention The Race to Stop Youth from Radicalizing

The recent spate of deadly attacks in Germany have highlighted the need to intervene with angry young men before they turn to extremism or violence. But the country has a lot of catching up to do -- and the work can be controversial.

An image grab taken from a video published by the Islamic State.
AFP/ Islamistische Propagandawebsite

An image grab taken from a video published by the Islamic State.


André Taubert used to feel pretty forsaken when he drove his old Mercedes through northern Germany every day.

He and one other colleague were the only ones dealing with Islamists in four German states: Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein. They were constantly getting phone calls from worried mothers, women whose sons or daughter were in the process of discovering jihadism. The women were desperate and concerned that they were losing touch with their own children, who suddenly seemed like strangers.

From 2012 to 2015, Taubert's schedule often meant visiting as many as three different cities in a single day: Kiel in the morning, for example, Göttingen in the afternoon and Bremen in the evening. "We had to set priorities, make lists and think about where we could still have an impact," he says. "They were kamikaze missions."

Prevention was not an important topic at the time, at least not for lawmakers. There was only one counselling center for the family members of Islamists in all of northern Germany -- with only one position paid for with public funds, which Taubert and his co-worker shared.

The working conditions have improved since then. In July 2015, 39-year-old Taubert became the head of Hamburg-based Legato, an "office for religiously motivated radicalization." A team of nine employees now operates in Hamburg alone, where they have already handled 130 cases in only one year. None of these young people has traveled to Syria yet, says Taubert, and he is not aware of any of them having become terrorism suspects.

"I'm annoyed by statements that we can't do anything about terrorist attacks, just because the security authorities don't recognize everything. This is a disregard for the power of civil society."

People like Taubert -- social workers, therapists, psychiatrists and educators -- are what Germany depends on now. They are expected to do what the police and intelligence services cannot achieve on their own: step in when parents run out of options, friends look the other way and neighbors fall silent.

In the bloody summer of 2016, this is perhaps the most important insight: A life without new attacks, and without fear of terror, can only exist if we begin to understand the rage of unstable young men -- and find answers to it.

A Dire Need for Initiatives

There is a lot of catching up to do, as the findings of a SPIEGEL survey taken in all of Germany's states demonstrate. The number of men prepared to use violence who are traveling to Syria and Iraq has risen over the years, but in Bavaria, for example, four relevant state ministries didn't begin cooperating closely to foster a network against Salafism until 2015. An initiative in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg began operations shortly before Christmas. An office titled "Salafism in the Saarland" was opened in the southwestern state on January 1 of this year. There has been little funding for these efforts to date. The eastern state of Thuringia, for example, spent exactly €16,005.76 euros ($17,889.64) on Islamism prevention in 2015.

At a time when terrorism is becoming more and more of a threat, the government and German society have been oddly disinterested in helping at-risk youth or bringing young radicals back from the fringes of society. But appealing to their hearts and minds could be a successful strategy. The biographies -- and possible pathologies -- of perpetrators of violence are often similar in terms of their infractions, whether they are on the left, the right or extremists.

"The disorders coincide with problematic social conditions and crises the perpetrators experience while growing up," says Andreas Zick, a social psychologist in the northwestern city of Bielefeld. In other words, family problems, trouble in school, the cutting of ties with old friends and emotional abnormalities are all factors that may accelerate radicalization -- and possibly lead to a fatal interest in carrying out a deadly rampage. These factors create a vacuum within them, and it's almost coincidental which group or ideology attempts to fill it.

Salafists and organizations like Islamic State (IS) do this very professionally. They lure people who are frustrated or who feel like outsiders by promising them the chance to belong and be important. The message they convey is simple: If others don't respect you, come to us. Right-wing extremists and nationalists used the same arguments to appeal to disillusioned young people.

Refugees at Risk

There is also another risk group: refugees from the crisis zones of the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Security officials have recently warned that IS fighters could be smuggling themselves into Europe within the flow of refugees. But it was only with the attacks in Ansbach and Würzburg that the general public became aware that refugees' unstable situation can make them susceptible to extremist thought.

Staffers at the nationwide telephone hotline for young people at risk for radicalization have been alarmed for some time. Since its establishment in 2012, the hotline, which is part of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, has dealt almost exclusively with young women and men who have grown up in Germany. But since last summer, a growing number of callers have been guardians of unaccompanied, underage refugees who have noticed radicalization among their charges, who have been showing other young people propaganda videos or openly sympathizing with IS. To date, Islamism experts have mentored 70 underage refugees reported through the hotline.

The staff at the Berlin Treatment Center for Torture Victims is also familiar with the problem. For more than a year, doctors there have had to reject most of the roughly 20 new inquiries they received every week, due to a lack of capacity and funding. But the Berlin doctors estimate that at least a quarter of all newly arriving refugees need psychological treatment. Many were tortured or witnessed people dying in gruesome ways in their native countries.

Unaccompanied, underage asylum-seekers are especially at risk. In addition to the suffering the refugees experienced, they have lost or had to leave behind parents or siblings. Now they are alone in a foreign country with an unknown language.

Arab boys find it especially difficult to talk about their feelings, says Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn, a doctor and psychotherapist who has been working in the center's outpatient unit for 22 years. There is a bright spot, however: Thanks to a private donation, the Berlin facility will soon be able to augment the 20 therapy positions it currently has and hire a child and youth psychiatrist.

Other hospitals also do their best to help out when there is a need for therapists and interpreters. A clinic in the southwestern state of Saarland works with illustrated handbooks designed to help minors learn to control stress. The handbook recommends placing ice cubes on the skin, biting into chili peppers and doing pushups as distractions from stress. Young people are given personal mood barometers where they indicate three times a day whether they are in a good or an angry mood. This enables the counselors to gauge how well they are doing.

Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn is a doctor and therapist at the Center for Torture Victims in Berlin.
Agata Szymanska-Medina / DER SPIEGEL

Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn is a doctor and therapist at the Center for Torture Victims in Berlin.

"Perhaps the best political prevention would be to create a stable situation for the refugees and provide immediate access to integrative measures, partly to avert the kinds of horrific acts we have recently experienced," says Wenk-Ansohn in Berlin.

What Makes People Kill?

It isn't easy to recognize commonalities in the biographies of the violent attackers of Würzburg, Munich and Ansbach. There still isn't enough available information, and the roles played by confidants and supporters remain unclear.

But the one thing that many individual perpetrators have in common is their sense of despair. From mad gunmen to Islamists, they tend to have narcissistic personalities, seek individual fame and hate everything else. The differences lie in what they do about it.

Britta Bannenberg, a criminologist in the central German city of Giessen, has studied the crimes and profiles of all young men who have gone on a rampage or have attempted to do so in Germany since the 1990s. They include the killing sprees in Erfurt, Emsdetten and Winnenden. All of the perpetrators have developed a "bundle of motives consisting of rage, hate and thoughts of revenge," which "is not based on rational reasons," Bannenberg writes in her study. "They often feel humiliated and badly treated, feelings those in their surroundings are unable to comprehend."

This is why it is difficult for relatives and friends to recognize potential signs in advance. It is true that lone perpetrators usually become socially withdrawn before committing their crimes and show little interest in the feelings of other people. Many of them listen to music with hate-filled lyrics or spend a lot of time playing violent computer games. But other young people with no emotional problems may behave in the same way without using weapons to attack others.

Bannenberg has established an interdisciplinary prevention program. A telephone hotline has been available to parents, teachers and friends since April 2015. The hotline has received 40 calls to date. Two-thirds of them were very serious and frequently led to investigations. In some cases, the police were able to seize weapons from the would-be perpetrators.

These days, psychiatrists are often better prepared to recognize potentially problematic cases. For instance, says Kai von Klitzing, a child and youth psychiatrist at Leipzig University Hospital, he and his colleagues become alarmed when young people who are at risk sever ties with doctors or refuse to engage in open conversations. "We inform the parents and speak to them openly about the threat it poses when a young person withdraws from treatment. We learned that from Winnenden, where the father of the perpetrator accused the doctors treating his son of having failed to tell him how dangerous he was." The Winnenden killing spree -- during which a 17-year-old student killed 15 people and himself near Stuttgart in 2009 -- also taught mental health professionals to ask whether the patient has access to weapons in his or his parents' environment, Klitzing adds.

But when do psychiatrists violate medical confidentiality and notify the police? When does the need to protect the public trump the need to protect the patient's right to confidentiality? By law, medical confidentiality can be lifted if there is a "current and otherwise unavoidable" threat to life and limb. The psychiatrist has the discretion to decide when this is the case.

Klitzing says that medical confidentiality should only be lifted in exceptional cases. "Many of our adolescent patients talk about fantasies of killing themselves or others. Talking openly about such fantasies with a therapist creates favorable conditions for limiting them -- and protects against the fantasies being turned into actions." Those who call for tougher rules in the name of prevention are in fact obstructing prevention, says the professor.

Need for Customized Strategies

The police in Germany have now developed their own guidelines for improving their ability to assess murderous threats. In their experience, they receive an increased number of these threats after an attack has just occurred. Is the person behind them a copycat or someone on the verge of committing a crime? In many cases, the initial clues come from a person's immediate environment. For instance, the schoolmates of David Sonboly, the Munich killer, reportedly said after the attack that they immediately knew that he was the killer.

When concerned fellow students, teachers or parents report that someone is showing a noticeable affinity for weapons or an interest in mass murders, trained police teams are available to prepare a threat assessment.

In special cases, the police department convenes a case conference involving representatives from the school, the offices of public order and public health, and the psychiatric service. The police then compile a report containing information from all of these sources. Is the person suicidal? How concrete are the plans? Has the person already taken initial organizational steps? Does he or she have access to explosives or weapons? This can be followed by a targeted discussion with the individual in question, intensified counseling, confiscation of computers, house searches and commitment to psychiatric care.

Delusions of grandeur, a deep sense of worthlessness, emptiness: The same elements keep reappearing in the stories of people who perpetrate or develop an interest in these kinds of attacks. But each problem group requires nuanced responses and customized strategies, and those with the potential to go on hate-filled killing sprees need therapeutic help.

What about those who appear to suddenly turn to Islamism? How can they be reached and convinced to change their minds before they go to Syria and return as IS warriors?

The first preventive step is often to understand the narrative style that lures young people into the clutches of jihadists. Most of the videos disseminated by IS do not depict scenes of prisoners being beheaded or shot, as one might believe. Instead, the highly professional films convey a softly sketched, romanticized image of life in the caliphate. They show groups of laughing men in dapper uniforms, cleaning their weapons and then driving to the bazaar to buy gifts for the children and perfume for the women. They depict a cozy life in which people live both autonomously and as part of a large community.

Western governments attempt to offer something in reply to these tall tales. A team of advisers has formed at the EU level, with the goal of using research, social media training and its own communication strategies to debunk the myth of the idyllic "caliphate."

In Germany, the Federal Center for Civic Education has collaborated with well-known YouTube stars to develop videos intended to explain terms like "jihad" and "Salafism." A video by popular German YouTuber LeFloid on the question of "What does 'caliphate' mean?" was viewed more than 130,000 times. But the question is whether these videos are enough to deter young people from traveling to Syria or setting off a bomb in Germany.

'We Need More Prevention'

At the Legato prevention project in Hamburg, André Taubert has deliberately chosen a different approach, which he somewhat awkwardly describes as "systemic withdrawal counseling."

Taubert, a social worker and religious educator, describes a classic case: A 16-year-old girl converted to Islam after meeting a young Muslim on the Internet. She promised to marry him, even though she had never met him in person. She began wearing a headscarf, which she recently traded for a full veil.

The mother, whose parents were devout Christians, has no interest in religion and often quarreled with her daughter. "Conflicts within the family, as banal as they may be, are often the gateway to radicalization," says Taubert. On the other hand, he adds, he feels optimistic about the fact that the mother and daughter are still arguing, even after drifting apart. "This shows that the daughter still wants something from the mother." The mother, he says, expressly asked him to report on her case -- to embolden others.

Taubert generally does not advise young people, but rather their parents. They are the key to the problem, he explains. He tries to make them understand why the teenagers are at odds with them. He suggests that they approach their children in a more relaxed manner and surprise them with their reactions.

"In reality, it isn't about the religion. In my cases, it is irrelevant at first whether or not IS exists," he says. "What I'm doing here is classic family counseling." About 80 percent of the Islamists he has dealt with are from households with a single mother, where Islam hardly played a role at all.

Parents often believe that their child was brainwashed by Islamists, says Taubert. In his clinical experience, they expect that the radicalism can be washed out as quickly as possible.

But it isn't that simple, he says. "Deradicalization is a long process." The adolescents need time to discover the value of love, respect, self-esteem and healthy social relationships at their own pace. According to Taubert, it's unrealistic to expect an Islamist to say, from one day to the next: "Now I'm the same loser I used to be."

The question is whether Germany has the patience for such long processes, and whether society will keep its nerve, even if there are more attacks.

A number of German states have now recognized the need to take action. Next year, the city-state of Berlin will earmark €860,000 euros for deradicalization projects as part of a municipal government program. This year, the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia tripled its budget for Salafism prevention. Things are also happening at the national level. "It's high time that we efficiently network the preventive activities of the federal and state governments," says Uli Grötsch, a domestic policy expert and member of the German parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). A federal office to coordinate the wide range of programs is also in the works.

In Hamburg, Taubert now feels more optimistic, at least more so than in the years when he was driving around northern Germany on his own to help the families of Islamists.

Why has Germany gotten off more lightly so far than France or Belgium? "Civil society has already come a long way," says Taubert, adding that Germany finally offers comprehensive counseling services. But the country cannot abandon this approach, he adds. "We don't need more police. We need more prevention."

Reported by Maik Baumgärtner, Jörg Diehl, Frank Hornig, Philip Kaleta, Martin Knobbe, Beate Lakotta, Ann-Katrin Müller, Jörg Schindler, Katja Thimm and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmid

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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edmundcharles.55 08/11/2016
1. Therapy and Prevention: The Race to Stop Youth from Radicalizing
Provide the youth with a superior alternative in terms of the future, to include a more constructive and equality based philosophy of human dynamics.
andersm0 08/11/2016
2. This won't work
The only thing that will prevent the radicalization of youth is closing, or at least closely monitoring, the radical mosques where jihad is preached. Islam is perceived to be stronger than the west and as Osama bin Ladin observed, people naturally gravitate to the 'strong horse'. Europe's pandering to Islamic extremists gives a perception that the west is capitulating and who wants to be part of the losing side? BTW, undercover agents inside the mosques prove that they take the money and when the cameras are present and western representatives are present, they're all about deradicalization. When the reps leave, the imams go back to preaching jihad and laugh at all the free money showered on them for play acting. We're being had.
fish2064 08/12/2016
3. The problem is religion
The solution is secularisation. Face up to it and start to dismantle religion in Europe.
Fred 08/12/2016
communism is a way to stop religious radicalisation. Getting people embracing diversity is hard.
basho575 08/12/2016
5. lucky there's israel
dont worry. you might have to imitate israel's methods of identification, prevention, and survival. but then, when things get too conflicting with postmod egotisms, you'll have israel to blame. and that always works.
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