Could it be that Islamists just need a helping hand to turn their back on extremism? That, at least, is what Germany is hoping -- and has set up a new program to facilitate the process.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, will launch the so-called exit program at the end of June, agency chief Heinz Fromm announced Monday, speaking at the presentation of the service's annual report for 2009 in Berlin. The agency is to set up a telephone hotline that militant Islamists can call if they want to leave radical Islamist groups. Multilingual specialists will be available to give potential quitters advice in Turkish or Arabic, as well as German, Fromm said, without giving further details of the program.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière described the scheme as a "valuable preventative effort." Fromm however warned against overly high expectations for the scheme. "We'll have to wait and see if it gets a big response," he said. The agency's programs for neo-Nazis wanting to quit their milieu, which have been running for several years, have only met with moderate success.
'Feelings of Insecurity'
According to the intelligence agency's findings, the number of members and supporters of radical Islamist groups in Germany increased in 2009 by around 5 percent compared to the previous year. Germany now has 29 Islamist organizations with an estimated 36,000 members, the largest of which is the Turkish association Milli Görüs, described by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution as "anti-democratic."
Fromm and de Maizière warned of an ongoing threat to Germany from Islamist terrorism. In 2009, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution registered an "unprecedented" series of Islamist propaganda messages directed at Germany, warning of attacks against German targets if the country did not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. The messages were intended to influence the outcome of the September 2009 general election. The promised attacks did not, however, materialize. There have been seven serious attempts to carry out Islamist terror attacks in Germany since 2000, according to the agency.
So-called "homegrown" terrorism poses a particular threat in Germany. The members of radical Islamist groups include young Germans who have converted to Islam, a phenomenon de Maizière attributed to "situations of loss and insecurity" during puberty. "Feelings of inferiority" make young people vulnerable to being inducted into the radical Islamist scene, he said.
Violence from Both Sides
The agency also recorded a sharp rise in acts of violence motivated by left-wing extremism in 2009, which rose by more than 50 percent to over 1,100. The number of arson attacks increased from 62 in 2008 to 113 in 2009. Arson attacks on cars in cities such as Berlin and Hamburg have been the focus of much media attention in the last couple of years. Fromm played down the threat of terrorist acts by left-wing extremists, however. Although some people in the far-left scene play with "the idea of attempting something like that, (those ideas) are not currently finding support," Fromm said.
There was a small drop in acts of right-wing violence in 2009, down to 891 acts from 1,042 in 2008. De Maizière stressed that, despite the fall, the threat of far-right violence should not be "neglected."