Whenever Ismail Cetinkaya runs into one of those young men who want to leave Hamburg to fight in Syria, he asks: "Have you ever slept without heat in the winter? Do you know what it's like to live without electricity and running water? Do you think a Kalashnikov works like the controller for your PlayStation 4?"
He also asks whether the young man is leaving his mother behind. And then he quotes the words of the Prophet Mohammed, and says: "Paradise lies at the feet of your mother." The implication being that those who leave their weeping mothers behind won't enter paradise.
Cetinkaya, 33, has a full beard and has been praying to Allah five times a day ever since he found himself, as he says. He's the son of Turks from Mardin, a city on the Syrian border. He speaks fluent Arabic and doesn't need a German imam or YouTube videos to understand what God wants from him.
God wants Cetinkaya to devote himself to "jihad." But jihad is really just the Arab word for struggle, the struggle one endures while on the path to Allah. In the Koran, the "great jihad" is not the fight against non-believers, but each individual's struggle against himself, against his own weaknesses, and against the evil that resides in every human being.
Cetinkaya is a successful fighter -- in his struggle against himself, and against others he encounters in tournaments. In his sport of choice, Mixed Martial Arts, the combatants fight each other in a cage. It has its origins among the ancient Greeks, who called it Pankration. Even Socrates was a practitioner of Pankration, a full contact sport in which the combatants wrestled, boxed and kicked each other.
Cetinkaya is a popular trainer who runs his own martial arts school. When he walks through the streets of Hamburg, young men point at him or shake his hand. They tell him that they hope to be fighters like him one day. They have respect for Cetinkaya, who is a good fighter and a devout Muslim, a role model who dispenses advice.
He doesn't like it when people do things half-heartedly. He wants young Muslims to read the Koran themselves and understand Islam. He doesn't like it when they merely imitate what they hear in YouTube videos. Most of all, he doesn't like it when they travel 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to fight "infidels," behead people, quote verses from the Koran and capture it all on film.
Germany's Most Notorious IS Fighter
One of those Muslims used to call himself Deso Dogg and was a rapper from Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood. Today he is one of the most notorious German fighters with the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Cetinkaya knows Deso Dogg. In fact, he knows him fairly well, because the two men were as close as two men could be, when they fought each other in the ring, a place where the most important traits are strength, speed, courage, tactical skill and, most of all, the ability to lose all fear.
That was in March 2010, in an arena in Berlin where the best fighters in the country came together. Cetinkaya was a three-time Northern German champion and runner-up in both the German and world championships. He had nine or 10 fights on that day, and he won them all. Deso Dogg, who had ended his career as a rapper, was now hoping to become a martial arts star. His friends from Kreuzberg, who were there to support him, were shouting: Give him hell! Come on!
But Deso Dogg was too slow and couldn't land a single punch with Ismail. Instead, he endured blow after blow, until he was lying on the floor, floundering like an upside down beetle. When he stood up again, Ismail kneed him in the ribs, first with his left and then with his right leg, lifted him into the air, threw him to the ground and hit him in the face. It was a short fight, a few minutes of total humiliation. Many people commented on the video of the fight, which was available online. One person wrote: "A guy from Hamburg came and swept them all away, and like a lion in an encounter with gnus, he ripped them all apart."
'He Was No Warrior'
Cetinkaya was long unaware of the fact that his former opponent had become radicalized. But then friends showed him posts on Facebook, in which people wrote that Deso Dogg had died in Syria, which quickly proved to be a false rumor. Cetinkaya was surprised that Deso Dogg was fighting for the Islamic State and the caliphate, because he remembered the look in the young man's eyes before the fight. "I looked him in the eye, and I sensed that he was no warrior."
Today Deso Dogg is a propaganda hero for IS. The name given to him at birth was Denis Cuspert, but he now calls himself Abu Talha al-Almani, travels in off-road vehicles along country roads in Syria, goes to massacres and appears in video messages to jihadists and would-be jihadists.
In one of those videos, he is kneeling in front of a waterfall. He fills his hands with water, throws it into the air and splashes it into his face, as if he were baptizing or purifying himself. "Brothers," he says, "I call you to jihad! This is where you will find freedom!" The sound of machine-gun fire can be heard in the background. He laughs, and says: "You can really live here. It's fun here. Jihad is a lot of fun!"
A new video surfaced three weeks ago. It depicts a scene in an empty, yellow desert somewhere in Syria. The sun is shining. Men with bound hands are lying on their stomachs on the ground. They are conscious. Suddenly a hand appears and slits their throats with a knife, and blood gushes out. It is the first video of Deso Dogg that depicts a beheading. Previous videos had only showed the before and after shots of the killings.
When Denis Cuspert appears, he says: "They fought the 'Islamic State.' We imposed the death penalty on them. They got what they deserved." He kneels down, picks up a bloody head and places it on the body. The jihadists shout: "Allahu akbar!"
Cuspert calls this jihad, but Ismail Cetinkaya calls it insane.
The propaganda is working, because it targets young men who are susceptible to its message, young men like Kreshnik B., whose parents fled from Kosovo and who used to play for a Jewish soccer team in Frankfurt. B. went to Syria, and now he is back in Germany, facing charges for supporting a terrorist organization abroad. The propaganda targets young men like David G. from the Allgäu region of southern Germany, a quiet, polite boy who completed an apprenticeship and was 18 when he left Germany, joined IS and was killed in battle. Or men like Mustafa K. from Dinslaken in western Germany, who poses for snapshots with severed heads in Syria. He was overweight, did poorly in school and was ignored by women, a person who was often beaten up, drank too much and could be found sitting, drunk, in a kebab shop on the market square in the early morning hours.
According to German law enforcement officials, 500 of these men have left German cities to go to war in Syria and Iraq. Their fight is dubbed a "holy war" in the West, even though there is not a single verse of the Koran in which the words "holy" and "war" appear together. Most of the travelers don't speak Arabic, have read very little of the Koran and have rarely understood it. They followed friends, imams and recruiters. They wanted to be heroes, protectors of the weak, of brothers and sisters threatened by Syrian President Bashar Assad's poison gas, which they call the "gas of the West." They were young men from Berlin, Hamburg or Dinslaken, who left Germany in groups. Some of them are underdogs from nondescript suburbs, but some are also mechanical engineers.
The underdogs are particularly important for terrorist organizations like Islamic State, because their stories are meant to show that even a loser can be someone -- not in Dinslaken or Berlin, but with the jihadists in Iraq and Syria -- even if most of those mentioned in the media eventually die a so-called martyr's death.
They leave behind video messages and horrified Germans who believe that what is happening there has something to do with Islam, and that a warlike religion is threatening the West with barbarism and Medieval-style executions. The poster boys of this evil are men like Deso Dogg.
Today Denis Cuspert is something of a pop star, appearing in more videos than his former rival, German rapper Bushido. He was never interested in making a lot of money or driving expensive cars. He wanted people to know him, perhaps fear him and certainly admire him. He wanted to be a role model. Cuspert wanted respect. Now that he has found a home and respect among barbarians, he seems to feel at ease.
His first home was Berlin, where he was born in 1975, as the son of an African immigrant. His father was deported when Cuspert was a little boy. His stepfather served in the American military, and his mother was German. Denis was often too much for her to handle. He spent a lot of time in the streets controlled by West Berlin's gangs. He committed robberies, was in fights and got arrested again and again. During a search of his home, police found 16 live cartridges. He was also arrested on drug charges and for assault. During a dispute over the spoils from a robbery, he shot a friend in the face with a gas pistol.
He began rapping in prison, where he called himself Deso Dogg. Deso was an abbreviation for Devil's Son, which appealed to him. He made a mixtape called "Murda Cocctail" and an album called "Schwarzer Engel" (Black Angel). It consisted of hard-boiled gangsta rap, street poetry, criticism of everyday racism in Germany, violent fantasies and rage expressed in verse form: "In the schoolyard I was the little nigga boy / with ripped jeans, an angry look and a sharp tongue / had to be ten times better, ten times faster / had to be ten times tougher, ten little negroes!"
His label and his producers had great hopes for this gangsta rapper, who satisfied all of the clichés: He was good-looking, a black man with talent and tattoos, someone who had done time and was from a broken family. Cuspert didn't make a lot of money, but that also wasn't his aim. He wanted to become famous, not rich. He took the bus, folded his own T-shirts and wore the hip-hop name brands he was given by his promoters. What he didn't need he gave to his friends -- sneakers, hoodies and camo pants. Suddenly he had a lot of friends. American rap icon Tupac Shakur was his role model, a real gangster with a talent for poetry. Cuspert dreamed of making it big, and he called his last album "Alle Augen auf mich," the German translation of "All Eyez on Me," the title of Tupac's last album, released shortly before he was shot to death in Las Vegas in 1996. But Cuspert's albums never made it to the top of the charts.
The other German rappers surpassed him. Bushido, Sido and Kool Savas figured out how to become stars in Germany as gangsta rappers, even by merely pretending to be gangster. But Deso Dogg remained nothing but a local hero in his Kreuzberg neighborhood. Hip-hop is a culture of success. There are no happy losers. In hip-hop, a loser is a victim, a whiner and a zero.
Friends and the people he worked with say that Cuspert began disappearing more and more, often for weeks at a time. When he returned, he talked about having psychotic episodes, about hearing voices that beckoned him to do good and bad things.
He gave up rap and got into martial arts. He worked hard, but the defeat in Berlin against Cetinkaya was his last fight. Instead, Cuspert was now spending more and more time at the mosque. In the end, Allah forgives those who convert to Islam and are devout. It was an opportunity to press the reset button. Cuspert had sinned a lot. He liked the idea of starting over again.
Dead and Injured Germans in Syria
A YouTube video recorded at the time shows him in conversation with Pierre Vogel, an Islamic preacher from Bergheim near Cologne. The two men are sitting on a carpet on the floor, in a back room of a Berlin mosque. They talk about knifings and rap songs, and they say the way Deso's fellow rappers, Bushido and Massiv, talk about women is "too crass."
Vogel wants to use the rappers for his own ends. "If we would bring them all together, because, well, each of them has his fans, and there's more than just Berlin," he says. They talk about the rivalries among rappers. "There are lots of parallels, right?" says Vogel, and laughs, as members of the mosque congregation chant "Allahu akbar" in the background. Cuspert says that he once wanted to move to Düsseldorf, to a section called Little Berlin, which appealed to him. He says that he could never imagine living in eastern Germany, in cities like Rostock or Dresden, where they berate black people. He wants to go to a quiet place, says Cuspert, and laughs. He looks peaceful in the video, like a schoolboy during his first few days in school.
"Let me suggest that you look for a different occupation," says Vogel, "but you're already on the way."
In a new video Cuspert posted in May 2010, he says that his name "was" Deso Dogg, and that he now calls himself Abu Malik. In the video, Abu Malik invites his brothers and sisters in Islam to attend a weekend seminar at the mosque. "I'll be there, too," he says. "A weekend without disco, without fun, for a change." But then he stops and corrects himself: "You can also have fun here. It's time for you to learn something, for yourself, for your soul, for your heart."
Abu Malik then began going from city to city, like an itinerant preacher, talking in mosques about how he found his faith. By this point, he was no longer rapping and instead sang nashids, religious songs in which he called upon his listeners to go to war against infidels -- the only music that is permitted among his new friends.
A YouTube video taken at the time depicts Abu Malik at an Islam seminar in Mayen, a town in the western Eifel region. Someone asks him what he likes most about the seminar, which lasts several days.
"The brotherliness. It moves me, and it keeps me alert," he says.
"What do you remember most of all?"
"My nashid. That was the highlight. Seeing the joy in people's faces."
Then the video cuts to a new scene, showing Cuspert sitting behind a table and singing into a blue microphone: "Just wake up, just wake up / There's war all over the world, Muslims are falling for oil and money, Allahu akbar / Mothers weeping, children crying, no fear of the Kuffar / Emigrate, emigrate / Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, we fight in the Khorasan / We fight, we fall, shuhada / With our eyes on the enemy, bismillah, Allahu akbar."
Cuspert places the microphone on the table. The young men in the room call out: "Allahu akbar." They hold up their smartphones to capture him on camera. He is the focus of attention once again, and people are listening to him and cheering the former rapper.
'I Love You for Allah, Abu Malik'
Two months later, on March 2, 2011, Arid Uka, a Frankfurt resident from Kosovo, fatally shoots two American soldiers at the Frankfurt airport. To this day, the incident remains the only Islamist attack with fatalities on German soil. Shortly before the attack, Uka wrote on his Facebook page: "I love you for Allah, Abu Malik."
The nashids Cuspert wrote represent the first time in Germany that the Islamist-terrorist ideology was propagated by song. The fact that many of them were banned helped turn him into a star. He now calls himself "Your faithful public enemy number one," and he announces: "I am a Muslim, I am against democracy, I am against integration, and I am for Sharia."
In November 2011, Cuspert and others found the radical Islamist group Millatu-Ibraham, the Community of Abraham. The leader of the movement is Mohamed Mahmoud, an Islamist who spent time in prison in Vienna and moved to Germany after his release. The group initially uses a mosque in the western German city of Solingen as its base.
Many new supporters attend a demonstration in Bonn in May 2012, where Cuspert acts as the spokesman. He prays in the front row and shouts into a megaphone, and eventually stones are thrown. Holding a fence slat in his hand, he tries to prevent members of the far-right Pro NRW, a group that has been central in organizing anti-Muslim protests in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, from holding up signs depicting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. One of the demonstrators attacks two policemen, stabbing one of them in the thigh with a knife. Cuspert later writes a nashid dedicated to the attacker, in which he sings: "Murat K., the German lion, a lion for Allah, who has only thing in mind: to protect and defend the honor of the prophet."
This is a new approach, with demonstrators chanting slogans, throwing stones and rocking police cars. The mosque in Solingen is shut down, Cuspert's organization is banned and he is soon investigated for incitement of the masses. He is placed under observation, and friends say that officials with the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, try to recruit them. Cuspert leaves Germany, first traveling to Egypt and then to Syria. In his farewell video, he sits beside the Rhine River and declares Germany a war zone, one that will become the target of attacks.
Cuspert goes to Syria, where he receives financial support from IS. He remains in touch with his wife in Germany, who sends him battery chargers, helmet cameras and smartphones. He does guard duty and is sent on missions. He is wounded and celebrated as a martyr, a hero who was prepared to die for Allah. In one video, he says: "I was only slightly paralyzed on one side. My head was open and a little of my brain was hanging out."
Wanted in Germany
Back in Kreuzberg, he was no longer a local hero. A few of his former friends walked around and painted over all the tags Cuspert had sprayed on walls, determined to remove any reminders of him. His music is no longer available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes, and the German government wants to place his name on the United Nations list of terrorists, so that no one can send him money anymore.
There isn't much left of the likable, insecure man who once sat on a carpet in a Berlin mosque. The images from Syria depict a version of Denis Cuspert with yet another new name. He is now called Abu Talha al-Almani, and he is filled with rage. He no longer identifies with his fellow Muslims in Europe. In fact, now he wants to get even with them. He refers to those who stayed behind in Germany as snails, because they are so soft and slow. He says: "I did learn from you, and I thank you. But that's all I need from you, and now I've surpassed you. Just stay there and drink your tea and eat your sunflower seeds, like women." He calls these people "fake Muslims," "Internet heroes" and "cowardly preachers."
In reality, Cuspert has changed very little. He is still trying to be better and faster, just as he did in the past, when he was a rapper and hoped to catch up to a global star like Tupac. Now he hopes to achieve success with his new friends, who are as brutal and angry as him.
"I and the ones who left, we have sacrificed a lot on the path to Allah," he says. They have sacrificed their health, families and freedom. We need more servants, more soldiers on the front, he says. Cuspert is proud of his new gang, his new family in a foreign country. The ones who stayed behind, he says, should hide behind their couches and their women, and under the beds of their children. For Cuspert, those who call themselves Muslims and have remained in Germany are infidels and cowards. "May Allah remove the fear from your hearts and turn you into lions, into real men."
'A Search for Meaning'
There is a photo on the Internet of David G., with his face covered in blood. The caption reads: "A Lion."
David G. was 19 when died in 2014, while fighting for IS somewhere in Syria. He was 16 when he converted to Islam. His relatives recall that he had wanted to find his own god. Others call it the "a young person's search for meaning." He had started spending a lot of time in Dinslaken, with his new friend Mustafa K. He dropped out of his electrician's apprenticeship and stopped boxing.
When Mustafa K. moved to Syria, David G. sold his books at the flea market in Kempten and wrote a farewell letter. His first attempt to leave the country ended at the Munich airport. His parents suspected that he was planning to leave, and they notified the police months earlier. The authorities affixed a sticker to his identification card that rendered it invalid outside Germany.
His parents had been given a flyer offering tips on how to cope with radicalized children, but it didn't help. Soon afterwards, David took a train to Serbia via Hungary. From there, he apparently reached Bulgaria and then Turkey on foot, heading for his final destination, Syria.
David was pale, blonde and unable to grow a beard. He looked like an exchange student. No one stopped him on his journey to a war zone. In one last photo he posted online during his trip, he was posing with his friend Mustafa. Both were wearing black T-shirts in which the Adidas name had been replaced with "alqaida" and that depicted an aircraft flying toward the largest of the three stripes. The words "Millatu-Ibrahim," the name of Cuspert's Islamist organization, were printed on the back.
Investigators later admitted that David might be alive today if they had paid closer attention to him. But even parents who have become alarmed hardly stand a chance. If a child wants to go, the child is going to go. Whether they lose their sons to the war is somehow a matter of luck or coincidence. And whether one of them makes it back to Germany is also a question of luck or coincidence.
Germany's First IS Trial
The mother of Kreshnik B. is sitting in courtroom II at the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court, wiping tears from her eyes and looking happy. Instead of thousands of kilometers, the only thing separating her from her son now is the bulletproof glass between the visitors' gallery and the prisoner's box, where he is sitting. Kreshnik, 20, stands accused of being a member of a foreign terrorist organization, and of preparing to commit a serious and seditious act of violence.
It is the first trial in Germany against a member of IS. Kreshnik, who once played soccer in a Jewish club in Frankfurt, began to change when he went to a new school and made new friends. They introduced him to Islam, which gave meaning to his life. Kreshnik's friends often talked about the war in the Middle East, he says today. He was furious, he says, unable to comprehend what has happening in Syria and that no one was helping the people there.
Kreshnik wanted to be different, brave as a lion, a real man, a true Muslim, and not a coward. He left Germany at 19, in July 2013, together with his friends. They took a bus from Frankfurt to Istanbul, and then continued to Syria. Upon arrival, Kreshnik gave the oath of allegiance to IS and took a crash course in the use of pistols and assault rifles. The court records contain the logs of his chats with his sister at the time:
"I'm chilling and I'm going to fight, to do my job for Allah," Kreshnik writes.
"You're young, stupid and naïve, and you'll regret it when you're 25," his sister replies. "I've heard that kids who were left behind are paid €50 to kill people."
"I'm here because of my religion," he responds. "The Koran states: 'Kill them wherever you find them.'"
"Don't talk to me about the Koran. Come home."
"Don't you understand that I don't want to live in Germany," Kreshnik writes.
Muslims Killing Muslims
He did feel like a hero at first. He seemed happy in his new home, where he had an opportunity to make something of himself. He had been a poor student in Germany, but in Syria he dreamed of entering a real training program to become a sniper -- for Allah. He wanted to be important and successful, and fight alongside his new brothers, for a great cause, an independent country where only Muslims can live.
Kreshnik was at the back of the group during his first major battle. To the Arabs and the Chechens, this boy from Europe wasn't worth much, he later told his sister in a chat.
Kreshnik couldn't speak Arabic. When the interpreter wasn't in the camp, he couldn't understand what was being discussed and planned, or what the others were arguing about. It was only now that he realized that Muslims were killing Muslims in this war. It was a strange form of brotherliness.
And yet he continued to refer to the others as "brothers." "The brothers" needed phone cards, and "the brothers" needed food, he wrote. He had to report to "the brothers" whenever he discovered unknown cars. Kreshnik B., a soft-spoken boy everyone remembers as a nonviolent team player, was a typical follower, even of the Islamic State in Syria.
Now that he is back in Germany, he is supposed to explain this war to the judges. How do they recruit terrorists? What is their local strategy? It all seems a little helpless. The judges have summoned an expert on Islam, who provides a lengthy explanation of a martyr's death. The court interpreter doesn't even know who IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is.
During the trial, a video is projected onto a screen that depicts Kreshnik at a rally in Aleppo -- a bored-looking young man from Germany who doesn't understand a word. Suddenly one of the judges interrupts the video and says: "I heard the word jihad three times." The interpreter explains to the judge that the Arab word "jihad" means nothing but "to do" or "to struggle."
Judge: "Well, if I were to walk across the Turkish-Syrian border, I'd be a little afraid. And you?
"Yes, I was a little afraid myself."
"But young men are looking for adventure, aren't they?
"Syria is no adventure."
And what does he think of the German military's mission in Afghanistan, the judge asks? How does he feel about journalists being beheaded? Why did he refuse to perform his military service in Germany?
"I don't know," he says, which is something he says often, and shrugs his shoulders. His attorney mentions that Germany no longer had compulsory military service when Kreshnik turned 18.
The judge wants to know more about Syria. Kreshnik says: "I wanted to leave the place and go home. But I didn't want to be a traitor."
The court doesn't believe him. It wants to know whether his parents forced him to return home. An uncle who also fought in Syria apparently got him out and drove him to Turkey, where his sister was waiting to take him back to Germany. He was arrested at the airport upon arrival.
A judge wants to know how he envisions his future. "A training program, something technical," says Kreshnik.
In fact, the judge is merely trying to determine whether the returnee is now interested in a training position or is planning a suicide bombing. The trial is nothing but hours of clichés and expectations that lead to nothing. The only certainty is that Kreshnik B. is back in Germany.
Germany Home to About 150 Returnees from Syrian War
He is one of about 150 returnees nationwide, young Germans, many of whom fought in the war, joined a combat unit and then returned to Germany. No one knows exactly what they did and experienced, and how many of them are traumatized. There are parents of jihadists who say that their sons call them and say they want to come home, but that they are barred from leaving. Most of the returnees have only made it to IS's so-called pre-camps, where they suddenly become fearful and want to go home, partly because they miss their friends or mothers.
German law enforcement officials warn against young men like them, saying they could become radicalized and are ticking time bombs. They warn against people like Walid D., in whose apartment police in the state of Hesse found a Kalashnikov complete with ammunition, a bulletproof vest and an IS flag during a search in late September. The police had tracked down the Islamist while he was being investigated for drug trading.
But Germany also has no reintegration program for returnees. There are no psychologists or self-help groups dedicated to helping them, just the tools of the law. German officials are somehow hopeful that these returnees will explain to them how this war in Syria works. But the only thing that someone like Kreshnik B. can tell them is that he wasn't very useful there, that he never gained a foothold in his new home in a foreign country and, lost soul that he is, was never accepted by his brothers.
Young men like Kreshnik have nothing to gain from this war, so why do they leave Germany, their friends and their comfortable lives, PlayStations and Nutella, to go to war? How can they possibly be willing to endure or even participate in these atrocities, holding up severed heads? How can they live in the midst of a war that bears no resemblance to their former lives?
Young men like Kreshnik and Denis Cuspert come from a world in which war and religion have been banished from the national political identity. The 70 years of peace that have prevailed in Western Europe have turned the violence of war into a taboo. Our modern society is bewildered by its confrontation with the horrors of war. "Human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning," writes American journalist Chris Hedges in his book "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning."
For Hedges, war is the ultimate experience and battle a superior form of self-affirmation. US psychologists who have treated veterans say that soldiers experience a form of intoxication when killing others. IS militants in Syria and Iraq aren't the only ones who have posed with severed heads. In Vietnam, for example, US soldiers posed for snapshots with the body parts of their enemies.
Religion alone cannot offer an explanation for these barbaric murders. In the history of religions, the quest for peace has always been an important goal. The Koran is also interpreted as a message of peace and reconciliation. A well-known verse from the Koran reads: "No burdened soul can bear another's burden." In her book "The Case for God," British religious scholar Karen Armstrong champions the theory that it is not religion that justifies war, but that war itself is the religious awakening experience.
But what is it then? An escape from boredom and the banality of everyday life? The search for community and brotherliness, because self-doubts and unresolved issued are too great and the new solidarity produces a sense of inner greatness and security, as Hans-Jürgen Wirth, a psychoanalyst in the central German city of Giessen, puts it? Or is it young men "who have used fundamentalist Islam to project their inflated self-esteem to the outside world" and to act out their aggressions in a "seemingly morally legitimate" way, as psychiatrist Norbert Leygraf believes, based on his psychiatric evaluations of Islamist assassins who grew up in Germany?
Experts like Wirth and Leygraf agree on one thing: There is no clearly definable type of "young assassin" who leaves Germany to go to war, and the acts of violence that have been committed to date cannot be viewed as a consequence of "typical psychiatric disorders," which would be somehow reassuring.
However, what is noticeable among the militants from Germany is that many of them, educated or not, are children of immigrants. Boredom, narcissism and belligerence certainly play a role, but perhaps their choices also have something to do with a life without a home, without the feeling of belonging in a country where they were born and in which they grew up.
Jihadists Cuspert, Kreshnik, Daniel G. and Mustafa K. have something else in common: They are part of a subculture whose members law enforcement officials call Salafists. They are Salafists because their approach to Islam is that of the "Salaf," the companions of the Prophet Mohammed, and they accept no other interpretation than an orthodox form of Sunni Islam.
They refer to themselves merely as Muslims. Germany's domestic intelligence agency estimates the size of the movement at 6,000 members, people who see themselves as part of a generation of immigrant children who seek a home in their faith. Some refer to this phenomenon as jihad pop. It could also be described as a form of subculture, a youth rebellion, conceived, invented and experienced in the big cities of Western Europe. In some ways, its adherents resemble the hippies, the punks or perhaps even the neo-Nazis in eastern Germany. They are all part of rebellions against their parents' generation and its values, which are not always attractive and are sometimes dangerous.
In the middle of Europe and Germany, there are young Muslims today who believe that life on earth is a punishment and a test by Allah for the afterlife. To them, Islam, with its rules, is not a burden but emancipation from the decline in values and sensory overload. The Koran, which has stood the test of time for 1,400 years, is their antidote. Allah has thought of everything, from hand washing to disputes with neighbors to a woman's orgasm. His thoughts are written in the scriptures and in the knowledge they contain.
In this sense, Islam is the meaning of life, and the Koran is a guidebook for living life successfully. Most of the jihadists are children of Turks and Arabs, Albanians and Chechens. They are young people who grew up in Germany, and whose parents taught them not to eat pork on class trips, but never told their children why their religion forbids its consumption. They had to learn the prayers in Arabic, but their parents never told them what exactly they could expect from Allah. These young Muslims see their parents as compliant and small, people without a home, neither in Germany nor in the countries they once came from. And now they spend their lives in an intermediate world of Turkish teahouses, Arab football clubs and Chechen women's clubs.
Their children have created a new home for themselves. They call it Islam, and in it everyone is equal. Those who accept this new home can expunge all their sins and start with a clean slate, as they collect points for paradise.
They have also invented a new language, a sort of Islamo-German. They address each other as Akhi and Ukhti, the Arab words for brother and sister. "Awesome" is now "mashallah," or may God protect it, "allowed" is "halal," and "forbidden" is "haram." They buy Hajji Cola and breathable veils for women. They can find the "Sunna of the Prophet" in German in bookstores.
They stand at the Hamburg train station and call themselves the Dawa Movement, and they wear T-shirts with the inscription: "Life is No Game." They tell passersby why celebrating Halloween is a sin, because they should celebrate no one but Allah, and certainly not ghosts. They don't come across as angry. Instead, they are committed and loud. Their message is the Dawa, or the call to Islam, and they are spreading it nationwide. In Wuppertal, they go into gambling dens as the Sharia police, to save young people from spending the last of their money. They defend their version of Islam, even if it means engaging in street battles with Kurds in Hamburg or Celle.
They live in accordance with strict rules and communicate via Facebook. They are digital natives. The mosque and the Internet are their world, and they visit websites like Generation Islam to learn about the Islamic economic system and how to talk to "non-Muslims." They lecture each other in chat rooms like "Islam, the Truth Path" and "Ummah Radio," and they exit chats at prayer time. Their message to the unknowing within their ranks? "The true path is only a mouse click away."
For many, it used to come down to who was the best fighter in the neighborhood, or who had the guts to throw chairs at teachers from the windows of the Rütli School, a Berlin high school with a largely immigrant student body that made national headlines in 2006 for its violent reputation. Today they are more interested in proving who is the better Muslim.
A Rebellion against Life in Germany
Are they stuck in adolescence, or are they posing? It's certainly a bizarre phenomenon, but it isn't as if they had no reasons to become radicalized. The jihadists include those with no high-school education and business administration students alike. Some are young Germans who can't get a job because their names are Ali or Mehmet in a country where anti-foreigner sentiment is still commonplace in some companies. They are high-school graduates from immigrant families who are more likely to be threatened by poverty than people with no high-school education from ethnically German families. They are young Germans whose rebellion is not imported from the Arab world, but is a response to life in a Germany, life without a home. And if they are a problem, they are a problem for the entire country.
But ever since the first of their ranks have gone to war and have started threatening their former country with attacks, they all find themselves declared enemies of this society and its values.
Ismail Cetinkaya, the martial arts practitioner from Hamburg, illustrates the complexity of the issue.
Cetinkaya painted the walls in the lobby of his martial arts school in Hamburg purple. Purple is a soothing color, he says. A portrait of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, hangs on the wall, next to the emblem of the Ottoman Empire. Cetinkaya has his own YouTube channel and three Facebook pages, in which he explains how wheelchair users can protect themselves against attacks or girls in headscarves can play sports.
Cetinkaya grew up in Hamburg as the son of Turkish guest workers. When his father felt homesick, he took the family back to Turkey. But they no longer felt at home there, and the old country felt too politically unstable for their taste.
Cetinkaya was 14 when he returned to Germany. The family applied for asylum in the Wendland region of northern Germany. He couldn't speak a word of German at first, and the resident status stamp in his passport read: "tolerated." It was an ugly word that the Germans had concocted for people who came to Germany and asked for help, says Cetinkaya.
He was always the "guy with the black hair," the one no one really talked to. He did an apprenticeship as a baker, leaving the house at 1 a.m. and riding 10 kilometers through the forest on his bicycle to go to work. That was when he took up martial arts. Later on, he worked as a bouncer in Hamburg nightclubs. There were lots of fights, and there were assault convictions, but he went to the mosque every morning and prayed to Allah. "There were times when I thought that all the women in the world belonged to me," says Cetinkaya. "There were periods in my life when I wanted to punch everyone in the face. I thought I had to have lots of money. I made mistakes."
Cetinkaya knows them all, the old neighborhood thugs and the boys from the mosque. The former became pimps and the latter turned into self-proclaimed holy warriors. Cetinkaya banned pimps and drug dealers from his martial arts school. It's difficult, he says, to transform young men into real men in an era when every form of masculinity has become a taboo, in a world in which women no longer need protectors. Cetinkaya likes to protect people. He was in Afghanistan, Syria and Cambodia, and he founded an association called the Don't Look the Other Way Club, which helps children in need. Being a man means helping people, he says.
Kreshnik wanted to help people. Deso Dogg wants to help, but in a monstrous way. Cetinkaya says that despite his motivations, what Deso Dogg is doing is wrong. He pulls up his Koran app and quotes a verse: "O mankind, indeed I have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another." He clicks to the next verse: "And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ."
For Cetinkaya, these verses are proof that there is no compulsion in the faith, and that the Koran cannot serve as justification for the campaign Deso Dogg and his fellow jihadists are pursuing against other religions and peoples, all in the name of Ishmael.
The word of Allah applies in his martial arts school. His students include Frenchmen, Swiss, Latinos, Chechens, Russians, German lawyers and medical students, and even police officers, many of them Muslims. They too call each other Akhi, but they practice together with Orthodox Christian Armenians or Jews.
Cetinkaya doesn't care who they are, as long as they are good fighters. To him, they are all one in the ring or the cage, where they wear yellow T-shirts with the inscription "Team Ismail." He wants his students to be fighters and winners. He wants them to pour their testosterone into the cage -- in fair, hand-to-hand combat, and according to rules. The opponents embrace after each fight.
Cetinkaya and his students are critical of the West, the United States and the war in Afghanistan, and they are horrified by what is happening to their brothers overseas, but they don't want to go to Syria. They finish high school, and they want to go to America to study mechanical engineering. They aren't interested in IS, but in a future in Hamburg, which they see as their home.
Cetinkaya has closed his books and is standing in the cage again, training one of his students. One of them will fight at the world championship in Japan in December. They shoot a video about their training program, and Cetinkaya posts it on his website. Deso Dogg posts his latest video from Syria on the web on the same evening.
Later that evening, a mother posts the story of her daughter on Facebook, the story of a Turkish girl who has disappeared. The young woman grew up only a few kilometers from Cetinkaya's martial arts school, and she would have graduated from high school next year. She fell in love with a boy who went to Syria a few months ago. She married her boyfriend over the phone, in an Islamic wedding performed by an imam, so that she could leave Germany and follow him to the war. In the Facebook post, the mother begs the boy bring her child home.
It will be winter in Syria soon, says Ismail Cetinkaya.
By Özlem Gezer, Lothar Gorris, Romain Leick, Tobias Rapp and Elke Schmitter