Home-Grown Jihadists

Australian Attack Stokes Fear in Germany

Sydney DPA
The hostage situation in Sydney is one that could play out on German streets.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    German authorities fear that many young men who are travelling to Syria and Iraq for IS could return to launch attacks.

  • Facts


    • A court in Frankfurt jailed a jihadist for four years after he admitted to joining IS in Syria.
    • Security forces estimate that around 550 people have gone from Germany to fight in Syria and Iraq, and 180 have returned.
    • There are more than 6,300 Salafists currently active in Germany. Three years ago the number was just 3,800.
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As the hostage drama played out on Monday in Australia, fears grew in Germany that some of its own home-grown jihadists trained in Syria could mount similar attacks.

Concern spread that the gunman who was holding 13 people at a cafe in Sydney had links to the Islamic State, or IS, the radical jihadists who operate in Syria and Iraq.

Germany has an estimated 500 men who have left the country to fight in Syria and Iraq with IS.

Last week, the German federal prosecutor general, Harald Range, said his office was investigating 83 people, in 46 different cases, who were suspected of belonging to Islamic State or al Qaeda. Regional prosecutors are investigating another 100 people.

This is an almost tenfold increase on the five investigations into eight suspects in 2013.

“We are at the limits or our capacity,” Mr. Range said at a press conference last Thursday. He said that a number of new cases were pending and that Germany was “in the crosshairs of jihadist terror.”

He said he was worried at the speed with which young people were being radicalized, and said there needed to be a “broad strategy of prevention.” He said there had to be work in schools and through Muslim organizations in the community to counter-act radical forces.

Earlier this month a court in Frankfurt jailed a jihadist for four years after he admitted to joining IS in Syria.

“Whoever supports IS can already be prosecuted under existing laws.”

Heiko Maas, German Justice Minister

Kreshnik Berisha had been arrested at Frankfurt airport last December after returning from Syria. He was accused of fighting with Islamist fighters in Aleppo in the north of the country. He was born in Germany, after his family immigrated to Germany from Kosovo.

In November, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said that the number of prosecutions in Germany showed that current anti-terrorism laws were working and there was no need for tougher legislation.

“Whoever supports IS can already be prosecuted under existing laws,” he told the weekly Welt am Sonntag in an interview, adding that he was planning on drawing up new legislation that would tackle the flow of money to IS.

Thousands of Europeans have flocked to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, where IS have been involved in fighting as well as in terror acts such as beheadings of captives and suicide bombings.

Security forces estimate that around 550 people have gone from Germany to fight in Syria and Iraq, of whom 60 have been killed, at least nine of them in suicide attacks. About 180 are believed to have since returned home.

There are currently no concrete indications of plans to carry out attacks in Germany.

However, the specter of home-grown terror has already been raised in Germany.

Kreshnik DPA
A German-born jihadist. Kreshnik Berisha got four years for being a member of IS. Source: DPA


In 2007 a cell, known as the Sauerland group, were arrested on suspicion of planning bomb attacks. The four men, members of the tiny Jihad Union, intended to launch attacks on the U.S. army base at Ramstein and other targets. Three of the men had trained at camps in northern Pakistan with a group that had ties to al Qaeda.

There is immense pressure on intelligence services to spot any plans for terror attacks. In particular, there was criticism at intelligence failings after it emerged that most of the 9/11 attackers who carried out the terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 had been based in the German city of Hamburg.

Most of those who have gone to fight with IS belong to a small group of radical Islamists known as Salafists, who adhere to an extremely strict version of Islam.

While not all Salafists are violent jihadists, it is also a growing group in Germany. According to intelligence agencies there are more than 6,300 Salafists currently active in Germany, whereas three years ago the number was just 3,800.

That is, however, a tiny proportion of the 4.5 million Muslims who live in Germany.

A tense stand-off in Sydney as a gunman holds 13 people hostage. Source: Reuters

The presence of both Salafists and returning jihadists has also helped fuel Islamophobic rhetoric from the country’s far-right scene.

In October there were clashes in Cologne between police and both football hooligans and right-wing extremists, who were protesting against Salafists. Since then an anti-Islam group of hooligans has attracted over 4,000 fans on Facebook.

Meanwhile, a series of marches has taken place in Dresden and other cities to specifically protest against the “Islamization” of Europe. Organized by the Pegida group, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident, the protests have been peaceful but have been criticized for fueling xenophobia.

Justice Minister Maas this weekend called the Pegida movement a “shame for Germany,” and said that there was now a new level of “escalation of agitation against immigrants and refugees.”

The deputy head of the Social Democrats, Ralf Stegner, told Handelsblatt that the Pegida group had to be monitored by the domestic intelligence agency to assess if it is influenced by far-right extremists. The Social Democrats, or SPD, are the junior coalition partners in the ruling right-left government in Berlin.

André Schulz, the chairman of the Association of German Criminal Police Officers (BDK) also called for the group to be monitored. “Naturally it is necessary that the domestic intelligence agency keep an eye on extremists, who with heavy-handed slogans stir up vague fears and aggression,” he told Handelsblatt.

The protests, which have attracted thousands of people, are regarded as a reaction to the marked increase of refugees and asylum seekers in Germany.

Germany takes in more asylum seekers than any other European country and the conflict in Syria has seen those numbers increase significantly this year. The country is expecting 200,000 refugees by the end of the year, compared to 127,000 who applied for asylum last year.

Last Thursday buildings in the Bavarian town of Vorra that were due to house refugees were set on fire. The police suspect racist motives after discovering swastikas and racist graffiti.


Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: dowling@handelsblatt.com.

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