Radicalization is a growing problem in Germany.
It is not a new one. The 9/11 attacks on the United States were planned and carried out largely by a group of young men, including students, from Hamburg. But it is a problem German authorities still fail to take seriously.
Anti-terrorism experts say the country desperately needs a properly funded and organized counter-attack at the grassroots level.
Ismail is a typical example of the process. His parents came from Syria and had lived in Germany for decades. He grew up in Stuttgart. Ismail’s slide into radical Islam began in 2011, when his marriage failed.
He dropped out of an apprenticeship. He slipped into what he later described to a court as “self-destructive drug-taking.” In his vulnerable state, he was a perfect target for radicalization and saw extreme Islam as a kind of detox program and found in it a new sense of self-worth.
In the summer of 2013, he traveled to Syria to do a jihadist “apprenticeship” with a Kalashnikov. The police nabbed him on his return to Germany and in March 2015 he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison.
Maybe things wouldn’t have gone so far if someone had recognized the signs and intervened.
Experts have long known of the effectiveness of professional programs that use preventative measures to steer disenfranchised youths from the radical scene, and help people who’ve fallen in with the wrong crowd to get out again.
In the state of Baden-Württemberg, there is still no appropriate counseling body that could have helped Ismail or others like him.
According to the state’s interior ministry, there are plans to start one in the second quarter of 2016. Their main duties will be stepping in early to work with people at risk of radicalization, and counseling radicalized members to help them find a way out. But it was too late for Ismail.
It’s not just in Germany’s southwest, but also in other states, that the investment in prevention and exit programs is inadequate. That’s corroborated by a recent survey of German states by Handelsblatt. Almost all states will admit there’s a problem with religious extremism too. Many have responded with educational work, action days in schools, leaflets, and training for security agencies.
But personal support for at-risk individuals over longer periods only exists in two states, Hessen and North Rhine-Westphalia.
In some states, these programs have been launched or initiated this year. Rhineland-Palatinate is one example. The Ministry for Families there says the “concept for the prevention of Islamist radicalization of young people” – which will include establishment of a counseling center – is set for 2016.
The Bavarian government also plans to set up a counseling center for de-radicalization but the project is still out for tender and that process is due to be wrapped up in “early 2016.”
In July last year, the counseling center “Legato” began taking care of at-risk dropouts in the working class Hamburg suburb of Altona.
With funding to the tune of €300,000 per year from the city of Hamburg, Legato’s seven case workers try to stop the march of Salafist extremism. They’re able to speak to at-risk youth, but also to parents or other people who are close, in Turkish, Farsi and Arabic.
In Lower Saxony, a center is to open in April. In Wolfsburg, that state’s fifth-largest city and home of Volkswagen, there appears to be a particular concentration of radicalized Muslims.
According to the state’s criminal police, around 40 Islamists who’ve left to join IS in Syria and Iraq have come from Wolfsburg.
In the eastern German states, officials seem to feel that there’s as good as zero need for action. The interior minister of Saxony Anhalt says police and intelligence services have been “personally and structurally readjusted” to cope with the threat, but that “so far there has been no justification” for further initiatives to combat Islamist terrorism.
In the eastern states of Thuringia, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and in the western state of Saarland, on the border with Luxembourg and France, there seems to be a relaxed attitude to the dangers posed by sectarian violence. So far in these states there have been no state government-initiated programs.
Susanne Schröter, a social anthropologist at the German Research Group, the DFG, thinks politicians are asleep at the wheel when it comes to the risks of radicalization.
“The states only began targeted preventative work in 2014,” she said.
Ms. Schröter said after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the problem should have been clearly visible and anti-radicalization measures should have been developed.
The Hamburg cell that carried out the 9/11 attacks was made up chiefly of radicalized students. For years, they had been planning terrorist actions together, from an apartment in Hamburg.
They remained under the radar even when they traveled to Afghanistan to meet Osama Bin Laden in November 1999, and on their return to Germany began to take flying lessons.
In addition to the late start, the existing programs are pathetically underfunded. In Lower Saxony, according to the interior ministry, there are only three counselors.
In 2015, the Berlin “Network against Jihadi and Salafist Radicalisation” received €115,000 in funding. For 2006, €150,000 is earmarked for the group.
Germany’s domestic intelligence service has been warning for some time of the dangers posed by religious extremist groups. The November 13 attacks in Paris put those dangers in high relief.
Some estimates say there are 8,000 Salafists in Germany today, and that they want to create a religious state in the country.
Just last month, German police arrested the Islam convert and notorious Salafist preacher Sven Lau on charges of supporting an Islamic State-affiliated group. Mr. Lau is the man behind the 2014 “Sharia Police” stunt in Wuppertal.
Almost all states admit there's a problem with religious extremism. Many have responded with educational work, action days in schools, leaflets, and training for security agencies. But personal support for at-risk individuals only exists in two of 16 states.
The head of the North Rhine-Westphalia Secret Service, Burkhard Freier, warned late last year that Salafists were trying to manipulate refugees to join their cause. He says his department has been working with groups housing and helping refugees, to make them aware of the radicalization risk.
NRW and Hessen are two states leading the way in anti-radicalization projects. Since its inception in 2014, the Hessen counseling service, “Religious Tolerance Instead of Extremism” has been in contact with, and offered support to, 73 radicalized men. They say they’ve also given advice to 93 relatives of radicalized or endangered people.
In NRW, the government is preparing to ramp up its preventative counseling services with new “Signpost Counseling Centers” alongside its successful “Islamism Exit-Program.” The walk-in centers are in Bochum, Wuppertal and Düsseldorf, and in 2016 more centers are planned. According to the NRW Interior Ministry, they’ve helped in more than 2,000 cases.
According to Mr. Freier, building trust, followed by reintegration into the community, are the key strategies. The methods are much the same as those that have been employed to help radicalized youth on the extreme right.
“The reasons why young people slip into extremism are often the same,” he said, “low self esteem, social exclusion. But to work with Islamists, one needs extra knowledge about the concrete ideology or the family structure.”
Mr. Freier says that it’s often people close to those in danger of being radicalized who bring cases to the attention of authorities.
“Often it’s the mothers, the sisters or teachers who contact us when they see that someone has been radicalized,” he said.
“Once one of our co-workers sees that someone is slipping, then we speak directly to them. We see that they go back to school, or find an apprenticeship, so that they have prospects. At the same time we show them a way to step out of extremist ideology,” Mr. Freier said.
Islamic extremism is a Europe-wide problem that must be tackled at a local level, he warned.
“We’ve been observing Salafism for the last ten years,” Mr. Freier said, “and we’ve worked out that it must be tackled using a combination of three strategies. Repression and criminal justice; preventative work; and helping people get out of extremist groups. Prevention is the fight against tomorrow’s terrorists.”
Anja Stehle is an editor at Handelsblatt. To reach the author: email@example.com