Jihad in the schoolyard
It is 26 February 2016 when 15-year-old Safia pulls out a knife at Hanover Central Station and stabs a police officer in the neck. He survives, but is badly injured. Two months previously, the secondary school student had flown to Istanbul to join the "Islamic State". Before she was able to cross the border to Syria, her mother brought her back to Hanover. There are videos online of Safia the primary school child sitting next to the Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel, reciting Koran suras. Wearing a hijab with not a single hair visible – as an eight-year-old. Her mother brought her up that way.
On 16 April, a bomb explodes in front of a Sikh temple in Essen. During a wedding celebration. A priest and two guests are injured. The two perpetrators are 16 years old. One of them is already being watched by the state security agency, he disseminates Islamist propaganda on Facebook, calls himself "Kuffar Killer" – "Murderer of Infidels". He has a police record for bodily harm and burglary. His accomplice had taken part in Koran distribution activities organised by Islamists.
These are just the most recent examples of German youngsters who have gone off the rails and ended up in a violent Islamist milieu. The German intelligence service estimates that more than 8,600 Muslims adhere to the Salafist movement. A tiny minority, in view of the four million Muslims in the nation as a whole. But a figure that's constantly on the rise. Five years ago, there were fewer than 4,000 known members of this grouping. Some 800 of them left Germany and went as jihadists to Syria, 130 were killed, 20 of those in suicide attacks, 260 have returned.
Salafists canvass in front of schools, in youth clubs, online. A particularly eager campaigner in this regard is the convert Pierre Vogel, who tours towns and cities as an open-air preacher and explains his brand of Islam in hundreds of YouTube videos.
In the clutches of the Salafists
Nevertheless the question remains, why so many young people end up in the clutches of the Salafists. And: how can they be prevented from doing this?
There are many answers to the first question. "Potential answers," says Michael Kiefer. He is a scholar of Islam at the University of Osnabruck and is currently trying to find out, on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Youth, why youngsters are being radicalised. Kiefer and a colleague are conducting interviews with Islamists, their acquaintances, friends, siblings, parents.
For Michael Kiefer, Salafist groups are a collection point for the insecure, for those without opportunities, for those who feel marginalised, who don't get along at school or with their families, who are caught up in a crisis of identity. The Salafists not only lure them in with religious material, but also with the sense of being important, or part of something big – and better than the others.
On the other hand, Kiefer says, those who are radicalised despite having a good education are often motivated by a sense of righteousness, convinced that Muslims are the victims of international policy and that one must fight for their interests. It is possible that Safia falls into this category.
Salafists are fundamental Muslims aiming to establish a theocracy. For them, only Sharia law is applicable, not the constitution. All the questions of human coexistence are dealt with by the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Those who follow this code will be rewarded with paradise, while hell awaits the others.
This is not to say that all Salafists are terrorists carrying out attacks in the name of Islam or joining the Jihad in Syria. There are Salafists who simply want to lead a godly life, there are those who strive for an Islamic state, but who reject violence. But: all those who have drifted into the radical Islamist milieu had previous contact with Salafist groups.
Many of those who join the Salafists lack basic religious awareness. Salafism lures them in with simple rules, dividing up the world into good and evil. There are however still huge gaps in our knowledge of how the milieu is composed, says Kiefer. Germany had for a long time neglected to carry out any relevant research or prevention work, he adds. Most of the funds were channelled into the security agencies. That has now changed. In 2015, the Federal Ministry for Youth spent 5.8 million Euros on preventive measures against violent Islamism. That figure is set to increase to 7.5 million Euros this year.
Prevention networks against Islamism
Much has been done, but there is still a lack of any nationwide programmes. Several states took too long to start building up preventive networks. Much of it is still uncoordinated; there is no overall strategy or mutual exchange. There are numerous individual projects, most in urban areas, very few in rural areas – although youngsters are being radicalised there too. What is working and what is not? This is still to be clarified. Therefore, the second question – how to protect youngsters from Islamism? – still remains an open one.
Michael Kiefer can at least set the direction. "Prevention," he says, "must begin early and everyone has to work together: teachers, parents, social workers, imams, sports coaches. They all have to talk to each other, as soon as they notice something about a young person. This response must become institutionalised."
One who does start early is Nadim Gleitsmann. He works at Ufuq (Arabic for 'Horizon'), a Berlin association that explains Salafism to teachers and youth workers nationwide and discusses Islam and democracy with young people in workshops. Gleitsmann works in Hamburg, attending both vocational colleges and secondary schools, talking to both eighth-graders and those about to graduate from school. He comes when the teachers no longer know how to help.