De-radicalising young people
Is there a way to stop jihadists in Europe?

What drives young men into the arms of Islamist extremists – and how can they be re-integrated into society? Five years after the deadly attacks in Paris, urgent questions remain. By Matthias von Hein

Dresden, Paris, Nice and Vienna. After four terror attacks in barely a month, it's clear that, five years after the deadly attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, Islamist terror in Europe has not been defeated. Once again, politicians are considering imposing stricter controls at the borders, promising closer co-operation with security services, and calling for tougher action against Islamist militants who are deemed a threat.

The most recent attacks highlight the particular danger posed by individual perpetrators who are part of a network of sympathisers. What are these people like? What motivates them? The current overview of Salafism in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, warns: "Special attention must be paid to the considerable potential of young, violent Salafists. In recent years, young people have been targeted by jihadist propaganda more forcefully and at a younger age, and have reacted to it more positively."

Oliver Roy, a French expert on Islamism, also sees predominantly young men "fascinated by the violence of jihad", and who claim to be better Muslims than their parents without spending years studying the Koran. In Roy's view, this is rebellious youth inscribing its revolt into an Islamist narrative – a narrative supplied by organisations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State (IS) group.

Personal trajectory or probation dynamic?

In interview, Roy referred to it as a "cult of death". When these young men kill, he said, "They expect to be killed… It's not so much an ideology [as] a personal trajectory. They have a goal: to go to paradise, to die as a martyr."

IS online propaganda (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Peters)
A battle to control the narrative: Mimoun Berrissoun, founder of 180° Turn, calls for a strong counter-movement within Muslim communities. There must be no room for enticing Islamist recruiters. We must not allow "young people to be secretly recruited via WhatsApp or Telegram," he says. "We have to reach these young people before they do"

Frankfurt-based sociologist Felix Rossmeissl, who is part of a research project investigating the topic of jihad, prefers to describe it as a "probation dynamic". Young men and women, he said, want to prove they can fulfil expectations, and this is how they are coerced into committing acts of violence.

In his analysis, "It represents an alternative to conventional probation dynamics, which in our society are linked primarily to professional work and academic success". Rossmeissl says this is why young people who are having difficulty making the transition to adult life are particularly susceptible to jihadist propaganda.

Limits of de-radicalisation

Thomas Mucke knows people like this. He works with them. Mucke, a qualified teacher and psychologist, is the managing director of the Violence Prevention Network (VPN), which works on de-radicalising violent extremists. "We know, of course, that people who are unstable or who are currently going through a crisis can be recruited very quickly by people on the extremist scene," admitted Mucke.

When VPN employees work in prisons with people who are likely to pose a threat, with IS returnees, or with violent Islamists, their top priority is "to make it possible for these people to ask questions again, to be allowed to start thinking for themselves again," he said. "In the Islamist scene, the way it works is that you have to obey, you have to subordinate yourself. And they lose the ability to ask questions and think for themselves."

Mucke, however, knows there are limits to what de-radicalisation can achieve. "We must be under no illusion that if we make a great effort in the area of security, in the area of socio-paedagogical work, there will never be an attack. There will always be attacks."

Mourners remember the victims of the attack in Vienna on 2.11.2020 (photo: Eibner Europa/Imago Images)
What makes the situation so dangerous – and so difficult for the security services to maintain an overview – is that Islamist terrorism doesn't need an organisation in the classical sense, with secret cells and hidden headquarters. Loose networks are enough, as is the potential of radicalised people, which can be tapped through propaganda, or indeed through other attacks

VPN's director speaks from bitter experience. One of the clients his colleagues were dealing with was the 20-year-old man who attacked two gay men with a knife in Dresden in early October, killing one of them.The social workers had met him two days before the attack, and again afterwards – unaware their client had any connection with the murder.

In cases like this, Mimoun Berrissoun says "taqiyya", or the concealment of religious belief from unbelievers, plays a role. Berrissoun, a young man with Moroccan roots, founded the NGO "180° Wende" (180° Turn) in Cologne. The people who work there, most of whom are volunteers, aim to prevent young men from sliding into extremism and criminality. "If, for example, there are court orders forcing a person to comply with certain measures, but inwardly they still haven't detached from the ideology, it's very hard to detach them from that scene, from that ideology," says Berrissoun.

Yet, considering the hundreds of people VPN has worked with, Thomas Mücke is convinced that, had they been left to their own devices, "the potential of those who might commit attacks would certainly be greater."

Situation in prisons explosive

The potential is already great. The number of known Islamists seen to pose a threat in Germany is currently at around 620. And according to an investigation by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, there are more than 130 Islamists in German prisons. De-radicalisation and prevention work is carried out in prisons, mostly by organisations like VPN.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on this work, says Jens Borchert, a criminologist at the Merseburg University of Applied Sciences. "Many programmes for de-radicalisation in prison are unable to start up or run to the extent originally planned." Generally speaking, Borchert regards the situation in German prisons as "explosive". Fewer staff members are available for work in the institutions because of coronavirus, and all sorts of conspiracy theories are doing the rounds.

This was confirmed by employees working in the justice system. They emphasise that despite all the measures put in place in recent years, the danger of prisoners being radicalised while behind bars is still very present.

You may also like: Islamism in Germany – Preventing radicalisation in prisons

 
Attacks are a subject of conversation among those in custody and, even if they don't explicitly condone violence when they're speaking to staff, some consider the French teacher who was beheaded by an Islamist extremist to have been partly responsible for his own fate.

What makes the situation so dangerous – and so difficult for the security services to maintain an overview – is that Islamist terrorism doesn't need an organisation in the classical sense, with secret cells and hidden headquarters. Loose networks are enough, as is the potential of radicalised people, which can be tapped through propaganda, or indeed through other attacks.

VPN head Mucke cites the Vienna attack as an example. IS has claimed responsibility, but he notes: "There are absolutely no clear chains of command. Instead, the narratives are fed into the networks: 'Now you have to do something.' And then there are the people who take action – without anyone actually issuing an order for them to do so," said Mucke.

So ultimately, it's a battle to control these very narratives. This is why Mimoun Berrissoun, the founder of 180° Turn, is calling for a strong counter-movement within Muslim communities. He says it must ensure that there's no room for enticing Islamist recruiters. And it must not allow "young people to be secretly recruited via WhatsApp or Telegram," he says. "We have to reach these young people before they do."

Matthias von Hein

© Deutsche Welle 2020

More on this topic