Salafism is an extremely conservative current within Islam. Salafists espouse a strict interpretation of the Koran, which most Muslims consider far too radical. Many reject secular laws such as the German Constitution and only live by the Sharia, the Islamic law. According to the latest domestic intelligence report for NRW issued by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the Salafist scene in the most populous German state has around 3,000 members, 800 of whom are classified as "radical" and "ready to resort to violence".
Elke Muller wanted to find out what websites her daughter was spending so much time on, and so she started visiting the same sites and was quickly alarmed at what she found: for example, the website of Pierre Vogel, a German convert and maybe the best-known self-styled Salafist preacher in the country. "I asked myself how I should react, whether I could or should forbid something."
The estranged child
She sought help, initially from a Protestant counselling centre. Then she was put in touch with Grenzgaenger (which translates as "border crossers"), a counselling network in Bochum, a city in western Germany. Relatives or teachers can turn to the organisation when they fear young people may be showing signs of religious extremism. It receives funding from the German state.
The team consists of social workers, psychologists and Islamic scholars. Since starting out in 2012, it has worked with several hundred cases, social worker Susanne Wittmann estimates. "Mrs. Muller contacted us early in her daughter's radicalisation," Wittmann says. Still, it quickly became clear Anna was at risk of becoming radicalised. "When young people start researching on their own and trying to inform themselves about Islam on the Internet, they always end up with the wrong people."
By wrong people, Wittmann is referring to radical Salafists, who for years have been using their strong online presence to recruit new followers and specifically recruit young people to join radical groups in Syria and Iraq. Women – who only make up 12% of the Salafist community in NRW according to the domestic intelligence service – are increasingly active online, according to its latest annual report.
Islamic studies in a protected space
After Elke Muller contacted Grenzgaenger, Wittmann visited the family in their home. There she met Anna, whom she described as someone who was clearly on a quest. She hadn't formed a cohesive view yet, the social worker said, meaning she was still open to other influences. "Otherwise we might not have been able to reach her." Grenzgaenger helped Anna find a more moderate mosque, based on a police officer's recommendation. There, she joined a women's group. Its leader soon became a personal mentor for Anna and they were in contact almost every day.
The leader – who does not want to reveal her name – still clearly remembers her first encounter with the young girl. "From the very beginning, I admired Anna's determination, especially at her age. She really wanted to understand her new faith. Anna asked many questions: about prayer, about fasting, about the appropriate behaviour on school trips. Once, she even wanted to know whether Islam allowed nose piercing."
Anna regularly took part in the weekly girls' group for about a year, the leader recalls. The mosque also offers a group for young men, which Abdul was invited to join, but he declined. "He came to a meeting once, but didn't seem to like it. He said he already had enough knowledge about his religion", said the leader. She added that Abdul was neither radical nor dangerous. "He seemed rather naive to me, someone who was in need of support himself. He is a very traditional person, but he doesn't have much knowledge about Islam." And unlike Anna, he was not searching the Internet for answers.