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Jihadism in Germany: An Update

30/11/2009

Last week, I spoke at an excellent symposium on Islamist terrorism, which took place in Hamburg. The event was organised by the Hamburg state Office for the Protection of the Constitution – the local branch of Germany’s domestic intelligence service.

The event was remarkable for the complete openness with which German officials described the situation in front of a 200 strong audience, which included many journalists.

Perhaps, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Before the German federal elections in September, the services were warning that jihadists had Germany in their crosshairs. Back then, a lot of these warnings were dismissed as ‘hype’ and ‘fear-mongering’ in the German media.

The symposium was the services’ opportunity to make clear what the fuss had been about.

A speaker from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV)  explained that the service’s assessment was based on a number of events and developments, which had been observed over the course of the entire year:

  • From January, an increasing number of jihadist videos mentioned Germany or were recorded in the German language.
  • From March, a higher than usual number of Germany-based jihadists went on trips to Pakistan. Of the 185 travels to Pakistan by Germany-based jihadists over the past decade, nearly a quarter took place in 2009.
  • In May, warnings started coming through from foreign partner services.
  • That same month, one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb appeared in a video, saying that jihadists should ‘Look for Germans!’
  • In September, a number of jihadist videos specifically addressed the issue of the federal elections, warning that an attack was imminent. Germany’s most prominent jihadist, Bekkay Harrach, who is believed by the BfV to belong to the Al Qaeda core, featured prominently in several of them.

With the elections over, the immediate danger seems to have passed. The jihadist threat, however, continues to be high on the BfV’s agenda. The BfV speaker at the symposium highlighted the following trends:

  • An increasing number of ‘home-grown’ cells
  • The rising number of converts involved in jihadist activities
  • The increasing attractiveness of jihadism to Muslims of Turkish descent, who – for years – had been considered ‘immune’ to the jihadist message

The last point was backed up by an excellent speaker from the Hamburg state office, who provided extensive data on the ethnic affiliations and socio-economic characteristics of Hamburg-based jihadists, as well as Germany’s leading expert on Islamist terrorism, Guido Steinberg of the German Institute for Security and International Affairs.

For German policymakers, of course, the ‘Turkish factor’ is the biggest headache. Muslims of Turkish descent represent the vast majority of the Muslim population in Germany. If jihadism starts spreading among German Turks, Islamist terrorism could become a huge political and social issue in addition to being a security problem.

All in all, I was very impressed with the professionalism and openness of the German authorities, especially the Hamburg state Office.

Despite being German myself, I always used to have a rather low opinion of my country’s abilities in this field. This event made me believe that, perhaps, I was wrong.