A group of nearly 5,000 football hooligans from across Germany gathered in the western city of Cologne on October 26 to protest the spread of radical Islam in the country.
The watershed march was organized by a new initiative called "Hooligans against Salafists," better known by its German abbreviation, HoGeSa, short for Hooligans gegen Salafisten.
HoGeSa is a burgeoning alliance between hooligans from rival football clubs who have temporarily set aside their mutual hatred for each other in order to unite against a common enemy: radical Salafists who want to replace Germany's democratic order with Islamic Sharia law.
The alliance has its roots in a hidden Internet forum called GnuHoonters (homophone of "New Hunters") formed in 2012 between 17 different hooligan groups from across Germany. GnuHoonters was established primarily to fight anarchists, Marxist-Leninists and other left-wing extremists in the country.
In 2013, some 300 members of GnuHoonters set up another hidden Internet forum called "Because Germans Still Dare" (Weil Deutsche sich's noch trauen), aimed at developing an action plan to fight the leaders of Germany's Salafist scene.
After the forum was hacked in early 2014 and its secrets were spilled to the public, the group adopted the name "Hooligans against Salafists" and began operating openly. Initially, HoGeSa's activities were limited to the Internet and social media, through which it developed a considerable following. Its Facebook page, for example, had more than 40,000 followers before it was recently shut down by Facebook censors.
On September 28, 2014, around 300 HoGeSa members met in person for the first time in Dortmund, a city in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia that has a large Muslim population. Similar meetings were also held in the cities of Essen, Mannheim and Nuremberg.
These introductory meetings paved the way for HoGeSa's first mass gathering, the rally in downtown Cologne on October 26. The organizers of the event were expecting a turnout of around 1,500 hooligans, but more than three times that many people (4,900 by some counts) showed up.
According to some commentators, the mass mobilization was fuelled in part by a growing sense of frustration that the German government is not doing enough to curb the spread of Islam in the country. Others said that protesters were incited by the Salafists' unceasingly provocative support for the jihadist group Islamic State.
The rally, which began in front of Cologne's central train station, was initially peaceful, given that Salafists appeared to give the area a wide berth. But matters turned extremely violent after participants refused to obey police orders to clear the area after the event was over.
More than 1,300 police were called in, many using batons, pepper spray and water cannons against the protesters, who hurled rocks, bottles and firecrackers at them. Nearly 50 police officers were injured and 20 protesters were arrested.
Thousands of police and hooligans face off at a rally by "Hooligans against Salafists" that turned into a riot in Cologne, Germany, on October 26, 2014. (Image source: Focus.de video screenshot)
The intensity of the violence shocked many Germans and commentators pondered over who these "new hooligans" are and whether this "unexpected phenomenon" portends serious trouble ahead.
One newspaper wrote: "The hooligans are more dangerous than ever. They have a new opponent. German security authorities are on high alert! A state security official has warned: 'If hooligans actually meet Salafists next time, there will certainly be severe injuries or deaths.'"
HoGeSa representatives seemed to apologize for the violence in Cologne, saying that "not everything went according to plan" and that they had learned from their mistakes.
At the same time, HoGeSa leaders insist that the group is "apolitical" and not connected to any partisan organization, including Germany's neo-Nazi movement. "We stand behind our cause," one of the event organizers shouted into a megaphone. "We are not right-wing radicals," he added.
But large numbers of neo-Nazis are said to have joined the rally, sparking fears that right-wing extremists are seeking to influence and possibly co-opt the hooligan scene, with the aim of leveraging HoGeSa's mass mobilization potential to its own advantage.
The newspaper Die Zeit reported that senior leaders of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany [NPD] participated in the Cologne rally and offered to help "professionalize" the HoGeSa movement. "The starving NPD, which has been in a political free fall for three years now, is apparently on the offensive and wants to join this new extremist trend," the paper wrote.
A new report published by police in North-Rhine Westphalia estimates that there are a total of 13,600 hooligans in all of Germany, but that only 400 (or 3.3%) have ties to the neo-Nazi movement or other right-wing extremist groups.
The president of the German domestic intelligence agency BfV, Hans-Georg Maassen, said that hooligans have not been subject to state surveillance because, for the most part, they are "politically indifferent" and their personal values are limited to "drinking beer and fighting."
Some commentators argue that mainstream media outlets are now using the fear of hooligan violence to completely shut down the debate about the rise of Islam in Germany. They are doing so by demonizing any German citizen with legitimate concerns about the spread of Sharia law and the establishment of a parallel Muslim society in the country as "neo-Nazi."
In the words of one such commentator, the guardians of German multiculturalism are protecting the "beheaders of Christians and mutilators of women" by seeking to silence those who are politically incorrect enough to express outrage at such atrocities.
HoGeSa's next major rally was set to be held in Berlin on November 15. The event — which was being organized under the motto, "Against Salafists, Islamization and Refugee Policy" — was to have been held at the Pariser Platz, a square in the center of Berlin that is situated within walking distance of the seat of the German government.
The rally organizers originally said they were expecting a turnout of 1,000 people, but after police predicted that more than 10,000 hooligans would show up, authorities in Berlin cancelled the event. Similar rallies planned for Frankfurt, Hamburg and Hannover have also been banned, although social media chatter indicates that the hooligans plan to proceed anyway.
In any event, HoGeSa appears to be striking fear into the hearts of the Salafists, who are now on the defensive, an accomplishment that has so far eluded German counter-terrorism officials.
Following the violence in Cologne, Pierre Vogel, a notorious convert to Islam who in recent years has emerged as a central figure in Germany's Salafist scene, hired full-time bodyguards to protect himself and his family.
The German media say Vogel, a former professional boxer who usually depicts himself as the embodiment of an invincible Islam, is now portraying himself as a helpless victim at the hands of football hooligans.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.