Germany has banned three ultra-conservative Salafist Muslim groups which the Interior Ministry says want to overturn democracy and install a system based on Islamic Sharia law.
The ban, which took effect in the western German states of Hessen and North Rhine-Westphalia on March 13, comes amid Islamist death threats against German politicians -- and just days after German intelligence announced that the number of Salafists in Germany has jumped over the past year.
The Interior Ministry said that it had banned the groups "DawaFFM" and "Islamische Audios," as well as "An-Nussrah," which is part of the "Millatu Ibrahim" group that was outlawed in June 2012.
In an effort to enforce the ban, hundreds of German police officers raided the homes of radical Islamists in Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Gladbeck and Solingen, and seized computers, cellphones and electronic storage devices, as well as money, documents and Islamic propaganda videos in Arabic and in German.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said: "Salafism, as represented in the associations that were banned today, is incompatible with our free democratic order. The groups aim to change our society in an aggressive, belligerent way so that democracy would be replaced by a Salafist system, and the rule of law replaced by Sharia law."
Salafism is a branch of radical Islam based in Saudi Arabia that seeks to establish an Islamic empire (Caliphate) across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe -- and eventually the entire world. The Caliphate would be governed exclusively by Islamic Sharia law, which would apply both to Muslims and to non-Muslims.
Also known as Wahhabis, Salafists believe -- among other anti-Western doctrines -- that democracy must be destroyed and replaced with an Islamic form of government.
Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), told the German newsmagazine Focus on March 10 that the number of committed Salafists in Germany had grown to 4,500 in 2012, compared with 3,800 in 2011.
Although Salafists make up only a fraction of the estimated 4.3 million Muslims in Germany, authorities are concerned that most of those attracted to Salafi ideology are impressionable young Muslims who are especially susceptible to committing suicide attacks in the name of Islam.
Maaßen said the Salafist threat to Germany is rising and he warned that unless the government "takes decisive action against violent Islamists" the Salafist groups "will continue to grow and the threat of violence will increase." He also questioned whether Salafists should be allowed to continue to "perform propaganda events in marketplaces."
Maaßen was referring to an unprecedented nationwide campaign by Salafists to convert non-Muslims by distributing 25 million copies of the Koran to every household in Germany, free of charge.
The mass proselytization campaign -- called Project "READ!" -- was launched in April 2012 and is being implemented by dozens of Salafist groups located in cities and towns throughout Germany (as well as in Austria and in Switzerland).
The campaign, now in its twelfth month, is well under way. More than 100 Salafist "information booths" have been set up in downtown marketplaces in dozens of German cities, particularly in the regions of North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony, Hessen and Hamburg. It is estimated that millions of Korans have been distributed so far.
Some security analysts say the campaign is a public-relations gimmick intended to persuade Germans that the Salafists are transparent and "citizen friendly." But German authorities say they view the Koran project as a "most worrisome" recruiting campaign for radical Islam.
The campaign to place a Koran in every German household is being spearheaded by a Rhineland-based Salafist, Ibrahim Abou-Nagie, a Palestinian hate preacher who leads a radical Islamic group called "The True Religion" [Die Wahre Religion].
In September 2011, German public prosecutors launched an investigation into Abou-Nagie after he called for violence against non-believers in videos posted on the Internet. In his sermons, Abou-Nagie glamorizes Islamic martyrdom and says that Islamic Sharia law is above the German Constitution. He also says that music should be prohibited, homosexuals should be executed, and adulterers should be stoned.
Abou-Nagie has tens of thousands of followers across Germany. Among them are two German Muslim converts-turned-terror suspects trained by Abou-Nagie and recently arrested in Dover, England, after British border police searched their luggage and found a document titled "How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom," an article from the English-language online magazine "Inspire" produced by Al-Qaida in Yemen.
Salafi propaganda is having an impact. In March 2011, Arid Uka, a 21-year-old Islamist from Kosovo, shot and killed two American soldiers at the Frankfurt Airport who were heading to Afghanistan by way of Germany. The attack was the first successful assassination by an Islamic extremist on German soil. German prosecutors say Uka was radicalized by Salafist propaganda he saw on the Internet.
More recently, Salafists have issued death threats against German politicians.
In February 2013, the German newspaper Die Welt reported that a German Salafist calling himself Abu Azzam had threatened to attack Berlin this summer and to kill German Chancellor Angela Merkel. According to the newspaper, a three-minute video posted on the Internet shows Azzam saying: "Our troops are already there [in Germany], you will bleed, your heads will roll ... Oh Allah, give the German people what they deserve!"
In what German intelligence said was an "unusually direct threat to Germany and the head of the government," Azzam also said: "Looking back at the Arab spring, we are looking forward to a European summer. We want to see Obama and Merkel dead."
Police arrested a total of four Salafists involved in the plot. Two of the suspects were apprehended in Leverkusen near Cologne, where they were apparently observing Beisicht. Two others were arrested in Essen and Bonn, where police discovered a loaded firearm and ingredients to make explosives. Police also found a "death list" with the names of eight individuals marked in red.
The suspects are two Turkish-born Germans in their early twenties, a 43-year-old Albanian and a 25-year-old German.
The German tabloid Bild reported that one of those arrested was involved in a failed bomb attack at the main train station in Bonn on December 10, although police later disputed that claim.
Beisicht and PRO NRW have been involved in violent clashes with Salafists over the past year.
In May 2012, for example, more than 500 Salafists attacked German police with bottles, clubs, stones and other weapons in the city of Bonn, to protest cartoons they said were "offensive."
The clashes erupted when around 30 supporters of PRO NRW, which is opposed to the further spread of Islam in Germany, participated in a campaign rally ahead of regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Following the melee, in which 29 police officers were injured, a video surfaced on the Internet by a known terrorist, the German-born Yassin Chouka, a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
In the German-language video, Chouka, also known as Abu Ibraheem, calls for members of PRO NRW and the German media to be killed. He also urges the Salafists to move away from street confrontations, where the risk of being arrested is great, and instead to target PRO NRW members in their homes and workplaces.
Another video, which was produced after Salafi clashes with police in the German city of Solingen, effectively declares holy war on Germany. Produced by former rapper Deso Dogg, a German convert to Salafi Islam, the lyrics (which rhyme in German) say:
"No doubt about it. Islam will prevail and the victory is already very close …We warn you PRO NRW. Take heed, when you go to sleep at night! … Stay fit, do a lot of sports, prepare your body … In Germany, we will make the ground shake and only for Allah … Hail stones will rain on the kuffar [unbelievers] because they do not fear Allah … War and death will come to Germany, car bombs will explode! You have been warned, but you have ignored. They will come from all over the world to die, they are the chosen … We are fighting democracy, the biggest lie of the kuffar. The noble sword of Sharia has come to win here. No end in sight, we bring war and death to your front door."
In an interview with the newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the party's domestic policy expert in parliament, said he would like to make it easier to deport religious extremists.
Bosbach said: "Banning the Salafist groups is important because organizational structures are destroyed. But this is just one step in the fight against Salafism. Radical ideas do not disappear simply by banning certain groups."
He added: "It is incomprehensible why the deportation law applies only to politically motivated perpetrators of violence and not for religiously motivated fanatics."
According to Section 54 of the Residency Act, those found guilty of calling for violence to achieve political goals can be deported. But the law in its current form does not apply to those found guilty of promoting violence for religious goals.
Bosbach said that since many of those affected are German citizens, "we need to increase the pressure by rapidly evaluating Salafist propaganda on the Internet and in other media as well as a consistent application of criminal law."
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.