Salafism is the fastest growing Islamist movement in Germany, and Salafist jihadists pose one of the greatest threats to national security, according to a new German intelligence report.
The annual report—known in German as the Verfasungsschutzbericht Niedersachsen 2013—focuses on threats to the democratic order in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony, home to a sizeable Muslim community.
The 196-page document was prepared by the Lower Saxony branch of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), and was made public by Boris Pistorius, the Interior Minister of Lower Saxony, at a special press conference held in the city of Hannover on May 25.
Despite its regional focus, the report provides a wealth of information about the rise of radical Islam in Germany as a whole.
Most notably, the document reveals that membership in Islamic extremist groups in Germany rose to 43,185 in 2013, up from 42,550 in 2012. It also states that the number of Salafists in Germany rose to 5,500 in 2013, up from 4,500 in 2012, and 3,800 in 2011.
Although Salafists make up only a fraction of the estimated 4.3 million Muslims in Germany, authorities are increasingly concerned that most of those attracted to Salafi ideology are impressionable young Muslims who are susceptible to perpetrating terrorist acts in the name of Islam.
Salafists—who trace their roots to Saudi Arabia and glorify an idealized version of what they believe was the original Islam practiced in the 7th and 8th centuries—openly state that they want to replace democracy in Germany (and the rest of the world) with an Islamic government based on sharia law.
Salafist ideology posits that sharia law is superior to all secular laws because it comes from Allah, the only legitimate lawgiver, and thus is legally binding for all of humanity. According to the Salafist worldview, democracy is an effort to elevate the will of human beings above the will of Allah. As such, participation in the democratic process is polytheism (shirk in Arabic) and must be rejected.
The report defines Salafism as a "political ideology whose followers view Islam not only as a religion but also a legal framework that regulates all areas of life: from the state's role in organizing relations between people, to the private life of the individual." It adds:
"The absolutist nature of Salafism contradicts significant parts of the German constitutional order. Specifically, Salafism rejects the democratic principles of separation of state and religion, popular sovereignty, religious and sexual self-determination, gender equality and the fundamental right to physical integrity."
Although all Salafists share the same goals, the report says that Salafist groups in Germany range from legal organizations that "strive to obtain their goals within the legal framework of the state and categorically reject violence, to illegal groups that advocate violence to promote their aims."
Nevertheless, the interaction between "so-called political Salafists who reject violence, and so-called jihadist Salafists who advocate violence is fluid" and German authorities often find it difficult to differentiate between who is who, according to the report. It adds:
"Salafism is a dynamic heterogeneous movement with no fixed structure. Increasingly, its followers, including those in Germany, are organized in loose international networks. The central nodes of these networks are preachers and mosques.
"Salafists spread their ideology using professional methods. Their representatives are effective at public discourse. Because Salafist preachers in Germany mainly use the German language and speak in terms that appeal to young people, they exert considerable appeal and influence over youth, including converts to Islam.
"Salafist preachers spread their ideology to a large extent on the Internet. Their online offers, videos, documents and audios dominate German-language information about Islam that is available on the Internet. Individuals who want to learn about Islam therefore are, unknowingly, more likely to encounter websites that are run by Salafists. This high degree of media coverage has enabled Salafists to promote their propaganda across wide swaths of German society.
"Seminars and lectures about Islam by Salafist preachers also play an essential role in the spread of Salafist ideology in Germany. During such seminars, Salafist preachers focus primarily on young people who are not yet followers of Salafism. Such events often last for several days, and a sense of community is created through joint activities. Ideology mediated in this manner is attractive because it provides people who are searching for meaning in life with fixed rules for behavior. Such community events are also attractive because it creates the feeling that Salafists form part of Allah's preferred elite.
"Another way in which Salafist propaganda is spread across Germany is through the use of nationwide Islamic information booths. In this way, Salafists distribute brochures, leaflets and books on Salafist doctrine, as well as German-language translations of the Koran. An especially popular example of such Islamic information booths involves the Koran-distribution campaign 'READ! In the name of your Lord who has created you.' This campaign, which was launched in 2012 and continued throughout 2013, has used information booths located in pedestrian streets and bustling downtown areas to distribute copies of the Koran to passers-by. Furthermore, in the context of missionary activities, Salafists have distributed Korans in prisons, hospitals, restaurants, schools and kindergartens.
"The Koran-distribution campaign is being organized by a Salafist preachers network called Die Wahre Religion [The True Religion], which is led by the Cologne-based Salafist preacher Ibrahim Abou-Nagie, who appears regularly in connection with Salafist-aligned seminars on Islam. On his website, Abou-Nagie says he discusses the 'one true religion' with those who pass by the information booths. It is therefore to be feared that the distribution campaign is not limited to the mere passing of the Koran, but that Salafists are actively seeking out contact with young people to spread their Salafist ideas. This action is to be seen as a further component of the aggressive proselytizing and recruitment work of Salafists nationwide."
The Salafists are racking up success stories. An estimated 330 German nationals are believed to have travelled to Syria as jihadists in the hopes of overthrowing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replacing it with an Islamic state.
With few exceptions, German jihadists are males under the age of 25 who have been radicalized by Salafist propaganda, according to Michael Kiefer, a German Islam expert who teaches at the government-sponsored Institute for Islamic Theology at the University of Osnabrück.
In an interview with Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), a public radio station based in Hamburg, Kiefer says that "when we look at the biographies [of the German jihadists in Syria], we often see quite normal young men who have just met the wrong people at the wrong time who have led them down this path."
Kiefer says that many of the Germans leaving for Syria are "born-again Muslims:" Muslims who are born into secular families and later became radicalized, often after having come into contact with Salafist propaganda on the Internet.
German jihadists are—overwhelmingly, according to Kiefer—young men who are disillusioned with their lives and who succumb to Salafist rhetoric that it is their duty as Muslims to fight in Syria. They are promised that if they die as martyrs, they will be catapulted into paradise, and if they live, they will return home as heroes.
Kiefer believes that German authorities are not keeping up with the Salafists because counter-terrorism efforts are too focused on security-related threats rather than on prevention and combating radicalization at the earliest stages of indoctrination.
Radicalization is usually a lengthy process that involves one or two years, Kiefer says, time during which relatives, friends, teachers and social workers could intervene. Given the fact that the number of German jihadists heading for Syria is increasing by the day, Kiefer warns that "something must be done immediately. We cannot wait any longer."
Meanwhile, the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig on May 14 upheld the ban of a Salafist group called DawaFFM and its affiliated youth organization, "Dar al-Shabab."
The German government outlawed DawaFFM—along with two other Salafist groups, "Islamische Audios" and "An-Nusrah"—in May 2013 on charges of subverting the constitutional order. It also said the groups were recruiting and radicalizing young Muslims under the guise of doing "mission work."
The immediate trigger for the ban was DawaFFM's role in a May 2012 riot in which 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 leader of DawaFFM, a Salafist preacher named Abdellatif Rouali, appealed the ban. But the Leipzig court ruled that the prohibition was indeed constitutional because the group "supports the armed jihad in states affected by religious disputes through the dissemination of statements, violent battle chants and prayers requesting the destruction of Americans, Jews, Christians and Shiites."
The court added that DawaFFM [Dawa is Arabic for proselytizing and FFM refers to Frankfurt am Main] "promotes radicalization, especially of young Muslims, and recruits fighters for jihad in relevant conflict states, and also for correspondingly motivated violence in Germany."
The ban is unlikely to deter Rouali. As it turns out, he has quietly opened a store called "Mekka Shop" in downtown Frankfurt that sells conservative Islamic clothing and Salafist books.
Rouali, whose sermons glorify martyrdom, helped Ibrahim Abou-Nagie, a Palestinian hate preacher, launch the "READ! A Koran in Every Home" Koran distribution campaign, which aims to place a copy of the Koran into every household in Germany.
In mid-May, undercover reporters from the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau observed young men moving back and forth between Rouali's store and a READ! Koran information booth in the center of Frankfurt.
At least three young men from Frankfurt who have died in Syria in recent months had previously participated in "READ!" campaign booths, the paper reported.
German authorities say they are monitoring the shop to ensure it does not become the "center for Salafism" in Frankfurt.
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.