Germany’s Syria policy is one of the most paradoxical within the European Union. In contrast to her French and British counterparts, Chancellor Angela Merkel has opposed all forms of military intervention and lethal aid designed to topple Bashar al Assad’s regime.
Yet a steady stream of German Muslims continues to enter the war zone and embrace jihad. To be fair, sizable numbers of Muslims (as of early December, between 1,500 and 2,000) from across Europe have managed to travel to Syria because of lax Turkish border policies and the wide latitude afforded to those with Western passports.
The mushrooming influx of German fighters into Syria prompted a worrisome reaction earlier this month from Germany’s domestic intelligence head Hans-Georg Maaßen.
The agency’s inability to prevent the departure of extremists for Syria was captured in Maaßen’s appeal to “Turkey as a very important factor in the region” and as a country with which Germany “hopes and expects to have a significantly closer working relationship.” His boilerplate diplomatic language reflects the reality that Turkey’s dangerously porous borders have allowed European Muslims to enter what is arguably the world’s largest mix of foreign jihadists.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s relaxed policies toward allowing foreign fighters to enter northern Syria via Turkey have helped al Qaeda-linked groups to absorb large swaths of land. German media refer to the establishment of a “German Camp” in Syria that caters to training and recruitment as a magnet to attract German-speaking jihadists from Europe. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency Verfassungsschutz — The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution — declined to comment on the “German Camp” report.
The decampment of radical German Islamists to Muslim-majority countries immersed in revolt is nothing new. In 2009, German Muslims set up a “German village” in Pakistan as a base connected to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. It is worth noting that the German Islamists used Iran as a conduit to enter Pakistan.
Last year, German intelligence and police officials described the emergence of a “German Salafist colony” in Egypt. Over 60 German fighters created an organizational base in Egypt. The former famous Berlin rapper Denis Cuspert (a.k.a. “Deso Dogg”) escaped the observation of the Verfassungsschutz and fled to the “German Salafist colony.” Cuspert is now in Syria fighting to topple the Assad regime.
German police officials stated in mid-November that Cuspert planned terror attacks on German institutions abroad. Cuspert, in an audio message, said that “Germany is not my attack target” for his jihadi activities.
A flurry of Twitter micro-blogs in late November claimed Cuspert had died. Dr. Guido Steinberg, a counterterrorism expert and author of German Jihad: On the Internationalization of Islamist Terrorism, said that Cuspert is not dead but is either still in Syria or receiving medical treatment in Turkey.
Steinberg, who is affiliated with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that “[t]here is only a very limited number of Germans with Al Nusrah and ISIS because the leadership distrusts” fighters who cannot be easily identified and dislikes the uncertainty created by dealing with non-homegrown combatants. The al Qaeda-linked ISIS and Al Nusrah represent the most lethal form of revolutionary Islam in Syria. This helps to explain their obsession with avoiding penetration by spies. They may very well suspect Cuspert because he is a convert to Islam. Cuspert’s new name is believed to be Abu Talha al-Almani.
The challenge German security services face in gathering sound intelligence and monitoring threats was illustrated last year. The New York Times reported in an article titled “German case spotlights difficulty in monitoring Muslim extremists,” that a Tunisian man who may have worked as a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden a year before the 9/11 attacks had been living undetected in Germany. Sami A., the alleged bin Laden bodyguard, was described as a “dangerous Jihadist” who gained enormous admiration among young German Muslims for his training in extremist camps in Afghanistan.
The failure to take preventative measures to combat radicalization and inadequate antiterrorism policies in the Federal Republic has helped create a pool of young German Muslim zealots eager to fight in Syria and willing to die as “martyrs.”
By current estimates there are 230 German Muslims in Syria, and this number is “changing on a daily basis,” according to information obtained from the Verfassungsschutz. The intelligence agency said this represents a mix of German “fighters and humanitarian aid personnel,” and added: “What they are doing there, we don’t know, because we are a domestic intelligence agency.” It is worth recalling that in August the estimated number of German fighters in Syria was 150, and six months prior the figure was 60.
The counterterrorism alarm bells are ringing in the Federal Republic because of the ballooning number of German Muslims traveling to Syria. The western state of Hesse is slated to implement an early warning system to stop jihadi trips to Syria, particularly by German adolescents. Hesse’s interior ministry commissioned a study analyzing cases of Salafists who departed for Syria. In a sample of 23 cases, most were men under 25 years old and nine were school-age boys. “Salafists … target pupils” to be groomed for combat in Syria, noted the study. Second German Television (ZDF) aired a report on underage Germans fighting Syria; the civil war has become a form of “war tourism” for the combatants.
Hesse’s Interior Minister Boris Rhein proposed a model to discern radical Islamist tendencies among young German Muslims. His social work-style model would entail a hotline for worried parents and a consulting center to provide expertise to families. Rhein’s approach mirrors the model widely used to combat neo-Nazism and extremist right-wing ideologies across Germany.
Horrific acts of violence have been attributed to German Muslim fighters in Syria. In early August, German Islamists reportedly participated in the killing of Syrian Christians.
“The complicity of Germans in the extermination and ethnic cleansing in Syria is a sheer intolerable condition,” a German police official said.
Germany has a Syria civil war problem. The eventual return of some German extremists from the conflict in Syria will likely breathe new energy into Germany’s rising Salafist movement. When asked what measures can be employed to address the problem, Steinberg, the German counterterrorism expert, said that “our services must take a more aggressive approach” and Turkey has to clamp down on its loose border control policies to prevent entry into Syria.
As Syria’s civil war enters its fourth year in March 2014, the German Islamic colony in Syria will continue to grow.
Benjamin Weinthal is a European affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He reported on the conflict in September and October from the Turkey-Syria border, including from Jarabulus in Syria. Follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal