The Missionary Zeal of Germany’s Salafists
Behind enemy lines:
“My duty is to use my voice to tell people the truth, and the truth is jihad, Â Jihad is a duty.”
Mohamed Mahmoud sits on his bed and tries to keep his cat away from his visitor. He is wearing the Pakistani traditional dress known as shalwar kameez, and light-brown pakol, the hat worn by Pashtuns. “The Prophet Muhammad also had a cat,” says the 26-year-old with a smile, sensing our surprise. On the wall behind him is a black flag of the sort often seen in videos from al-Qaida and similar organizations, with the creed of the Muslim faith written on it in Arab letters: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.
(Allah is not God. Â And Muhammad is bad news.)
“My goal in life is victory or shahada, the martyr’s death,” says Mahmoud, who has made a name for himself in the global jihadist movement as Abu Usama al-Gharib.
Despite appearances, however, Mahmoud is not a mujahid in the Hindu Kush. Rather, he is sitting in a studio apartment in a small city near Frankfurt. The apartment building is in the center of the town, next to a pharmacy and a Turkish diner. For him, the world outside is the world of the “kuffar,” or infidels. Mahmoud has a single mission: He wants to convert the infidels to Salafism, the ultra conservative interpretation of the Koran that has triggered a debate in Germany over the limits of religious freedom.
“That’s what I stand for, and that’s what I’ll die for,” says Mahmoud, born in Austria to Egyptian immigrant parents. So far, he feels that society hasn’t understood him and his religious zeal. But most great leaders, he says, only gained true recognition after death.
Mahmoud also sees himself as a leader, an appointee of Allah in the diaspora. He is in enemy country, and religion is his combat zone. In the world that he wants to establish in Western Europe, there would be stonings and floggings. Mahmoud and his radical comrades-in-arms are fighting for a sort of European caliphate governed by the Shariah instead of secular law. To that end, he is building a nationwide network in Germany called “Millatu-Ibrahim,” which supports the actions of Frankfurt imam Ibrahim Abou Nagie, whose helpers are currently handing out free Korans in the downtown pedestrian zones of German cities.
Provocation and Agitation
Men like Abou Nagie, Mahmoud and his friend Denis Cuspert, a former gangsta rapper who is now proselytizing at Mahmoud’s side, represent a challenge to democracy. They use words as weapons, and they take advantage of the leeway afforded by freedom of expression in a society that treats religious freedom as an important value. They stretch the constitutional state to its absolute limit, and sometimes beyond, with their acts of provocation and agitation.
Salafism “doesn’t fit into a free society, like the one we have here in Germany,” says German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU). But even Friedrich lacks a strategy for dealing with bearded young men wearing long robes, and holding German passports, who have been distributing the Koran in Germany for several weeks now, just as the Jehovah’s Witnesses once distributed their religious magazine,Â The Watchtower.
The conflict with agitators like Mahmoud and Abu Nagie is one being waged with administrative sanctions, the law and surveillance. It also, however, represents an attempt to grapple with the question as to what motivates the Salafists and why their message is reaching an astonishingly large number of young people. To understand the fascination that such an archaic version of Islam can have, and how it is preached today, one has to listen to young men like Mahmoud.
On his computer in his apartment, there is an appeal to break Filiz Gelowicz out of prison. Filiz is the wife of Fritz Gelowicz, one of the terrorists convicted in 2010 of planning to attack US military installations in Germany. She is in prison for having raised money for jihad. “How can I, as a Muslim, sleep in peace or eat when my sisters in prison are suffering?” Mahmoud asks. His eyes well up with tears and he buries his face in his hands. Mahmoud becomes intoxicated with revolutionary pathos. The front line, for him, is where good mujahedin are pitted against bad Christians.
The telephone rings. It’s someone from the bank across the street, calling to tell him that he is not being allowed to open an account there. “Why not?” he asks the woman on the telephone. “For reasons of corporate policy,” she replies. Mahmoud, who is unemployed, has plenty of time to think about things like corporate policies. “I can’t open an account,” he says, “because they see me as a security risk.” His wife pays for the apartment.
Several Visits to His Home
German security authorities are alarmed by the determination and aggressiveness with which Mahmoud and his fellow Salafists are converting young Germans to Islam. The police and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, believe that he is one of the most dangerous Islamists in the German-speaking countries. Authorities in his home state of Hesse have paid several visits to his home.
“I don’t give a damn that they think I’m dangerous,” he says. He is comfortable living in small-town Germany. A bed against the wall and a table with a few books on it, he doesn’t need more than that, he says. And a computer, of course. “The Internet is our weapon,” he says, takes a large sip of Red Bull and smiles.
Activists like Mahmoud are very modern when it comes to energy drinks and the Internet as a platform for networking and propaganda. But they are very old-fashioned when it comes to content.
The Salafists see themselves as the true Muslims, orienting themselves toward the Prophet Mohammed and the so-called righteous ancestors, the early generations of Muslims, who they believe are the only true descendants of the Prophet. Many Salafists feel that they are the elite of their religion, which doesn’t make them very popular among other Muslims. As a result, in big cities they often pray in back rooms covered with worn rugs, isolated from other Muslim congregations.
The BfV estimates that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 followers of this fundamentalist school of religion in Germany. Salafists have gained new members in recent years, especially among young men, because they portray an image of uncompromising toughness. Salafism has developed into an Islamic subculture that is especially appealing to the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Like every subculture, Salafism also has its stars, who are surrounded by their fans. Hundreds of young men and women regularly attend the lectures by Pierre Vogel, a former boxer who now lives in Egypt and makes an appearance in Europe now and then. The preacher posts recordings of his events on the Internet. Mahmoud has also published various propaganda videos.
It didn’t take long for Mahmoud, whose father belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to realize that he wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms in Germany. The bus he was traveling in from Vienna to Berlin was stopped by federal police and an officer asked him what his intentions were in Germany and where he planned to go. “The Austrians had apparently notified German authorities about his pending arrival,” says his defense attorney, Michael Murat SertsÃ¶z.
Songs of Bin Laden
Mahmoud enjoys high credibility in international jihadist circles, because he spent four years in an Austrian prison. “I had a lot of time to study during my incarceration,” he says. He was convicted in Vienna of membership in a terrorist organization and for his role as the leader of the German-language Global Islamic Media Front. The group’s website was used to post al-Qaida and Taliban videos for the local Islamist community.
Mahmoud studied with an imam in Italy named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, aka Abu Omar. The imam became internationally known when it was revealed that CIA agents had kidnapped him in Milan in February 2003, and that he was later tortured in Egypt.
“My interest in jihad began early on,” says Mahmoud, as he describes how, as a child, he saw videos of the fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya, and of mutilated corpses, raped women and beheaded men, all of them Muslims. “I was already on the side of the mujahedin in those days,” he says.
In October 2002, when he was 17, he disappeared for eight months. It’s presumed that he traveled via Italy to Iraq, where he was trained in a terrorist camp. He was detained in Iran, near the border with Iraq, and sent back to Austria. The police became aware of Mahmoud in 2007 when he bought chemicals that could have been used to assemble a suicide bomb.
Mahmoud showed no remorse after his conviction in Vienna. He reportedly converted several young prisoners to Salafism at the Simmering Prison. “I will continue along my path,” he told a police officer, according to a report by the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation, “and I would even die for that path.” If he “got a bullet to the head” as a result, Mahmoud said, “it would be fine with me.” That was shortly before his release in September.
Islam as Pop Culture
A few days later, Mahmoud drove to Berlin and went to see a man he didn’t need to convert: Denis Cuspert, 36. Cuspert had performed as a rapper under the stage name Deso Dogg. Then he converted to Islam, and now he calls himself Abu Malik.
The former prisoner Mahmoud and the ex-rapper Cuspert are now all but inseparable. They launched the “Millatu-Ibrahim” (“The Community of Ibrahim”) missionary project and went from mosque to mosque, selling Islam as pop culture. They want the young men they approach to distance themselves from the kuffar, be proud of their religion “and not be ashamed to carry a weapon,” Mahmoud tells his supporters on YouTube. He claims that Millatu-Ibrahim already has branches in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Flensburg and Solingen, and that others will follow. He has also met with like-minded people in Antwerp and London.
Former rapper Cuspert provides the inspired Islamist community with the songs for their new pop culture — not rap, but a chanting that remains faithful to the Koran. “We know exactly how to address these young people,” says Cuspert, “we speak the same language and we know how they feel, because, just like them, we also grew up in Europe.”
The religious songs Cuspert sings today are called nashids. The lyrics are about Muslim women in prison and Osama bin Laden. “Your name flows in our blood,” Cuspert sings, referring to the al-Qaida leader who was shot and killed last year in Pakistan.
The case of Arid Uka, who shot and killed two US soldiers at Frankfurt Airport in 2009, shows how much influence the ex-rapper has, especially on second- and third-generation Muslims. The killer was one of Cuspert’s Facebook friends. A video was posted on the ex-rapper’s website that showed men in US military uniforms raping a Muslim woman. The video enraged Uka, who saw it the night before the attack. The scenes were from a film and were not real, but Uka didn’t know that.
Taking Care of His Brothers
Mahmoud, Cuspert and their organization act as a catalyst to young men like Arid Uka. Most of their followers are uninterested in violence, but a small number are drawn to the radical language schools in Egypt and, from there, some continue to Pakistan, Afghanistan, al-Qaida and similar groups. “My duty is to use my voice to tell people the truth, and the truth is jihad,” sings Cuspert. “Jihad is a duty.”
Cuspert, like Mahmoud, grew up in the West. He was born in Berlin as the son of a German mother and a Ghanaian father. But the father left the family when Denis was still an infant. His mother married a former American soldier, but the boy and his stepfather didn’t get along, and Denis was eventually shunted to institutions. Cuspert tried to find a home with street gangs in Berlin at first, and he was arrested a number of times.
Today, Mahmoud and Cuspert are something of a dream team for the radical Islamist scene. There is a photo that depicts the two men with a pair of Berlin Islamists who were arrested shorty before a local parliamentary election last September. A judge had to release the suspects before long due to a lack of sufficient evidence. Mahmoud and Cuspert picked the men up from prison, and the four men posed for a photographer making the victory sign. The prison veteran takes care of his younger brothers — that was the message.
How does the government deal with such detractors of Western society? The Berlin branch of the BfV prepared a study about ex-rapper Cuspert, but unless he issues a public call for violence or makes other mistakes, the authorities can do little more than keep an eye on him. In the Mahmoud case, the government uses administrative tools as a means of defense.
‘We Love Death’
Following his arrival, the Berlin officials initiated deportation proceedings against the Austrian. The obstacles to deporting a fellow European are high. Under European Union law, anyone can settle anywhere in the EU. And only after an intensive review of an individual case can a delinquent EU citizen be deported from Germany. This would be the case if he constituted a “serious threat” to public safety. In the Mahmoud case, the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation collected evidence from the start. Mahmoud, the investigators noted last November, praised the martyrdom of al-Qaida leaders and stressed that he would “fight to the last drop of blood.”
Perhaps one reason Mahmoud is traveling around Germany is to take advantages of the bureaucratic confusion inherent in the country’s federalist system. After a hearing in Berlin, he traveled to Solingen in western Germany to preach to the Islamic community there — with success: Within a short amount of time, the mosque had been renamed the Millatu-Ibrahim Mosque. Following protests by locals, Mahmoud eventually moved to his current apartment near Frankfurt. The authorities forwarded his files as he crossed state borders and proceedings against him are now continuing in Hesse.
Mahmoud boasts that he isn’t afraid of deportation and, in fact, that he isn’t afraid of anything at all. There is an important difference between his enemies and him, the devout Muslim: “They love life. We love death.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan