Germany Struggles to Counter ISIS Appeal, as More Than 450 Leave for Syria

The government has been accused of lacking a national strategy, and under-funding civil society projects which often have the most credibility and resonance with youth.

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Women hold a banner as they demonstrate against ISIS insurgent attacks on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in Berlin, October 12, 2014.
Women hold a banner as they demonstrate against ISIS insurgent attacks on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in Berlin, October 12, 2014. Credit: Reuters

REUTERS - At Berlin's inner-city Carl von Ossietzky high school, Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is on everyone's lips, says history and politics teacher Nalan Kilic.

The pupils, the overwhelming majority of whom have a Turkish background and are Muslim, are anxious to talk about Islamic State's advance, the Syria crisis, the videos they have all seen on Facebook and WhatsApp, and the radical Islam that has convinced hundreds of youths of the same age to leave Germany for the Middle East.

"Everybody is asking about it, it is all over the television," said Kilic.

The school says it wants to meet its students' need to discuss the militants, while at the same time equipping them with the powers to reject radical Islam. Some of its youngsters have already been approached by radical preachers outside of school in busy Berlin shopping districts.

That has created an urgent need here, as elsewhere in Europe, for prevention courses to protect those deemed at risk, as well as deradicalization programs for families already touched by extremism.

"We laughed when we saw those first rudimentary extremist videos in 2005," said Aycan Demirel, leader of a government-backed pilot project intended to guard youngsters from radical Islam. "But a new politico-religious movement has grown up out of nothing and taken all of us completely by surprise."

Authorities estimate at least 450 people have travelled from Germany to Syria to join jihadist forces, part of a European contingent of around 3,000. Several have died there, at least five have carried out suicide bombings, and there are no signs that the wave of departures is slowing.

The government says it wants to reach youths early, before they develop extremist tendencies - acting through schools, social workers and Muslim communities. Authorities are turning partly to the techniques they have built up in preventing and tackling neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism and the radical Left.

Yet strikingly, Germany largely leaves prevention and deradicalization work to its 16 federal states and has cut national funding to projects run by civil groups.
"We have to tackle the roots of radicalization, and we are much too late," said Greens lawmaker Irene Mihalic, who accuses the government of lacking a national strategy, and underfunding civil society projects which often have the most credibility and resonance with youngsters.

The government's written answers to official questions submitted by the Greens revealed the federal government is allocating just 551,316 euros to civil prevention and deradicalization projects this year - a decrease of roughly 25 percent from last year.

"Hunting ground"

Demirel, who previously ran courses designed to prevent anti-Semitism, has gathered some thirty students, mostly males between 16-17, for his workshop at the Ossietzky school.
"One big issue for young people is feeling unaccepted as a Muslim in society. That then creates a fertile hunting ground for radical Islamists, who come along and say yes you are excluded because you are Muslim," said Demirel.

Young people have an astonishingly negative picture of the media, he adds, and view it as critical and dismissive of them. Demirel teaches youngsters to develop a more discerning view and not to feel so persecuted.

In his workshop he shows a television report by a German public broadcaster about residents' objections to a women-only swimming day at a Munich pool. "It is racist, full of stereotypes, offensive," says one student.

They then watch the report again, slowly, in sections.

There are some residents whose contempt for the idea, and for Muslims, is manifest. But there are also German councilors who introduced the day and support it.

By the end of the session, students accept that German society is not intrinsically hostile.

Syrian adventure

The students shake their heads when asked if they feel drawn to Islamic State and its propaganda, but they have all seen it.

"What these people are doing has nothing to do with Islam," said 17-year-old Yusuf who attends a Koran class outside school.

"I don't feel attracted to them, their ideas. But I guess some people find it fulfilling. They look for something which gives them a kick - you go to Syria, you are trained, you fight ... it's an adventure."

Yusuf wants to be a film director and sees his future in Germany.

Those most likely to travel to Syria are from Germany's Salafist scene, a branch of authoritarian Islam, whose adherents want life to be based on Koranic laws and the lives of the first generations of Muslims.

German domestic intelligence calls it Germany's "most dynamic Islamic movement" and estimates the number of Salafists has risen from around 3,800 in 2011 to 5,500 last year. Some groups have been closed down by German authorities, others are closely monitored, but they continue to gain in strength.

Rather than working in concert, Germany's federal states are developing individual strategies to keep tabs on local Salafism which owes much to the charisma of its preachers. German authorities have said many of those who have travelled to Syria were radicalized in Salafist mosques, or were recruited in such circles. However the scene is highly fragmented.

Salafist preachers often have no formal theological training, according to Imam Ender Cetin of Berlin's Sehitlik mosque but are often skilled users of the Internet and social media. They tap into youth culture, pre-empting confused teenagers' questions.

They have also produced guides to female dress - seizing on some of the tight clothing paired with headscarves you can see on Berlin streets and declaring it 'haram' - banned.

"We probably recognized too late that radicalization was taking hold," said Cetin, acknowledging his mosque cannot compete with the Salafists' mutlimedia output. "We try and use theological arguments to re-socialize someone, help them back into society. But we can't do everything."

"Don't let them die"

Islam expert Claudia Dantschke deals with the people already in the grip of Salafist ideology and tries to bring them back from the brink, usually acting through family members.

She founded the Hayat (Life) phone line in late 2011, part of Germany's Centre for Democratic Culture (ZEK) which also includes a program to help neo-Nazis exit the far-right scene.

"Deradicalization needs to work on many levels," said Dantschke. "It needs to work on an emotional level, create a viable alternative for people and break their trust in the group and its world view."

In her two years working with Hayat, she has seen the rise of Islamic State trigger real panic. Since January 2012 she has dealt with 101 cases, 72 are still active, 29 are closed - 11 of them with a positive outcome. The others either dropped out of contact, a handful went to Syria and may have died there.

"Once parents would call and say, I really don't want my child to end up in trouble with the police.' Now they say, 'I don't care if you throw him in a prison cell, just don't let him die in Syria."  

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