Manchester bomber’s Libyan experiences and radicalisation

Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, 22, may have been radicalised through his connections to Libya. His father fled Libya to escape Ghadafi because Abedi senior was connected to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which had tried to assassinate Ghadafi. LIFG was prominently represented at the Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated Didsbury Mosque which the Abedi family attended. After 9/11, the LIFG was declared an Al Qaeda affiliate and its funding was cut off. The Abedi family’s escape of Libya occurred before the birth of Salman Abedi; however, when Salman was 16, Abedi senior returned to Libya after the Arab Spring when the opportunity to finally overthrow Ghadafi presented itself.

As a result, Salman Abedi moved often between war-torn Tripoli and Manchester. At some point, it is suspected that he went with other Libyans to fight in Syria, where he saw American bombs killing Muslim children. He was full of contradictions, as he drank and used drugs but was violent towards women who adhered to Western sexuality norms.

Salman Abedi was radicalised into a different form of violence than his father. While his father abhorred ISIS, Abedi embraced it after his experiences with cultural clash and violence in Syria. This led to the tragic events last week.

British Muslims respond to London terrorist attack

Muslims in the UK are condemning Wednesday’s terrorist attack.

A Muslim convert, Khalid Masood, killed 4 people on and near Westminster Bridge in London. Police believe that Masood was inspired by international terrorist organizations; Daesh (the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant) has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Muslim Council of Britain was one of the first organisations to issue a response to the attack on Wednesday, offering condolences for the victims’ families and condemning the attack. The organisation issued an extended statement on Thursday.

Muslim leaders also participated in a conversation with other faith leaders to discuss responses to the attack. Specific mosques, such as Finsbury Park, have added their strong condemnations of the attack.

London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, spoke about how Londoners should not allow the attack to divide them and spread hatred.

Muslim Members of Parliament, Naz Shah and Yasmin Qureshi, and a community leader who was in Parliament at the time of the attack, Muddassar Ahmed, have also launched a campaign to support victims and their families financially. The project, Muslims Unite for London, has already raised about £18,000.

 

World’s Muslim population more widespread than you might think

President Donald Trump’s recent executive order temporarily freezing immigration from seven predominantly Islamic countries would affect only about 12% of the world’s Muslims, according to estimates from a 2015 Pew Research Center Report on the current and projected size of religious groups. In fact, of the seven countries named in the new immigration ban – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – only one, Iran, is among the ten countries with the largest Muslim populations.

As of 2010, there were an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, making Islam the world’s second-largest religious tradition after Christianity. And although many people, especially in the United States, may associate Islam with countries in the Middle East or North Africa, nearly two-thirds (62%) of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the Pew Research Center analysis. In fact, more Muslims live in India and Pakistan (344 million combined) than in the entire Middle East-North Africa region (317 million).

Jean-Marc Ayrault speaks out against Trump’s travel ban

French and German foreign ministers met on Saturday to discuss President Donald Trump’s temporary ban on nationals from seven countries entering the US. The ban affects citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and is in effect for an extendable initial period of 90 days.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said, “We have signed international obligations, so welcoming refugees fleeing war and oppression forms part of our duties. There are many other issues that worry us. That is why Sigmar and I also discussed what we are going to do. When our colleague, [Rex] Tillerson, is officially appointed, we will both contact him.”

The International Rescue Committee said, “The agency is calling President Donald Trump’s suspension of the U.S. refugee resettlement program a ‘harmful and hasty’ decision. America must remain true to its core values. America must remain a beacon of hope.”

French President François Hollande said, “We should engage in discussions that sometimes should be very firm … When he rejects the arrival of refugees, while Europe has done its duty, we should respond to him.”

Meanwhile, Trump has said the new ban is working out “very well.”

“It’s not a Muslim ban. It’s working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over. We’re going to have a very, very strict ban and we’re going to have extreme vetting which we should have had in this country for many years,” Trump said.

The entire text of the executive order can be read here. Although most media coverage refers to a ban on Muslim refugees, the executive order makes no explicit mention of Islam. It does, however state that “In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.

“In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including ‘honor’ killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”

Global backlash grows against Trump’s immigration order

A global backlash against U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration curbs gathered strength on Sunday as several countries including long-standing American allies criticized the measures as discriminatory and divisive.

Governments from London and Berlin to Jakarta and Tehran spoke out against Trump’s order to put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the United States and temporarily ban travelers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries. He said the move would help protect Americans from terrorism.

In Germany – which has taken in large numbers of people fleeing the Syrian civil war – Chancellor Angela Merkel said the global fight against terrorism was no excuse for the measures and “does not justify putting people of a specific background or faith under general suspicion”, her spokesman said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country welcomed those fleeing war and persecution, even as Canadian airlines said they would turn back U.S.-bound passengers to comply with an immigration ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada,” he tweeted.

Iranian Director Asghar Farhadi Won’t Attend Oscar Ceremony

The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose film “The Salesman” is nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language movie, said on Sunday that he would not attend the Oscars ceremony next month even if he were granted an exception to President Trump’s visa ban for citizens from Iran and several other predominantly Muslim countries.

Mr. Farhadi said he had planned to attend the Feb. 26 ceremony in Los Angeles and while there bring attention to a decision he called “unjust.” But the executive order signed by President Trump on Friday presented “ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip,” he said in a statement to The New York Times.

The executive order blocked entry into the United States for 90 days for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It also suspended entry of all refugees for 120 days and barred Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Defusing the lure of militant Islam, despite death threats

These days, Dounia Bouzar doesn’t go anywhere without her three bodyguards. The French Muslim anthropologist has received death threats for unveiling the tactics of Islamist recruiters. I meet her in a cafe along Paris’ Boulevard St. Germain, where Bouzar is enjoying an ice cream sundae in the back while her security contingent, provided by the French government, sits at a table out front, eyes on the entrance.

Bouzar’s book, Defusing Radical Islam, was published in 2014, a year before the rest of the country woke up to the threat of homegrown radicalization. That moment came in January 2015, when radical Islamist gunmen attacked the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, killing 17 people.

“When it was published, hundreds of parents of radicalized kids came looking for me,” says Bouzar. “Because they recognized themselves and their children in my book.”

After the book came out, Bouzar began working with 300 parents to develop ways to deal with the problem. One of the fathers was a policeman and showed the others how to bug their kids’ phones and computers. Bouzar says they were then able to witness how the recruiters worked.

“They set out to break every emotional, social and historical tie in the kids’ lives,” says Bouzar. “The recruiters had them drop their friends, who [they said] were complicit with a corrupt society; their teachers, who [they said] were being paid to indoctrinate them; and eventually, even break from their parents, who [they said] were nonbelievers even if they were Muslim,” she says.

Bouzar says the young people also stopped taking part in sports and music. And when they were stripped of their identity and there was nothing left, ISIS took them over and they became part of the group.

In early 2015, Bouzar’s organization, the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam, won a government contract to help parents who had called a national anti-radicalization hotline that had recently been put in place. Bouzar traveled the country training teams of psychologists, police and other experts to deal with the phenomenon of radicalization and parents’ concerns.

One of the parents who reached out to Bouzar for help was Celine, a mother from a small Normandy town whose 19-year-old son had converted to Islam. Celine doesn’t want to give her last name because of fears for her family.

She says it wasn’t her son’s conversion to Islam that bothered her, but the way he began to cut himself off from the world. “All of a sudden, he refused to eat pork or listen to music,” she says. “And his grades plummeted. He had an empty look in his eyes and it was like he didn’t think for himself anymore. He became sort of like a robot. And he was always, always on the phone.”

Celine discovered her son had opened a second Facebook account — and on it, he was discussing going to Syria.

According to the French Interior Ministry, more young people from France have radicalized and gone to war zones in Syria and Iraq than from any other European country. About 1,500 French citizens have gone or tried to go. Approximately 700 are still there. Celine wanted to make sure her son would not be among them.

Bouzar says that ISIS, unlike al-Qaida, tailors its radicalization tactics to individual profiles. For example, girls are particularly attracted to the idea of taking care of children hurt by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad or finding a God-fearing and faithful Muslim husband. Recruiters play to these desires. They even have different videos geared to speak to the different motivations for wanting to join ISIS.

“For girls, there’s a kind of myth of a Daesh-[ISIS-]land utopia where no one will be cold or hungry and everything runs on divine law,” says Bouzar. “The recruiters make them believe they can become a nurse and be running a hospital wing in just a couple of months.”

One of Bouzar’s methods for treating young people seduced by ISIS involves re-establishing links between radicalized individuals and their former lives. She counsels parents to try to bring them back in touch with their childhood — through old pictures and videos or food.

Celine tried this with her son and had little success at first, but she persevered.

“I made all his favorite meals that he loved as a child,” she says. “And I took him to places he liked when he was young. I did everything to reconnect him with his childhood.” Eventually, she noticed he was becoming more open to discussion. He took an interest in school again. The empty look vanished from his eyes.

Bouzar says a person can only be brought back with the help of someone close, like a parent or other family member — or by a reformed jihadist himself.

She has used allegedly reformed jihadists in counseling sessions to try to break through to some of the young people who are radicalizing. “We get them together without the young person realizing who this person is,” says Bouzar. “But then they begin to recognize their own story out of the mouth of the reformed jihadist, because he was lured for some of the same reasons. And slowly, doubt begins to set in.”

Bouzar says there is no such thing as a radicalized youth who wants to be de-radicalized. “He thinks he’s been picked by God and he sees things no one else does, because [everybody else is] indoctrinated,” she says.

Bouzar’s methods have been controversial. Some say her use of allegedly reformed jihadists is dangerous. (In some cases, it can be challenging to ascertain whether they’ve really reformed or are pretending.) Others accuse her of self-promotion. Many more say treating radicalization as purely brainwashing is to underestimate geopolitical and social factors, and the role that radical Islam plays.

Benjamin Erbibou, who works with an organization called Entr’Autres (Among Others), a group that works with radicalization issues in the southern city of Nice, thinks only a small percentage of radicalization cases are linked to brainwashing.

“Mostly,” he says, “it’s linked to a complete rupture and rejection of French society and Western values.”

But Marik Fetouh, deputy mayor of Bordeaux and head of the city’s de-radicalization center, says it’s easy to criticize efforts to deal with radicalization because it’s a poorly understood new phenomenon.

“Bouzar came forward with real ideas to fight this complex phenomenon when pretty much no one else had a clue what to do,” he says.

Although her contract with the French government is over, Bouzar’s association still counsels families affected by radicalization. Bouzar and her teams have counseled more than 1,000 young people and their parents — from Muslim, Catholic and atheist backgrounds.

Normandy mother Celine credits Bouzar’s methods with saving her son’s life. She says he’s still a Muslim, but now he’s begun to think for himself. And most important, she says, he no longer wants to go to Syria.

French jihadist sentenced to ten years in prison following return from Syria

Nicolas Moreau, a convicted French jihadist who returned from Syria, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for criminal association with a terrorist organization.

The 32-year-old Frenchman was not present at the Paris correctional court since he refused to leave the prison where he is being held for the hearing.

Prosecutors had argued that Moreau presented an “extremely dangerous threat” and warned that he risked returning to his “jihadist commitment” once released.

 

A former fisherman from Nantes, Moreau fell into a life of petty crime before he was radicalised in prison and left France to join the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq. He stayed in the region for nearly a year and a half, according to prosecutors, and even ran a restaurant in the IS group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, during the last three months.

At a hearing on December 14, 2016, Moreau warned the court that if he was sentenced to more than 18 months in jail he would “return to armed combat”.

Born in South Korea and adopted by a French family at the age of four, Moreau lived in the western French city of Nantes and fell into delinquency after his adoptive parents divorced. He was sentenced to five years in jail for violent robbery and converted to Islam while in prison.

It was a trajectory of radicalization similar to his younger brother, Flavien Moreau, who became the first French jihadist to be tried upon his return from Syria. In November 2014, Flavien was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Both the brothers were born in South Korea before they were adopted as infants. But Flavien, the younger brother, spent only a few weeks in IS group-held territory since he was unable to cope with the jihadist group’s no-smoking policy. He entered Syria in November 2012, but returned to France weeks later to pick up an electronic cigarette. He was arrested in Turkey on his way back to Syria. Flavien is currently serving a seven-year term.

During his trial, Nicolas Moreau, the older brother, told the court he left the caliphate because he “became aware of the excesses of Daesh. He told judges he wanted to get married and return to normal life. But he also warned judges that: “If you put a heavy penalty on me, it will be harder to reintegrate me [into society]. I will take up arms again.”

Prosecutors however argued that Nicolas Moreau required a 10-year sentence since “he would return to his jihadist commitment” if released.

How to deal with extremist voices: Inclusion of hard-line Salafi in TV debate causes uproar in Germany

‘My life for Allah’

Recent reports indicate that the flow of German recruits to the jihadist groups on the Syrian battlefields is declining.((https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/jihad-reisen-101.html )) Nevertheless, among all European countries, Germany comes second in terms of the number of its citizens that have joined ISIS, al-Nusra Front, or related groups. Against this backdrop, the German public broadcaster ARD used its flagship political talk show Anne Will to discuss the reasons behind the foreign fighter phenomenon.((The full show is available at http://www.ardmediathek.de/tv/Anne-Will/Mein-Leben-f%C3%BCr-Allah-Warum-radikalisie/Das-Erste/Video?bcastId=328454&documentId=38785504 ))

Debating under the title “My life for Allah – why do more and more youth radicalise themselves?”, guests included Ahmad Mansour, a Muslim sociologist and anti-radicalisation activist; Mohamed Taha Sabri, a Berlin-based Imam; Sascha Mané, father of a girl who has joined ISIS in Syria; and conservative CDU politician Wolfgang Bosbach.((For a portrait of Ahmad Mansour and some of his work, see http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/02/20/ahmad-mansour-on-generation-allah-radicalisation-of-young-muslims-in-germany/ ))

Ties to the Syrian jihad

Yet the most controversial guest proved to be Nora Illi, converted Swiss Muslim woman serving as women’s affairs commissioner at the ‘Islamic Central Council of Switzerland’ (IZRS). In spite of this seemingly inclusive name, the hard-line Salafi IZRS represents only 0.5 per cent of Swiss Muslims.((https://www.welt.de/vermischtes/article159313844/Nikab-Nora-liebt-die-Provokation.html ))

The organisation is the target of a criminal investigation in Switzerland for facilitating the travel of foreign fighters to Syria.((http://www.nzz.ch/schweiz/strafverfahren-gegen-izrs-vorstandmitglied-eroeffnet-1.18665759 )) The IZRS has also publicly screened a movie shot by one of its board members while in Syria during the war. Ostentatiously presented as a travel documentary, the movie in fact contains a host of interviews with Syrian jihadists.((http://www.tagesanzeiger.ch/schweiz/standard/islamischer-zentralrat-setzt-sich-provokativ-in-szene/story/30538028 ))

Calculated provocation

Against this backdrop, the talk master Anne Will undoubtedly expected Illi to play a certain provocative role during her show; a role which she fulfilled splendidly. Wearing a niqab, she appeared to defend the jihadist fighters joining the Syrian conflict: Illi asserted that breaking free from the constraints of European life was “not at all objectionable from an Islamic perspective”, and that doing so even “needed to be highly lauded as an example of moral courage.”((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/warum-lud-anne-will-die-islamistin-nora-illi-ins-studio-14517143.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

Illi went on to assert that wearing the niqab was liberating her as a woman. She claimed that Western societies were consistently oppressing Muslims and preventing them from living in accordance with the fundamental tenets of their faith.

Reacting to the radical challenge

Subsequently, the entire rest of the round rallied against Illi. All other Muslim participants denounced her as propagating a hateful ideology and of condoning or actively fostering the atrocities in Syria. The father of the ‘jihadi bride’ provided an insight into what he believed were his daughter’s thought processes when travelling to Syria – most notably her fervent belief to contribute to the making of a better world by joining the Islamic State.((For an excerpt on this, see http://www.ardmediathek.de/tv/Anne-Will/Die-Jugendlichen-m%C3%B6chten-gern-die-Welt-/Das-Erste/Video?bcastId=328454&documentId=38785454 ))

However, among Muslim discussants further fault-lines opened up quite quickly. Most notably, Ahmad Mansour criticised Imam Sabri for his defensive attitude and for his somewhat hapless attempts to dissociate Islam from the Islamic State by simply asserting that ISIS and its actions are ‘un-Islamic’. Mansour accused the mainstream Sunni Muslim clergy of having failed to “offer youth an understanding of Islam that is reconcilable with democracy and human rights without ifs and buts”. This failure, according to Mansour, coupled with the conservatism of much of established theology, provides fertile soil for subsequent radicalisation.((http://www.rp-online.de/panorama/fernsehen/anne-will-tv-kritik-welcher-islam-passt-zu-deutschland-aid-1.6379034 ))

Islamists and populists

Beyond demonstrating the very strained nature of the entente between different Muslim voices standing against radicalisation, however, the discussion round also cast into sharp relief the difficulty of reining in hateful fringe discourses. Critics noted that without the concerted help of her other guests, host Anne Will not have been able to deconstruct Illi’s blunt yet powerful rhetoric. At times, the crude logic of Illi’s argument threatened to overwhelm the host.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/tv-kritik/tv-kritik-anne-will-nora-illi-macht-offen-propaganda-fuer-den-is-14516141.html ))

This highlights the fact that offering a public forum to voices like Nora Illi is challenging, because she is not willing to abide by the rules upon which discussion in such a forum is based – notably a willingness to build an argument based on hard facts, or a minimum requirement of civility. Unfazed by facts and conventions, Illi proceeded to offer her own concoction of theological rigidity, conspiracy theories, and distorted truths.

In this respect, the predicament faced by Anne Will in relation to the Swiss radical propagandist is not altogether different from the challenges encountered by media across Western democracies in their dealings with ‘populists’. Donald Trump’s victory has been widely hailed as signifying the triumph of anti-establishment post-truth politics. Similarly, in Germany the established parties struggle to unravel the elaborate edifice of anxieties, fears, and half-truths exploited by the rising Alternative für Deutschland party.((Another recent TV debate provides a perfect instantiation of this point: In the episode of Maischberger broadcast on September 22, AfD leader Frauke Petry gleefully manipulated the discussion. Exasperated by the populists’ ability to blur the line between facts and fictions, SPD Secretary General Katharina Barley at some point noted with bewilderment that the AfD had managed to make the burka ban a central topic of the electoral contest in regional elections in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, in spite of the fact that no burka-wearing women had been spotted on the state’s streets. http://www.ardmediathek.de/tv/Maischberger/Das-schwarz-rote-Debakel-Volksparteien-/Das-Erste/Video?bcastId=311210&documentId=37887778 ))

Enlarging the discussion or providing a forum for hate speech

Consequently, like in the case of populists, the media are faced with the difficult question of whether to engage with voices like Nora Illi. Anne Will’s decision to invite Illi was heavily criticised, with some accusing Will of unnecessarily providing a platform for the spread of hateful propaganda. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked whether Anne Will wanted to invite neo-Nazis to her next debate.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/warum-lud-anne-will-die-islamistin-nora-illi-ins-studio-14517143.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

Will herself reacted by asserting that “the editorial team has carefully considered the invitation of Mrs. Illi”, especially given Illi’s “controversial position” regarding foreign fighters travelling to Syria. Will argued that by including Illi “the discussion offered many insights […] in the field of the tension between religion and liberal pluralistic values that preoccupies our society.”((http://www.zeit.de/2016/47/anne-will-ard-talkshow-islamismus-verschleierung-frauenrechte/komplettansicht ))

Forcing extremist views to justify themselves

Irrespective of whether the host’s intentions were as noble as that – or whether she was more concerned with increasing the market share of her show – simply blanking out positions like Illi’s does not appear to be a viable option. It is only when they are forced out into the open that such views can be engaged with. It is also only in such a public context that we can hope to demystify them and showcase their flaws.

By the end of Anne Will’s show, the participants had been more or less successful in this regard. Yet wrestling down Illi and her blunt argumentation had proved to be a formidable undertaking; an undertaking that on multiple occasions teetered on the verge of failure.

New string of terrorism arrests in Germany include high-level IS recruiter

Planned knife attack

In recent days German police have moved against a host of terrorism suspects, highlighting the threat of attacks linked to the so-called Islamic State in the country.

In Berlin, a refugee was arrested on November 2. While the man claimed to be a Syrian national, American intelligence described him as Tunisian Islamist Ashraf al-T. The man initially denied all charges and asserted that he was the victim of a mix-up.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/karlsruhe-festgenommener-fluechtling-spricht-von-verwechslung-1.3235619 )) The investigative judge at the Federal Court of Justice, responsible for all terrorism cases, refused to take up the case due to a lack of evidence.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/festnahme-in-berlin-terrorverdaechtiger-ashraf-al-t-in-haft-wegen-urkundenfaelschung-1.3234513 ))

Subsequently, however, it emerged that the suspect had apparently planned a knife attack in Berlin, akin in nature to the axe assault in a train near Würzburg in July 2016.((http://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/terrorverdaechtiger-berlin-105.html ))  Moreover, like the train assailant, al-T. appears to have been in online contact with an IS middleman in Syria. And like in the case of the suicide bomber that targeted a festival in the Bavarian town of Ansbach in July, the investigation into Ahsraf al-T. paints a picture of a unstable individual with a history of mental health issues, including a suicide attempt. ((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/karlsruhe-festgenommener-fluechtling-spricht-von-verwechslung-1.3235619 ))

Target Berlin

The arrest of Ashraf al-T. comes as the latest foiled plot targeting the German capital. In March 2016, police had arrested Syrian Shaas al-M. After his arrival in Germany as a refugee in early 2015, al-M. had collected intelligence on potential targets for an IS attack in Berlin, including the lively Alexanderplatz, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Reichstag. At the time of his arrest, al-M. was poised to return to the IS’s ‘caliphate’, having joined the group for the first time in 2013. ((http://www.morgenpost.de/berlin/article208694887/Mutmasslicher-Terrorist-zielte-auf-das-Herz-Berlins.html ))

Jaber al-Bakr, whose protracted arrest and subsequent suicide in prison sent shockwaves through the German political scene as well as the Syrian community in early October, had equally prepared an attack in Berlin: his aim appears to have been a suicide bombing at the city’s main airport. ((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/10/17/manhunt-arrest-suicide-attacker-keep-germany-suspense/ )) All three cases highlight the extent to which the Islamic State has made use of the migratory flows to Europe in order to place its agents in Germany and elsewhere.

High-profile arrest of Abu Walaa

These developments coincide with a more high-profile arrest on November 8: after years of surveillance by the German domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, police arrested hard-line preacher Abu Walaa and four of his associates on terrorism charges. In his sermons and on social media, the Iraqi preacher had openly supported and celebrated the IS’s project and methods and encouraged believers to participate in the Syrian jihad.

The preacher had been active in the city of Hildesheim in Lower Saxony, whence he organised the travel of fighters to the Syrian battlefields. Founded in 2012, his Islamic centre had quickly emerged as one of the major hubs of jihadism in Germany. At least 20 members of the congregation have already made their way to the IS’s territory. This led German security insiders to assert that, of all extremist players on the German scene, “he [Abu Walaa] is the worst.”((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/eil-wichtiger-anwerber-des-is-in-deutschland-verhaftet-1.3239523 ))

According to the Federal Prosecutor, Abu Walaa handpicked sympathisers ‘ready’ to join the IS and organised the basic travel arrangements, while his accomplices implemented his commands.((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/islamischer-staat-festnahme-von-abu-walaa-ist-schlag-gegen-die-salafistenszene-a-1120283.html )) The Federal Prosecutor asserted that Abu Walaa functioned as the intellectual and spiritual father of a wide-ranging network of IS supporters in Germany.((http://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/niedersachsen/hannover_weser-leinegebiet/Schlag-gegen-deutsches-IS-Netzwerk,abuwalaa104.html ))

Returnee’s testimony

After a rushed search of Abu Walaa’s Hildesheim premises in July 2016, at which time evidence was insufficient to allow for the preacher’s arrest,(( http://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/niedersachsen/hannover_weser-leinegebiet/Polizei-durchsucht-Hotspot-der-Salafisten-Szene,salafisten340.html )) the testimony of a returnee from Syria appears to have solidified the case against Abu Walaa. The statements of 22-year-old Anil O., a former foreign jihadist fighter, were among the most important pieces of evidence to emerge.

Already in July 2016 when he met with German journalists in Turkey, Anil O. claimed that Abu Walaa was “the highest representative of the IS in Germany”. Anil O., a German national of Turkish extraction and top-grade medicine student at Aachen University, asserted that he himself had come under Abu Walaa’s influence at his Hildesheim centre.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/islamisten-in-deutschland-das-ist-der-schlimmste-1.3239861-2 ))

Anil O.’s case is among the growing number of judicial proceedings against foreign fighters returning from the Syrian theatre of war.((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/10/30/german-courts-seek-move-beyond-counter-terrorism-measures-path-breaking-trials-fighters-syrian-battlefields/ )) Of the more than 750 German nationals and residents that have travelled to the Levant, 250 have already made their way back. Anil O. asserted that he had been disgusted by the IS’s atrocities he witnessed in Syria and wanted to prevent others from making the mistake of joining the group.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/islamisten-in-deutschland-das-ist-der-schlimmste-1.3239861-2 )) His cooperation with German authorities also constitutes a way for the former fighter to reduce his prison time.((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/islamischer-staat-festnahme-von-abu-walaa-ist-schlag-gegen-die-salafistenszene-a-1120283.html ))

Strong media presence

Abu Walaa’s nimbus significantly derives from his strong online presence. On social media and on his website, he presents himself as ‘the preacher without a face’, due to the fact that in the majority of his videos he only appears as a shadow or in shots showing his head from the back. In order to spread his message, he even markets his own smartphone app.

In this respect, the arrest of Abu Walaa is an important step forward in German counter-terrorism efforts: the more than 1,000 judicial proceedings on terrorism charges that have been brought to court so far were nearly always directed against little fry. Suspects were mostly individuals who had actively joined or passively been sucked into radical networks; yet the networks themselves and their high-level organisers were hardly ever targeted.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/islamisten-in-deutschland-das-ist-der-schlimmste-1.3239861 ))

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The Federal Minister of Justice, Heiko Maas (SPD), consequently hailed the arrest of Abu Walaa and his associates as “an important step against the extremist scene in Germany”. Yilmaz Kilic, head of the Lower-Saxon branch of Turkish-dominated DITIB, Germany’s largest Muslim association, equally lauded the police action: “when someone abuses our religion for extremism, then the police should step in.”((http://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/niedersachsen/hannover_weser-leinegebiet/Schlag-gegen-deutsches-IS-Netzwerk,abuwalaa104.html ))

On a slightly different note, influential radical Salafi preacher Pierre Vogel, with whom Abu Walaa had often clashed – mainly over Vogel’s rejection of the Islamic State – exhibited a good deal of schadenfreude at his rival’s arrest.((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/islamischer-staat-festnahme-von-abu-walaa-ist-schlag-gegen-die-salafistenszene-a-1120283.html ))