To fight homegrown jihadis, Germany takes lesson from battle with neo-Nazis

Germany has turned away hundreds of neo-Nazis from violence and reintegrated them into society. Could the same approach work for German would-be jihadis?

Michaela Rehle/Reuters
Defendant Harun P., arrives for the start of his trial in a courtroom last month in Munich, Germany. Harun P. is accused of being one of a growing number of aspiring jihadis in Germany, which is fighting back with techniques learned fighting a different extremist group: neo-Nazis.

This summer, Thomas Mücke managed a coup: he dissuaded a young German from joining the Islamic State.

The teenager, a Kurd whose family is originally from Turkey but now living in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, had landed in prison after committing a petty crime. Angry, confined, and looking to lash out, he “had pretty much given up with life and was ready to pack his bag" for Syria, Mr. Mücke says.

But Mücke, a street worker and head of the Berlin-based Violence Prevention Network (VPN) in Berlin, challenged the aspiring jihadi. Did he know that Islamic State fought against Kurds? No, the boy didn’t. In fact, he had no idea about his religion. It was a prison inmate that gave him the idea to go to Syria.

"In the end he said, 'If IS fights against the Kurds I can’t go with them,'" says Mücke. The youth is out of prison now, and while he will receive counseling for months to come, he is no longer seen as in imminent danger of radicalization.

The success that Mücke and his organization, a nonprofit group that helps incarcerated young people with extremist biographies find a way out, has experienced in dissuading would-be jihadis is significant. But the VPN did not originally target radical Islamists. Rather, it had a much more familiar German radical in mind: violent neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists.

But advocates like Mücke say that just like that fascist ideology, fighting Islamic extremism among the young has less to do with religion than with young people’s vulnerability to the ideology. When dealing with extremists, be they neo-Nazis or jihadis, it is crucial to work with each person individually. And with at least 550 Germans in Syria, part of a swelling group of several thousand Europeans, Germany's lessons in fighting the spread of neo-Nazi ideology could prove key to stopping Islamic radicalization.

“They are both fascist ideologies,” says Mücke, who has counseled hundreds of imprisoned young people, often from the violent right extremist scene. ”One is using a certain idea of the nation, the other is using religion as its instrument.”

A 'market leader' in fighting extremism

Germany has the largest problems when it comes to right-wing extremism. Far-right sentiments which festered in communist Germany burst out in the open after the Berlin Wall fell. Ongoing trouble with neo-Nazi violence remains a formidable challenge: This month, one of the heads of a Nazi cell called the National Socialist Underground, is standing trial in Munich, on charges related to the killing of 10 people, mostly of Turkish origin, from 2000 and 2006.

But as a result, Germany has also become one of the 'market leaders' in the fight against such extremism. Through counseling carefully tailored to the individuals involved, programs like VPN and EXIT-Deutschland, one of Germany’s most successful anti-neo-Nazi organizations, hundreds of neo-Nazis have been turned away from violence and reintegrated into society.  

The turn to confront radical Islam has been much more recent. Although Germany hosted the Al Qaeda cell that was at the heart of the 9/11 atrocities, its initial response was focused on taking steps to better integrate its Muslim population – at 5 million Europe’s third largest.

But then came wake-up calls in 2011. First in March, a Frankfurt man of Kosovo-Albanian origin  killed two US airmen and wounded two others in an attack at the Frankfurt airport. And in July, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in a pair of attacks in Oslo and on a Norwegian island about 24 miles away.

Soon after the European Union launched a Radicalisation Awareness Network where anti-extremist advocates across ideologies, from neo-Nazi programs in Sweden and Germany to Islamic de-radicalization programs in Britain, could share tips.

“There was a welcome shift in thinking in terms of how you deal with intervention,” says Vidhya Ramalingam, who leads research and advocacy on far-right extremism, xenophobia and racial violence across Europe for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank. In particular, it helped Germans recognize that what draws people into an extremist group, be it neo-Nazi or jihadi, have “striking similarities,” she adds.

Extremist parallels

Now, experts like Mücke and Bernd Wagner, a former East German police detective who founded EXIT-Deutschland, are turning the techniques they pioneered to sway neo-Nazis from violence towards would-be jihadis.

"Both [Islamic] and right-wing extremists are on a mission," says Wagner, who says he's helped five Germans stay out of jihadism since last year. “Words aren’t enough to fulfill their mission, so they use violence.”

When the federal government in 2012 launched an anti-Islam radicalization hotline, it asked Mr. Wagner's group to head the effort in the Berlin region. And this summer when the government of Hessen, Germany’s most populous state, created a network where members of society from schools to mosques to police and prisons would work together to help youth lured by jihadism, it asked Mücke to head the project.

Groundbreaking in their own ways and their own times, Wagner’s and Mücke’s initiatives are again breaking new ground again, says Ms. Ramalingam. “There have been a lot of really strong innovation measures coming out of Germany civil society when it comes to dealing with extremism."

“The methodology developed around working with neo-Nazis and right wing extremists are very much about individually-tailored intervention, and that’s exactly what they’ve also been piloting when it comes to Islam extremism. It’s about individually-tailored intervention," Ms. Ramalingam says. “It is also about understanding how the wider context around an individual can either push them to going into extremism, or can help them push them back.”

Mücke says the Hesse government's financial commitment to deradicalization is unprecedented. “Germany is just starting,” he says.

Sympathy and understanding

There are, of course, fundamental differences between Islamic extremists and neo-Nazis. “We know that from a different ideological context,” says Michael Kiefer, a professor of Islam theology at the University of Osnabrück.

But “what’s fascinating is how act of self empowerment, the feeling of 'I can be a combatant and take part in historic mission, for a selected good cause'“ is similar between the two, he says.

And the key similarity lies in the individual stories behind radicalization, anti-extremist advocates say. Like the young inmate that Mücke helped avoid jihadism, those lured by jihadi ideology are longing for a sense of identity, a father figure, a simplistic view of the world. Many of Germany’s would-be jihadis are “born-again Muslims” who know little about religion, says Dr. Kiefer.

To address that, this summer Mücke hired Hakan Çelik, a former supermarket worker with lots of volunteer experience with Muslim youth and a degree in Islamic theology, to reach out to young Muslims in the Frankfurt region. 

"In the 1980s I worked with skinheads, so I know how extremely mistrustful young people can be," says Mücke. "My Muslim colleagues are my door-openers."

Over the past six months Mr. Çelik has gone to schools, prisons, youth enters, and mosques to reach out to young people in trouble. He is dealing with 30 cases deemed dangerous and with two people who have returned from Syria.

“Ultimately, what’s important is not methodology," says Çelik. "It is relationships, how you build up relationships with those who are facing dangers.” Not one young person, he says, has refused to talk to him. "We pray, we know how the young people react. With us they're not thrown in cold water."

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