Zwei maskierte, bewaffnete Islamisten vor dem Schwarzen Banner zur Illustration des Arbeitsfelds „Islamismus“, Keyvisual Islamismus

Salafist efforts

Content and objectives of Salafist ideology

In Germany as well as at international level Salafism is currently being regarded as the most dynamic Islamist movement. For years there has been a continual increase in the number of Salafist adherents in Germany. Whereas the number of Salafists in Germany totalled approximately 3,800 in 2011, the Salafist following currently amounts to about 7,500 individuals (DOI: June 2015).

Screenshot des Propagandavideos von 2011: „Islam in 30 Sekunden“ZoomScreenshot of the 2011 propaganda video ‘Islam in 30 seconds’

The generic term of ‘Salafism’ refers to an Islamist ideology characterised by Wahhabism and based on the first Muslims' beliefs in the early days of Islam. Wahhabism is a doctrine tracing back to Muhammad Ibn Abdalwahhab (1703-1792) and originating from Central Arabia (Najd). It is very much inspired by the Hanbali school of Islamic law and advocates the purification of Islam from later ‘alterations’. Wahhabism is Saudi Arabia's state religion and the most influential current within Salafism.

Salafists pretend to align their religious practice and conduct of life exclusively with the principles of the Koran, strictly following the example of the Prophet Muhammad and of the early Muslims, the so-called ‘righteous ancestors’ (Arabic: al-salaf al-salih, i.e. the first three generations of Islam). The Salafists' aim, however, is the complete reformation of the state, the legal system and society, according to a Salafist system of rules which they regard as the ‘divinely ordained order’. Ultimately, they aim at establishing an Islamic theocracy, where essential basic rights and constitutional positions guaranteed in Germany will no longer apply.

Types of Salafist activities

Salafist propaganda activities take place both on the Internet and in the real world. Salafists carry out their propaganda activities under cover of a legitimate practise of their religion, playing them down by calling them ‘missionary work” (Arabic: da’wa“) or ‘invitation to Islam”. Yet in reality this is systematic indoctrination, which is often the starting point for further radicalisation.

Salafism unfolds its broad effect particularly through the Internet. Salafist ideology is conveyed through a large number of websites as well as through numerous short videos, e.g. on the video portal YouTube. This is where young people especially can be targeted and reached. Through chat rooms, forums and social networks, members of the scene are also linked with one another. Thus, the Internet does not only serve as a means of spreading Salafist propaganda, but it is also a central platform for Salafist actors to communicate with one another. A particular risk arises from the fact that Salafist ideology that is disseminated only in the virtual world can also facilitate radicalisation. Users can draw upon different bits and pieces of propaganda available online to make up, ‘explain’ and ‘justify’ their own world view.

In addition to spreading Salafist ideology via the Internet, Salafists have become increasingly visible in the last few years by means of high-publicity actions ‘in the streets’. Propaganda activities like open-air events in city centres, ‘information stands’ and ‘street da’wa’ are gaining more and more importance compared to traditional forms of Salafist action like seminars or talks on Islam and fundraising/benefit events. In addition to Internet activities, these ‘real world’ activities, some of which are deliberately provocative, have become instrumental in spreading Salafist ideology.

Koranexemplare der 21. Auflage in verschiedenen SprachenZoom© facebook.com/diewahrereligion/ Copies of the 21st edition of the ‘Lies!’ Koran in different languages

A good example of this is the high-publicity campaign ‘Lies!’ (‘Read!’), organised by the Salafist proselytising organisation ‘Die Wahre Religion’ (‘The true religion’). In this campaign, the organisation has been distributing free Koran translations to non-Muslims since October 2011.

The organisation had started the ‘Lies!’ campaign with the self-declared goal of distributing 25 million copies of the Koran to German households. Since autumn 2013 the goal has been to hand out the Koran to all non-Muslims in Europe in their respective national languages. There have also been some actions of this kind aimed at German-speaking tourists in holiday countries that are predominantly Muslim like Egypt or Turkey.

Albanische Koranexemplare in der DruckereiZoom© facebook.com/diewahrereligion/ Copies of the ‘Lies!’ Koran in Albanian at the printer’s

Distributing copies of the Koran as such is not an activity relevant to the community of the internal security agencies. However, Salafists use these ‘Islam information stands’ in order to develop contacts with potentially new adherents. Such contacts may in time lead to the radicalisation of those concerned. This type of activity is intended to complement the Salafists’ Internet presence, enabling them to personally address their target groups.

Reasons for the spread of Salafism

Salafist ideology is now being disseminated in a very professional manner. Salafist preachers attract media attention and especially have considerable appeal for young people. Salafist efforts are becoming more and more attractive, mainly to young people, because they offer: a (simple) ideological system providing meaning and rules for life as well as orientation and security; complete integration into a group of ‘true believers’; and a life that is as set apart from mainstream society and that is also publicly displayed as such. To its adherents, Salafist ideology conveys the idea of being members of a social and moral elite. Salafists feel morally superior to the world around them, which they regard as morally corrupt, and they denigrate other concepts of life.

At the same time, people with little or no religious knowledge desirous of joining a Salafist community are accepted without any problems and valued by its members. It is particularly to people who have been marginalised and disadvantaged that Salafists offer a home in which they are accepted, as long as they respect the common rules and values.

Salafist efforts also profit from tendencies to leave other Islamist organisations. The latter partly still have an agenda focused on their country of origin, which is of very little relevance to the young generation socialised in Germany.

As an action-oriented Islamist youth movement, Salafism offers young people diverse opportunities to be active for their faith and to feel more valued because of the responsibility they have been given.

The Salafist scene’s potential for violence

The majority of Salafist actors and groups in Germany belong to the spectrum of political Salafism. Adherents to political Salafism try to spread their extremist ideology mainly by exerting political and social influence. They focus mainly on ‘converting” non-Muslims and on indoctrinating non-Salafist Muslims in their ideology. For tactical reasons, political Salafists continue to avoid open incitement to violence in Germany, and some of them even firmly oppose the use of violence and terrorist attacks. At the same time, they (directly and indirectly) refer to the shortcomings of the West and/or existing reservations about Muslims (‘mixed messages’). Adherents to jihadist Salafism, for their part, believe that they can reach their goals by using violence.

The ideology spread by Salafists is the breeding ground for Islamist radicalisation towards jihadist Salafism and even towards recruitment for jihad. It has been noted time and again that political Salafists selectively choose writings for their interpretation of Islam: they rely on the classics of Islamic legal literature as well as on writings and legal opinions (Arabic: fatwa, plural: fatawa) of Salafist Wahhabi legal scholars which display a strong affinity for violence when dealing with non-Muslims. Due to its claim to universal validity, the Salafist interpretation of Islam has to be shared with all mankind and, if need be, implemented by force. Therefore, the attitude of political Salafists to the issue of using violence can be called ambivalent; they spread ‘mixed messages’. These are the main reason for the smooth transition from political to jihadist Salafism. Salafist efforts constitute a significant security problem because of their inherent ideological affinity for violence and the radicalising effect of Salafist ideology. For members of the Salafist scene, it is only a small step towards actually using violence – as experiences from the past few years have shown.

Some actors of PRO NRW displayed the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad drawn by Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard at rallies in connection with the North Rhine-Westphalia state elections in Solingen on 1 May 2012 and in Bonn on 5 May 2012, which was followed by violence-oriented Salafists attacking PRO NRW demonstrators and the police on site.

The advance of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq led to violent clashes between Kurds/Yazidis and Salafists/Salafist Chechens in Germany: in Herford (North Rhine-Westphalia) on 6 August 2014, in Celle (Lower Saxony) on 6/7 October 2014 and in Hamburg on 7/8 October.

Syria

The conflict in Syria continues to be of significant importance to the Salafist scene, leading to further radicalisation of adherents and preachers of the political Salafist spectrum.

Approximately 700 German or German-based Islamists who have departed for Syria/Iraq to fight in the ranks of IS or other terrorist groups or to support Islamist groups in any other way are known to the security agencies (DOI: June 2015).

Since 2012 so-called benefit events for Syria have become a new field of Salafist action. Salafists use propaganda material to enhance people’s willingness to make donations. For instance, they publish particularly gruesome images and videos of the Syrian civil war.

The donations collected during these events are taken to Syria in convoys. The convoys transport, among others, relief supplies like clothing and medicine as well as vehicles (e.g. ambulances).

Since 2014 the number of benefit events has considerably decreased. Now only isolated benefit events are detected. This fall has also had an impact on the number of convoys known to have left for Syria.

Conclusion

The majority of Salafists in Germany are not terrorists, but political Salafists. On the other hand, almost all terrorist network structures and individuals so far identified in Germany are Salafist-oriented, or they have developed in a Salafist environment.

The momentum of Salafist efforts will continue for the time being. Thus, it can be expected that the number of adherents will continue to rise in the short and medium term. This is also true for individuals from other Islamist organisations who decide to join Salafist groups. The influence of Salafist propaganda is such that it may speed up radicalisation processes.

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