Islamist recruiters in Germany 'go right for young people's hearts'
Roman Friedrich works to combat Islamic extremism and online radicalization, especially in ultra-conservative Salafist circles in Germany. He calls for concerted action as the number of radicalized Muslims rises.
Roman Friedrich aims to stop young Muslims in Germany from radicalizing and to integrate those who have been radicalized back into society. He worked on the streets in both Chechen and North African communities in the western state of North Rhine Westphalia to stop them from turning to extremism. He now focuses on tracking the Salafist scene online and building bridges to young Muslims who are vulnerable to their ideology. Nina Haase and Sumi Somaskanda met up with Friedrich in Cologne.
DW: Mr. Friedrich, can you tell us how many people belong to the Salafist scene in North Rhine-Westphalia? Is it growing?
Roman Friedrich: Yes, it's an upward trend that we're seeing in terms of the number of Salafists who could be violent. In 2015 there were 300 Salafists with violent tendencies and in 2016 that rose to 500 in North Rhine-Westphalia alone. It nearly doubled. Those are troubling numbers and it's definitely time to act. If you look at the Salafist scene as a whole, there are around 2,500 members. Their motives are more political and they aren't necessarily violent.
What does your work involve?
I try to support and guide people in difficult situations and mediate. We're trying to build up the necessary structures that are tailored to what young people need. We look at what is needed in their situation and try to come up with solutions that can help guide them forward.
Radicalization seems to happen increasingly online these days, not in mosques. Why is that?
The language - the crucial point is that recruiters in the Salafist scene are using the German language. In mosques you usually have imams who speak Arabic or Turkish, not the language that young people often speak - that's very important.
They use the internet to make the first contact, and then comes the offline contact where they meet each other. People who see the appeal of Salafist ideology or jihadist ideology meet with the preachers who are well connected.
What methods do recruiters use to draw in young people?
They go right for young people's hearts with emotional messages, in the form of short videos or music videos, or hashtags and texts. They're very active in the comment sections because they can use facts or manipulate facts to stir emotions among their target groups. Their goal is that young people start consuming this undifferentiated media, and that then influences their hearts. From there, the path to the mind is not far. That is how indoctrination happens.
What makes young people vulnerable to this strategy and ideology?
There are a number of problems: lack of perspective, unemployment, problems with the law, with drugs, family conflicts or conflicts on the streets or in school. There are multiple identity issues where young people don't know which culture or group they belong to, how they should live. They often identify deteriorating societal values as a problem - even if they themselves don't meet the high standards they're addressing. It really is a series of problems. You have to be specialized professionally to know how to start a dialogue with them.
How do you go about doing your work, identifying these young people and helping them?
We find informal meeting points, on the street or online, on Facebook. These are young people who raise a red flag through their commentary or their affinity for violence.
But who are they actually willing to speak to? Who do they take seriously?
Authentic figures who are stable in their faith and exude that sense of authenticity. I would warn against getting Islamic or religious organizations involved in general for prevention projects because every religious organization has a bias one way or the other, and that puts people off on the other side. That's why I advocate for employing neutral, secular organizations. They can bring Islam experts on board who are able to support those efforts and remain professional.
What could German authorities do better to help?
I wish German authorities would cooperate much more with the people or organizations already working with young people - that they coordinate their work better in primary, secondary and tertiary prevention and look at how best to combine those efforts. That's what I'd like to see.
In general, I think it's important to keep the focus on extremism on the whole and not just Islamic extremism that's constantly in the headlines. We have to look at the right end of the spectrum, as well. There are far more examples of violence and propensity to violence there, even if it hasn't come to the types of terror attacks that we have seen from the Salafist scene.
Nina Haase and Sumi Somaskanda conducted the interview.