How a German mining town became a recruiting ground for IS

The western town of Dinslaken became known as a Salafi hotbed in 2013 when a group of local youths traveled to Syria to join the "Islamic State." Years on, the community is still trying to leave the past behind.

A deep-seated mistrust is noticeable, even from inside the car, as we drive slowly through the streets of Dinslaken-Lohberg. Due to bad weather, only a few people are outside, following us with their glances. 

"That's normal in Lohberg," social worker Önay Duranöz explains as he drives. "Everyone who passes through here is watched closely and with suspicion. Especially when they are strangers." Social pedagogy student Omar Chengafe, in the back seat, nods in agreement.

The district of Lohberg lies in the north of the small city of Dinslaken in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). It's a small world of its own — a rather reclusive community, whose around 6,000 inhabitants prefer to keep to themselves and be left alone. 

In 2013, Dinslaken-Lohberg suddenly gained international attention as a breeding ground for militant Salafi extremism. According to the NRW state domestic security office, more than a dozen young men left their hometown in order to become self-proclaimed holy warriors.

Read more: Salafism in Germany: What you need to know

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German jihadists of the "Lohberg Brigade"

Most of them came from Turkish immigrant families, but some were also German converts. They gave themselves the name "Lohberg Brigade" and fought in Syria and Iraq for the Nusra Front extremist group, and later for the "Islamic State" (IS).

Almost half of the Lohberg population has foreign roots. Most of the families are of Turkish descent. The first arrived as early as the 1950s, hopeful of earning a better livelihood in the mining industry.

After the departure of the "Lohberg Brigade," journalists from Germany and abroad started turning up in Dinslaken, trying to contact the group members' relatives and friends, and digging up every detail of their radicalization.

A dark chapter, two viewpoints

Önay Duranöz and Omar Chengafe were there when all this happened. They witnessed the developments from different perspectives.

Chengafe is now in his early 20s and is studying social pedagogy in the western German city of Dortmund. The fashionably dressed young man with a short beard grew up in central Dinslaken, not in Lohberg. But he has friends and acquaintances there.

Student Omar Chengafe knew the members of the "Lohberg Brigade"

The son of Moroccan parents, he was born into a religious Muslim family. For a long time, his father was on the board of the Arrahma Mosque in the center of Dinslaken — the city's only Arab mosque. The other two are Turkish.

Duranöz, on the other hand, is of Turkish descent. Now in his late 30s, the social worker says that when he first started working in Lohberg, he was treated as an outsider, even though he grew up just 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) away, in the city of Duisburg.

But gradually things began to change. Over the course of eight years working in the community, Duranöz earned the trust of many local families.

Employed by the German Child Protection Association, he worked as a "youth neighborhood manager" — a role in which he was responsible for coordinating socio-educational activities for Lohberg's young people and supporting them in their transition from school to professional life.

The idyll from up above: Market on Johannesplatz

Radicalized — in the middle of Dinslaken

Duranöz steers the car past Johannesplatz, the central marketplace. Then we turn a corner and stop in front of the Ledigenheim — a former house for unmarried miners, a remnant of Lohberg's past as a colliery settlement.

Today, the brick building hosts a cultural center as well as several associations and enterprises. Johannesplatz and the Ledigenheim both played a key role in the history of the self-proclaimed "Lohberg Brigade".

Unemployment in Lohberg shot up after the local coal mine closed down in 2005 and cost several thousand people their jobs. Along with the city's most important employer, the future prospects of many young people vanished. Every day, groups of young men began to meet on Johannesplatz to hang out together. It was a common sight, says Duranöz.

Read more: Germany's last black hard coal mine Prosper-Haniel closes 

About the time Mustafa T. started to appear on Johannesplatz, one in four young people in Lohberg was unemployed. Mustafa T. radicalized dozens of them within a few months and turned them into an extremist cell.

Duranöz remembers his only direct encounter with him: "He was sitting on Johannesplatz, and a few young people I knew were standing next to him."

From stranger to person of trust: Önay Duranöz became friends with many Lohbergers

The social worker recalls how he overheard Mustafa T. admonishing the young people to treat each other respectfully and to be polite to the elderly. "He said, for example, that they should carry old women's shopping bags home from the supermarket." His first impression was a positive one, Duranöz admits. "I thought, wow, there's a young man the kids are actually listening to."

Mustafa T. comes from a well-respected Turkish family in Lohberg. His father was a member of the board of one of the Turkish mosques. Many parents thought he would have a good influence on their children. In the summer of 2011, he founded an "educational association" with municipal permission and rented a club room in the nearby Ledigenheim. He began to hold meetings there with his growing following. According to the state domestic intelligence services, the group consisted of around 30 young men.

Mustafa T. talked to them about topics such as the wars in Syria and Iraq, the exclusion of Muslims within society and rising Islamophobia, Duranöz and Chengafe recall.

A deceptively idyllic town

Omar Chengafe attended a few of those group meetings, too. At first he appreciated that there was a new leisure activity on offer for young Muslims. 

"They were just boys who wanted to get away from the street. They searched for meaning and found it in their religion," he says. Soon, though, Chengafe stopped going to the "educational association." He says it didn't sit right with him. The ideology Mustafa T. preached there was too radical in his opinion, he says. "The signs that this was really going in the wrong direction became clearer and clearer."

Walking through the idyllic streets of Lohberg, it's hard to reconcile the community's reputation as an extremist hotbed with the rows of pretty houses and gardens.

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Reluctance to act

Chengafe says he shared his observations with the community at his own Arrahma Mosque. "I told them about what I had seen and heard, but except for my father, they were reluctant to act," he says.

Though the board listened to his concerns, it decided not to take any action. "I think they were simply concerned that police or state security could also show up at our mosque."

Chengafe is convinced that his liberal upbringing and his education protected him from following Mustafa T.'s call. Others seemingly were easy prey. "They fit right into the scheme, they had no perspective and were susceptible to hatred," he says. "And hatred was deliberately stirred up."

The silence and isolation of the Lohberg population helped Mustafa T. recruit new followers without any interference over an extended period of time. "The fact that this went on unnoticed caused a lot of consternation," Christa Jahnke-Horstmann, head of Dinslaken's municipal social services department, tells DW.

A typical corner shop on Johannesplatz in Dinslaken

The four returnees

Chengafe knew all the members of the self-proclaimed "Lohberg Brigade": Philipp B., who blew himself up near the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2015 and dragged 20 Kurds to their deaths with him. And Mustafa K., nicknamed Goofy, who posted a photo of himself on social networks in which he posed with a severed head, a slight smile on his face. And all the others who suddenly left their hometown. Most of them are no longer alive.

In addition to the inner circle, four more youngsters left in autumn 2013. They, however, returned from Syria after just one month. The circumstances of their return are not entirely clear. The German weekly magazine Stern reported that private family contacts, negotiators in the Turkish-Syrian border region, money and cars were involved in bringing the boys back to Lohberg.

After their return, the four vanished from sight for a while. They avoided the public eye. "They were embarrassed and could no longer face their fathers," Duranöz says, adding that Lohberg was in shock at the time. "There was a lot of talking behind closed doors."

Read more: Former German 'Islamic State' fighter gets four years, six months in prison

But out of consideration and loyalty to the relatives of the returnees, whom everyone knew in the district, no one talked to the media. "This is a common rule in Lohberg. You just don't talk badly about other families," Duranöz says.

The social worker knows the returnees quite well — he became a confidant for them, someone they could trust. He still has a close relationship with two of them in particular. The four returnees still don't want anything to do with the media, and they rejected interview requests from DW, sent via Duranöz. But he is allowed to speak on their behalf.

All four, says Duranöz, have managed to reintegrate themselves into society and settle into a new routine. Three of them have started families; all of them have jobs.

Unemployment in Lohberg shot up after the local coal mine closed down in 2005

Longing for a normal life

A few weeks after his return from Syria, one of the young men stood in Duranöz's office and asked for help.

"He said he just wanted to lead a normal life and work," says Duranöz. The boy was worried about not finding a job because he feared that the authorities would inform every employer about his past. "He asked me: 'Who would hire a terrorist?'"

Read more: From Germany to 'Islamic State': Christian's journey

Duranöz simply listened to the returnees. He never asked questions about Syria or why they had done what they did. Had he done so, he is convinced none of them would have ever come back to see him.

After a few months, the social worker received an invitation to dinner from the young man who came to him first. "That evening he told me everything, and he opened up completely," Duranöz says. He doesn't want to share the details of the conversation — but adds that he is "particularly proud of this boy," who has held a permanent position at a manufacturing company in the region for several years now.

Integration as a long-term task

Before 2013, Duranöz says, it would have been almost impossible for many young people to find a job with companies in the area. Thanks to the work of the local youth services, things have started to change in Lohberg. Duranöz and his colleagues have implemented training and support programs for boys and girls to help them manage after they leave school.

He estimates that they consult between 250 and 300 young people a year. "This does not mean, however, that we managed to get an apprenticeship for each and every one of them," Duranöz says. "Sometimes it was about much more fundamental questions: How do I register at a vocational school, and which schools and vocational offers are there in the first place?"

Salafists gathered in Frankfurt in September 2013 as the scene was rapidly growing in Germany

In the aftermath of the 2013 shock, the Dinslaken city administration also reached out to Muslim organizations, explains Jahnke-Horstmann, head of the social services department. "We have various Muslim associations, especially in Lohberg with its high proportion of migrants of about 45%. It was very important for us to tackle the problems together." 

Student Omar Chengafe believes that what has been done so far is still not enough. He's calling for more imams to be trained in Germany and in the German language. "Many young people even dream in German. German is their language," he says. "An imam who can speak German has a key to youth." And if young people felt understood in their mosques, Salafist preachers would find it harder to influence them, he says.

Read more: Abu Dujana: The Salafi preacher

Life goes on

"From our point of view, Salafism is no longer a relevant topic in Dinslaken," states Jahnke-Horstmann, referring to the ultraconservative branch of Islam. In fact, the terms "Dinslaken" and "Lohberg Brigade" haven't appeared in NRW's annual domestic security report since 2015.

And Mustafa T.? The man who started it all? There are many rumors, but nothing concrete. According to Önay Duranöz and Omar Chengafe, he disappeared shortly after the first group had departed Lohberg for the Middle East.

Chengafe is convinced that he saw Mustafa T. praying in a Duisburg mosque about a year ago: "I am sure it was him. He had undergone an extreme change, wore chino trousers, a short-sleeved shirt and a beard trimmed to a few millimeters. In the past, he always preached that a long beard is a duty in Islam."

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The NRW domestic security office declined to comment on Mustafa T. for data protection reasons.

Chengafe believes the people of Lohberg themselves are primarily relieved that the public interest in their district has waned. "The awareness that certain things happened in the past is certainly still there. But hardly anyone talks about it," he says.

Most of the hardcore members of the "Lohberg Brigade" died in Syria and Iraq. In their home community, everyday life has long since returned to normal. An everyday life in which silence often prevails and strangers are still watched suspiciously.

Editor's note: Deutsche Welle follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and obliges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.