BERLIN — By the time Syrian aircraft bombed the house he was in, the man with tattoos of a zulfiqar sword and a teardrop was going by the name Abu Talha al Almani.
European news reports that he may have been injured in the attack referred to him by a past alias, Deso Dogg, a sometimes troubled, sometimes brilliant Berlin gangsta rapper. But in official German records, he’s Denis Mamadou Cuspert, now 38. And to German intelligence officials and terrorism experts he represents the tip of a very disturbing trend.
Cuspert was hiding in a house in an unnamed area within Syria two weeks ago when he was injured in a bombing that also killed two children, according to rebel reports on social media. But he is only one of an estimated 170 Germans who, German intelligence officials believe, have made their way to Syria in the past year to fight against the government of President Bashar Assad, often as part of al Qaida-affiliated groups. In the past month alone, 50 have gone, German intelligence estimates.
Only a handful have returned so far, said Angela Pley, spokeswoman for the German equivalent of the National Security Agency, but that doesn’t calm German officials who worry that more will and that they will bring back military and terrorist know-how on an unprecedented scale.
“We know very little about those who have returned,” said Pley.
Germany is not alone in its concern. Recently, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls estimated that more than 300 French Muslims are fighting with the anti-Assad rebels. Russian Federal Security Service head Aleksandr Bortnikov said earlier this year 200 fighters from Russia have gone to Syria. Anti-terror experts in the United Kingdom put the British number as high as 100. Denmark, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands each place the number of their nationals fighting against Assad at between 50 and 100.
European news reports say an estimated 300 “Balkan mujahedeen” are there. Most of those are thought to come from Bosnia – where the government considers it such a problem that it has issued a formal warning against going to join the fight.
The trend even has a name, “jihadi tourism.” Regardless of nationality, those who make the trip tend to be young, radical Salafist Muslims searching for their place in this world. The fear is that those who actually learn to fight could return as skilled terrorists who will want to act against their home nations.
Syria is not the first conflict to draw foreign fighters, experts say. But its popularity as a destination is surging.
“We first started seeing this 10 years ago, young people were heading to Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya,” said Claudia Dantschke, a German specialist in Islam who tries to identify families where the young people are at risk of choosing the fight. “But that was a trickle, this is a flood. The number of people moving into this world really started picking up in August. It’s only going to continue to grow.”
A decade ago, the few young people who found their way to battle against the Western world came to that decision after first finding a home in traditional Islam, then drifting toward the violent fringe. Today, the fear around Europe is that young people are making the transition in reverse – wanting a violent outlet, then accepting a radical view of Islam as the surest path there.
Magnus Ranstorp, a leading anti-terror expert now at the Swedish Defense College, says that radical theology is painting the fight in Syria as a prophesized holy war.
“The people going down to Syria are convinced this is the struggle preceding the end times,” Ranstorp said. “They’ve latched on to the idea that Syria is Sham, that God’s army must gather near Damascus. They’re fighting so that they will have the glory of standing in the final defense of Islam. It’s powerful stuff. We should not underestimate that power.”
Ranstorp explained that Sham, which is generally translated as greater Syria and includes bits of several other nations, including modern day Israel, was the site of the original Islamic caliphate. The theology being used in this case foretells that a new caliphate will rise there, on the ruins of a region defined by colonialism.
This old time religion is being sold in a modern package. Young Europeans are recruited through Facebook, on Twitter and other social media sites, as well as websites. The virtual connection comes long before the actual connection, said Dantschke, the German Islam specialist.
One website urges its visitors to “find your way – turn to Sham. You should go, go to Sham” and are told “there will always be a place in my home for those who will be victorious.” Other sites praise the martyrs, such as “Abu Handala of Frankfurt,” said to have died on Aug. 15. “He was fighting in the front row, was hit and returned to God with a smile on his face.”
Still other sites attract new recruits by focusing on the most famous fighters, such as Cuspert.
A decade ago, Cuspert was a rising star in German rap. His angry anthems, in which he welcomed German youth to “my world, full of hate and blood” where “children cry softly as the black angel sings,” reflected more of the angst of youth culture than reality of life on the streets of Berlin, which has one of the lowest crime rates of major world cities.
His old rap videos always made a point of showing him in Islamic iconography, but in 2010, he made a very public break with the rap scene and committed to being a Muslim. He even said his old songs and ways were clearly “forbidden” in Islam.
Newspaper profiles focused on his struggle to find an identity. They claimed he’d rejected the world of his stepfather, an American serviceman. Online sites discussed how a former rapper with Shiite Muslim tattoos (Zulfiqar is the sword of Ali, a Shiite icon) became a devoted Salafist, a conservative branch of Sunni Islam.
His pronouncements on the evils of Western occupation became an inspiration. In March 2011, a man named Arid Uka killed two U.S. airmen at the Frankfurt Airport. Later he would say that he was listening to a tape of Cuspert just before the murders.
In more recent videos, Cuspert encourages suicide bombings, praises Osama bin Laden (“Sheik Osama, your name is floating in our blood,” he sings in one), says that he can’t wait for a violent death. In another video, showing what appear to be Hollywood blockbuster screenshots of destruction, he asks, “Don’t you hear what the angels are saying?” in an echo of his gangsta rap days.
Dantschke says his videos have been a powerful recruiting tool.
“He’s talking to people who feel they have no voice in this society,” she said. “They come from broken homes, live in a world where they believe they are seen as second-class citizens. They want to feel important. He offers that.”
A trip to Syria is relatively simple for an alienated European. “It’s just a budget flight to Turkey,” said Bibi van Ginkel, a fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague and at the Dutch Clingendael Institute. “After that, there are people who will help them get across the border.”
That simplicity helps explain why more Europeans have found their way to Syria than to Afghanistan, Mali in North Africa or Yemen in the Persian Gulf.
But unlike others, she is less concerned about the possibility of returning terrorists. To date, she said, there’s very little evidence that any who’ve returned have proved to be a threat. A recent der Spiegel magazine article noted that many if not most European Jihadi tourists appear more interested in the adventure of hanging out near Syria than in actually getting involved in battle, and passed their days playing Xbox rather than training. Better for European governments to focus on how they can improve would-be fighters’ lives at home so they don’t see a need to travel to Syria, and feel comfortable when they return.
“We need to be asking how we can help them before they go,” she said. “And how we can help them when they return.”
European political rhetoric is increasingly anti-immigrant, which Ginkel says is a code for anti-Muslim. Indeed, in the first Norwegian election since anti-immigrant Anders Breivik killed 77 people attempting to further his views, his former anti-immigrant political party had a historically strong showing, and is now part of Norway’s ruling coalition government.
“In the end, we’re adding fuel to what too many people already believe is a raging fire,” Ginkel said.
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