The Threat of Islamist Terrorism to Germany

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 7

The recent al-Qaeda threat to Germany over its forces in Afghanistan coupled with the arrest of four Arab men accused of supporting al-Tawhid—a terrorist organization believed to have links to al-Qaeda—have convinced German authorities of the rising jihadi threat to Germany. Even though the terrorism threat level in the country remains less critical than in other European countries involved in Iraq, law enforcement officials warn that in the eyes of jihadis, “Germany is classed as one of the so-called crusaders, the helpers of the United States and of Israel” [1]. The 2005 annual report on the protection of the constitution warns that Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan, the deployment of its marines in Somalia and its training of Iraqi officers make it part “of the Islamist terrorists’ theater of operations” [2]. Yet, while Germany is by no means immune to home-grown terrorism, it is still a fact that the ideologies that spawn terrorism or radicalism elsewhere in Europe have not found fertile ground in the country’s Turkish immigrants who make up three quarters of the Muslim population [3].

According to the International Crisis Group report on Germany, Islamic activism, with the exclusion of the Islamische Gemeinschaft Millî Görüs (Islamic Community of the National Vision, IGMG), appeals far less to the Turkish Muslim element than it does to the rest of the Muslim minority. The few jihadi suspects apprehended so far are of Arab origin or were German converts [4]. Despite the scare of Islamist ideologues exporting their creed to a marginalized Muslim minority, the federal Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution), the equivalent of Britain’s MI5 and the U.S. FBI, puts the number of the supporters of the 28 Islamist organizations that operate in Germany at 32,100, a slight increase from 31,800 in 2004. The number of supporters of Turkish Islamist groups stands at 27,250. The Islamische Gemeinschaft Millî Görüs gets the largest share of support with around 26,500. Arab Islamist groups claim 3,350 supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood tops this list with around 1,300 supporters; the Lebanese Hezbollah comes second with 900. As for Jama’at Tabligh, it has about 500 members, and Hamas 300 members [5].

Yet despite the fact that intelligence agencies have found little evidence of the association of Islamists with social unrest or jihadism, local and federal authorities are highly distrustful of Islamism in both its moderate and its radical forms. The Verfassungsschutz keeps a close eye on all Islamist groups, including non-violent ones whom it accuses of fostering radicalization. “Their wide range of Islamist-oriented educational and support activities, especially for children and adolescents from immigrant families, are used to promote the creation and proliferation of an Islamist milieu in Germany…which could also form the breeding ground for further radicalization,” the 2005 annual report on the protection of the constitution warns [6].

This radicalization, however, failed to manifest itself during the French riots of 2005 and the 2006 Muhammad caricatures affair. Civic unrest or a spillover of violence did not occur. There is no doubt that there are radical Islamists that warrant close surveillance. It is estimated that the Hilafet Devleti movement has 750 members. The banned Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) has about 300 members [7]. Hezbollah and Hamas count no more than a few hundred members. German officials put the number of supporters of the Iraqi Ansar al-Islam/Ansar al-Sunna and a handful of “non-aligned mujahideen” in the low hundreds. One to two percent of Islamists (400-600) are believed to be “ready to commit violence,” but so are foreign leftist extremists, who are estimated to number 17,290 in Bavaria alone, and foreign extreme nationalists (8,430 members). All are described as potentially violent [8].

Notwithstanding the small numbers of radical Islamists, state officials lump all Islamists together as quintessentially undemocratic, oppressive and anti-Western. There is a tendency to conjure the worst case scenarios in which non-violent Islamists, who are believed to deceptively project themselves as victims of state paranoia and Islamophobia, turn into terrorists or at the very least troublemakers who instigate civic unrest. Yet stigmatizing non-violent Islamists through exclusionary policies, aggressive surveillance and indiscriminate mosque raids will unfortunately do nothing to isolate radical Islamists and eliminate their alien threats. While it is true that non-violent Islamists can become radicalized, this radicalization is not automatic. Indiscriminate crackdowns and arbitrary humiliations might drive non-violent Islamists into the hands of the radicals.

Indeed, Germany is pondering the specter of “an enemy within,” a fifth column of disaffected Islamic parallel societies that threaten its “Germanness.” Ever since the discovery of the Hamburg-based terrorist cell at the heart of the September 11 attacks, there has been a growing fear about a perceived Islamist wave sweeping across Germany, seeking to re-Islamize its Muslim minorities, deepening their presumed status of “extraterritoriality” and expanding their “culture-based crime.” Warnings about the transformation of Germany and the rest of Europe into an anti-Christian, anti-Western “Eurabia” and the emerging dawn of “the darkness of a new barbarism” that threatens to overtake the symbols of the nation and subjugate a destructively passive and self-doubting population, are rampant in political and media rhetoric (Spiegel Online International, January 25; Der Spiegel, February 6, 2006). The fear of the “unwanted Germans” living fraudulently and infiltrating the citadels of Germanness prompted a bishop emeritus of Germany’s Independent Lutherans to express his anxiety in striking terms: “I fear that we are approaching a situation resembling the tragic fate of Christianity in northern Africa in Islam’s early days.”

The Discomfort of Strangers

The rhetoric about the rising tide of fundamentalism overtaking Germany engenders only more fear and paranoia of the young, alienated Muslims that are poor, ill-educated and tempted by crime and radical Islam. The 2006 Pew poll found Germans as the most concerned in Europe about Islamic fundamentalism, with 82 percent of the general public saying that they are very (40 percent) or somewhat (42 percent) concerned. Some 58 percent expect “a coming conflict with the Muslim population” and 42 percent believe that Islamic terrorists blend in with the Muslim population [9]. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 2004 report on intolerance and discrimination against Muslims in the European Union found that more than 80 percent of Germans surveyed in 2004 associated the word “Islam” with “terrorism” and “oppression of women” (IHF Press Release, Vienna, March 7, 2005).

A substantial number of Germans admit to being preoccupied with anything Muslim. A German judge, Christa Datz-Winter, has only recently provoked a public outcry by a ruling that confounded even Muslims when she cited the Quran in deciding a case of domestic violence. Der Spiegel magazine was quick to feature the story on its cover with the sensational title, “Mecca Germany: Silent Islamization.” The ruling convinced many of the need to defend the country from an alien cohesive body of Muslims that are imbued by separatist beliefs and guided by a supposedly totalitarian Sharia that rigidly controls people’s consciences and bodies (Der Spiegel, February 6, 2006).

Some critics of the perceived collaborationist posture of the judicial system in the name of cultural sensitivity urge the government to adopt more aggressive policies to protect German culture and recognize a cultural invasion by an anti-modern, medieval force (Perlentaucher, January 24). Any accommodation toward religious faith is seen as a dangerous betrayal of the values of the enlightenment and an appeasement of an Islamist foe whose rise is said to resemble the rise of the Third Reich (Die Zeit, March 18, 2004; Welt am Sonntag, July 24, 2006). This hard-line exclusionary rhetoric which begins with getting the Muslim monolith in line with the universalist and static secular culture of the superior “real Germans” leads inevitably to “cultural fundamentalism.” There is a disturbing belief that good Muslims are the ones who do not practice their religion and suppress their Muslim identity. The emphasis on Muslims’ loyalty to Germany’s “fundamental principles and values” is the right of every country, but requirements of ideological conformity (are you truly with us or against us?) with moral dilemmas are difficult to comprehend and even violate the German constitution which stipulates “freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom of creed, religious or ideological” (Expatica, January 11, 2006).

The Loyalty Test

The new citizenship test for Muslims, introduced by the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg in 2006, is supposed to find out if a person shares German principles and values and acts as a social contract between Germany and its citizens. The irony of the test is that many Germans would fail to pass it. As Lale Akgün pointed out in an editorial for the Berlin newspaper Taz, “the current German pope would fail due to his opinions on homosexuality and sexual equality.” Volker Beck, a Green Party politician, claimed that even Interior Minister Heribert Rech and many conservative politicians in the CDU would not pass the test (Expatica, January 11, 2006).

Given that a large number of Muslims in Germany were denied easy access to citizenship until very recently, their existence in Germany is increasingly becoming conditional upon the espousal of particular beliefs and fidelity to values that even the most patriotic Germans might not know or agree with. Yet it is counter-productive to threaten potential ostracism through naturalization and a foreigners’ law as punishment for the “sin” of refusing to adopt an imposed ideological uniformity on moral dilemmas that looks more like absolute assimilationism than integration.

The Path Ahead

Pressures from within (Islam) and without (globalization and European integration) have made Germans feel apprehensive about their national identity and culture. The country is visibly struggling to mitigate the potentially explosive mix of nationalism and fear of the Muslim “stranger,” while defining citizenship for its marginalized and disenfranchised immigrants. The issue is no longer the building of defensive citadels of “Germanness” since the country has finally come to grips with the reality that the Gastarbeiter (guest workers) are there to stay. The challenge for Germany today is to define what kinds of values are essential for the country’s secular model of society and what are negotiable.


The author would like to thank Jonathan Laurence for allowing him to draw heavily on his excellent report, “Islam and Identity in Germany,” International Crisis Group, March 14, 2007.

1. “2005 Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution.” For the full report, see

2. Ibid.

3. About 75% of the 3.2 to 3.4 million people of Muslim background in Germany come from Turkey or are of Turkish origin. The rest are: 200,000 Bosnian/Herzegovinian, 100,000 Iranian, 80,000 Moroccan, 70,000 Afghan, German Converts and 800,000 citizens (mostly former Turkish nationals). Around 95% are of non-Arab origin. This diverse population can be divided along ethnic lines: religion (Sunnis, 80 percent), (Alevites, 17 percent), (Shiites, three percent), degree of religiosity and political status. The German Conference on Islam (DIK), Federal Ministry of the Interior. See also the excellent report “Islam and Identity in Germany,” International Crisis Group, March 14, 2007.

4. Ibid. For the full ICG report, see

5. “2005 Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution.”

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. “Islam and Identity in Germany.”

9. “Muslims in Europe: Economic Worries Top Concerns About Religious and Cultural Identity,” Pew Global Attitudes Project, Released July 6, 2006.