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German Authorities Enlist Online Hunters To Combat Radicalization Of Muslim Youth


Security forces in Germany have thwarted several ISIS-inspired attacks this year, including one aimed at Berlin airport. Gordian Meyer-Plath is the domestic intelligence chief in the state of Saxony where the would-be airport perpetrator lived.


GORDIAN MEYER-PLATH: The German security agencies have done a fairly good job so far with the help of our international friends, but that doesn't mean that it can't happen tomorrow.

SIMON: And that's why German authorities are trolling the internet in search of the bait used to radicalize people. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The online hunt for radicalization makes for strange bedfellows. One example is a partnership between the German federal police and a grassroots organization that dispels myths about the Islamization of Germany. Called Ufug, or horizon in Arabic, the Berlin-based association has joined with authorities in a new EU-funded project called CONTRA, which counters radical propaganda. Internet fare that sends young people on the path to radicalization can be tough to spot, says Sindyan Qasem, who works for Ufug and searches the web daily. What he looks for isn't necessarily what ISIS, also known as Daesh, puts out.

SINDYAN QASEM: The problematic stuff is not your standard Daesh video with heads being chopped off because youth are actually not attracted to this instantly. They are more, like, lured in by very subtle videos made about discrimination, about racism, that they face in Germany in their everyday life.

NELSON: The online fare that leads to radicalization can be as benign as an imam offering "Dear Abby-style" advice or a video featuring scenes from popular games, say Qasem and his colleague Nalan Yagci.

NALAN YAGCI: The other one is in German. This is also ISIS.

QASEM: Ah, this one's German

NELSON: They have archived hundreds such videos, including this one posted by someone using the pseudonym Heisenberg from the popular TV series "Breaking Bad."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Oh, my brothers, jihad is the way to bring back the honor of our glorious days.

NELSON: This song called a combat nasheed that praises holy war against infidels accompanies visuals from the "Assassin's Creed" video game. The scenes show the hooded protagonists fighting alongside Americans against the redcoats during the Revolutionary War while a bald eagle flies overhead.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) That fighting for his sake is the ultimate gain.

NELSON: It seems odd that an apparent ISIS sympathizer would depict Americans as the good guys, but Yagci says it actually makes sense. "Assassin's Creed" is a familiar game that resonates with many young Germans. While the song tells them that jihad is a good thing...

YAGCI: The fight is very difficult. You have to put a lot of yourselves in it, but it's worth it.

NELSON: People who post such videos or comments are rarely connected to ISIS, not that the group is likely to object, Qasem says. He adds that the subtle and appealing message, often in German, can soften young Germans up for recruitment.

QASEM: Then they get used to the whole discourse, and in the end, maybe they're attracted to, like, hardcore propaganda.

NELSON: The two-year CONTRA project tries to help young people resist the online manipulation by teaching them to identify the narratives and think about them critically. But German authorities do go after Islamists whose online presence is deemed dangerous. Last month, officials took the unusual step of banning an Islamist group called the True Religion that was known for handing out German-language Qurans in cities here. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere accused the group of radicalizing converts of which 140 ended up going to Syria and Iraq.


THOMAS DE MAIZIERE: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The minister told reporters there is no place in our society for radical, violence-prone extremists. But despite German police efforts, attempted terror attacks continue. On Friday, the federal prosecutor's office revealed that a 12-year-old German boy of Iraqi heritage tried but failed to set off two homemade bombs in the southern city of Ludwigshafen. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.