By SPIEGEL Staff
Hundreds of young German Islamists have traveled to Syria to fight with the terrorist group Islamic State. SPIEGEL explored the extremist scene in Germany and the fascination with jihad in order to find answers about what drives people to join the murderous cult.
Whenever Ismail Cetinkaya runs into one of those young men who want to leave Hamburg to fight in Syria, he asks: “Have you ever slept without heat in the winter? Do you know what it’s like to live without electricity and running water? Do you think a Kalashnikov works like the controller for your PlayStation 4?”
He also asks whether the young man is leaving his mother behind. And then he quotes the words of the Prophet Mohammed, and says: “Paradise lies at the feet of your mother.” The implication being that those who leave their weeping mothers behind won’t enter paradise.
Cetinkaya, 33, has a full beard and has been praying to Allah five times a day ever since he found himself, as he says. He’s the son of Turks from Mardin, a city on the Syrian border. He speaks fluent Arabic and doesn’t need a German imam or YouTube videos to understand what God wants from him.
God wants Cetinkaya to devote himself to “jihad.” But jihad is really just the Arab word for struggle, the struggle one endures while on the path to Allah. In the Koran, the “great jihad” is not the fight against non-believers, but each individual’s struggle against himself, against his own weaknesses, and against the evil that resides in every human being.
Cetinkaya is a successful fighter — in his struggle against himself, and against others he encounters in tournaments. In his sport of choice, Mixed Martial Arts, the combatants fight each other in a cage. It has its origins among the ancient Greeks, who called it Pankration. Even Socrates was a practitioner of Pankration, a full contact sport in which the combatants wrestled, boxed and kicked each other.
Cetinkaya is a popular trainer who runs his own martial arts school. When he walks through the streets of Hamburg, young men point at him or shake his hand. They tell him that they hope to be fighters like him one day. They have respect for Cetinkaya, who is a good fighter and a devout Muslim, a role model who dispenses advice.
He doesn’t like it when people do things half-heartedly. He wants young Muslims to read the Koran themselves and understand Islam. He doesn’t like it when they merely imitate what they hear in YouTube videos. Most of all, he doesn’t like it when they travel 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to fight “infidels,” behead people, quote verses from the Koran and capture it all on film.
Germany’s Most Notorious IS Fighter
One of those Muslims used to call himself Deso Dogg and was a rapper from Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood. Today he is one of the most notorious German fighters with the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Cetinkaya knows Deso Dogg. In fact, he knows him fairly well, because the two men were as close as two men could be, when they fought each other in the ring, a place where the most important traits are strength, speed, courage, tactical skill and, most of all, the ability to lose all fear.
That was in March 2010, in an arena in Berlin where the best fighters in the country came together. Cetinkaya was a three-time Northern German champion and runner-up in both the German and world championships. He had nine or 10 fights on that day, and he won them all. Deso Dogg, who had ended his career as a rapper, was now hoping to become a martial arts star. His friends from Kreuzberg, who were there to support him, were shouting: Give him hell! Come on!
But Deso Dogg was too slow and couldn’t land a single punch with Ismail. Instead, he endured blow after blow, until he was lying on the floor, floundering like an upside down beetle. When he stood up again, Ismail kneed him in the ribs, first with his left and then with his right leg, lifted him into the air, threw him to the ground and hit him in the face. It was a short fight, a few minutes of total humiliation. Many people commented on the video of the fight, which was available online. One person wrote: “A guy from Hamburg came and swept them all away, and like a lion in an encounter with gnus, he ripped them all apart.”
‘He Was No Warrior’
Cetinkaya was long unaware of the fact that his former opponent had become radicalized. But then friends showed him posts on Facebook, in which people wrote that Deso Dogg had died in Syria, which quickly proved to be a false rumor. Cetinkaya was surprised that Deso Dogg was fighting for the Islamic State and the caliphate, because he remembered the look in the young man’s eyes before the fight. “I looked him in the eye, and I sensed that he was no warrior.”
Today Deso Dogg is a propaganda hero for IS. The name given to him at birth was Denis Cuspert, but he now calls himself Abu Talha al-Almani, travels in off-road vehicles along country roads in Syria, goes to massacres and appears in video messages to jihadists and would-be jihadists.
In one of those videos, he is kneeling in front of a waterfall. He fills his hands with water, throws it into the air and splashes it into his face, as if he were baptizing or purifying himself. “Brothers,” he says, “I call you to jihad! This is where you will find freedom!” The sound of machine-gun fire can be heard in the background. He laughs, and says: “You can really live here. It’s fun here. Jihad is a lot of fun!”
A new video surfaced three weeks ago. It depicts a scene in an empty, yellow desert somewhere in Syria. The sun is shining. Men with bound hands are lying on their stomachs on the ground. They are conscious. Suddenly a hand appears and slits their throats with a knife, and blood gushes out. It is the first video of Deso Dogg that depicts a beheading. Previous videos had only showed the before and after shots of the killings.
When Denis Cuspert appears, he says: “They fought the ‘Islamic State.’ We imposed the death penalty on them. They got what they deserved.” He kneels down, picks up a bloody head and places it on the body. The jihadists shout: “Allahu akbar!”
Cuspert calls this jihad, but Ismail Cetinkaya calls it insane.
The propaganda is working, because it targets young men who are susceptible to its message, young men like Kreshnik B., whose parents fled from Kosovo and who used to play for a Jewish soccer team in Frankfurt. B. went to Syria, and now he is back in Germany, facing charges for supporting a terrorist organization abroad. The propaganda targets young men like David G. from the Allgäu region of southern Germany, a quiet, polite boy who completed an apprenticeship and was 18 when he left Germany, joined IS and was killed in battle. Or men like Mustafa K. from Dinslaken in western Germany, who poses for snapshots with severed heads in Syria. He was overweight, did poorly in school and was ignored by women, a person who was often beaten up, drank too much and could be found sitting, drunk, in a kebab shop on the market square in the early morning hours.
According to German law enforcement officials, 500 of these men have left German cities to go to war in Syria and Iraq. Their fight is dubbed a “holy war” in the West, even though there is not a single verse of the Koran in which the words “holy” and “war” appear together. Most of the travelers don’t speak Arabic, have read very little of the Koran and have rarely understood it. They followed friends, imams and recruiters. They wanted to be heroes, protectors of the weak, of brothers and sisters threatened by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s poison gas, which they call the “gas of the West.” They were young men from Berlin, Hamburg or Dinslaken, who left Germany in groups. Some of them are underdogs from nondescript suburbs, but some are also mechanical engineers.
The underdogs are particularly important for terrorist organizations like Islamic State, because their stories are meant to show that even a loser can be someone — not in Dinslaken or Berlin, but with the jihadists in Iraq and Syria — even if most of those mentioned in the media eventually die a so-called martyr’s death.
They leave behind video messages and horrified Germans who believe that what is happening there has something to do with Islam, and that a warlike religion is threatening the West with barbarism and Medieval-style executions. The poster boys of this evil are men like Deso Dogg.
Today Denis Cuspert is something of a pop star, appearing in more videos than his former rival, German rapper Bushido. He was never interested in making a lot of money or driving expensive cars. He wanted people to know him, perhaps fear him and certainly admire him. He wanted to be a role model. Cuspert wanted respect. Now that he has found a home and respect among barbarians, he seems to feel at ease.
His first home was Berlin, where he was born in 1975, as the son of an African immigrant. His father was deported when Cuspert was a little boy. His stepfather served in the American military, and his mother was German. Denis was often too much for her to handle. He spent a lot of time in the streets controlled by West Berlin’s gangs. He committed robberies, was in fights and got arrested again and again. During a search of his home, police found 16 live cartridges. He was also arrested on drug charges and for assault. During a dispute over the spoils from a robbery, he shot a friend in the face with a gas pistol.
He began rapping in prison, where he called himself Deso Dogg. Deso was an abbreviation for Devil’s Son, which appealed to him. He made a mixtape called “Murda Cocctail” and an album called “Schwarzer Engel” (Black Angel). It consisted of hard-boiled gangsta rap, street poetry, criticism of everyday racism in Germany, violent fantasies and rage expressed in verse form: “In the schoolyard I was the little nigga boy / with ripped jeans, an angry look and a sharp tongue / had to be ten times better, ten times faster / had to be ten times tougher, ten little negroes!”
His label and his producers had great hopes for this gangsta rapper, who satisfied all of the clichés: He was good-looking, a black man with talent and tattoos, someone who had done time and was from a broken family. Cuspert didn’t make a lot of money, but that also wasn’t his aim. He wanted to become famous, not rich. He took the bus, folded his own T-shirts and wore the hip-hop name brands he was given by his promoters. What he didn’t need he gave to his friends — sneakers, hoodies and camo pants. Suddenly he had a lot of friends. American rap icon Tupac Shakur was his role model, a real gangster with a talent for poetry. Cuspert dreamed of making it big, and he called his last album “Alle Augen auf mich,” the German translation of “All Eyez on Me,” the title of Tupac’s last album, released shortly before he was shot to death in Las Vegas in 1996. But Cuspert’s albums never made it to the top of the charts.
The other German rappers surpassed him. Bushido, Sido and Kool Savas figured out how to become stars in Germany as gangsta rappers, even by merely pretending to be gangster. But Deso Dogg remained nothing but a local hero in his Kreuzberg neighborhood. Hip-hop is a culture of success. There are no happy losers. In hip-hop, a loser is a victim, a whiner and a zero.
Friends and the people he worked with say that Cuspert began disappearing more and more, often for weeks at a time. When he returned, he talked about having psychotic episodes, about hearing voices that beckoned him to do good and bad things.
He gave up rap and got into martial arts. He worked hard, but the defeat in Berlin against Cetinkaya was his last fight. Instead, Cuspert was now spending more and more time at the mosque. In the end, Allah forgives those who convert to Islam and are devout. It was an opportunity to press the reset button. Cuspert had sinned a lot. He liked the idea of starting over again.