Radical Islamists have found a new place for recruiting fresh followers: German prisons. In some jails, Muslim chaplains are successfully promoting a more moderate approach to the faith, but many more of them are needed.
The evening sun shines through the barred windows onto the 18 men. They’re wearing ruby-colored T-shirts and black pants. Some nudge each other’s shoulders out of sheer boredom, while others linger in groups at the corner of the sparse room. The men speak Turkish, Arabic and German. One keeps glancing out the window into the prison yard.
A man with a full beard and violet-colored turban strides before the prisoners, his colorfully striped linen robe flowing behind him. Husamuddin Meyer rolls out his prayer rug and begins to pray. Swaying back and forth, he seems almost to be singing the Arabic verses.
The men stand silently in two rows in front of Meyer, backs straight and eyes staring straight ahead. They then kneel, lowering their heads until their foreheads touch the ground. They repeat this four to five times before chanting, “Allahu akbar,” God is great. Meyer gestures with his hand and the prisoners form a semi-circle around him to listen to him telling a story from the Koran. Nobody interrupts.
Meyer is a Muslim chaplain; he wears a beard, a turban and a ring on his finger as prescribed by the Sunna. He also walks with a wooden cane, whose thud announces his arrival when he swiftly makes his way through the prison corridors. He visits the correctional facility in the central German city of Wiesbaden three times each week, where he prays together with Muslim prisoners and provides them with religious counseling.
Meyer is hoping to show the prisoners the path to Allah. More importantly, though, he is seeking to sway the faithful away from more radical interpretations of the Koran. He warns in particular against Salafism, the fundamentalist stream of Islam that is currently enjoying growing popularity among young men. When he discusses the issue, his generally pleasant voice suddenly hardens. “Salafism is like a disease,” Meyer says. “Once somebody has it, they start infecting others.”
Radicals Recruiting in German Prisons
Radical Islamists have found what might appear to be an unlikely place to gain new followers: German prisons. Officials at the Bavarian state unit of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the agency responsible for monitoring extremist activity in the country, say they have identified jihadist handbooks recommending the recruitment of fellow prisoners and that they have observed Salafist prisoners trying to convert other inmates.
Rauf Ceylan, a prominent Islam expert in Osnabrück, believes a growing number of extremists are likely to be incarcerated in Germany in the future. “Many of the 300 Germans who have joined the jihad in Syria will probably end up in German jails at some point,” he says.
A handful of international cases underscore the acute threat of young men converting or becoming radicalized in prison. It was after being placed in a London juvenile correctional facility for committing petty crimes that Richard Reid converted to Islam and later became radicalized. In 2001, he attempted to down a passenger jet with an explosive device he had hidden in his shoe. Meanwhile, one of the perpetrators of the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid had first come into contact with extremists while behind bars. The killer in Toulouse, France, who shot seven people in March 2012, had become a Salafist while in jail.
The most recent case involved Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, the man suspected in the shootings at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May in which four people died. He is believed to have spent around a year fighting in Syria with Islamist rebels. Public prosecutors claim that Nemmouche had been arrested seven times within a decade for relatively minor offences like break-ins. They also claim he became radicalized during his time in jail.
Nearly Imperceptible Transformation
The head of the Wiesbaden correctional facility herself has experienced just how imperceptible the transformation from petty criminal to Salafist can be. Hadmut Jung-Silberreis is an energetic women who has worked in the penal system for more than 30 years. But she was caught off guard by Riza, an inmate of Arab origin. “The young man was totally inconspicuous,” she says. “He conducted an apprenticeship in jail and even got a job.” Jung-Silberreis first learned through a video she came across on the Internet what he had really done after leaving prison.
The video features three men with full beards standing in front of the prison gate. As Riza goes over to them, one embraces him. The man behind the camera says, “You are free again today and the first thing you set your mind to is opening an information stand with your brothers and sisters.” On the young man’s first day of freedom, he participated in a Salafist action called “Lies” (the word means “read” in German), a program to distribute Korans in public places across Germany. That, at least, is what Hesse security officials believe. They say the three men are known Salafists and that Riza had established contact with them during his time in jail. “Inside, you found the way back,” one of them says to him in the video, nodding in the direction of the prison walls.
A Moderating Force
Prison director Jung-Silberreis reports that the writings of internationally known Salafist Bilal Philips had been passed from cell to cell in the jail. She says that none of the prison guards had recognized the source of the inmates’ religious inspiration before Meyer arrived on the scene. Now, the chaplain encourages prisoners to reflect more deeply in an effort to steer them away from Islamist ideology. “A few of them would like to go to Syria,” he says. “But most haven’t yet found their way — and there are many different ways in which they can develop.”
He’s referring to people like Abdul, who the pastor believes is heading in the right direction. When Meyer saw the 23-year-old German for the first time, the young man was angry. Abdul lashed out at the infidels and spoke of events with preacher Pierre Vogel, one of the best-known Salafists in Germany. Abdul had spent part of his childhood in a home and later smoked copious amounts of pot. He began going to the mosque in his search for the orientation that had been missing in his life.
An ethnic German, the young man began calling himself Abdul after converting to Islam four years ago. When it came to explaining his new faith to him, the Salafists did it in German.
Abdul landed in jail after becoming convinced that God despised him because he didn’t stay on the straight and narrow. One day, he stuffed a pneumatic pistol in his gym bag, pulled a black mask over his head and raided the nearest gas station together with a friend. Before tearing open the door, he mumbled a prayer. He then went on to conduct 13 robberies before a station attendant finally recognized his friend. Abdul was prosecuted and sentenced to three years in prison.
Abdul had all the qualities that might lead him to become radicalized and leave prison as a jihadist. His head was awash in Salafist ideas, he was at least moderately familiar with weapons and he was accustomed to breaking the law. But then he met Husamuddin Meyer. For nearly three years, the two regularly encountered each other during prayers and engaged in discussions. “I had fallen in with the Salafists, but I have since gotten to know the true heart of Islam,” Abdul says. He sits Indian-style on a red Persian rug in the mosque room in Building C of the jail. He now refers to the Salafists merely as “anarchists”.
Meyer says his discussions with inmates can get so intense that he has to take a break. Sometimes he eats ice cream during these breaks to calm his nerves. He has a whole supply of ice cream bars awaiting him in a prison freezer.
Connecting Through Religion
Meyer himself grew up in a small Christian family in Hesse’s picturesque Odenwald region south of Frankfurt. As a student, he took a motorcycle trip through Islamic countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Then, in Senegal, he found a wife and Islam. He says the contentment of deeply devout people there deeply impressed him. Back in Germany, he majored in Islamic Studies at the University of Freiburg in southern Germany.
Today he leads the prayers in a small mosque in a back courtyard in Little Islamabad, a neighborhood in Wiesbaden. Meyer has faith in the power of religion, even when it comes to burglars, rapists and murderers sitting in prison. In working with the young prisoners, speaking to them, praying and reciting the Koran, he tries to instill a religious balance in them. “If you pray five times a day and do certain exercises, then you are protected from external influences and can’t be as easily manipulated,” he says.
Researchers recently conducted a study on the connection between recidivism and faith in juvenile detention centers in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. They came to the conclusion that the “religious connection” and the “rootedness” of young migrants “in the culture of their homeland can have a preventative effect on general delinquency.”
It’s been prison head Jung-Silberreis’ experience that Meyer has been able to connect through religion with inmates who justice officials and psychologists had already written off. But the prison leader has also had the opposite experience — that clerics can have a negative impact as well. Fundamentalist preachers once used religion as a ruse to infiltrate the jail, with an imam who had been recommended by a cultural association for Turkish immigrants. He refused to shake Jung-Silberreis’ hand, saying he wasn’t allowed to touch women who are strangers to him. Later, her employees discovered that he had been stuffing papers inside Korans to smuggle them into the prison. “The texts could have helped to radicalize the prisoners,” Jung-Silberreis says.
Last year, the leading justice official in the city-state of Berlin suspended his agency’s cooperation with an organization called the Working Group for Muslim Chaplains because security authorities had determined a few of the religious representatives to be problematic. But approaches seem to differ depending on where you go in Germany. Officials at the Leipzig correction facility, for example, allowed Salafist Hassan Dabbagh to work as a chaplain at the prison despite the fact that he was under investigation on suspicion of sedition.
It’s often only with great trouble that prison heads can determine the type of Islam a person represents. There aren’t even official guidelines in Germany stating who is allowed to serve as a Muslim chaplain. In most cases, the local Muslim community recommends an imam. Islamic Studies experts are calling for the same kind of training to be established for Muslim chaplains that already exists for their Christian counterparts. But there’s a problem here, as well, given that Islam doesn’t have the same kind of hierarchical structures that exist in the Christian churches. It’s also likely it would be difficult for the diverse Islamic associations to agree on common religious precepts that the chaplains could convey.
A Need for More Spiritual Care
The organizations do agree that the Muslim convicts need better spiritual care and have made this demand a focus of the ongoing Islam Conference, a government-sponsored meeting aimed at establishing greater structures for the faith in Germany. Following the Jewish Museum attack — the perpetrator radicalized in a French prison — the head of France’s Muslim prison chaplains’ association wrote an impassioned letter to the government demanding that spiritual care for Muslims behind bars be expanded. In Germany, Christian chaplains are there for prisoners almost every day whereas an imam is usually only brought in when a convict requests one. Furthermore, Muslim chaplains only receive wages equal to voluntary helpers — for Meyer that means €19.50 ($27) per hour. Lower Saxony is about to become the only sizable German state to regulate Muslim spiritual care by way of a contract with Islamic associations there. But the state government is only prepared to budget €44,000 per year for the program. The corresponding program for Christian inmates is to receive funding of €1.8 million.
Meyer is paid for nine one-hour sessions per week, which averages out to about six minutes with each Muslim prisoner. Over several years, that might be enough to convince “hobby Salafists,” such as the convert Abdul. But ideologically hardened terrorists also come to Meyer’s prayer sessions.
A few years ago, he held Friday prayers in another prison in Hesse. Thereafter, a young man with long black hair continually sought contact with him. Rami Makanes was a member of al-Qaida and had received weapons training in a terror camp in Pakistan and he wanted to tell Meyer about his experiences in Asia. It would have been an opportunity to reach out to Makanesi, but the time Meyer had available was hardly enough for a handshake before and after prayers. “You need time to combat an ideology,” Meyer says.
And sometimes, you need a lot of it. In the same prison, a shy young man who looked familiar to Meyer attended prayers. It was Arid Uka, the perpetrator of the first deadly Islamist attack in Germany. Twenty-one at the time, Uka shot and killed two US soldiers at the Frankfurt Airport in 2011. “He still seemed very immature,” Meyer recalls. The chaplain wanted to discuss Islam with him, but Uka always quickly returned to his cell.
In Wiesbaden, Mayer reaches the end of evening prayers in the detention center. He rolls up his prayer rug as inmates crowd around him. One asks for a Koran while another would like Meyer to pray for his deceased father. Meyer closes his eyes, lets his prayer beads slip through his fingers and mumbles a verse.
But before he can finish, a voice booms from the corner: “Let’s go men!” The guard rocks impatiently on his toes and then begins escorting the inmates out the door.