On March 3, 2008, a Toyota van approached the NATO Sebari military compound near the village of Khost on the Afghan side of the restive Afghanistan-Pakistan border. At the entrance to the base the van, packed full of explosives, detonated in a furious fireball. Numerous civilians, as well as two young American soldiers, were killed in the attack. Dozens of other soldiers managed to survive after being buried under the rubble.
Video recorded by at least two cameras and later published on the Islamist website sehadetvakti.com shows the preparations for the attack, the long drive to the military base, and the tremendous explosion with the column of smoke rising into the sky. Voices in the background repeat in Arabic “Allah hu Akbar!”: “God is great!”
The driver of the van can be seen and heard in one of the video recordings. The young man appears well-groomed, wearing a long white shirt, white pants, and a brown taqiya, or knitted cap. Smiling continuously, the fully-bearded man exudes self-confidence. Squatting and relaxed in the yard of a simple Afghan farm, he appears reserved but happy as he speaks to the camera. In Turkish, he explains: “I am ready for death. When I press this button, eternal life in paradise will fill me with God’s reward. There, God willing, I will meet the companions of the Prophet and the martyrs and those who live wholly by the example of the Prophet.” Then the young man reiterates: “God has led us here and, God willing, He will reward us. Hopefully the enemy will be weakened at our hands and receive just punishment. I hope, God willing, to become a martyr.”1
Not long after the young man detonated himself, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a terrorist organization whose origins are in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, claimed responsibility for the attack.2 In an online “press release” published in Turkish, the IJU stated that the operation in Khost “was successfully carried out by Cüneyt Ciftci (Saad Ebu Furkan), who is of Turkish background, who came from Germany and who exchanged his luxurious lifestyle for a place in heaven.”
When word reached Germany that a German-Turk had perpetrated a suicide attack in Afghanistan, the public was shocked. Some initially even doubted the credibility of the IJU’s claims. How, after all, did a Germany-born Turk, who was raised in normal German circumstances and was himself the father of two, get caught up in the network of an Islamist terror organization? Despite the video evidence, the Federal Criminal Office (BKA)—Germany’s equivalent of the FBI—was itself reluctant to make any definitive statement on the matter, saying only that there was a “high probability” that the person shown in the video was Cüneyt Ciftci. But then, in May 2008, nearly two months after the attack, BKA president Jörg Ziercke announced that the identity of the suicide bomber had been confirmed by DNA analysis, and that the attacker was in fact Cüneyt Ciftci.3
This news created a considerable stir in Germany: never before had a German-born person of Turkish descent been involved in a case of terrorism. Of course, the threats posed by radical Islam in Germany received worldwide attention after the 9/11 attacks, when it was revealed that some of the attackers had been based in Hamburg. But the Hamburg cell consisted of young Arab men—not Turks—and those men had only lived in Germany for a short period of time. By contrast, Germany’s large Turkish population—a population that, according to unofficial estimates, totals over 2.4 million legal residents and citizens—was either German-born or their families had lived there for decades. Moreover, this population had a well-known reputation for religious and political moderation, and few informed observers ever foresaw that the jihadist movement could find recruits within this particular demographic.
Today, however, it is not Arabs, but those with Turkish backgrounds, who are more frequently drawing scrutiny from German counter-extremism investigators, and there is growing concern that Ciftci’s case may not be the last case of its kind. The 2007 annual report of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, or BfV—the intelligence agency set up after the Second World War to counter domestic threats to Germany’s free and democratic political order) has revealed that of the estimated 33,170 persons in Germany identified by security services as harboring Islamist tendencies, 27,920 of them were followers of movements or ideologies whose provenance was Turkey.4 German security services stress that only a small minority within this group of extremists can be classified as either actual or potential terrorists. However, as more details about Ciftci’s path towards radicalization come to light, they suggest that the boundary line separating an ideological Islamist and an actual jihadist is not, in some cases, as clear-cut as some would like to think.
The purpose of this article is to examine what is publicly known about Ciftci’s journey into radical Islam. In the course of researching this paper, we’ve consulted a variety of public sources and interviewed a range of Ciftci’s acquaintances as well as others, including German government officials, familiar with his case.5 At the moment, there is a lot about Cüneyt Ciftci that remains unknown—and that may never be known. However, we believe that a close look at Ciftci’s transformation from an ordinary German-Muslim family man to suicide bomber helps shed some light on the process of Islamist radicalization, and especially on how that process operates within the broader German context. Indeed, compared to West European countries, the prospects for radicalization among Germany’s Muslims have received relatively less analytical and policy attention in the German-, Turkish-, and English-speaking worlds. Today, we believe that the case of Cüneyt Ciftci requires us to study these prospects more closely and seriously.6
The Bavarian Taliban
After Ciftci’s name appeared in connection with the suicide bombing in Afghanistan, many German journalists seemed to presume that Ciftci’s rage and radicalization probably stemmed from the social alienation and economic deprivation he had experienced while growing up in Germany. But what they discovered about Ciftci’s early life was far different than what they expected.
Cüneyt Ciftci, the son of Turkish immigrants, was born on July 14, 1979, in Freising, a prosperous Bavarian community located some twenty miles north of Munich. At the age of ten, Cüneyt moved with his family to nearby Ansbach, where he attended school, grew up and eventually found employment. Located about twenty five miles southwest of Nuremberg, Ansbach is a prosperous city of 40,000 inhabitants and home to a number of flourishing companies. In July, 2008, the unemployment rate for the Ansbach area was only 3%—far below the national average of 7.7%. Ansbach and its surrounding area are not afflicted by massive social problems; there are no inner-city neighborhoods with high concentrations of non-German inhabitants, and no run-down high-rises such as those in the French suburbs (banlieues). The city’s center is dominated by baroque architecture that was largely spared damage in the Second World War, and it is surrounded by gentle hills, fields, meadows, forests and picturesque Bavarian villages.7
According to one correspondent for the Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), Germany’s largest news service, Ansbach is filled with “attractive new apartment buildings with curtained windows and solid middle-class cars parked out front.” The reporter concluded, “the area in which Ciftci lived up until one year ago … appears to be anything but a nest of violent Islamist extremists.”8
Ciftci’s early life in Ansbach might be described as fairly typical for second-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany. As in other German cities, Turkish families have settled in Ansbach since the 1960s, when the German federal government began actively recruiting unskilled laborers from Turkey to fill the numerous job vacancies in the country’s factories. Numerous Turkish guest workers brought their families with them, and in time these families put down new roots in Germany. But because of Germany’s rigid citizenship laws, many of them remained Turkish citizens. When these families had children, even this new generation of German-born Turks—including Cüneyt Ciftci—were not granted citizenship. (Under a new law passed in 2000, it is now easier for newborn children of foreigners who legally reside in Germany to acquire German citizenship.)
Since the majority of Germany’s Muslims are Turks, the life of Germany’s Muslim community has remained by and large a reflection of the Islamic currents prevalent in Turkey. Ansbach is no exception. The city has two small mosques, both of which have a largely Turkish membership.
The Hilal Mosque belongs to the Turkish Islamic Community of Ansbach, a legally registered society affiliated with the Turkish-Islamic Union of the Institute for Religion. This organization was established in 1984 and is linked to the Turkish government’s Presidency for Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanliği), or what is commonly referred to simply as the “Diyanet.” The imams who serve in the Diyanet-affiliated mosques receive their salaries from the Turkish state, and within Germany, these places of Islamic worship primarily serve the more lay-oriented Muslims of Turkish descent.
Not far from the Hilal Mosque in Ansbach is a mosque affiliated with the Milli Görüs, a Turkish Islamic revivalist movement. The members of Milli Görüs mosques tend to be more religiously conservative than those of the Diyanet mosques; they are quite critical and more often stridently reject the relaxed form of Islam long upheld and promoted by the Diyanet. Because Milli Görüs has been classified by the German government as an extremist organization, the mosque remains under observation by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.9
Cüneyt Ciftci’s father is among the more prominent personalities of the Turkish community in Ansbach. Acquaintances describe him as orthodox, and he was a founding member of the Ansbach Milli Görüs mosque society. For this reason, he is no stranger to the authorities at the Bavarian-based Office for the Protection of the Constitution (LfV).10
At the age of twelve, Cüneyt Ciftci was sent by his father to a state-run religious school in Turkey, where he learned, among other things, to recite the Quran from memory. He also began to use the name “Hafiz”. After studying for three years in Turkey, Ciftci returned to Ansbach, where he spent the next period of his life trying to find his place among the mosque communities there. He apparently did so without much success, because he subsequently turned away from the Islamic faith and began to occupy himself with more worldly matters.
But Ciftci also encountered great difficulties trying to adapt to secular German life. He dropped out of school and broke off a masonry apprenticeship. He worked for a while as an interior decorator and also as a McDonald’s employee. He was clearly torn between his German homeland, his Turkish-Muslim roots, and his strict father. Yet similar problems in integrating into Germany’s success-oriented society are not uncommon among young second-generation German-Turks. This can hardly be seen as a driving force behind his later turn to terrorism.
Unlike some other German-Turks who have struggled to integrate into German society, Ciftci was spared the descent into joblessness. Ansbach had plenty of jobs to go around, even for the unskilled, and in 1998, Ciftci found employment in the Ansbach warehouse of Bosch, an international technology company. This job provided Ciftci with a dependable income, paid vacation, health insurance and other benefits. He seemed to have found a new lease on life, and during his employment at Bosch, he was regarded, as one company spokesman told the DPA, as a “normal employee” whose conduct at work was “orderly and level-headed.”11
In 2000, Ciftci had been granted an unlimited right of residence in Germany, but his application for German citizenship was repeatedly turned down. The authorities in Ansbach conducted several so-called “security conversations” with Ciftci, a procedure carried out in Germany with all foreigners who apply for citizenship but whose loyalty to the German constitution is in question (presumably, Ciftci was questioned because of his affiliation with the Milli Görüs mosque in Ansbach.) Ciftci would eventually withdraw his application for citizenship.
According to his acquaintances, at this time Ciftci was not thought of as a religious fanatic, or for that matter, as especially religious. Rather, he was seen as “modern” and “western”. He went to restaurants and admired fast cars. He played soccer in a local club, and his fellow players and former coach later described him as very quiet and reserved. Ciftci met a woman in a döner kebab restaurant, and in 2001, against the will of Cüneyt’s father, they were married. The bride came from a secular Turkish family in Ansbach, and she did not wear a headscarf. At first, the two seemed like any other young married couple in Germany.
Four years after the wedding, however, the young family moved in with Ciftci’s parents, and Ciftci’s wife suddenly began to wear a headscarf. The young bride gradually became estranged from her own mother, whom Ciftci regarded as too “western”. Moreover, under his influence, contact between his wife and her mother was broken off entirely in 2005. Ciftci’s own outward appearance also changed dramatically during this time, as he began wearing Islamic clothing and a beard.
According to intelligence sources, in late 2004 Ciftci began to frequent the Milli-Görüs mosque in Ansbach and even to preach there. His knowledge of the Quran and his beautiful, clear voice were highly regarded, but his sermons stirred up controversy. For instance, when commenting on the conflict in Iraq, after quoting from the Quran, Ciftci concluded that it “is the duty of every individual Muslim to support the uprising against the occupiers and to kill the Americans.” Following this incident, the board of the mosque society prohibited Ciftci from continuing to preach.
Indeed, as early as 2004, because of his involvement with the Milli-Görüs mosque, Ciftci was kept under observation by the Bavarian LfV office. Although he was not designated as particularly dangerous, suspicions from security officials persisted. On April 2, 2007, Ciftci left Germany with his wife and two children and headed for Pakistan. Bavaria’s interior minister Joachim Herrmann later explained at a press conference in March, 2008, that Ciftci was probably well aware “that he was in the focus of the German security authorities.”12
In any case, it cannot be said that Ciftci simply slipped underground at this point. On the contrary, he gave proper notice to his employer and submitted the required documents to the registration authority in March, 2007. He did not, however, provide a new address. After settling with his family in Pakistan, Ciftci proceeded to a training camp run by the IJU.13
Islamic Radicalism in Pappenheim
It is possible to reconstruct the paths that jihadists like Cüneyt Ciftci follow on their way to their martyrdom operations, but it is difficult to determine precisely why they choose these paths in the first place. What persuades a husband and father of two to leave his family behind? How does a person come to desire martyrdom? German security authorities believe that Ciftci’s radicalization may have begun in 2001-2002 through his involvement with the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), a transnational Islamic missionary movement founded in India in 1926.
TJ has been the subject of increased scrutiny by German authorities in recent years, and the movement remains under observation by the German BfV. In a report for the first half of 2008, the Bavarian Interior Ministry stated that TJ represents “a strictly orthodox form of Islam with roots in India, the goal of which is the Islamization of society and, with this, the establishment of an Islamic state. Although the movement itself officially rejects violence, its common ideological base with militant groups presents the danger that the worldwide TJ structures may be used by terrorist networks.”14
In an interview with Der Spiegel, Herbert L. Müller, a high-ranking official with the Baden-Württemberg branch of the LfV, described TJ as a “flow-through heater” that “boils” people’s ideological temperatures, and places them, in many cases, on a path toward terrorism. Other investigators have described TJ as a “gateway” to jihadism; they also have compared the group to a “sieve” through which the potential believers are shaken and their commitment to Islam is screened and assessed. Those who get caught up in this sieve are thought to be ready to join the mujahidin and to become candidates for martyrdom.15
TJ missionaries have in fact become increasingly active in Germany, particularly in the country’s rural areas. Recognizable by their beards and distinctive white clothing, they move as wandering preachers from mosque to mosque. In their efforts to proselytize, TJ missionaries are said to visit private residences whenever they discover apparently Muslim names on mailboxes or doorplates. Though few in number, TJ missionaries have been remarkably successful in their recruiting endeavors. A striking example of this can be found in Pappenheim, where numerous young men of Turkish background have been successfully won over to the goals of the TJ’s largely secretive community.16 According to the Bavarian LfV, there are twelve TJ circles in Germany, one of which is centered in Pappenheim, which is located about forty miles south of Ansbach.17
Pappenheim, a small town with a population of 2,500, is located in the Weissenburg-Gunzenhausen district. Life in Pappenheim reflects many of the trends that are dramatically reshaping Germany’s small cities. As in Ansbach, the unemployment rate in Pappenheim (3.3% in July, 2008) is far below the national average, and there is an acute shortage of skilled workers. The consequences of this are particularly visible in the historic city center, where, for the sake of weekend tourists, the magnificent facades are well-maintained. But the apartments behind the stately, historic walls are often empty. There are no discotheques, no youth clubs, and no modern stores. Real estate prices are tumbling, and it is not uncommon for the city government to purchase empty and otherwise unwanted historic buildings in order to prevent further decay. While the German population that remains in the city is growing older, families with young children move to nearby middle-sized cities or to metropolitan centers such as Munich and Nuremberg.
For a number of reasons, Pappenheim’s demographic composition has been shifting with increasing speed over the last decades. Since the 1960s, Pappenheim has been home to a small but growing Turkish community. The many quarries and auto parts manufacturers in the region provide employment for unskilled Turkish immigrants. But the demographic changes are also due to lower German birth rates, and especially to the exodus of younger families. Another phenomenon is a dramatic drop in the city’s church affiliation. The Evangelical community, for example, experienced fifty funerals in the year 2004 but only four baptisms.
Currently nine percent of Pappenheim’s residents are not German citizens and seventeen percent have what is referred to as an “immigrant background.” Meanwhile, the percentage of elementary school children with a mainly Turkish background ranges between thirty and fifty percent. These numbers provide a clear prediction of Pappenheim’s future demography. Meanwhile, as in other German cities, Pappenheim residents with a Turkish-Muslim migration background tend to have a much lower level of education, while the proportion of welfare recipients among this group is measurably higher.
Pappenheim’s government representatives and local church leaders point out that the integration of immigrants in their community was for a long time successful. However, in recent years the trend towards integration has shifted into reverse. This is attributed to a lack of willingness on the part of immigrants to learn the German language or to participate in the city’s social life beyond that of the immigrant group itself. Civic leaders note that girls who have worn western attire for years now wear head coverings in public, and parents forbid their daughters to take part in physical education classes. Men frequently wear tshalvar, or traditional Turkish trousers.
Illustrative of these problems is the Islamic Association of Pappenheim, a registered society founded in 2001 that is, according to the Bavarian LfV, connected with TJ.18 The association maintains a small mosque in a house at the edge of the historical city center, opposite the Catholic church. This mosque is the only known Islamic institution in the town, and an Evangelical-Lutheran deacon has estimated that about half of the Muslims in Pappenheim sympathize with the association.
In the last few years, a series of anti-Christian incidents in Pappenheim have brought the city to national attention. First, a brochure, bearing the non-idiomatic German title “Exhortation to Righteous Direction and True Salvation” was placed in the mailboxes of members of both the local Catholic and Evangelical churches. The pamphlet called on its readers to convert to Islam, and warned Christians and Jews that they will “most certainly” have to face the “grave consequences of your faith, of your errors” in the hereafter.19 It is not known who distributed the brochure.
Later, during Easter Week in 2005, Muslim youths tore down a wooden cross in the market square. In 2006 the Catholic Palm Sunday procession was so loudly and aggressively disrupted by men from the mosque that the parish priest cancelled it and called the police. A week later, young men disrupted the Easter Saturday service with loud Islamic religious music. The police were called once again. The Islamic Association of Pappenheim later apologized for the “embarrassing incident” during the procession.20 Since then, the Palm Sunday procession has been carried out with a police escort. In 2006, two TJ hate-preachers from Bosnia-Herzegovina, who had been active in Pappenheim as well as the neighboring city of Treuchtlingen, were expelled from Germany.21 All of these developments have created a profound sense of insecurity among the residents of Pappenheim. But the problems haven’t stopped there.
According to information gathered from security authorities, until 2002 TJ missionary groups repeatedly visited the Milli Görüs mosque in nearby Ansbach. After 2002, the Milli Görüs mosque apparently became more wary of the TJ missionaries, and they seem to have been blocked them from proselytizing in the area. But meanwhile, in 2001 and 2002, authorities believe that Cüneyt Ciftci first came into contact with the TJ through family relations. Although the details remain obscure, German security authorities assume that the TJ helped to put Ciftci on the path toward extremist Islam.
These contacts alone are, of course, insufficient to explain Ciftci’s choice to follow a path into terrorism. Tens of millions of Muslims around the world have joined TJ and embraced its puritan teachings, and the vast majority of them have not turned to violence. But for some—including John Walker Lindh, the infamous “American Taliban” captured in Afghanistan in 2001—involvement with TJ appears to have been an important step on their path of radicalization. The Bavarian Administrative Court in Ansbach has itself come to the conclusion that no “serious doubt” remains “that numerous persons who have carried out terrorist attacks in various countries were recruited from the ranks of the TJ or were in contact with the TJ.”22
The Sauerland Group and Beyond
In recent months, new information has come to public light that would suggest that Cüneyt Ciftci was part of a larger network of Islamic radicals. Although many details remain obscure or classified, German investigators had observed “close contacts” between Ciftci and a Turkish-born man named Adem Yilmaz. Yilmaz was among those who had connections to TJ’s center in Pappenheim. According to the German security services, he is also a central figure in recruiting for IJU and facilitating the travel of new recruits to IJU’s training camps in South Asia. It has yet to be established whether Yilmaz recruited Ciftci to join the IJU, or whether a third person recruited both.
Like Ciftci, Yilmaz came from a small town environment in southern Germany. After dropping out of a German school, Yilmaz worked for a time at a security company belonging to the German Railroad, and was then assigned to the Frankfurt International Airport. Yilmaz, whose conduct was described in an internal German police report as “highly conspiratorial”, first came to the attention of the police when one of his acquaintances was discovered participating in the suspicious surveillance of the U.S. Army base in Hanau on December 31, 2006.
It has further been established that Yilmaz was present at an IJU training camp near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in March, 2006. On September 4, 2007, five months after Ciftci left for Pakistan, Yilmaz was arrested together with two German converts to Islam, Fritz Martin Gelowicz and Daniel Martin Schneider, in the town of Medebach-Oberschledorn. This group became publicly known as the “Sauerland Group.” These three young men, together with five others and a further number of unidentified persons, were placed under investigation on suspicion of membership in and support for a terrorist association.23 One year later, on September 5, 2008, the German Federal Prosecutor indicted Yilmaz, Gelowicz, and Schneider on charges of membership in a terrorist organization.
Two weeks after these initial arrests, the BKA took two more young men into custody—a German and a Turkish citizen. One of these men, according to the prosecutor’s classification, was a sympathizer of the IJU, and the other, an active member of the IJU. On September 25, 2008, the BKA added to its list of most wanted persons two other men—the German convert Eric Breininger, and Houssian al-Malla. It has been established that both of these men had relationships with Sauerland Group member Schneider.
Beyond these wanted or indicted young men, there appears to be yet another connected group of Islamists. An internal police report listed the names and biographies of eight suspects. With one exception, the suspected persons were all men and born between 1978 and 1985. The group included two Turkish citizens, one stateless person born in Beirut, and five German citizens. However, two of those listed as German citizens had Turkish backgrounds, and one of them an Iranian background. Moreover, seven of the eight suspects listed weren’t from large cities like Hamburg or Berlin, but came from rural or small-town environments in the south or southwest of Germany.
Germany has clearly emerged as a recruiting ground for international jihadism. As security authorities grapple with this new reality, the cases of Ciftci and the Sauerland Group strongly suggest that de-radicalization efforts not only need to focus on urban centers, but also, and perhaps especially, on the small communities of Germany’s countryside. Indeed, continuing investigations suggest that the Islamist structures and networks that have arisen in those localities are characterized by excessive religious zealotry that, for some, translates into a readiness to commit violent acts. Yet, from the outset, virtually all of these structures have emerged from legal, often officially registered, and in many cases, socially accepted and recognized Muslim organizations.
In the view of security authorities, Cüneyt Ciftci was for a long time merely a “figure on the margins of extreme Islamism.” As Wolfgang Weber, the director of the Bavarian LfV, put it in March, 2008, Ciftci’s potential as a jihadist “was not recognized.”24 A closer analysis, however, reveals that Ciftci had been in contact with a network of Islamists willing to resort to violence. But what led to Ciftci’s final transformation from an average German-Turkish resident of Ansbach into a suicide bomber in Afghanistan? The precise catalyst has not yet been identified. While investigators are looking for the key to explain the phenomenon of young men from rural Germany becoming radicalized and desiring to kill others and become martyrs, fear increases that Cüneyt Ciftci will not be the last to walk the path to terrorism.