The growth of ISIS has been marked by an unprecedented number of radicalised men and women from Europe joining the group in Syria and Iraq. But there are also concerns across Western countries over the danger posed by extremists who have been radicalised by the group's propaganda, but remain in their home countries. Germany is no different from other European states in this regard, but with large Turkish and Kurdish diasporas, large Muslim communities, and an active far right, the dynamics surrounding radicalisation in the country are significantly distinct.
In October 2014, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere warned that Islamist extremists pose a critical security threat to Germany, saying that the number of people capable of staging attacks in the country stood at an all-time high. German security experts believe there is substantial danger of the country being targeted by ISIS sympathisers. A senior German police officer has been quoted as saying "The talk is no longer of whether an attack will occur in Germany, but rather when."
Figures quoted by the EU suggest that around 4,000 people from Europe have travelled to join ISIS, 700 of whom are Germans. In addition to these, German authorities observed a noticeable rise in the number of women who have fallen for ISIS' online recruitment strategies, estimating that 100 women have left to join the group. The country has also witnessed a sharp increase in the number of extreme Islamists, many of whom may be prepared to carry out attacks. Germany's domestic intelligence chief claimed that there were over 7,000 ISIS sympathisers in the country that the authorities were aware of, and that about 1,000 people are of serious concern, including 130 individuals who are under round-the-clock surveillance.
Radicalisation in prisons is a concern for the whole of Europe. Two of those responsible for the Paris attacks in January 2015 were believed to have been radicalised in prison, as was the gunman behind the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014. Germany is no exception to this trend and as some of the hundreds of Germans who have joined ISIS begin to return home, many will join the suspected and convicted terrorists that are already imprisoned. Even aside from extremist prisoners, Islamist groups have reportedly been using prisons for recruitment and indoctrination purposes. These groups have been granted access on the grounds of providing moral support and religious guidance to the prisoners, but some have been found to be radicalising the inmates and disseminating propaganda materials.
The ethno-religious sectarianism conflicts raging in the Middle East are also having a domestic impact in Germany. Germany is home to the world's largest Kurdish diaspora, so just as many German jihadis are going to fight in Syria, a growing number of young Kurds are taking the well-trodden path to Syria to join their compatriots in fighting ISIS. Once in Syria, many join forces with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group banned in the European Union as a terrorist organisation. In October 2014, German security officials believed that some 50 Kurdish men had and women had travelled to Syria, but some believe that this number may be vastly understated.
While there is a sizable Kurdish population in Germany, the Turkish diaspora is the largest, accounting for 70 per cent of the country's Muslim population. Given the level of mistrust and hostility between Turkish authorities and Kurdish leaders in the Middle East, with large numbers travelling to or supporting the conflict, overspill onto German soil remains possible.
In October 2014 Kurdish nationals organised several anti-ISIS demonstrations across Germany, some of which ended in violent clashes with Islamists. Kurdish demonstrators vandalised cars and Turkish businesses, while alleged ISIS supporters attacked Kurdish demonstrators outside a mosque. The level of violence and intolerance shown during these clashes reveals how the conflicts of in the Middle East can boil over onto the streets of Europe.
Security experts believe that Germany has long been a target for violent Islamists, and this threat could become more substantial now that Germany has joined a growing number of countries that are directly arming and cooperating militarily with Iraqi Kurds. The American Institute for Contemporary German Studies has indicated that Kurdish troops fighting in Iraq have already received over 8,000 handguns, 8,000 assault rifles, 10,000 hand grenades and over 200 anti-tank weapons.
Meanwhile, the rise of the far right Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of Europe (PEGIDA) in Germany has also increased tensions with the country's Muslims. The group have called for more stringent immigration laws, an obligation for immigrants to integrate, and the expulsion of Islamists. Despite mass counter-demonstrations and public condemnation, far right groups such as PEGIDA may actually help Islamist extremists' recruitment by building a victim mentality that extremists can thrive on. PEGIDA was set up to counter the growing trend of extreme Islamism in Germany, but may instead be catalysing its growth.
The rise of Islamist groups and people travelling to join ISIS is a familiar theme across Europe, but the particular milieu of extreme Islamists, sizable Kurdish and Turkish diasporas, and an increase in far-right anti-Islamic rhetoric make the situation in Germany distinct. In an environment in which hostilities in far away lands can make themselves felt at home, it is imperative that more is done to engage with the religious and ethnic dimensions of conflict. Sectarianism and extremism in the Middle East is not only a problem of foreign policy; between the danger of extremist attacks on Western soil, and rising intercommunal tensions, it is an acute matter of domestic security.