A year ago, he was intent on going to fight alongside jihadists in Syria. Now it has been eight months since the 22-year-old Peter - not his real name - started working with the Leipzig-based imam, Hesham Shashaa, called Abu Adam. The goal is to turn Peter into a peaceful Muslim.
They are an unlikely couple. Abu Adam is tall, loud and strong; he wears a floor-length robe and a red, patterned headscarf.
Peter, by contrast, is lanky and soft-spoken. He wears jeans and a shirt, and has longish hair and blue eyes. Die Zeit visited them twice –once last fall in Leipzig and again at the beginning of February in Spain, where Peter today goes to school.
He is no isolated case. Thousands of young Muslims in Germany have become radicalized in the past years. More than 600 have moved to Syria and joined terrorist groups like the Islamic State, or IS. Around 190 of them have returned – some of them are considered dangerous. Abu Adam wants to prevent Peter from going down that road.
Leipzig, last September: Peter has been living in Abu Adam’s house for two months. They eat together, pray together, and when Abu Adam has an appointment in Germany or abroad, Peter joins him.
I had this dream of being able to say, ‘I have been on the battle field for 30 years!' Peter, former radicalized youth
Peter is not his first case. Abu Adam has come up with his own de-radicalization concept.
Peter, he says, is in phase one. The first step is to create a personal relationship. So they talk about everything.
One pillar of their discussions is Abu Adam’s authority as an Islamic scholar.
“We have talked in detail about Peter’s extremism – every misinterpreted Surah, every misunderstood word of the Prophet,” said the imam.
Peter nods: “Abu Adam pulled the rug out from under my feet. He is so much more knowledgeable than the people I was following.”
But Peter knows that he is not out of the woods yet. “If I lost Abu Adam now and got involved with that kind of people again, I wouldn’t have enough knowledge to fight back.”
Peter is intelligent, polite, but doesn’t have much to show for his less-than-successful school career. He has a fragile personality. He did not grow up as a Muslim. In 2012, he was sitting next to a classmate in physics, who said to him, “Everything we’re learning here is already in the Koran.” Peter was impressed. He had been looking for God for a long time.
He went to the mosque with his friend. “There I saw how warm Muslims are toward one another. I felt accepted,” he says today. He made his confession of faith at his second Friday prayer. The new convert was happy, but soon began to doubt his friend. Peter wanted to live Islam more diligently and strictly than him.
Peter made friends with radical Islamists in a large city in western Germany, believing they took their faith seriously. Soon, conversations started drifting toward Syria and how they should be helping their brothers in faith there.
While Abu Adam is Peter’s main reference person, others organize his social welfare benefits or look for donors.
Peter beat up an acquaintance and was held in investigative custody for three months. His time in jail only deepened his desire to go to war. “I had cell mates who were for jihad,” he says today. One of them had been part of terrorist groups in Pakistan and Somalia. “I talked to them a lot – until I was resolved to go myself.”
When Peter was released in spring 2014, he had a plan. He wanted to be trained as a paramedic to increase his chances of survival in war. “I had this dream of being able to say, ‘I have been on the battle field for 30 years!’” And he knew whom to contact to get to Syria.
His mother noticed that something was not right. She read his Facebook posts showing the IS flag and realized that her son had become radicalized. Peter’s mother asked around for help until she learned of Abu Adam.
He had neither an office nor an official mandate, but youth officers and counseling centers knew of his work. His mother arranged a meeting in hopes that her son would be open to talking to the imam. And that is exactly what happened. “Now I’m in rehab,” said Peter.
Abu Adam is a fascinating person. The stateless Palestinian grew up in Egypt and went on to study the Koran and Islamic law – in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
He lived in Romania and then moved to Munich, where he had a mosque built.
Abu Adam has lived in Leipzig since 2012. Right now he is imam and preacher for Kuwait’s ministry of religion. He has four wives (three of them under Islamic law) and is conservative and orthodox. But when Abu Adam brings 10 children at once to school, he talks completely naturally to other parents, including other women or non-Muslims.
The German domestic intelligence agency put him on a list of Salafists in 2012. Abu Adam rejects the accusations as lies or, at best, misunderstandings. He has publicly railed against al Qaida and IS for years and has received death threats as a result.
It is hard to take measure of Abu Adam. But he is someone who can reach radicals and change their minds.
“I have known Abu Adam for a long time and think the accusations are misinterpretations,” said Claudia Dantschke, one of the people most familiar with the Islamic scene in Germany and head of Hayat, a counseling center which helps families whose children have become radicalized.
Hayat supports Abu Adam’s work financially as well. Peter, says Ms. Dantschke, had to be physically extracted from the scene. His radical mentor had to be replaced – by Abu Adam. “We created a network around him.” Youth support groups have also been involved.
While Abu Adam is Peter’s main reference person, others organize his social welfare benefits or look for donors. De-radicalization projects are always short on money.
What Abu Adam does is like helping a smoker to quit by using e-cigarettes. National security agent
Four months later, we revisited Peter on Spain’s Costa Blanca.
Abu Adam rented a big house here because some of his children are going to a nearby international school. He has put Peter up in an apartment a couple of kilometers away. In two years, Peter could get his high school diploma.
How is Peter doing today? “Phase two,” said Abu Adam. “Becoming self-reliant. Now he has to learn that it’s wrong just to imitate. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s why you should never simply follow someone.”
The two of them don’t see each other as often any more. Peter is having a tough time with it, but understands why it is necessary. “Praying, sleeping, studying, a lot of routine,” is how he describes his everyday life.
School was not the only reason they moved to Spain. In Germany, Peter was too close to the radical scene. It still dragged him in. Old friends got in touch and he was in danger of relapsing. “He is in quarantine,” said Abu Adam.
Today, Peter thinks his Syria plans were “naive.” What prompted him to go down that road back then? “Sympathy for the Syrian Muslims,” he answers. Fighting seemed to be the only way.
And of course, there was the matter of the Islamic State which was supposed to be established there – an ideal that seemed within reach. Abu Adam says that many young radicals are unable to separate ideal from reality.
“What Abu Adam does is like helping a smoker to quit by using e-cigarettes,” a national security agent once said, who is critical of his approach.
“There is no other way than to work with religious knowledge,” is Abu Adam’s answer. “That’s what got them into it; that’s the only way to get them out of it.”
Peter admits that some of his old thoughts haunt him every once in a while. Even so, he says, “Today, I wouldn’t go.”
Abu Adam said: “Peter is no longer infected, but he still has a long road ahead of him.”
At the end of the road, in phase six, Peter himself is to become active against extremists.
This article was originally published in weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected].