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European Converts to Terrorism

by Milena Uhlmann
Middle East Quarterly
Summer 2008, pp. 31-37

Conversion to Islam among native Europeans is on the rise. Many converts live at peace within their native societies; some convert only for marriage, and reject neither contemporary culture nor Europe's Judeo-Christian values. A minority, however, embraces radical interpretations of Islam and can pose a security risk. The involvement of Muslim converts in recent terrorist attacks has raised concern in Europe about these "converts to terrorism." While intelligence agencies and security services track international communications and guard borders, such homegrown terrorists pose just as potent a threat to the security of Western democracies. European security services and politicians remain unprepared to handle this growing phenomenon.

A Growing Problem

In Europe, there is very little hard data on conversion to Islam due to the difficulty of gathering proper statistics. Because Muslim communities usually have an informal structure and no formal clergy, most do not keep records. In France, for instance, state agencies do not record citizens' religious affiliations; to do so, French officials say, would counter France's commitment to secularism. In German registration offices, Muslim residents are included in a pool of "diverse religious affiliations."[1] German converts apparently account for only a small portion—between 12,000 and 100,000—of Germany's total Muslim population of 2.8-3.2 million,[2] which itself comprises less than 4 percent of the total population of Germany. In 2006, the Federal Ministry of the Interior commissioned a study from the Zentralinstitut Islam-Archiv Deutschland (ZIIAD) to determine the number of converts, but amid suspicion over the ZIIAD's methodology, discounted as exaggerated its findings and ended its relationship with the institute.[3]

Nevertheless, it appears that both conversions and Islamist outreach to converts is increasing. Thomas Hamza Fischer, founder of the Islamisches Informationszentrum (IIZ) in Ulm, a city in Baden-Württemberg known for its radical Islamist scene, died fighting in Chechnya.[4] The IIZ's journal, Denk mal Islamisch (Think Islamic) is geared to converts, addressing issues such as emotional and personal support. The police, the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (FOC), as well as the Islamisches Informationszentrum's neighbors say that more German converts have visited the center since summer 2007 than they had in seasons past.[5] Apparently anticipating a ban by the Bavarian Ministry of Interior, the IIZ dissolved in October 2007.[6]

In recent years, police and intelligence services have become increasingly aware of the threat of homegrown terrorism. In 2003, Judge Jean Louis Bruguière, the former French investigating magistrate in charge of counterterrorism affairs, observed that Al-Qaeda had increased its recruiting efforts in Europe and in particular was on the lookout for women and converts to Islam.[7] In March 2004, the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) released an analysis of jihadi recruits' backgrounds,[8] and the following year, the British Home and Foreign Offices released a similar study.[9] In August 2007, the New York Police Department released a report on radicalization within Western societies, focusing on trends in homegrown terrorism and emphasizing the increasing role of converts in terror plots.[10] Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's federal minister of the interior, argues that the prevalence of homegrown jihadis is increasing.[11]


Germaine Maurice Lindsay, also known as Abdullah Shaheed Jamal, was one of four terrorists who detonated bombs on the London Underground and on a bus in central London, July 7, 2005, killing fifty-six (including themselves) and injuring more than 700. Lindsay, who changed his name after his conversion to Islam, was born in Jamaica.



The 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the Madrid train bombings the same year, and the following year's attacks on London's Tube and bus system demonstrate that European citizens and residents can conduct horrendous acts against their respective countries. The culmination of this trend will be the planning of and participation in such attacks by European converts to Islam.

On September 4, 2007, the German security services arrested three men for plotting car bomb attacks in Germany targeting the U.S. military base at Ramstein and pubs and nightclubs frequented by Americans.[12] Two of the three were German-born converts to Islam.[13] This plot was not the first involving German converts. In 1997, Israeli security services detained Steven Smyrek at Ben Gurion International Airport as he tried to enter Israel to survey possible Hezbollah terror targets.[14] Christian Ganczarski, a Polish immigrant of German descent who had converted to Islam in 1986, played a major role as the intermediary between Al-Qaeda's leadership and the suicide bomber who carried out the 2002 bombing of a Tunisian synagogue in Djerba, which killed twenty-one people.[15] In 2006, the German police arrested Sonja B., a 40-year-old German convert who sought to travel to Iraq with her 1-year-old son and to carry out a suicide attack.[16]

For Islamist terrorists, the European convert is a prized recruit, at ease in society, cognizant of informal rules and opportunities, and able to move freely without arousing suspicion. Their citizenship enables them to travel freely under the terms of the European Schengen agreement and, in many cases, the U.S. visa waiver program.[17] Richard Reid, a British convert to Islam who attempted to blow up an airliner with explosives hidden in his shoes and boarded a flight to the United States under the visa waiver program, highlighted the threat of European converts to terrorism to both their own homelands and U.S. security. Short of requiring visas for British, French, and German passport holders, U.S. authorities have requested that airlines provide detailed passenger rosters for incoming flights to the United States. European carriers have followed suit.

Identifying Terrorist Converts

European security services are unsure of how to address the problem of radicalized converts largely due to their uncertainty about how to integrate competing security and civil liberties interests. On one hand, the abandonment of passport control posts along internal European borders—the heart of the European integration process—needs to be addressed; EU states must adjust to the fact that criminal enterprises span borders. On the other hand, the European public distrusts any measure that might lead European institutions, let alone a European intelligence service, to increase surveillance, especially given the opacity of EU decision-making.

At the national level, however, there is perhaps a greater sense of urgency in monitoring converts to terrorism. In September 2007, Günther Beckstein, the Bavarian minister of the interior, proposed registering and observing every convert to Islam in Germany in order to determine whether the future Muslim would pursue a liberal or an Islamist orientation.[18] This suggestion provoked an uproar. Critics said it put converts under general suspicion, undercut religious dialogue, and contradicted the principle of religious freedom. Such populist tactics, though, are likely to be counterproductive. Nothing is gained by placing converts under surveillance simply because they married a Muslim or found religious satisfaction through Islamic theology. Such tactics might backfire if they alienate the convert, and they would require a massive investment in intelligence gathering for a questionable return. They would also be domestically unpopular: Europeans would certainly argue that turning all converts to Islam into terrorism suspects runs counter to the ideals of European liberalism.

Profiling potential terrorists, however, should not be taboo. Doing so requires an understanding of the mentality of both the individual convert and of the group into which the individual converts. Many converts embrace their new faith with zeal, and Islamist groups can channel this fervor into a process of quick radicalization.[19] New converts are often less proficient in religious matters than religious leaders but are eager to fill in the gaps, making them susceptible to indoctrination by organizations like the Islamisches Informationszentrum.

In larger cities such as Berlin, advocates of various Islamic trends often recruit new converts. Among the most aggressive are the Salafists.[20] Converts wanting to explore and learn more about their new religion are often attracted to fundamentalist interpretations as they seek "pure" and "true" Islam. Jihadi websites reinforce this search—indeed, this was how Sonja B., the would-be Iraq suicide bomber, discovered militant Islam.[21]

Foreign scholarships also provide a means of recruitment. After his conversion but prior to becoming involved in terrorism, Ganczarski, the German Al-Qaeda intermediary, studied Islam on a scholarship at the University of Medina, described by the Deutsches Orient-Institut as a "recruiting pool" for Islamists.[22] After his arrest, Ganczarski said there had been a recruitment wave for such scholarships in Germany in the mid-1990s, focusing on young converts. After he returned from Saudi Arabia where he probably became radicalized, he went on to Chechnya and Pakistan as well as Afghanistan[23] where he met Osama bin Laden.[24] Apparently, Saudi Arabia provided thousands of such scholarships.[25]

The background of the convert is as important as the nature of the absorbing group. Those who convert to Islam for practical purposes, for example, to marry a Muslim woman, seldom become extremists. Others are predisposed to radicalism. Smyrek is an extreme example: He was always a radical and actively sought out Islamist terror groups in order to become a suicide bomber.

The convert's socioeconomic background is another vital factor. Conversion is, in part, a migration from one worldview to another,[26] described by sociologist Thomas Luckmann as a decision to go shopping in a supermarket of religious goods.[27] As the individual tries to reconcile his old and new belief systems, he selects explanations that best meet his needs. Sometimes, this involves the endorsement of terrorism as a means of righting perceived wrongs.

Motives to Convert

There seem to be three dominant motives behind the decision to convert to Islam: First is the search for a group that will provide the convert with meaning and guidance—for example, by adherence to Shari‘a (Islamic law), which provides rules that the convert believes are "not arbitrary," like man-made laws.[28] The assumption of religious faith often involves a person's search for a higher purpose, a desire to cease living "from one party to the next or one basketball game to the next."[29] The quest for social integration is another important factor: "When I meet brothers I have never seen before, I feel at home right away and accepted,"[30] explained one convert.

Second, a convert may seek a means by which he can articulate his criticism of Western society or share with others his sense of alienation from the dominant culture: "I became Muslim when communism collapsed, and I didn't want capitalism. And you have to do something."[31]

Third, he may desire a way of life that allows the individual to express his views in his everyday routine if only by praying five times a day. ("I feel like I am living in a parallel society. But I feel marvelous."[32])

Because Islam often has a negative reputation in Europe, conversion to Islam enables the convert to project sentiments of rebellion. Indeed, Olivier Roy from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique has suggested that radical Islam is tantamount to a protest identity.[33] Some converts emphatically champion Islam as the best alternative to post-industrial Western society. Such is the rationale for Murad Wilfried Hofmann,[34] a former German diplomat who converted to Islam in 1980 and has since acted as an intellectual leader for German converts. Ayyub Axel Köhler, the current chairman of the Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland, who converted to Islam in 1963, has remarked that Islam is a way of life and thus offers its adherents the chance to avoid the alienation of life in Western societies.[35] If the numbers of conversions to Islam in the West are on the rise, the cultural criticism underlying such conversions becomes especially relevant. Identity issues play an important role, as does globalization and modern communications, which have allowed the exploration of new identities. When societies lose their coherence, threats increase from within.[36]


The European Union member states face a new challenge today, one that transcends the traditional national security paradigm that separates internal and external threats. In a federation of states on a scale as large as the EU, the aim of promoting peace and stability is intertwined with the national interests of the member states and their ability to collaborate on ensuring the security of the larger whole.[37] The answer to questions about how to balance civil liberties with legitimate security concerns remains elusive.

What makes a common policy so hard to achieve when it comes to the jurisdiction of the European Justice and Home Affairs Council is the fact that judicial matters and law enforcement policy remain national rather than transnational efforts.

The independent framework for cooperation on justice and home affairs, set up with the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993, has remained intergovernmental; decisions must be unanimous, creating a situation in which negotiations often carry on for years and lead to complex legal restrictions. Even though the 9-11 attacks changed priorities and created the impetus for institutional restructuring, EU member states remain unwilling to surrender sovereignty over internal security matters.

Another problem is that differing national judicial systems create structural disincentives to collaboration.[38] The upshot is that there remains significant, informal cross-border cooperation,[39] and, for that matter, informal intelligence collection and sharing. As long as the Constitutional Treaty—which would centralize the Justice and Home Affairs portfolios so that European Union institutions and law would become paramount to state law in these cases—remains un-ratified, this is not likely to change.

The creation of the post of the EU coordinator for counterterrorism after the 2004 Madrid attacks was a step in the right direction, but the coordinator lacks the mandate and resources to span national boundaries. As Wolfgang Münchau, associate editor of Financial Times, has noted, "Terrorists in Europe think more European than many of Europe's homeland security-related agencies."[40]

Ultimately, European states are responsible for their citizens. If individual states remain unwilling to cede certain aspects of their sovereignty to the kind of European institutions that could more effectively monitor Islamist activities across Europe, their ability to collaborate on security will suffer, and ultimately their security itself will suffer. In order for this process to move forward, the EU needs to begin a dialogue that addresses the security problems that arise from the Islamist community, rather than denouncing discussions of the problem as "Islamophobic."

Milena Uhlmann is a research associate at the Institut für Europäische Politik in Berlin.

[1] See Thomas Lemmen, Islamische Organisationen in Deutschland (Bonn: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2000), p. 18.
[2] Deutscher Bundestag, "Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Große Anfrage der Abgeordneten Dr. Jürgen Rüttgers, Erwin Marschewski (Recklinghausen), Wolfgang Zeitlmann, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion der CDU/CSU," Nov. 8, 2000, p. 4-5; Johannes Kandel, "Organisierter Islam in Deutschland und gesellschaftliche Integration," Politische Akademie der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Referat Interkultureller Dialog, Bonn, Sept. 2004, p. 1.
[3] Der Spiegel (Hamburg), Jan. 15, 2007; Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich), Jan. 12, 2007; Mohammad Salim Abdullah, telephone interview with author, Jan. 27, 2007; Die Zeit (Hamburg), Apr. 19, 2007.
[4] "Islamisten-Szene. Die Radikalen von Ulm," Spiegel Online, June 30, 2007.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Spiegel Online, Oct. 2, 2007.
[7] Robert Leiken, Bearers of Global Jihad? Immigration and National Security after 9/11 (Washington, D.C.: The Nixon Center, 2004), p. 107.
[8] "Background of Jihad Recruits in the Netherlands," Algemene Inlichtingen-en Veiligheidsdienst (AIVD), Mar. 10, 2004.
[9] Times (London), July 10, 2005.
[10] Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, "Radicalization in the West. The Homegrown Threat," New York Police Department Intelligence Division, Aug. 2007.
[11] Der Tagesspiegel (Berlin), Sept. 5, 2007.
[12] "Terror-Razzia. Bombenbauer planten Terror-Anschlag mit vielen Toten," Spiegel Online, Sept. 5, 2007; "Terrorverdacht. Autobomben sollten US-Einrichtungen treffen," Welt Online (Hamburg), Sept. 5, 2007.
[13] "Terrorverdacht. Autobomben sollten US-Einrichtungen treffen," Welt Online, Sept. 5, 2007.
[14] "Steven Smyrek. Vom Kleinkriminellen zum angehenden Gotteskrieger," Das Erste Online (German public television), Jan. 14, 2004.
[15] Leiken, Bearers of Global Jihad? p. 109; "Deutscher wegen Djerba-Attentats angeklagt," SWR Online (Baden-Baden), Nov. 19, 2007.
[16] Der Tagesspiegel, Sept. 3, 2006.
[17] John L. Clarke, "European Homeland Security: Promises, Progress and Pitfalls," in Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation, ed., Securing the European Homeland. The EU, Terrorism and Homeland Security (Gütersloh: Venusberg Group, 2005), p. 36.
[18] "Nach Fahndungserfolg. Beckstein will Islamübertritte überwachen lassen," Handelsblatt (Nordrhein-Westfalen), Sept. 6, 2007.
[19] Marc Sageman, Understanding Terrorist Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p. 178-9.
[20] Author interview with Mujaheed, a 29-year-old convert, Berlin, Nov. 22, 2006.
[21] Der Tagesspiegel, Sept. 3, 2006.
[22] Ahmet Senyurt, "Djerba-Anschlag: Zentralrat der Muslime gerät ins Zwielicht," Welt Online, May 6, 2003.
[23] Senyurt, "Djerba-Anschlag: Zentralrat der Muslime gerät ins Zwielicht."
[24] Leiken, Bearers of Global Jihad? p. 109.
[25] Brian Eads, "Saudi Arabia's Deadly Export," Reader's Digest (Australia), Feb. 2003.
[26] Stefano Allievi, Nouveaux protagonistes de l'islam européen. Naissance d'une culture euroislamique? Le rôle des convertis (San Domenico di Fiesole, Italy: European University Institute, 2000), p. 7.
[27] Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 98.
[28] Author interview with Taleb, a 27-year-old convert, Potsdam, Nov. 26, 2006.
[29] Author interview with Mujaheed, a 29-year-old convert, Berlin, Nov. 22, 2006.
[30] Author interview with Paul, a 53-year-old convert, Berlin, Dec. 1, 2006.
[31] Telephone interview with Salim, a convert from North Rhine-Westphalia in his fifties and editor of a German-speaking Islamic newspaper run mostly by converts, Dec. 19, 2006.
[32] Author interview with Alex, a 17-year-old-convert, Potsdam, Nov. 24, 2006.
[33] Olivier Roy, Der islamische Weg nach Westen. Globalisierung, Entwurzelung und Radikalisierung (Munich: Pantheon, 2006), p. 308.
[34] For example, see Murad Wilfried Hofmann, Islam als Alternative (Munich: Diedrichs, 1999), p. 8.
[35] Ayyub Axel Köhler, Islam Kompakt (Köln: Al-Kitab Verlag, 2000), p. 10.
[36] Gert-Joachim Glaeßner, "Nationale und europäische Politik im Spannungsfeld von Sicherheit und Freiheit," in Erwin Müller and Patricia Schneider, eds., Die Europäische Union im Kampf gegen den Terrorismus. Sicherheit vs. Freiheit (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2006), p. 113.
[37] Ibid., p. 110.
[38] Wilhelm Knelangen, "Die innen- und justizpolitische Zusammenarbeit der EU und die Bekämpfung des Terrorismus," in Müller and Schneider, eds., Die Europäische Union im Kampf gegen den Terrorismus, pp. 140-62.
[39] Daniel Keohane, The EU and Counter-terrorism (London: Centre for European Reform, 2005), p. 2.
[40] Wolfgang Münchau, "Europe Must Tackle Terrorism," Financial Times, July 10, 2005.


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