An Islamist Fanatic Born And Bred In The Suburbs Of Berlin

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An Islamist Fanatic Born And Bred In The Suburbs Of Berlin

In his hometown of Berlin-Steglitz, Fatih T. seemed to be well integrated. Then one day, the German-Turk became the leader of a jihadist group in Pakistan.

Florian Flade

DIE WELT/Worldcrunch

A tall, nondescript house stands in the residential Steglitz district, just south of Berlin city limits. This is the building that Fatih T., a German-born son of Turkish immigrants, called home for years. His parents lived on the ground floor, and Fatih shared the floor above them with his older sister. The family was not particularly religious: though his mother wore a headscarf, his sister never did.

Fatih was born in 1985 into a well-integrated, middle-class family. His father had a steady job, and Fatih lived a life similar to most young Berliners, with a wide circle of mostly German friends. The group went out often, spending their weekends at parties and clubs, where alcohol was always present. Once, his friends now recall, he organized an "all you can drink" party with a fixed price of unlimited booze. Fatih had various girlfriends, though his relationships often ended abruptly.

As a teenager, his friends say, he never seemed to stand out in any way. He was interested in politics, sometimes expressing his sympathies with the "Grey Wolves," the Turkish nationalists, but it was never a real focus of his interests.

As for religion, it never figured into the discussion much, and Fatih never spoke about the Koran, mosques, or jihad, and never bore any trace of fundamentalism. Although Fatih was often the only one who proudly described himself as Muslim within his circle of friends, outsiders never saw him as any sort of devout servant of Allah. Over time however, this was bound to change.

"He wasn't very confident," says an old friend, adding, "Not in terms of appearance, but inwardly, he was helpless." To those who knew him for years, Fatih was always "looking for something." He was sensitive to group dynamics and wanted badly to be part of a community, which he found through martial arts.

"Maybe once, because of his eastern-looking appearance, he was denied entry to a disco," recalls a former classmate. But whether Fatih faced such discrimination on a regular basis is unclear. Within his own group of friends, he was always accepted as one of the crew.

Fatih's focus on partying and hip-hop music led him to neglect his school work. But after being forced to change schools in 2003, he would go on to successfully graduate with his high school diploma.

Fatih didn't know exactly what he wanted to do after graduating. He worked at a local Burger King for a while and toyed with the idea of joining the armed forces. Science had been Fatih's best subject in school, and after graduating, he enrolled in the Technical University (TU) of Berlin and began to study industrial engineering.

At that point, there was still no indication that the successful graduate would one day become a radical Islamic extremist.

With a beard and a prayer cap

Students at TU report that one day, Fatih suddenly appeared in class with a beard and a prayer cap on. He began to regularly attend the university's prayer room to meet with fellow believers. Within a short time, he adopted a very clear religiosity. "He's running around with a beard and caftan on," his old friends told each other, incredulously.

But even at this point, he was not yet a fundamentalist. He was still a friendly young man, and socialized often with non-Muslim friends. Fatih, it seemed, was only practicing his religion more seriously than before. Now, the Kaaba in Mecca graced his profile page on social networking sites, and he began to send his friends video links to lectures held by the Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel.

His friends still wonder today what turned the party guy into a religious warrior in such a short time. The answer, they think, lies in the backyard mosques of the Berlin neighborhood and the radical environment that is supported there. When an old friend ran into him by chance in 2009, Fatih said he was coming "from a wedding, from the mosque." Though his life was going well, he said one thing worried him: his older sister's secular behavior. His friend was taken aback. Was this macho posturing, or an expression of a more radical understanding of Islam?

His old friends began to lose touch with Fatih. He spent more and more time at the mosque, and found a new circle of friends among fellow Muslims. Yusuf O. was most likely in this group. Yusuf, who was also born and raised in Berlin, disappeared with Fatih in May of 2009 without a trace.

Terrorist group from Waziristan

In April 2010, a year after Fatih's disappearance, one of his friends from high school came across an Islamist propaganda video from Afghanistan while he was surfing online. It had been produced by the "German Taliban Mujahideen" (DTM), a terrorist group from Pakistan's Waziristan who had joined forces with German Islamists in recent years. A bearded jihadist named "Abdel Fattah al-Almani" (the German) appeared during several segments of the video. He carried a bazooka on his shoulder and trudged through the wreckage of a downed military helicopter in eastern Afghanistan.

Four soldiers appeared to have been killed when their helicopter was shot down. "How incredibly these apostates stink," says the German jihad fighter. "They have only been around a few days and already they're starting to stink - they are kuffar (non-believers)."

Though the face of the German Islamist was pixelated and unrecognizable, his Berlin accent stood out clearly. The friend quickly sent the video to other members of their old clique. "Is this not Fatih?" he asked. Although none of them could be certain, they all recognized the voice in the video - "Abdel Fattah" from the video was Fatih T. of Steglitz.

By the time Fatih's friends informed the Berlin authorities, the frequent exchanges between Berlin Islamists and the training camps in Pakistan's Waziristan were already well known. In recent years, a growing number of second and third-generation Muslim immigrants, as well as converts and even pregnant women have moved to Pakistan to take up the jihadist cause. Fatih T. is one of them.

In the summer of 2009, he traveled with Yusef O. through Turkey to Iran and then to Pakistan. There, he moved to the tribal areas of Waziristan in order to join the German Taliban and become a fighter in the holy war. By the time his friends discovered his whereabouts, Fatih had been training in Pakistani terror camps for quite some time, and was still receiving student loan payments. In Berlin, he was registered as a student.

As it turned out, Fatih T. gave his first propaganda performance as early as September 2009. In his first video, under the name "Abdel Fattah," he thanked members of the DTM for their Ramadan donations from Germany. "We should not forget that we continue to fight against the infidels," Fatih said in a low, hesitant voice, "Although we are in the blessed month of Ramadan, the fight must continue at all times."

In his last video appearance, which took place in April of 2010, he called on German Muslims to join the jihad in Afghanistan. Sitting on the floor, with two machine guns beside him, Fatih said, "I call on Muslims to fight for the religion of Allah. I invite you to come to the occupied countries and to fight against the infidels, in the same way that they fight against us." He noted that financial support and missionary were also welcome. "We will prevail in any case," he proclaimed, "the question is only whether you will contribute your part!"

Many deaths in the ranks of the German Jihadists

By the time the video surfaced on the Internet, a large part of the "German Taliban" was no longer alive. Eric Breininger, the convert Danny R., and Ahmet M., the former leader of the DTM, all died in April of 2010 during a gun battle with Pakistani soldiers. Another convert from Berlin, Thomas U., left the group along with is pregnant wife in late summer 2010 - both were arrested last September in Turkey. They'd had enough of their life in Waziristan, and wanted to return to Germany.

Despite the many arrests and deaths in the ranks of the German jihadists, German authorities are far from declaring an official end to the DTM group. Fatih T. and Yusuf O. are still fighting, and are supposedly responsible for several recent attacks on the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Hayrettin S., who was also born Berlin-Neukölln, is on a U.S. military watch list, and is believed to be hiding in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Intercepted chat conversations have led military officials to believe that he has joined the DTM and that he may even be ready to carry out attacks in Germany.

After months of radio silence, a letter claiming to be from the "German Taliban Mujahideen" appeared on a Turkish-language Islamist website a few weeks ago. It stated that Fatih T. aka "Abdel Fattah al-Almani" had been appointed as the new emir of the group. His jihadi career thus appears not to have ended. For the 26 year-old, a return to his native Berlin is now no longer in question. He is, after all, the leader of the "Berlin Taliban" - he is regarded as a dangerous terrorist and is wanted for arrest.

Back in Berlin, Fatih's high school friends are shocked at the path that he's chosen. They never could have guessed that the friendly hip-hop fan would one day mutate into to an Islamic terrorist. The process of his radicalization remains inexplicable to them. In all the time that they knew him, he never showed hatred towards the West, the U.S., or Germany, nor did he classify his surroundings in terms of believers and non-believers.

A few years ago, one of Fatih's former best friend also went to the Hindu Kush mountains - he was sent as a soldier in the Bundeswehr.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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