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'Jihad Tourism': From Germany To The Syrian Battlefield

More than 240 people have left Germany to join the civil war in Syria — the largest reported number from a European country.

One was Burak Karan, a rising German-Turkish soccer player who died in northern Syria in October at age 26. Bild newspaper quoted his brother saying Karan had gone to the border region between Turkey and Syria to help distribute aid.

But Spiegel magazine reports that a video posted on YouTube on Oct. 22 by an unknown Islamist group showed Karan posing with an assault rifle. According to Spiegel, one of the video's captions says he "stormed like a lion into the area of the (infidels) ... and took pleasure in fighting them."

Officials tell NPR that many of the people going to Syria from Germany — in what is being dubbed "jihad tourism" — are German-born Muslims of foreign descent. A few are ethnic Germans who've converted to a fundamentalist version of Islam.

The officials say all of those going are radicalized over an extended period of time via the Internet or acquaintances before being recruited to fight or help the warring factions. But authorities say there is little they can do under German law to stop people from traveling to Syria.

It's especially easy for these recruits to get to Syria, says Boris Rhein, the interior minister in the German state of Hesse, where Frankfurt is located. They can fly to Turkey, take a bus to the Syrian border and then cross on foot.

Rhein says most of those going from his state are 25 or younger, including four minors. The Berliner Zeitung reported on Dec. 19 that one 16-year-old from Rhein's state — a German boy of Turkish descent — was recently killed in Syria.

The Hesse minister says especially disturbing is that many Germans are being recruited by radical Salafists on school and college campuses.

"The contact is established by handing over a Quran and then, almost like a drug dealer, they get these young people hooked," he explains. "So the schools have become a recruitment center, and this really frightens us and is a huge challenge."

He and other officials fear the German fighters could eventually pose a security threat to Europe.

Germany's Focusmagazine reported this month that al-Qaida may be using the fighters' German passports to plan terrorist attacks in Europe. Also, a German security official who spoke to NPR on the condition of not being identified says there's concern about radicalized war veterans coming back to Germany with knowledge of weapons and explosives that could be used to carry out attacks there.

Rhein says it's imperative to prevent those who want to fight in Syria from leaving home in the first place. So he's proposed an early detection system that will include telephone hotlines and counseling centers.

The Hesse minister says the system — which he's trying to get other German states to adopt — will be similar to existing German programs that identify right-wing extremists. He says the idea is to create lines of communication with relatives, friends and teachers who would likely be the first to notice when an individual is becoming radicalized.

A nationwide system would also make it easier for German states to share information on radical Islamist activities with each other. That's something authorities there would welcome.

"We always have in each state different systems," says Berlin police spokesman Stefan Redlich, "different computer programs in the police [departments] and sometimes even different laws. So it's always a good idea to have one common system to look at the problem."

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Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.