North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), the most populous of Germany’s 16 federal states, has rolled out a new anti-terrorism programme: a satirical YouTube channel called Jihadi Fool. Run by the state’s domestic intelligence agency, the Landesamt für Verfassungsschutz, the channel’s videos are supposed to “fight fire with fire” and drive home “the absurdity of radicalisation, terrorism and Islamism”.https://www.dw.com/en/german-state-fights-islamist-extremism-with-youtube-satire/a-50145456
‘The weapons of our liberal democracy’
The project is run and financed by the state’s Interior Ministry. At the Jihadi Fool launch event at a games convention, Interior Minister Herbert Reul asserted that it was crucial for the security agencies and the state to show their presence on video platforms such as YouTube: “we must go where our target group is”, or so he claimed.
In Reul’s words, the “strongest weapons of our liberal democracy” are “wit, humour, and facts.” To this end, his Ministry is providing € 500,000 to finance the Jihadi Fool project for an entire year. 32 satirical and 16 factual videos are to be produced and to be released on a roughly weekly basis. https://www.n-tv.de/politik/NRW-bekaempft-Salafisten-jetzt-auf-Youtube-article21223285.html
Satirical video: the bumbling jihadi
The first satirical instalment of the series went online on August 22, 2019. The title – “Goodbye Syria” – and the dramaturgical set-up are a pastiche of the long-running and well-known reality television series “Goodbye Deutschland”, which focuses on people willing to emigrate from Germany abroad.
After opening with copious jokes about the niqab, “Goodbye Syria” focuses on the obverse dynamic: Ahmed, a militant of the so-called Islamic State, has become dissatisfied with life in the ‘Caliphate’ and emigrates home to Germany: “I decided to try Islam without extremism”, he announces to the camera. However, the video’s narrator informs us that “the two years in Syria have left their traces. Ahmed falls back into old patterns of behaviour”: for when a friend is not convinced of Ahmad’s intention to open a Shisha bar, the latter resorts to stoning him for blasphemy.
Ahmed also fails to rent out a new apartment: when the monthly rent turns out to be forbiddingly high, he calls for religious police to arrest the real estate agent because she is not wearing a veil. After chronicling his daily failures, the video ends with Ahmed walking down a street and stepping in a dog turd.
‘Having a blast’
Another set of video skits is centred around puns designed to ridicule jihadi violence. Titled Bombenstimmung with Bashka (which roughly translates as ‘having a blast with Bashka’), suicide bombings and other forms of violence are presented not as pathways to paradise but associated with extremely mundane activities.
In the video Arschbombe (‘arse bomb’; a slang term for a cannon ball dive at the swimming pool), presenter Bashka depicts would-be jihadis as obese losers, who would do better trying to impressing the girls at the swimming pool by making an ‘arse bomb’.
The channel’s explanatory videos are considerably dryer; although some efforts are noticeable to make presenters speak to what the Interior Ministry imagines to be young people’s concerns.
The first instalment seeks to unpack the workings of the Islamic State’s online propaganda. In general, viewers are encouraged to consume online media critically and always look for evidence backing up any claims made. (This of course begs the awkward question why those who may have some sort of interest in jihadi arguments should not simply dismiss such government-funded videos as biased propaganda.)
‘Integration’ and ‘democratic values’
In other cases, videos are more clumsy in their presentation. Viewers are asked, for instance, whether returnees from the self-declared ‘Caliphate’ should be readmitted and allowed to “integrate” into German society once more – or whether “our democratic values” prohibit making such concessions.
Aside from the lofty language employed, it seems rather questionable whether Muslim audiences addressed via these videos consider the invocation of a national “we”, supposedly holding some set of shared “values” to be a particularly convincing line of argument. After all, in much of public discourse such calls to “integrate” and the nationalistic upholding of “our democratic values” are usually employed as tools to signal Muslims’ unfitness to be part of German society.
Add to this the confused terminology employed – Islamist, Salafi, and jihadi are used more or less interchangeably – as well as the faux-Arabic script used in the Jihadi Fool logo. Indeed, the video series does not exactly strike one as a particularly thoughtful commentary on what it might mean to be a Muslim in Germany today.
Latecomers to the scene
In some ways, the timing of the video initiative is also surprising: it comes at a time when the question of the so-called ‘foreign fighters’ – individuals travelling to join the self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq – has receded from public view. While the question of returnees attained considerable media prominence a few months ago, it has since also become a minor issue.
Policy-makers from NRW’s Interior Ministry stress that the jihadi threat did not end with the disintegration of the ‘Islamic State’s’ hold on territories in the Fertile Crescent. On a charitable reading, then, Jihadi Fool is a laudable result of long-term thinking on the part of the authorities.
Yet it might also simply be a product that came too late to the game: either because it was concocted by an out-of-touch ministerial bureaucracy, desperately trying to stay relevant in a social media age. Or because the project remained bogged down in inter-departmental bickering for such a long time that when it was finally presented to the public it had already become outdated.
Nor is Jihadi Fool the only initiative of its kind. While some media outlets have praised it as a major innovation in German counter-terrorism doctrine, it is in fact not the first time that authorites invest tax-payer money to satirise jihadists.
Since 2015, the Datteltäter group has been active on YouTube, financed by the German public broadcasters. After having started out as an initiative whose main objective was to counter ‘Salafi’ propaganda online, the group has since expanded and is addressing a much wider range of topics.
These range from funny takes on Muslim traditions (or these traditions’ quirky reception in their own families), to topics of discrimination and institutional racism. As a result, the Datteltäter are less subservient now to a counter-radicalisation agenda that essentially seeks to lecture Muslim audiences about how not to live their religion.
NRW’s Interior Ministry has announced that it will review the Jihadi Fool project after one year and decide about its continuation based on the ‘impact’ the videos have had among the young Muslim target group.
To be sure, assessing such impact might be rather difficult – it is hard to know who actually watched the video; and just as hard to find out what the target group actually made of the material presented. The odds, however, appear stacked against the project: viewership numbers remain low; and judging from the comments section, the average viewers appear to be middle-aged non-Muslim Germans worried about the dangers of Islamisation and radicalisation – rather than a young Muslim crowd that the Interior Ministry assumes might be drawn to Salafi material.
The first satirical video published also prominently bears the name of the Verfassungsschutz intelligence agency in its title. Surely, would-be suicide bombers will not exactly be convinced by a video commissioned by the agency. And Muslim audiences across the board will also be sceptical, given that the Verfassungsschutz is widely deemed complicit in the rise of far-right violence. The best evidence for this was provided by the agency’s close ties to the National Socialist Underground, a terrorist network responsible for the killing nine Turkish or Turkish-looking men between 2000 and 2006.
Clumsy government agenda
Responding to the Jihadi Fool video series, Jawaneh Golesorkh of the NGO Ufuq – itself a by-and-large government-financed organisation working to prevent ‘Salafi’ radicalisation – drew attention to some of these problems: “We know that counter-speech, especially if it is branded as coming from government institutions, is not as effective as if it were from influencers”, she pointed out. https://en.qantara.de/content/islamism-in-germany-fighting-salafists-with-youtube-satire
More broadly, Golesorkh stressed that experiences of exclusion and racism were a key driver of radicalisation. Implicit in her words was the assertion that it is perhaps these issues that need to be addressed in order to reduce the attractiveness of jihadi messages. Put differently, simply presenting jihadis as bumbling nitwits that should be made fun of might not quite cut it.
In fact, if it has any impact at all, one might wonder whether a clumsy video series like Jihadi Fool will not actually strengthen jihadis’ resolve and enhance the plausibility of their message: “If the German government is seeking to discredit us so openly and so amateurishly, we must surely be on the right path” – or so they might say to themselves.