The Oddballs Inside al-Qaida's Big Tent Converts
Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, a sociologist of religion, has investigated
converts in Germany and in the United State. "People want to be
different," she says.
Islam allows a person to stand out from the crowd to a greater
degree, in Wohlrab-Sahr's opinion. Moreover, Islam has become a
perennial theme in the media thanks to today's frequent debates on
Muslims. "Islam is more visible as a genuine alternative," Wohlrab-Sahr
The key question is how literally Islam's holy book is interpreted.
"Converts tend to practise their religion in a more puritanical
fashion," says Wohlrab-Sahr. "Born Muslims are often more liberal."
Thirty-six-year-old Nils Bergner prays to Allah five times a day. The
German convert works together with a Turkish friend Ali Özkan, also a
Muslim. The two visit the mosque together, but it's only in the
German's office that the prayer rug is regularly rolled out. "I just
can't manage it," says Özkan. "The first prayer is at 6:00 a.m. -- much
It's hard to find a common denominator for what exactly makes Islam
so attractive to people from a Christian background. Salim Abdullah
speaks of "defiant reactions" in the face of the constant criticism
brought against Islam, although he's also familiar with converts who
appreciate the "clear rules for behavior" provided by the Koran. Lühr,
who always carries a prayer mat in the trunk of his Alfa Romeo GT,
laments the "decline in values" that Western society, in his view, has
suffered: "In Islam, values still count for something," he says.
Much as this June's failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow focused attention on the participation of doctors and other professionals in jihadist terror, the plot disrupted in Germany this week seems certain to put the spotlight on another key group within violent Islamism: converts.
We don't know much thus far about Fritz Gelowicz or Daniel Martin Schneider, the two German converts who were apprehended earlier this week along with Adem Yilmaz, who has been identified as a Turk. Another seven conspirators, about whom very little has been released, are also being hunted. But the hundreds of gallons of concentrated hydrogen peroxide—useful for bomb-building—they acquired, and the fact that, according to German officials, they had managed to train with the pros in Pakistan suggest that these operatives were, as one U.S. official put it, "the real deal."