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Germany’s gangsta jihadist

Germany’s most infamous jihadist Denis Cuspert, aka Deso Dogg, was put on the US terrorist watch list by the NSA yesterday, Feb 9. But five years ago, he was just another posturing Kreuzberg rapper. Robert Rigney met him.

Image for Germany’s gangsta jihadist
Collage of images from a Youtube video by Global Islamic Media Front

From anti-fascist Kreuzberg street fighter to anti-Touri rapper hungry for recognition, Denis Cuspert – aka Deso Dogg, Abou Maleeq and Abu Talha al-Almani – has found in ISIS the best vessel to express his rage… and he’s famous, at last.

The first time I met Denis Cuspert, the half-German, half-Ghanaian rapper then known as Deso Dogg, was in 2010. No one would have guessed the turn his life would take over the next four years: radical jihadist in Syria, fighter and propagandist for ISIS, and Germany’s most famous and most wanted Islamist.

His songs started to take on a radical hue. ‘Armed with bombs and grenades,’ he rapped. ‘Right in the centre I press the button’.

I was researching a story about the 36 Boys, a notorious Kreuzberg street gang from the late 1980s and 1990s. They fought turf battles in and around Kreuzberg 36, rapped, breakdanced, sprayed graffiti murals and attacked skinheads and neo-Nazis. Among the group’s members were Killa Hakan, who spent time in jail for the armed robbery of a jeweller’s shop in Kreuzberg and later went on to become a famous Turkish rapper; Neco Celik, the intellectual of the gang, now a successful filmmaker dubbed “the Spike Lee of Kreuzberg”; and Tim Raue, the only German in the gang, now a star chef. And then there was Deso Dogg.

The gang had dissolved by 2005, but in 2007, some of its former members revived the old name as a fashion brand for a line of streetwear sold out of a shop in an alleyway at Kotti. The shop, which sold cappies and hoodies and letterman jackets, was the hangout of boxers, actors, hip-hoppers, breakdancers and graffiti artists. They called it an “Anlaufstelle”: a shelter and a contact point. When kids had problems, they went there for advice. If they couldn’t make it any more, they got help there.

It was here that I met Deso Dogg. I was talking to the owner, Sinan Tosun, about hip hop and the 36 Boys’ early days, when Cuspert spoke up. “Hip hop is war.” He was a 35-year-old man with neck and arms covered with tattoos, a prison tear under his right eye, and the body of someone who spent his days pumping iron and kickboxing.

Later, I got to know Deso Dogg somewhat better. We went for tea and simits at a Turkish cafe across the street, where Cuspert greeted his Muslim brothers with a broad “salam alaikum”, and told me a bit about his life and trials, growing up in Kreuzberg around Kottbusser Tor and later Charlottenburg with a stepfather who was an American soldier, his first brush with the police at 11, and then joining the 36 Boys in his teens, inspired by the LA gangs Crips and Bloods, the movie Colors and the rap music of Dr. Dre.

As a teen, he used to rabble-rouse with American GIs. When the Wall fell, he fought running battles with skinheads in East Berlin. Every first of May, he and his gang teamed up with anti-fascists, marched together, threw “Mollis” and fought the police.

Cuspert then took up rap music, establishing himself as the “Black Angel” and a hero to Kreuzberg’s immigrant youth. He released three albums: Schwarzer Engel (2006), Geeni’z in collaboration with Jasha (2008) and Alle Augen auf mich (2009). In 2008 he appeared in an episode of the television series Der Bluff, playing a student who turns gangster rapper.

When I spoke to Cuspert in 2010 he appeared to be just another Kreuzberg hoodie, a Muslim who knew little about religion, amiable enough, but relishing the gangster pose. “I swear to you, I had a pump gun,” said Cuspert. “I went to sleep with that pump gun beside my bed. And I always held my 36 high. I always fought for 36. I bled for 36. I was stabbed for 36. I had 36 tattooed on my back. For me, Kreuzberg is a part of my life.”

Cuspert’s hostility then was reserved for tourists and hipsters, the new arrivals, who in Cuspert’s opinion didn’t know shit, and were trying to bask in the Kreuzberg myth while pushing up rents. “The people from the outside, they come to Kreuzberg and they think, ‘Oh, Kreuzberg. Nice. Multikulti, ah. I’m also a Kreuzberger.’ No! You’re a Kreuzberger if you were born here. If you grew up here. If you fought here.”

Soon after this, Cuspert dropped out of sight. He began to show his face less and less around Kotti and was rumoured to be taking Quran classes at the ‘Salafist’ Al-Nur mosque in Neukölln. He posted a video of his official conversion to Islam – although he’d told me he was a Muslim by birth.

His songs started to take on a radical hue. “Armed with bombs and grenades,” he rapped, “Right in the centre I press the button.” Ultimately, he turned his back on music. He grew a beard, started to clothe himself in Islamic garb, changed his name to Abou Maleeq and began issuing videos featuring teary and emotional denunciations of hip hop as haram, the devil’s work, while at the same time issuing calls for jihad in Germany.

In 2011 I picked up a story about a young Albanian Muslim who shot two American soldiers dead at the airport in Frankfurt. It said that the Albanian, a German citizen born in Kosovo, had been inspired and radicalised by the music and video proclamations of Cuspert, who earlier that year had been charged with illegal possession of weapons after he appeared in a Youtube video brandishing arms: 16 nine-millimetre and .22 cartridges were found at his home. In August 2011, he was fined €1800.

Cuspert’s ex-36 Boys friends were speechless. “Who knows what happened to him,” Sinan Tosun told me from behind the counter of the 36 Boys shop in May of that year. “He’s gone underground. Stopped rap music. A lot of people come up to me and they ask me, ‘What’s up with Deso? Has he been brainwashed?’ I don’t know. And the kids as well, they ask, ‘Why has Deso stopped making rap music?’ I’m a Muslim as well, but I don’t believe that music is evil. It’s a good thing. You have to use the talents that God gave you… Now no one wants to have anything to do with him. They don’t want to call him up because they know that his phone is being tapped by the police.”

Cuspert became ever more radical, joining the German Salafist organisation Millatu Ibrahim, giving talks in mosques in support of the growing mujahideen forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Chechnya, and issuing videos where he called for armed jihad, threatening to bring the war home to Germany.

“To Merkel, Minster of the Interior and Foreign Minister,” he announced. “You are waging jihad in our countries, and we will bring jihad to your countries. You are not safe. You will no longer be able to live in safety. And that’s why this country, the Federal Republic of Germany, is a war zone.”  

One day I caught sight of him on the U8 heading to Wedding. He had a beard and was dressed in a Muslim salwar under a camo jacket. I got up and went after him, but lost him in the crowd.

A year later, I was in Istanbul when I heard that Cuspert, after the banning of Millatu Ibrahim in Germany, had made good on his promise of jihad. He travelled to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and thence to Syria, where the 39-year-old, now calling himself Abu Talha al-Almani (“the German Abu Talha”) swore an oath of allegiance to ISIS. In widely circulated Youtube videos, he issued vitriolic messages from the front lines about how Obama and the US would pay and pay, while glorifying the role of ISIS and proselytising for young Muslim youth to come to Syria and fight.

In April 2014, he was reported to have been killed in a suicide bombing carried out by rival jihadist group al-Nusra Front. Reports of his death turned out to be premature. By his own admission, he was treated in a Turkish hospital for a coma. Strengthened in his martyr role, in the following months he was said to have been found in northern Syria in contact with senior ideologues and commanders of ISIS.

Germany’s domestic security agency issued warnings about him: As one of the organisation’s top recruiters, they said, “Cuspert has direct access to the upper echelons of ISIS.” And should Cuspert choose to return to Germany, his threat to security would be serious.

In November, Cuspert appeared, very much alive and well, in a two-minute ISIS mass-execution video. Picking up a severed head, he states that the dead men fought against the Islamic State and “that’s why they received the death penalty.”

What happened to Deso Dogg? “He fell in with the wrong people,” concludes Abubakir Saadaoui, who does dawa (missionary) work at Dar Assalam mosque, a moderate Arabic mosque on Flughafenstraße which pulls in hundreds of Neukölln Arabic Muslims for prayers every Friday. Cuspert used to come by the mosque for prayers, or to participate in Gaza solidarity rallies, before he went underground.

When I talked to him, Saadaoui questioned the German authorities’ slow response to the rapper’s radicalisation. “He clearly stated that Germany was jihad territory as early as 2012. The question is: why wasn’t Deso Dogg arrested? Why was he allowed to fly to Syria? It’s certain that he departed from Tegel or Schönefeld. In my opinion, Deso Dogg should have been immediately arrested.”

Abdul Adhim Kamouss of Neukölln’s Al-Nur mosque knew Cuspert, and this is something that the media was quick to hold against him. In September, when he appeared on Günther Jauch’s prime time talkshow, it was suggested he had helped to radicalise the former rapper.

Kamouss says Cuspert was just one among the three or four hundred young people who came to the mosque to talk about religion. “He was already considering giving up rap music as haram. I told him to continue doing it, but with a good message.”

But Kamouss didn’t really worry about Cuspert till a friend called him up drawing attention to a song he had written in praise of jihad. “I tried to enlighten him. He was taking verses from the hadiths out of context, projecting them incorrectly on our time without knowing the intention, reducing them to something not so good. I said, ‘Watch out! Islam is about knowledge. It’s not about emotions.’”

Cuspert made light of Kamouss’ concerns and told him not to worry. A month passed, and Cuspert was at it again. “Again I schooled him. And after this second call, he changed his number. And then he started in earnest to radicalise himself. Where he showed up at the demonstration in Bonn against caricatures of Muhammad, and fought and yelled and made videos.”

Ultimately, Kamouss says that Cuspert took the turn he did because of his innate aggression.

“I think it’s the result of the nature of the person, when it all comes down to it. It doesn’t have anything to do with Islam. There are people who are predisposed to be aggressive… He was a guy who always wanted new challenges. I said, ‘Calm down. Religion is about learning. And you have to learn first.’ But then he got to know other people in western Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia and the like… and when he got to know these people, he was – peng, gone.”