WhatsApp messages reveal ‘Lego’ Islam extremists

Academic study of Jihadist phone exchanges suggest little knowledge of Koran

Many young radicalised Muslims have only a rudimentary knowledge of the Koran, a new study suggests, and piece together their own “Lego Islam” to justify their involvement in terror attacks.

A group of German academics studied almost 6,000 WhatsApp messages found on a phone, seized last year by police from its owner, who was involved in a terror attack last year.

“The WhatsApp chat drawn from a young Salafist’s phone offers the public and researchers an insider perspective of a jihadist group ahead of an attack carried out by them,” write the authors of the study.

Researchers Becem Dziri and Michael Kiefer, who analysed the messages from an Islamic studies perspective, said the chats revealed a sketchy knowledge of Islam among members.


The Islam on display in the chat group, the researchers wrote, “has little in common with theology such as rational Sunni Islam … beyond vocabulary and symbols”.

“Elements of western youth and consumer culture and even narratives from the Christian symbolic world are part of this ‘Islam’ construct,” they added.

The academics do not name the chat group members, described as a mix of “laymen and autodidacts”, nor do they say which terror attack they were planning. However clues in the study, in particular references to a journalist who first came across the chat protocol, suggest the group members were the perpetrators of an attack on a Sikh temple in the eastern city of Essen in April 2016.

No one was injured in the attack but three participants were later found guilty of murder and attempted murder sentences.

Comic moments

As well as plans for the bombing attack, the chat protocol has unintentionally comic moments. When one member complains that he doesn’t own a Koran, another promises to pick up a free copy from a group that distributes them in the city centre.

When another tries to get out of a prayer meeting, saying he doesn’t have any appropriate clothing with him, another responds: “You can also wear sweatpants or something like that. If you want, I can loan you some for the day.”

For the study’s authors, the unfiltered chat protocol are a goldmine of information that highlight the crucial role played by social media, in particular encrypted WhatsApp groups, in the radicalisation process.

It also highlights how personal development and chance encounters can play a key role in driving radicalisation if a young person encounters a group of self-appointed “chosen ones” just as they are liberating themselves from home.

The study also highlights the key role of the “amir” or leader, often self-appointed Salafist preachers with no theological training and no skills, covered up well with a dominant alpha male personality.

“This shouldn’t be underestimated,” said Prof Ceylan, another of the study’s authors, to Germany’s DW. “They’re people who have sometimes failed in life, but if they have a gift for being alpha males, they can become superstars overnight. You can make a whole career of being a pop preacher.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin