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The careers of gangster rappers are usually short-lived, kind of like professional athletes. After all, there is something cringe-worthy about 50-year-olds rapping about drug deals, gang-banging, and drive-bys (not that this doesn’t happen); the same way it is mildly upsetting when an overweight, coke-addled soccer legend like Maradona is carted out for the occasional charity match.
To avoid such embarrassment, most successful MCs change their artistic tack. Others find God.
In the wake of Notorious B.I.G’s death, Harlem native MA$E was catapulted to the summit of the Bad Boy Records roster only to quit the rap game in 1999 to pursue a new life as Pastor Mason Betha. Fellow Bad Boy alumnus, Shyne, freshly sprung from a ten-year jail sentence in 2009 proclaimed himself an orthodox Jew. He promptly moved to Jerusalem to study the Torah and started to beef with Rick Ross over who was more Jewish.
Last week another example of gangster rapper who found God made news in an altogether more tumultuous arena.
Thirty-eight-year-old German rapper Deso Dogg, born Denis Cuspert, released four albums (including one pressed by British-based Majors EMI and WarnerChappell) and performed with international artists including US rapper and dog-lover DMX between 2006-2009. In the process Deso recorded tracks such as “Gangxtaboggy,” “Daz Iz Ein Drive By,” and “Meine Ambition Als Ridah.”
On September 9, rumors began to circulate on social media that Deso Dogg, operating under the nom de guerre “Abu Talha Al-Almani” (Abu Talha the German) had been injured fighting with the Syrian opposition. Others claimed he had been killed. According to German officials Deso was one of at least 20 German nationals fighting in Syria. Previous dispatches from Syria on social media last month had shown—amongst other things—Deso Dogg wielding a rocket launcher and happily splashing about in a creek that some online observers claimed was in the mountains near the coastal Syrian city of Latakia.
Deso Dogg’s supposed demise prompted a swift response from Millatu Ibrahim, a banned German Salafist group that released a statement (in Arabic and German) seeking to clarify that the former rapper had in fact only been injured in a government airstrike on a rebel safe house in an unknown location in Syria.
The whereabouts and health of Deso Dogg remain unknown.
Deso Dogg’s appearance in Syria is not the first example of a musician turned militant Salafist in the wider context of the country’s two-and-a-half-year civil war. In July, Fadl Shakr, a Lebanese singer once dubbed the “King of Romance," who had previously performed with Mariah Carey, was involved in clashes between supporters of Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir and the Lebanese army that left over 40 dead.
Elsewhere, on September 12, 2013, Omar Hammani, an Alabama native known for his rap-filled propaganda videos with a $5 million FBI bounty on his head, was killed in Somalia by rival Islamist militants called the Shabbab.
Although Deso Dogg’s Syrian campaign had predecessors, the particularities of his conversion to militant Islam are oddly poignant and highlight some of the German government’s difficulties in confronting home-grown Salafists.
The son of an absent Ghanaian father and German mother, Deso Dogg was brought up by an American stepfather (a soldier stationed in Berlin). He had a troubled youth and spent time in juvenile detention during which he is said to have experienced racism and developed a distinct anti-authoritarian streak confounded by his fractious relationship with his American stepfather. Such themes are prevalent in his music.
As early as 1990, five years before he started rapping and over 15 years before his conversion to Salafism, a hardline Islamist belief system, Deso Dogg took part in demonstrations critical of American foreign policy in the build up to the Persian Gulf War. Something he would repeat during the Iraq invasion of 2003.
In 2006 after serving a short sentence for minor charges including violations of the German Opium Act and having dropped out of a tour fronted by DMX (citing psychological reasons), Deso Dogg dropped his first album: Murda Cocctail Vol. 1. Deso Dogg appeared to have found an outlet to exorcize his inner demons.
But three albums and four years later following a near death experience in a car crash Deso Dogg abandoned his rap career, and announced his conversion to Islam in a public video. The rap music was replaced by nashids (traditional Islamic devotional music) in German praising Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He became critical of Western foreign policy and encouraged mujahideen forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Chechnya.
By 2011, having narrowly avoided jail time on gun-possession charges Deso Dogg’s association with Austrian born Millatu Ibrahim leader Mohamed Mahmoud (also known as Abu Usama Al-Gharib) increasingly brought him to the attention of German counter-terrorist officials fearful of his potential to serve as a powerful recruitment tool for the organization. Mahmoud, a former attendee of an al Qaeda training camp in Iraq had at the time only recently been released from an Austrian prison after serving a four-year sentence for his role distributing propaganda for the al Qaeda affiliated Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF).
Both Deso Dogg and Mohamed Mahmoud’s nashids are said to have inspired Arid Uka, an Albanian-German Islamist, who killed two US airmen and seriously wounded two others at Frankfurt airport on March 2, 2011.
In June 2012 following clashes between the far-right German hate group PRO NRW (North Rhine – Westphalia) and Salafist groups in Bonn (where Deso Dogg had relocated at the time), Millatu Ibrahim were banned. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich described the group as a threat to Germany’s “constitutional order.”
By this time Mahmoud had already relocated to Egypt calling on his Millatu Ibrahim comrades to join him. According to the 2012 annual report of the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution Deso Dogg was one of as many 50 German nationals that heeded the call.
Then in March of 2013, a video circulated on the internet showed Mahmoud burning his passport, renouncing his Austrian citizenship and threatening retributive action against the Austrian state. Shortly afterwards he was picked up by Turkish authorities on the Turkish-Syrian border in the south-eastern province of Hattay, allegedly in possession of a counterfeit passport from a North African country. He remains in a Turkish jail cell awaiting deportation to Germany.
Deso Dogg on the other hand is alleged to have crossed into Syria undetected, a move likely to heighten German counter-terrorists’ fears of his potential to serve as a recruitment tool.
I decided to meet with Osman Bakhash, the Director of the Central Media Office of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Beirut, where I am based, to discuss Deso Dogg’s appearance in Syria. Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Salafist movement established in 1953, espouses a political philosophy based on the re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate through “peaceful means.” The organization was banned from public activity in Germany in 2003 shortly after an appearance alongside the neo-Nazi Democratic Party of Germany (NDP) at a University conference at the Technical University of Berlin. The conference allegedly sparked fears of an alliance between neo-Nazi and Islamist groups.
“He (Deso Dogg) should not be there. As a party we reject all forms of foreign intervention in Syria,” said Bakhash, “but in Salafist movements there is a major emphasis on personal, individual charisma. Deso Dogg and Fadl Shakr are viewed and promoted as poster boys for their cause.”
Both Deso Dogg and Fadl Shakr have become cult figures on Salafist web platforms. On the official Facebook page of one particular Saudi Sheikh with over 147,000 followers/”likes” two individual posts regarding the odd couple have gained a total of over 7,500 “likes” and 3,500 shares from people across the globe.
“The German government has every right to suppress attempts to resort to violence or terrorism— whether perpetrated by Muslim or non-Muslim,” said Bakhash.
“But sometimes Muslim groups—whose philosophies are not that extreme, have been targeted. When you persecute such groups you run the risk that you will push some to become pro-jihad,” continued Bakhash drawing reference to Hizb ut-Tahrir’s own experience in Germany.
The German government’s ban on Millatu Ibrahim in June 2012 was followed by raids on the houses of suspected Islamic extremists and consequent bans on other Salafist organizations including Dawa FMM, Islamic Audios, and An-Nussrah, the successor of Millatu Ibrahim in March 2013. But was the German government's political response to the Salafist movement motivated by populism or strategic thinking? Some expressed concern that the adopted policy could lead to further radicalization
“After the ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2003 some left the party and went underground, adopting more extreme philosophies. This is a fact of life,” concluded Bakhash, though he didn’t seem particularly bothered by such a reality.
Back in April in a previous meeting with Hizb ut Tahrir in Tripoli, I had asked Ahmad Qassas, the local Media Officer, whether he had any objection to the desire of foreign fighters to travel to Syria to take up arms against the Assad regime.
Deviating from official party protocol he had replied.
“Jihad is not an obligation for every Muslim, but it is the right of every Muslim to fight for his brothers in Syria.”
Leaving the Hizb ut-Tahrir office I decided to phone the German Embassy to arrange a time to speak about Deso Dogg’s alleged presence in Syria, whether Mahmoud’s detention in Turkey had come about through collaboration between German and Turkish intelligence, and concerns over further home-grown radicalization.
I didn't get a response. German Embassy Staff in Beirut are pretty busy. On September 11th, 107 Syrian refugees boarded a flight to Germany from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri Airport, the first group in a German government program aimed at providing up to 5,000 Syrian refugees temporary relocation in Germany. It is the biggest re-settlement program established by any European country so far during Syria’s two-and-a-half-year civil war.
Meanwhile Deso Dogg, German citizen, former gangster rapper, and Jihadi poster boy remains at large, ostensibly somewhere in Syria.
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