The Pop Star Of Jihad

The strange tale of Deso Dogg, the German rapper who fled to Syria to sing songs for ISIS.
Story by Amos Barshad
Photography by Elisabeth Moch
The Pop Star Of Jihad

One summer day in 2013, the German jihadist Denis Cuspert was holed up in a home controlled by his fellow fighters in the Junud al-Sham militant organization when he was hit by shelling from the Syrian Air Force. He suffered a critical head injury, entered a coma for nearly a week, and was moved from hospital to hospital in search of a specialist to save his life. “My head was open and some parts of my brain were coming out,” he’d say in an interview posted online that fall. “The brothers cared about me a lot. And through the mercy of Allah, I woke up.”

Upon his recovery, Junud al-Sham produced a neat, crisp bit of video starring Cuspert. Posing on a couch in a gray cardigan and a taqiyah skull cap, with a landscape of roughly beautiful hills behind him, he brags that he had grabbed his weapon and had been prepared to fire at the jets flying overhead when the bombs dropped. And with evident glee, he waves off the rumors of his death: “Praised is Allah! According to the media I have been murdered two or three times.”

Cuspert had arrived in Syria earlier that year. Two years before, the Arab Spring — a wave of street protests in the name of civil liberties and democratization — had rattled the region and deposed longstanding autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia. In Syria, it prompted a civil war. On one side stood President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded the 30-year rule of his father in 2000 and was holding on to power with determined, indiscriminate brutality. On the other was a confounding array of splintered rebel groups devoted to Assad’s ouster.

Some rebel groups would come to be supported by the United States. Others, like Cuspert’s Junud al-Sham, were declared terrorist organizations: perverting the ideology of Islam to homicidal and draconian ends, their stated goal was the creation of a purported caliphate.

Like other similar groups — most notoriously the Islamic State, which Cuspert would eventually join — Junud al-Sham were dedicated propagandists who produced a steady torrent of online content aimed at sweeping up would-be fighters. And to those ends, Denis Cuspert was a valuable asset nearly as soon as he stepped foot in Syria. Because, in his native Germany, Cuspert was already infamous. Just a few years prior, he was best known as the rapper Deso Dogg.

As an MC, Cuspert was an obvious product of ’90s American hip-hop. With heavy chains, coiled rage, and a lean, muscular frame, often paraded shirtless in his music videos, he was clearly pinching a bit of Tupac (he named one album Alle Augen Auf Mich, a German translation of Pac’s All Eyez on Me) and a bit of Mobb Deep. But a few years before arriving in Syria, he’d left hip-hop behind.

In Germany, he had helped create an organization dedicated to jihadist propaganda named Millatu Ibrahim, or Community of Abraham. In mosque sermons and media appearances, he spoke grandly of the plight of the Palestinians, the drone attacks in Pakistan, and the sins of American imperialism. He presented himself as a reformed infidel (“Deso” even was short for “devil’s son”) who’d embraced the light.

Though he left rap, Cuspert never abandoned music. He began instead singing songs in praise of the international jihad, what jihadists refer to as nasheeds. Traditionally, nasheeds are songs of uplift, mostly a cappella, about Islam, its practices, and its history. But these were songs about fighters-in-arms, about explosions, about mass murder. In one, a German-language adaptation of a jihadist anthem called “Qariban Qariba,” Cuspert declared, Enemies of Allah, we want your blood/ It tastes so wonderful.

After leaving Germany, he reimagined himself with a new name. He was now Abu Talha al-Almani — Abu Talha the German. Thanks to Junud al-Sham and Islamic State videos, he became possibly the most prominent black man within jihadist ranks in Iraq and Syria. He was an ex-gangster rapper on the front lines, cheating death, singing songs of war. In videos, he was seen marching through the bloodied and at times decapitated victims of his fellow fighters; his job was to praise the massacring, and he took to it with fervor.

“It comes as no surprise that even Abu Talha being rushed to the hospital after the air attack was captured on camera,” noted the Middle East Media Research Institute in a report after the incident in the summer of 2013. “Few jihadi alive today are as photographed or video-recorded as Cuspert.” In an email in June of this year, Isabelle Kalbitzer, a spokesperson for Berlin’s intelligence service Verfassungsschutz, wrote, “he was something like a pop star of jihad.”

In October of 2015, two years after his coma-inducing incident, Cuspert was again reported to have been shelled. According to the Pentagon at the time, he was traveling in a pick-up truck on a road out of Raqqa when he was hit in a U.S. airstrike and killed.

During the months that followed, ISIS continued to release videos featuring Cuspert. In them, he never explicitly refers to the October airstrike; the simple presumption was that the videos were made before his death. In recent months, however, online chatter — from institutions, academics, and semi-amateur online jihadist watchers alike — suggested that things weren’t as clear as they seemed. Verfassungsschutz, the Berlin intelligence service, went as far as to announce that they could not conclusively say Cuspert was dead. This echoed what was being spread by German-speaking ISIS supporters through social media: that Cuspert was alive.

Then, in July of 2016, the Pentagon refuted their previous claims as to Cuspert’s death. While withholding their actual intelligence as classified, a spokesperson, Marine Major Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, released the following statement to The FADER:

“In Oct 2015, the Coalition” — the network of nations jointly fighting ISIS — “conducted an airstrike against operative Denis Cuspert, aka Deso Dogg and Abu Talha al-Almani. Because we are talking about intelligence, I really can’t speak in great detail about this. However I can tell you that, at the time of the strike, our assessment was one of a successful strike against Denis Cuspert. Since that assessment, there has been new information. It now appears that assessment was incorrect and Denis Cuspert survived.”




The Pop Star Of Jihad

Denis Mamadou Gerhard Cuspert was born in Berlin on October 18, 1975. Cuspert’s biological father, a man named Richard Luc-Giffard, was a Ghanaian national who left the family when Cuspert was still a small child (not long after, Giffard was deported). Denis’s mother, Sigrid Cuspert, was a white German. She’d go on to marry an African-American G.I. from Savannah, Georgia. Together they had a child, Cuspert’s half-brother Jermaine. Years later, Jermaine would briefly rap, alongside Cuspert, under the name Lil’ Deso.

Cuspert and his stepfather clashed often. When asked to describe his childhood, in an early interview with the newspaper Exberliner, Cuspert answered, “Really hard. With a belt and stuff. With grits and Rice-A-Roni. I had a tough time.” In the same interview, Cuspert also credited his stepfather with gifting him the N.W.A. tape that changed his life: “It was like, boom. In my head. Niggers for life. Niggers with attitude.” To one friend, a rapper named MC Bogy, Cuspert instead cited the more pop-friendly LL Cool J as his first favorite.

He started petty thieving — his first boost was a toy car — and jacking tourists as a teen. Later, while in juvenile hall, he began rapping. He claimed to run with a crew called the 36 Boys, a street gang based in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg (postal district: 36) made up primarily of first-generation Turkish and Arab immigrants. The 36 Boys got in violent confrontations with neo-Nazi gangs and were obsessed with hip-hop transplanted directly from the American G.I.s prevalent in the city before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “I always fought for 36,” Cuspert told a Berlin reporter named Robert Rigney. “I bled for 36. I was stabbed for 36. Everything.”

As an adult, he sold drugs and bragged to one hip-hop journalist that he’d done every crime besides “rape and purse-snatching.” In the early 2000s, after charges of aggravated assault, he bounced for years between a few Berlin prisons.

Post-prison, Cuspert flailed. He continued selling drugs. At one point, he was briefly checked into a mental health institution. Gradually, the city’s hip-hop scene became an uneasy home. Working primarily with the Berlin label Streetlife Entertainment, Cuspert released his first solo albums Murda Cocctail Vol. 1 and Schwarzer Engel. Initially, though, he was brought into the scene as showpiece muscle.

The video for the mid-2000s track “NDW 2005” by the rapper Fler is a telling document of Berlin hip-hop. It kicks off with Fler on a rooftop in a massive fur-hooded parka engaged in Saudi-style falconeering with a flapping bird of prey perched on his gloved forearm. Then a Fight Club-esque basement brawl ensues. Cuspert, who doesn’t rap on the song, is nonetheless present to walk menacingly through hallways.

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Like many international hip-hop scenes, Berlin’s was slow to break out of a deep indebtedness to American styles. The Berlin MCs — many of them Turkish, Arab, or white — may have never articulated it as such, but they coveted what they believed Cuspert represented. Cuspert often bragged of being one of the only true gangster rappers in Germany; he talked vaguely about his loyalty to and respect for “the streets.” On “NDW,” within a hodgepodge of borrowed cultural signifiers, there is one element specifically that the big and brawny Cuspert is lending: American-style hardness.

Cuspert tended to obfuscate exactly when Islam came into his life, telling one interviewer he was born into the religion, then another that 2001 was his real entry year. But by his 2007 track “Wilkommen In Meiner Welt,” one of his best known, Cuspert had publicly embraced his faith. He talks of rising at dawn for the morning adhan, or call to prayer, and begs for absolution. I whisper softly to Allah, he raps, Please do not drop me! By those days, he was often fulfilling the Islamic pillar of salat by praying five times a day.

He had two kids at this point, a son who lived with his mother in London and a daughter who lived with hers in Berlin. He was estranged from both. Every day is a test, I’m sick of all this stress, he raps on “Wilkommen.” I am alone out there without my kids.

Daniel Schieferdecker, the editor-in-chief of the Berlin hip-hop magazine Juice, interviewed Cuspert around this time. Schieferdecker recalls that Cuspert was polite and respectful, and offered him coffee and tea. In conversation, though, he could be grand: “I’m not a musician like everybody else. I want to write music history.”

He was also, Schieferdecker says, a confused man, caught between hip-hop and his fledgling faith: “He said that he may have to leave the music business to get calmer, and that he tries to follow the lead of musicians like Cat Stevens who make music the Islamic way. He said that this might be his way, too.”

Three years later, in February of 2010, the first public record of Cuspert stepping toward a violent interpretation of Islam emerged. It was a video, recorded at Berlin’s al-Nur Mosque, in which Cuspert engages in a conversation with an imam named Pierre Vogel.

A broad white man with a thick red beard, and a one-time semi-professional boxer, Vogel is a controversial figure in Germany. He preaches an ultraconservative strand of Sunni Islam known as Salafism, which is both the official religion of the fundamentalist Saudi Arabia — a staunch American ally — and the purported basis of the ideology of the Islamic State. Vogel is understood by some as a willing incubator of radicals, though in a Facebook post in 2014, he denied that he ever encouraged Cuspert to violence.

In their video conversation, Vogel praised Cuspert for moving away from hip-hop, which he and many Salafists consider haram: forbidden. At the same time, he was clearly fascinated by the character of Deso Dogg: during the course of their talk, Vogel imagines Cuspert leading an exodus of fellow ex-rappers into Islam.

By the end of the year, Cuspert was pinging around Salafist mosques in Germany for seminars, providing emotional tellings of the story of his conversion. Still fumbling toward knowledge of Salafism, he came off as a peer to young audiences who were still learning themselves. He was a hit.




The Pop Star Of Jihad Deso, center, in "Wilkommen In Meiner Welt."  

One afternoon in Berlin, I visit the home of MC Bogy, who was close to Cuspert in the mid-2000s. It’s a cramped studio apartment filled to the edges with dusty tchotchkes of Americana: a framed Big Pun triptych, likenesses of Ice T, and a string of still-in-the-packaging Tony Montana dolls to complement the Tony-Montana-holding-a-microphone tattoo that graces Bogy’s soft white belly.

He’s wearing cargo sweatpants and a camouflage du-rag; he has a Mike Tyson-like Maori face tattoo. And he is unfailingly polite, providing me with coffee, juice, and a plate of fresh watermelon. For the next few hours, he speaks with great passion in halting English of his good friend Deso Dogg. He calls their union “like Steven Spielberg meeting Stephen King” — two titans, coming together. “We made much music together,” he says. “I’m very proud of that.”

Cuspert wasn’t, Bogy insists, an angry person. Once, during a recording session, a rat scurried through the studio and Cuspert jumped to its defense. “He said, ‘It’s an African mouse.’ I don’t know why he decided it was an African mouse. He said, ‘Stop, stop, don’t kill the mouse. He’s from Africa, like me!’” Cuspert got his way, and gently guided the rat into the alley.

Bogy shows me one of Deso Dogg’s old lyric sheets, with words written in a big sloping font across lined paper. It’s signed Abu Maleeq. Maleeq is Cuspert’s son’s name — Cuspert was naming himself, in traditional Arab conventions, “Father of Maleeq.”

“I slept with him in the same rooms,” Bogy says. “We wore the same clothing. We went to other cities together — I went to the dope spot, smoked weed, took cocaine, fucked bitches. Look, I was addicted to drugs, and he always wanted to take me away from drugs. He helped me when I was sick, he always stood with me when I was drunk. I’m not seeing it with pink glasses on. He was always there for me.”

Bogy converted to Islam as an adult, and says he would at times pray with Cuspert. He rails against Pierre Vogel, seeing the imam as the man who poisoned Cuspert’s mind. But he waves his and Cuspert’s shared faith off as too intimate to discuss. “You love your dick, I love my dick,” he says, grabbing his crotch while pointing to mine as emphasis for the analogy. “But that’s private! That’s yours and that’s mine!”

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To explain what happened to his old friend, he reaches instead to the comfort of American culture. “Maybe in Germany people would kill me for what I say, yes? But for me, it’s a story like Anakin and Darth Vader.” In Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker is a fallen hero: touched by the forces of the Dark Side, he becomes the treacherous villain Darth Vader.

I bring up the possibility — at the time of our conversation, unverified — that Cuspert was still alive. “I don’t know,” Bogy says. “But for me, I cry for him like he’s been dead a long time. He can’t come back. There’s no coming back.”

Then, slapping my chest, he leaps up and hits play on an old Deso Dogg track. “Can we talk about music? Can we get a feel for the old Deso?”

Looking close to tears that never come, Bogy pleads with me to see it his way. He knows he and Cuspert never sold a lot of records; he wants me to understand that that does not take away from what they did together. “The fucking press say he was a rapper with no success, that he was a loser. He was no loser! He was a good rapper! He had good homeboys! His heart was great and open!”




The Pop Star Of Jihad Cuspert in Syria.   SITE / ent.siteintelgroup.com

By 2012, Cuspert had permanently left Berlin for the northwest German city of Solingen. Working with a man named Mohamed Mahmoud, who’d already been imprisoned in his native Austria for promotion of terrorism, Cuspert founded Millatu Ibrahim, the online propaganda organization.

By then, Cuspert was already recording his violent combat nasheeds and dispersing them through Millatu Ibrahim. According to Benham Said, an analyst for the Verfassungsschutz intelligence service, it was at this point that “observers of the jihadi trend in Germany all became aware [of] the increasing relevance of Denis Cuspert for the movement.”

Within the Berlin scene, the rap music of Deso Dogg had been respectfully, tepidly received. There was local media attention, and shaky connections to the U.S.: he opened some shows in Germany for DMX around 2006 and once recorded, but never released, a song with a peripheral associate of 50 Cent’s named Spider Loc. Daniel Schieferdecker, the Juice editor, assumes Deso Dogg never made a living off his music.

Vanessa Mason, a singer and onetime member of the German dance-pop group Real McCoy, collaborated with Cuspert. “I met him as a teenager, and he was feared by lots of others,” she says. “But I only knew him as a kind-hearted individual who was, I believe, searching for a family.”

The rapper Kaisa, Cuspert’s labelmate and regular collaborator, knew Cuspert as a casually practicing, Friday-prayers Muslim. “Back then, making music, going on tour, getting tattoos? Nobody thought …” He trails off, then picks up again. “He wasn’t angry all the time, of course not. But I think he was looking for something. He always wanted to be somebody. He wanted to be a leading role.”

Abdul Kamouss is an imam who specializes in preaching to German-speaking Muslims like Cuspert. Before Cuspert left for Solingen, the two met at al-Nur Mosque, where Cuspert also met Pierre Vogel. Their conversations, Kamouss recalls, felt aimless: Cuspert was clearly more interested in politics than religion. To Kamouss, Cuspert intimated that he’d been briefly involved with a Berlin-based group with ties to Hezbollah, the radical militant organization that dominates Lebanon. It’s bizarre, if true: Shi’ite Hezbollah is a sworn enemy of the Sunni Islamic State, under whose flag Cuspert would wage war.

Quickly, Cuspert grew frustrated with Kamouss and stopped coming around. “He started to drift, to look for something political,” Kamouss says, adding with a self-deprecating smile, “not me. I am a soft Muslim.” Later, watching Cuspert’s reinvention online as a prominent speaker and singer, Kamouss was horrified. “He was trying to be an image of himself, a persona,” Kamouss says. “He felt entitled. He had a sense of being important. With his charisma and his background as a creative person, it seduced the uninformed younger generation. They would not even realize that he is not trained, that he is teaching about things that are too complex for him to even touch.”

Cuspert was an ex-con who’d lost years to prison. He was estranged from his children and their mothers. His rap career, and the image with which he’d chosen to define himself, had stalled out. And then, at 35 years old, he found himself, for the first time in his life, influential. From the outside, the rise appears to have been swift, and intoxicating.

In a way, Kamouss sees Cuspert’s path as inevitable: he talks of Cuspert’s “psychological problems,” of Cuspert’s thirst for a “new life.” And yet in imagining one last conversation, Kamouss lifts clenched fists as if to shake him by the collar. “I would speak to him pointed, directed, so that he would get it,” he says. “I would sit with him and not let go.”




The Pop Star Of Jihad Cuspert, right, with a fellow fighter.   SITE / ent.siteintelgroup.com

Over the course of May 2012, Cuspert’s organization Millatu Ibrahim clashed with a local nativist political party in a series of protests and counter-protests rife with stone-throwings and stabbings. At the end of the month, in response to the clashes, Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior officially banned Millatu Ibrahim. Practically speaking, the move was somewhat ceremonial: Cuspert and his group could have likely skirted the decree by renaming themselves and continuing to produce videos. Instead, a month later, Cuspert boarded a plane.

His first stops were Mersa Matruh, in Egypt, and Darna, in Libya. There, according to a UN Security Council report, he received training in firearms with unidentified groups of militants. By 2013, he was in Syria fighting for Junud al-Sham. They clashed with Syrian government forces in Latakia, near the Turkish border, and raided villages of the Alawite minority, the support base of President Assad.

In the same interview in which he gloats of cheating death, Cuspert talks briefly of his past life: “I only can say that this time when I was a musician, it was a gloomy time.” And yet he shows a flash of pride about his notoriety. “Just recently I met one brother, some weeks ago, who was new here to the Land of Honor, saying: ‘Oh really? Deso is here?’ And I was a little bit shocked that this thing has been deeply burnt into the minds of the people.” He also can’t help but talk in the tropes of hip-hop. “OK, first of all,” he says, sounding just a bit like he’s doing afternoon shoutouts at Hot 97, “I want to send my brothers from all the Lands of Honor with the best of greetings… ”

Around this time Cuspert released a combat song called “al-Jannah, al-Jannah,” meaning “Paradise, Paradise.” In it, he fantasizes of his death as a suicide bomber back in his native West. The bomb in the crowd, pressing on the button, he sings in German. Right in the center or in the subway, with a smile directly to my Creator, pressing on the button, al-Jannah, al-Jannah.

By the beginning of 2014, an indication perhaps of his outsized ambition in the world of jihad — or of his fickleness — Cuspert elected to leave Junud al-Sham for a larger organization. He pledged an oath, a bay’ah, to what was then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS had self-appointed the capital of its caliphate in Raqqa, Syria. With extortion, torture, and unfathomable massacres, it was winning land and recruits. And within the jihadist world, for sheer output and reach, its propaganda network had no equal. And just as with Jund al-Sham, Cuspert was embraced by the ISIS content arm.

The entity in charge of spreading Cuspert’s content was al-Hayat, the Islamic State’s English-language media division. It’s al-Hayat that publishes the Islamic State’s infamous magazine, Dabiq, and courts far-flung would-be jihadis through videos posted on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and the Russian-founded messaging service Telegram.

Naturally, Cuspert’s bay’ah video was recorded and disseminated. “My goal was to get famous with music,” he says in the hour-long video, an AK-47 bandied about for effect. “And when there would have been a big musical event, like the Grammys, I would have stood at the stage, I would have said: ‘There is no god but Allah! I hereby cancel my music career!’” As he talks, footage from his old music videos is spliced in. There he is, young Deso Dogg, never smiling, throwing punches and headbutts towards the camera lens.

In the video, he talks of a car accident. He doesn’t say when it happened. He was driving fast on the way to a club with a friend when the car skidded out. Both walked away, but for Cuspert, the near-death experience was an awakening. He understood now that, as a quasi-rap star, he was nothing according to Allah — a “poor soul, imprisoned between spotlights and groupies.”

As Cuspert rails against his old world, we see photos of various vices seemingly plucked from online stock photo archives, or a lazy Google Images search: music festival revelers, a close-up of pills and powders, a man pouring a beer. It’s so clumsy as to be surreal. Then, Cuspert consummates his bay’ah. He sits on his knees in front of a green sheet, in camouflage. “My dream has been fulfilled,” he says. “Victory, or martyrdom. I will continue my work until a bullet or rocket shall hit me!” And as he’s wrapping up, at this purportedly hallowed moment, you can clearly hear the distinctive whistle-chirp noise of an incoming message. Someone in the room had not muted their Samsung Galaxy.

After joining ISIS, Cuspert became a wandering mascot: over and over, in propaganda footage from ISIS battlefields throughout Syria — wherever atrocities occurred — there was the man now called Abu Talha al-Almani. “He was like Where’s Waldo,” says Alberto Fernandez, a former counterrorism specialist with the State Department. “He was popping up all over the place.”

In one video, Cuspert talks of loot plundered from Kurds and Yazidis living near the town of Kobane. In another, he’s in Homs, in the wake of the grisly conquest of the al-Sha’er gas fields: he’s captured on video beating a dead body with a sandal. Later in 2014, he’s seen in Deir al-Zor, the site of a bloody massacre of Sunni Arab Shaitat tribe, brandishing a recently decapitated human head.

Throughout his appearances, he kept producing his combat songs. The videos are calculatingly horrible: over images of prisoners in orange jumpsuits having their throats slashed, Cuspert sings of rolling heads and men with black masks, their “creed sharp as knives.” Don’t be sad my mother, he says in one song, “Fisabilillah.” Your son is rushing to Allah.

Within the international network of jihadist propaganda, there have been the occasional “personalities.” But most are fleeting; they pop up for a month or two of rabble-rousing, then disappear. Like the rapper he once was, Cuspert, for a while, was practically taken on tour. In the video of the looting of Kobane, a fellow fighter even recognizes him on camera, and shouts out, there is Abu Talha! It seems that Cuspert was ultimately not a mastermind or general, but on-air talent.




On a recent summer night in Kreuzberg — the home of the notorious 36 Boys — I meet Muci Tosun. An original 36’er turned kickboxer, he proudly carries forth the name of his gang, which has produced such famous alums as the filmmaker Nico Celik and the celebrity chef Tim Raue. For a while, Tosun even ran a retail shop in Kreuzberg selling 36 Boys merchandise.

It’s Ramadan, so we meet late, after the evening’s iftar meal. Tosun, stocky and snub-nosed, immediately denies Cuspert’s claims of 36 Boys membership: “He tried to set foot in the 36 Boys, we tried to support him a bit. We gave him the branded clothing. But he was never really a part of it.”

Cuspert didn’t show up, Tosun says, until after his prison stints, meaning the early 2000s. Mostly, though, Tosun ignores my questions in favor of lightly pushing a new protégé on me: a 40-something, mildly portly, fair-haired man that makes schlager music — cheesy German party pop. His stage name, he happily tells me, is Dino Blondino.

I assume Tosun is rejecting Cuspert after the fact. But, independently, the rapper Killa Hakan, another original 36’er, tells me the same: “The story of the 36 Boys was written in the ’90s. Deso Dogg came very much after that. He was a fan. He tried to be part of it, but everything was done. Deso was a little boy during the fights — he was never in the fights.”

After a few more similar conversations, I come to believe that Cuspert’s involvement with the 36 Boys — which he shouted out, with pride, in his songs — may have been a feint toward grandness. The Berlin reporter Robert Rigney recalls meeting him one afternoon at Tosun’s 36 Boys shop. “I was talking to the guys about hip-hop,” Rigney tells me, “and some guy spoke up in the background and said, ‘Hip-hop is a war!’ And that was Deso.”

No one I met in Berlin entertained the possibility that Cuspert had again survived an airstrike. But we didn’t talk about him as if he were dead, either; we talked about him as if he were too far gone to come back. If the Pentagon’s latest intelligence is correct — if Cuspert is still alive, and presumably still fighting for ISIS — then the friends and family that Cuspert left behind in Berlin will have to continue grappling with the strange legacy he continues to unspool.

While in Berlin, I try unsuccessfully to get in contact with Cuspert’s mother, Sigrid. Once I’m back in New York, she responds to a message I’d sent her on Facebook.

She is hesitant to talk at all. “I won’t speak to anyone about my son,” she declares at first. But the fact that I write for a music magazine seems to warm her up a tiny bit. Eventually, we chat briefly. She tells me that she met Cuspert’s stepfather at a disco, and that he passed away last year, from lung cancer. She says she last saw her son five years ago — right around the time he left Berlin for Solingen.

“My whole family loved music,” she tells me. “My other son, I named him Jermaine because I’m a Jermaine Jackson fan. I have 200 CDs still. Oldies. Old soul.” And hip-hop, I ask? “I love hip-hop.” And your son’s hip-hop?

“He makes music, but not war music,” she says.” And, “long time, he makes no more music. I have his CDs. But that’s the past.”




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August 02, 2016
The Pop Star Of Jihad