For years, the hands of the militant who called himself “Abu Talha Al-Almani” still bore the black ink reminders of his former life.
“STR8,” read one tattoo. “Thug,” read the other.
“This is from the days when I lived the life of an unbeliever,” Denis Cuspert, a German rapper who became an Islamic State recruiter, told the New York Times in 2011. “Allah will erase them from me one day.”
Cuspert was killed this month in a U.S. airstrike in Syria, CNN and other outlets reported Thursday. At the time of his death, he was a German-language recruiter for Islamic State and “a willing pitchman for [Islamic State] atrocities,” according to a State Department release designating him a terrorist.
“Cuspert is emblematic of the type of foreign recruit ISIL seeks for its ranks – individuals who have engaged in criminal activity in their home countries who then travel to Iraq and Syria to commit far worse crimes against the people of those countries,” the State Department release said.
He often appeared in, and sometimes sang for, the group’s slickly produced videos. In one, he splashes water at some unidentified stream, smiling like a man on a camping trip. In another, he clutches a severed head.
The evolution of “Deso Dogg,” the hip-hop star with a chip on his shoulder, into “Abu Talha Al-Almani,” a militant with blood on his hands and an airstrike’s terrorist target is less unlikely than it sounds. Like so many of Islamic State’s western recruits, Cuspert was simultaneously disaffected and indignant, the survivor of a troubled upbringing and a tumultuous adulthood who saw something in jihad — faith, fulfillment, the promise of redemption — he lacked at home.
Home, for Cuspert, was Berlin, where he was raised by a German mother and an American stepfather, a U.S. army veteran. His father, who was Ghanaian, left when Cuspert was a baby, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported.
After clashing with his stepfather, Cuspert was sent to a home for difficult children for five years. He also spent time at a farm in Namibia set up to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents.
Cuspert often felt alienated in Germany, even as a child.
“I grew up with racism,” he told the New York Times in 2011. “Though my mother is German, some teachers back then would call me ‘Negro’ and treat all Muslim kids bad.”
In search of an identity, he joined youth gangs with other children of immigrants. Politics also gave him purpose — during the run-up to the Gulf War in the 1990s and again before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Cuspert’s was a frequent face at Berlin demonstrations. His outrage over American foreign policy didn’t help Cuspert’s relationship with his stepfather.
Rap gave him another outlet. Cuspert released his first album in 1995 and he took the name “Deso Dogg” a few years later — “Deso” was short for “Devil’s son.” By the late 2000s he was touring with the rapper DMX and his music was being featured on German TV.
And then Cuspert found God.
It’s not clear whether Cuspert had been born Muslim — roughly 15 percent of Islamic State’s European recruits are converts. But regardless of his previous exposure to the faith, it’s clear that his interest in Islam took a sudden, extreme turn around 2010, just after he was reportedly in a life threatening car accident.
According to Der Spiegel, Cuspert’s career was flagging at that time, and friends said he seemed to be suffering from psychotic episodes. He got into martial arts, but found failure there too. Religion was “an opportunity to press the reset button,” the newspaper said. “Cuspert had sinned a lot. He liked the idea of starting over again.”
Soon after, Cuspert appeared in an online video with Pierre Vogel, an Islamic preacher looking to recruit rappers for his religious message.
“Let me suggest that you look for a different occupation,” Vogel told Cuspert, according to Der Spiegel.
In the next video, Cuspert was calling himself Abu Malik and inviting his audience to a retreat at a mosque.
“I’ll be there, too,” he said. “A weekend without disco, without fun, for a change.” He paused, then corrected himself: “You can also have fun here. It’s time for you to learn something, for yourself, for your soul, for your heart.”
Within months, Cuspert/Abu Malik had become one of Germany’s best-known singers of nasheeds, or religious songs. They brought him a following he never found in hip hop, and, in March 2011, they also brought him the scrutiny of the German government.
On March 2, 2011, a 21-year-old immigrant from Kosovo named Arid Uka fatally shot two American soldiers at the Frankfurt airport. Just before the attack, Uka wrote on his Facebook page: “I love you for Allah, Abu Malik.” And at his trial, the Times reported, Uka said that he listened to nasheeds like Cuspert’s on his way to the airport.
“It made me really angry,” Uka told the judge at his trial.
Cuspert denied any connection to Uka at the time, though he said he supported the shooting. German law enforcement banned his videos and tried to imprison Cuspert for his advocacy of violence, but were never able to get enough evidence to arrest him, according to the Times.
By 2012, he was gone. In a final video before departing for Syria, Cuspert sat on the banks of the Rhine and announced that Germany was about to become a war zone, Der Spiegel reported.
That’s the year Cuspert joined Islamic State, the State Department says, and became one of the group’s most effective German-language recruiters.
“Brothers,” he said in the 2013 video by the stream, in which he splashed and smiled, “I call you to jihad! This is where you will find freedom!” Gunfire popped in the background, and he laughed. “You can really live here. It’s fun here. Jihad is a lot of fun!”
Like so many of Islamic State’s other online pitchmen, Cuspert’s background — as a musician and as a Westerner — was part of his appeal for the group. In a video posted this April, he rapped over grisly footage of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive, according to the Daily Beast.
“In France deeds were done, in Germany the sleepers are waiting. We want your blood,” he said, in a song encouraging European followers to conduct attacks in their own countries.
“Cuspert was a foreign terrorist fighter and operative for ISIL who used social media to take advantage of disaffected youth and potential Western recruits,” Elissa Smith, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, told Buzzfeed in an email.
She said that Cuspert was killed in Raqqa, the northern city that has effectively become the Islamic State’s capital in Syria, on Oct. 16.