Disillusionment in Afghanistan: The Fate of 11 Aspiring Jihadists from Germany

By Christoph Scheuermann and Andreas Ulrich

Part 2: Germans Experience Jihadist's Remorse

This screenshot from a propaganda video shows Shahab Dashti, one of the German Islamists. Zoom

This screenshot from a propaganda video shows Shahab Dashti, one of the German Islamists.

It isn't necessarily the case that the Islamic Jihad Union, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the other splinter groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan were eagerly awaiting these five men and two women from Hamburg, even if the new arrivals from Germany were highly motivated. One might ask what they could have done with a handful of guys who had led comfortable, fairly inactive lives in their German apartments. Bedridden, feverish and afflicted with diarrhea, they were probably more of a burden than a boon to jihad.

According to all accounts provided by those who have come back, when new would-be jihadists arrive, the Afghan commanders get particularly excited about one thing: their travel funds. Recruits are required to pay for their rifles and grenades out of their own pockets. And laptops, binoculars and warm jackets are happily accepted as tender. In other respects too, there tends to be a sharp contrast between the expectations that the two groups have for each other in the field.

'Beautiful and Loving Brotherhood'

The Islamists trickling out of Europe view Afghanistan as a subjugated land that can only be liberated from the grasp of imperialists with their help. For the group that left Hamburg in February and March 2009, Afghanistan was nothing less than a prelude to paradise, in which warriors and martyrs were required to prove their worth. And, at least in the early stages, the dust in their mouths still bore the taste of adventure.

On a video that can be viewed on YouTube, Shahab Dashti sits in front of a scrubland backdrop. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan put the film online on Oct. 3, 2009. For the shoot, Dashti had an AK-47 lying across his lap. In his left hand, he held a black sword, as he tried to describe all the benefits of life in the armed resistance in the rosiest terms possible.

"And another secret about jihad," Dashti says in the propaganda video, "is this powerful, indescribable, beautiful and loving brotherhood shared among the mujahideen, brothers from the most diverse countries -- from Russia, Morocco, Tunisia, China, Turkey, from Europe, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran -- all together in one dugout. Allah brought their hearts together."

Later in the video, Dashti's brothers in arms hop off a pick-up truck. They are smiling, happy men, and all of them appear to be wearing the same new model of ankle-high sneakers. Though their clothes might be covered in dust, at least their shoes will be sparkling white when they enter paradise.

Diminishing Enthusiasm

For the five men and two women from Hamburg, the jihadist lifestyle turned out to be harder -- and more expensive -- than they had anticipated. Before long, they had to pay for their own food and accommodation. With increasing frequency, their parents, relatives and friends would receive letters asking if they could perhaps send along €500 ($700).

Likewise, winters in the Hindu Kush region can get really cold. For days and weeks on end, the would-be jihadists had to do without meat, bathrooms and warm showers. And then they had to sit around with Uzbeks without being able to understand a single word they said. During their telephone calls and in their e-mails back home, they sounded less and less enthusiastic and more and more discouraged about waging jihad. Rami M., for example, the overweight one, would complain about having to march for long distances with a heavy weapon on his shoulder.

The first of the jihadi dropouts was the 23-year-old younger brother of Ahmad Sidiqi. Like Rami, he really wasn't much of a help to his comrades in arms. At the beginning of the year, he traveled back to Hamburg to stay with his parents, where he has been recovering from his exertions.

Spilling the Beans

And Sidiqi's brother wasn't the only one. After all the hardships, others from the original group also wanted to return to their comfortable former lives. In June, Pakistani police picked up Rami M. as he was making his way to the German Embassy in Islamabad. He was wearing a burqa as a disguise, and he had a broken leg. Rami M. is now back in Germany, where he is being held in the town of Weiterstadt in the state of Hesse. There, in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence, he has been eagerly sharing with investigators everything he knows about this exhausting war.

In July, the elder Sidiqi was arrested by US forces in Kabul. Once in captivity, he also started providing his interrogators with a wealth of details, including information about alleged meetings with high-ranking al-Qaida members. It is currently not clear whether he will be extradited to Germany.

According to reports from Pakistan, Shahab Dashti and Naamen Meziche were killed in a US drone attack on Mir Ali two weeks ago. The only people left from the original group are the two women, both of whom are now pregnant.

Alexander J. and Michael W., who never managed to join the other jihadists in the field, are still living in Hamburg. When asked whether he would be willing to speak about what he experienced on his journey, Michael W. said that he'd consider it -- for half a million euros.

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