More Pistols than Pampers: Disillusioned German Islamists Abandoning Jihad

By Oezlem Gezer and Holger Stark in Istanbul

More than 200 Islamists are believed to have left Germany to join the jihad in Pakistan. But, after learning what life there is really like, many of them are abandoning the cause and heading home -- right into the unwelcoming arms of the law.

Istanbul's Kumkapi neighborhood is normally the kind of place where belly dancers can be found gyrating their hips in front of drunk patrons. For Peter B., who is currently locked up in a cell in Kumkapi, it's the place where God is testing him for paradise.

The Turkish prison for detainees awaiting deportation is a beige, sandstone building. Surveillance cameras monitor the three floors, and guards armed with submachine guns are posted at the entrance. In a room on the ground floor, Peter B. is kneeling on white tiles in front of his 3-year-old son, Uwais. The boy asks his father: "Why did the police arrest you?" Stroking his father's face, he adds: "If you pray a lot, they'll let you out."

An armed guard monitors the family reunion behind bars. Peter B. places his hand on his son's neck and recites a verse from the Koran. It's meant to protect him from shaitan, the devil. "I left Pakistan so that my children's brains wouldn't be numbed," he says. He was disappointed by his fellow Muslims, whose video messages had lured him to Waziristan, a mountainous part of the Hindu Kush region and a stronghold of the Taliban and al-Qaida.

They had promised that there would be schools and hospitals there, he says, adding: "You trust your brothers, and you think they don't lie." He raises his left eyebrow and says: "There was nothing there except flying drones."

A Reversing Trend

For years, the mountainous region straddling the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seemed like a mecca of sorts for militants. More than 200 volunteers left Germany, traveling alone or with their families, headed for Waziristan. Those who had gone first then appeared in Internet videos to recruit more volunteers. They promised a paradise on earth, or at least a precursor to it. For German law-enforcement officials, the combatants were a nightmare, and they were viewed as the biggest threat to domestic security.

But this trend has been reversing itself for some time now. The number of volunteers is declining, while the number of those making the journey back home is growing.

Living conditions in the mountains are tougher than portrayed in the promotional clips. Death is constantly raining down from the sky in the form of missiles from American drones. A dozen combatants from Germany have already died.

The routes back home generally pass through Turkey and the hub of Istanbul. The Turkish, American and German intelligence officers packed into the metropolis have made it one of the most heavily monitored locations in the world. They are all trying to keep track of who is coming and who is going.

Thomas U., who once posed as a combatant in a propaganda film, was arrested in Istanbul. Berlin native Fatih T., believed to be the head of the German Taliban Mujahedeen splinter group, was arrested in early June.

The most recent suspected jihadist to be taken into custody was Peter B., after the public prosecutor's office in the southwestern German city of Stuttgart issued a warrant for his arrest. B. stands accused of being a member of a criminal organization and having recruited combatants for jihad. Turkish counterterrorism agents arrested B. on June 27, and he was extradited to Germany at the beginning of last week.

Landing on Law Enforcement's Radar

The journey of Peter B. and his wife is typical for a generation of young Muslims who became radicalized in Germany, went off to war and are now ending up in the clutches of the authorities.

Peter B., 31, goes by his Islamic name "Ammar." In an Internet video, he explained that he had converted to Islam after the death of a friend. He worked in a cell-phone store and was taking classes at night to earn the degree that would qualify him to attend university. At the time he was living in Ulm, where a vibrant radical scene had developed. Local Islamists met at the "Ulm Islamic Information Center," where B. was the group's secretary and treasurer.

In 2004, the public prosecutor's office in Munich launched a preliminary investigation against B. on suspicion of forming a criminal organization and recruiting combatants. At issue was an Islamist publication called Think Islamic, for which B. had served as an editor. The authorities claimed that the pamphlet condoned the use of violence to achieve political goals. B. was one of those targeted for prosecution, but the charges against him were eventually dropped. B. claims that he had only engaged in dawah, or proselytizing for Islam.

But then B.'s name turned up in the investigation against the so-called Sauerland Cell, a group of terrorists who were preparing an attack in Germany. One of the defendants was driving B.'s Mercedes, and police found a bug detector while searching the vehicle. From then on, B. was mentioned in the files as a "contact," but investigators were still unable to prove that he had anything more than a casual acquaintance with the would-be terrorists.

B. was apparently walking a fine line, maintaining relationships with both militant and peaceful Muslims. But now Germany's Federal Prosecutor's Office was looking into potential charges against B. for supporting a terrorist organization.

The details that Ahmad Sidiqi gave German police are more serious. In 2010, the US military detained Sidiqi, a German of Afghan descent who lived in Hamburg, in Kabul. Sidiqi claimed that Peter B. had originally intended to join the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, but that Sidiqi had dissuaded him from doing so. According to Sidiqi, Peter B., Fatih T. and a German of Turkish descent had spent a night in his house in Mir Ali, the unofficial capital of Waziristan, where pistols and AK-47s are part of everyday life.

Running Scared

In the Istanbul deportation center, B. kneels on the floor while telling his side of the story. The long beard he is seen wearing in the wanted photos has been replaced by stubble. Speaking softly, he says: "I love the mujahedeen, but I didn't have anything to do with these organizations."

A short walk from B.'s cell, his wife Sara, 23, is sitting in the courtyard of the Fatih Mosque. It's in an orthodox Islamic neighborhood of Istanbul known as "Little Iran." The women wear the full facial veil known as the niqab, and the men wear the ankle-length robe known as the jalabiya. Sara likes it here. "I don't like to see so much skin," she says, as she breast-feeds her daughter beneath her garments.

Her husband claims that the German arrest warrant drove them from Egypt, where they were living in an isolated housing complex in Alexandria, to the Hindu Kush region. B. says that he had only learned about the arrest warrant when they were in Egypt. "I'm only human, and I was scared," he says, noting that they fled that very night.

"The first time I heard about going to Pakistan, my eyes almost popped out of my head," Sara says. "I didn't even know if you could get Pampers there."

No Place Like Home

B. says that Waziristan is the only place where German arrest warrants carry no weight. "I wanted to live an Islamic life there," he says. He describes the first few months as harsh. He and his family moved into an apartment upon arrival, but it wasn't long before they were kicked out by al-Qaida members, allegedly because "Ammar" had refused to join the combatants.

There are 30 different organizations in the area, B. says, and they are all at loggerheads. The family was forced to sleep on the street for days. But then salvation arrived in the form of money from his mother in Germany. He bought a mud house for €350 ($430) and a motorcycle for €450. Their new world was surrounded by a stone wall.

When they felt homesick, they took a walk to the "euro shops" in town that sell German products, such as Nutella, Nivea styling mousse and hot chocolate for the children -- and Pepsi. When B. thinks about it, he remembers how the girl in the shop explained to him that a Pepsi cost 20 rupees. "First, she counted with her fingers, then with her toes," he says. "I didn't want my son to be that stupid."

When a faucet breaks in Waziristan, B. says, it stays broken. When the bus is supposed to arrive at 8 a.m., it never shows up. "They simply have no organizational system like we do," he explains. Once, he adds, he took Sara along to the bazaar. For days afterwards, the neighbors needled him for allowing his wife to leave the house. B. says that his wife isn't an animal, something to be locked up. They felt uncomfortable in the town, but they still stayed for a year. "If you want to leave right away, they'll think you're a spy," he says.

In and around Mir Ali, the quiet hissing of drones was an everyday part of life. When the missiles struck in the distance, they could see a cloud of smoke. When a missile struck the building next door, the earth shook. When that happened, B. would rush out to help the victims, and when he returned he would describe scenes of severed arms and legs, and of orphaned children wandering aimlessly through narrow alleys. B. had trouble sleeping, and when his wife sifted flour during the day to remove the mealworms, she often thought about what would happen if a drone took her husband or children away.

At the time, Sara was seven months' pregnant. B. took her to a place they called the hospital. The maternity ward was a long hallway with open doors and screaming women, where amniotic fluid mixed with blood and feces was washed into an open gutter. "It was like the Middle Ages," Sara says. "When I saw it, I swore to myself that I wasn't going to give birth to a child there."

Escape and Extradition

Shortly before the birth -- and despite the arrest warrant -- the couple decided to leave Waziristan. Their journey home began in a rickety minibus used by drug smugglers. Sara describes the experience as involving "pot-smoking, foul-smelling men who treated us like sacks of flour and ignored the prayer times." Then came the trek on foot through the Iranian mountains and the birth of her youngest daughter, Shaheeda ("martyr"), just across the Iranian border.

B. didn't want to return to Germany, where he feared that people would shout "terrorist" or "penguin" at his wife if she walked through the supermarket in her veil. "I don't want to be a problem for Germany," he says, "nor do I want Germany to be a problem for me."

While in detention in Istanbul, B. hired attorneys and signed a petition requesting that the United Nations block his extradition to Germany -- but to no avail. Last Monday, the Turkish authorities put him on a flight to Frankfurt. His wife and the children followed behind two days later. B. is now in prison awaiting trial -- or freedom, of course, if there is insufficient evidence to file charges against him.

In Waziristan, he promised his wife that if they ever lived in Germany again, they would fly to the Maldives. He calls the island nation in the Indian Ocean the most beautiful place after Mecca. And, of course, after paradise.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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