Wives of IS Fighters A German Love Story Goes Awry in the 'Caliphate'

Marcel Mettelsiefen / DER SPIEGEL

By (Text) and Marcel Mettelsiefen (Photos) 

Part 2: 'I Made a Mistake'


In October 2014, German authorities saw online entries and photos in which Patrick pledged allegiance to IS and posed with his Kalashnikov. Their wanted notice said that the photos suggest K. "is in Syria and taking part in combat operations."

Elif claims her husband wasn't a real fighter. "Sometimes he was at Islamic events and filmed. Or kept watch." He never killed anyone? "No." Are you sure? "I know my husband." When the emir, which is to say one of the leaders of IS, gave Patrick orders to go into battle, she says he answered, "No, I can't. I'm afraid. My fitness isn't good." Then she claims the emir said: "OK, no problem, go home." It's impossible to verify whether this is true, as is the case with most of Elif's claims.

In Raqqa, Elif saw people who had been killed by IS on the street. She seems hesitant when she speaks about it: "I, for example, saw there was a body lying there. I didn't know that Islam allowed that. I simply looked away. When you see a lot of death, it becomes normal." The air raids bothered her. "Every time I heard the drone of the aircraft when I was in bed, I thought to myself, OK this will hit me now." She says Patrick pulled his blanket over his head. She thought, "OK, he's not doing well either, even though he's a man."

The months went by and Elif understood less and less what she was meant to be doing in Syria. "What am I doing here?" she says she asked her husband. "I'm not donating anything anymore. I'm doing nothing." She wanted to go home, but her husband said: "They don't allow that." He said she could try it, but the children would have to stay there. And that if she was caught, she would be killed. Elif stayed. She showed her son videos of German children's shows on the computer.

A Troubled Past

Patrick knows how to manipulate people. One man has a lot to say about the subject, given that he has known Patrick since he was a four-and-a-half-year-old boy. The man describes himself as a kind of father figure, lives in the region outside of Frankfurt and only wants to be known as J. He's a 76-year-old artist, a retiree who paints still-lifes of vases in his studio. The orphanage that housed Patrick since he was little still stands on the property where the man lives and works. Patrick often came into his apartment, and J. took the boy under his wing, going on trips with him to the museum.

But Patrick could also be a prickly kid, who didn't like to be hugged, says his father figure. He says the caregivers were overwhelmed by Patrick, that he beat up other children. When he was 15 years old, one of the caregivers moved to a French village with him for a half-year, during which he was meant to chop wood and run riot in the woods. His father figure gave him a camera. He shows the photos that Patrick took: a dog, a peacock, campfire, fog. "It was the best time of his life," J. says. "He always wanted to go back there."

Back in Germany, Patrick went on a rampage and cut classes. Again and again he tried and failed to establish contact with his biological father. When he was 17, the Youth Welfare Office provided him with an apartment. That's when things took a turn for the worse. He fell into debt and then turned to crime. When he was 18 or 19, he told his father figure during a car ride: "I've converted to Islam." J. was shocked, but says, "I thought that sounded good because there are rules."

Patrick stopped eating pork, prayed in the studio, and wore what he called a "theologian beard." J. drove him to a back-alley mosque in Solingen, where he then lived with a group of radical Salafists. He gave his father figure a copy of the Koran. He didn't read it, but the help he provided Patrick still knew no limits. He lent him a car and a computer. Because Patrick asked him to, J. painted IS flags on a canvas, which Patrick then later gave to his friends. J. didn't know what the symbol meant.

Suddenly Patrick told him that he was getting married. J. drove the couple to Ikea, to the supermarket, to the gynecologist with Elif when she was pregnant. He says she was hidden under a "black bag." He said she had a pleasant manner, a warm voice. "But I never saw her eyes." In Germany, the father figure sees Elif's face for the first time on a photo shown to him by the reporter. "She looks nice," he says. And he asks whether Patrick was violent, if she had said anything about that. She had not.

Elif met her parents a single time after her marriage, in Frankfurt, in the office of a lawyer, the father figure recalls. While it was happening, he says, he was driving in circles around the block. He remembers that their departure had taken place "very conspiratorially." He says Patrick had quickly gotten in the car with her because the parents supposedly wanted to keep her.

On May 5, 2012, a riot took place with Salafists in the Bad Godesberg district of the city of Bonn, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, during which two police officers were wounded with knives. Police officials say Patrick was also there that day. He was considered a "top level" person in "the Islamist spectrum" according to a memorandum written by local officials charged with monitoring and policing extremism, with "contacts in all different directions to numerous individuals who represent a potential threat." The father figure got paid a visit by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency.

In mid-2013, Patrick suddenly disappeared. A few weeks later, on June 27, he sent an email to his father figure: "I'm now in Turkey and will stay here for quite a while, if not forever. It would be nice if you could support me each month with a bit of shopping." He requested "face cream for babies," "two packets of oregano," two packages of french fry seasoning and five jars of mustard," as well as an "e-book reader" and "rye bread (vacuum packed)." It was to be dropped off at a mobile phone store in Herne, a city in Germany's Ruhr region.

Illustration: Simon Prades / DER SPIEGEL

The contact continued over the years. There are emails and chat transcripts in which they write about money, about the weather. Patrick didn't write about the dangers. He said people there lived in nicer apartments than in Germany, and drove better cars. The two of them never wrote about his location. In April 2015, Patrick wrote in an email, "Sometimes in Iraq sometimes in Libya sometimes in Nigeria, in Afghanistan Yemen Algeria Saudi Arabia sometimes in Syria. Wherever well-trained German killing machines are needed :)"

The final message arrived in August 2017 from Tall Afar. "The idiots are throwing around bombs like crazy." And: "This is the path that we chose for ourselves and we will take it to the end."

'Do We Look Like Extremists?'

A new day begins in the Iraqi camp. Elif steps out of her tent. She slept poorly and is tired.

"Do we look like extremists?" she asks. "Except for our clothing, we are totally normal people." And yes, she says she made a mistake when she went to Syria, but "without malicious intentions." Elif says she is sad about the people who died because of the airstrikes in IS territory. After the IS attacks in Europe, she asked herself: "Why are people making such a big deal of it when one or two people die? Here hundreds of people are dying every day. Why are they killing us?" In her view, it was the innocent IS that was being attacked.

Elif whitewashes things when she talks, perhaps also as a way of protecting herself. She claims that life for women in the "caliphate" wasn't so bad. "When you weren't properly dressed on the street, you were warned. Please don't wear such tight things. Please cover your eyes. But very politely, I think." She doesn't mention anything about the public floggings that took place under IS. But she does recount a stoning she witnessed when the family moved on to Tall Afar. A group of people had surrounded a woman who was supposedly guilty of "cheating" on her husband. The woman, she says, had voluntarily turned herself in. "She had regretted having committed the sexual offense and knew that she would be stoned," Elif says. Her explanation for the savage killing: "She probably wanted that because she had a bad conscience. She was married and could not keep living like that."

In Tall Afar, in northern Iraq, life was finally good after the stresses of Asas and Raqqa. She and Patrick had felt good, as if at home. Elif speaks in the present tense, as if she still hasn't registered that she's a prisoner.

"I've been living for two and a half years in Tall Afar," she says. "It is almost like Germany." She says they lived in a villa with a pool. Many inhabitants of Tall Afar had fled and left their property behind. "Nice, cold water -- like you get on vacation."

Elif gave birth to her third child here. She and her husband earned money by baking pizza at home. Elif put the ingredients on the dough in the kitchen while Patrick took care of the delivery to a bakery. On TV, they could watch ARD and ZDF, the two German public broadcasters, showing cooking shows and quiz programs. An almost German life.

But then came the airstrikes and their life in the "caliphate" suddenly ended, says Elif. "Faster than expected."

Four thousand kilometers from Elif's camp, a lonely man who has lost his child stands next to a highway. He doesn't want his identity or the place where he lives to be published. He believes the shame for his family is too great. He wants to remain nameless in this story. The man is an immigrant, he has worked hard his entire life to provide for his family. Since his daughter followed Patrick to Syria, he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and screams.

The man gets into the car and takes the reporter to his home. He is angry with his daughter. In the kitchen, he warms up rice and slices fruit. The house is orderly, with pretty vases and functional furnishings. He says Elif had a "clean heart," that she was naïve and never religious. "We barely noticed when she began slipping away from us." The next morning, when the father sits in a park, he calls Elif in the camp using the reporter's mobile phone.

The father runs to a lake with the mobile phone, a man alone in his world. He hears the voice of his daughter for the first time in five years. She tells him that she had gotten into a situation that she couldn't get out of. She hid herself in the camp's toilets to be able to talk. "Dad, I'd like to come back to Germany. I made a mistake." The father can still hear her voice in his ear for a long time afterward. Slowly, he starts to forgive her. A few days later, he carefully calls her, "my love."

Simon Prades/ DER SPIEGEL

Nobody knows if or when Elif will be able to return to Germany. She is being held without charges. So far, Iraq has insisted on dealing with cases like hers with legal proceedings. If it is proven that Elif fought for IS, she could face life imprisonment or death by hanging. If she is found not guilty, then she will be handed over to the German Embassy.

The German government is assuming that there will be some sort of deal with Iraq and that the IS wives will be able to return. The intelligence agencies are also asking themselves how radicalized and dangerous these women are. The women are likely to face charges in Germany for supporting a terrorist organization. However, that charge is a very difficult one to prove and it is likely that many of these women will not be punished.

In the camp, Elif has thought about a future in Germany. She says she wants to live with her parents. The children, she says, should go to school. She says it was a mistake to go to Syria. "I thought we were doing something that would be like a vacation. Because it's good for you to be someplace else for a change."

She says she doesn't know if her husband is still alive. She fears he died. Abdur Rahman, the eldest of her children, who lived in IS for four years, is doing gymnastics around his mother. "If you don't pray you go to hell, OK," he says. "And if you pray, you go to paradise, OK." Elif looks ashamed.

She still has the desire to help. "Maybe I can work with refugees in Germany," she says. She has heard there is great demand given that many of them have fled from Syria and Iraq. What she fails to mention, however, is that these people fled from a war that IS helped to bring to them.

On Sept. 18, a week after the meeting in the camp, the Iraqi government will bring Elif and her three children to a military prison near Tall Kaif, north of Mosul, where the IS wives are to be interrogated. On Wednesday, Elif's father speaks with her by mobile phone. He can barely hear her, but she says she's very afraid.

With additional reporting by Jörg Diehl, Matthias Gebauer and Rodi Hesen

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