Wives of IS Fighters
A German Love Story Goes Awry in the 'Caliphate'
Marcel Mettelsiefen / DER SPIEGEL
In this refugee camp south of Hamam al-Alil, Iraq, around 1,400 foreign wives and children of suspected Islamic State fighters are being held. Most had been captured together with their husbands in the city Tal Afar by the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Peshmerga then turned the women and children over to the Iraqi forces.
Marcel Mettelsiefen / DER SPIEGEL
The facility is surrounded by barbed wire and the women inside are prisoners of war.
Marcel Mettelsiefen / DER SPIEGEL
An aid organization has put up tents, and the exhausted women lie on mattresses and blankets inside. They all wear dark abayas, just as they did in IS-controlled territory.
Marcel Mettelsiefen / DER SPIEGEL
The camp for IS wives looks like an open-air prison, as large as a football field.
Marcel Mettelsiefen / DER SPIEGEL
The Kalashnikov-wielding Iraqi soldiers who guard the camp aren't shy about showing the hatred they feel for the prisoners.
Friday, 9/29/2017 05:34 PM
On Aug. 25, 2017, a blistering hot summer day in Iraq, Elif K., a 29-year-old Islamic State supporter from Germany, sent her last WhatsApp message from the "caliphate" to her family in Germany. The buildings around her were in flames, the roar of the attacking helicopters drowned out her words. Every explosion elicited a scream from her children. Elif was watching the world in which she had spent her last four years being destroyed. "Our life," she thought to herself, "is coming to an end."
Elif is a shy woman with hazelnut-brown eyes who loves cooking and watching quiz shows. Since exchanging small-town life in Germany for Islamic State, she found adventure and established a family. She learned what it felt like to be on the receiving end of airstrikes, taking shelter under her bed hundreds of times -- praying, crying and wondering what death might feel like.
That day, she wrote to her father: "Hello dad, we are doing fine. I'm not far from Tal Afar. I will soon have to be taken to Syria because they are bombing the city to pieces. I don't know if I will make it to age 30. I'll get in touch after I arrive." Then, as if to spell out her own focus for the last several years, she sent a second brief message: "Read the Koran."
Elif threw some clothes together, grabbed her mobile phone and the children and ran out of the house. Out front, her husband was lying in the street. A shell had exploded next to him and he had suffered serious head injuries. His body was red and swollen.
"Hamzi," she called out, using her pet name for him. But Patrick, her husband and the father of her children, the man for whom she had moved to IS territory, an internationally wanted jihadi, didn't react.
She says that he was alive, but he could no longer move. "He looked unemotional," she says quietly. "He was just lying there." She left him behind and IS men led her and her children out of the city, which was conquered a short time later by Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi army.
Elif tells the story of her flight from the "caliphate" while crouched on a step in a prison camp that the Iraqi government has established for IS wives and their children. Elif is a delicate and pale woman, her body covered in a dark blue abaya. Her face is framed by a black veil. One of the temples of her eyeglasses is broken, but she hardly notices. Elif is a prisoner of war. Following the fall of Tal Afar, she was brought here by Iraqi security forces along with 1,400 other women and children.
"I don't really know how I'm doing," she says. "I'm very confused. The battle for Tal Afar was the worst thing I have ever experienced. The shelling."
Simon Prades/ DER SPIEGEL
Her 2-year-old son Abdul Wadud throws his arms around her. His blond head seems large compared to his undernourished body. "He has a bump that won't go away," Elif says. Her daughter Maryam, who is three, is wearing a dirty dress. She rubs her eyes, but doesn't talk. Her oldest child, 5-year-old Abdur Rahman, has leishmaniasis, a parasitic skin disease, and oozing abscesses cover his arms.
"Men threw a rocket on my daddy. My daddy is sick," he says. "My daddy is bleeding." He sounds almost grown up, as though he were explaining something.
Elif looks younger than her age, a function of her girlish appearance but also of her simple manner of speaking. She wonders why she's being held. "Why don't they let us go? We don't have anything to do with it."
This is the story of a young woman who fell in love with a man and followed him to Islamic State in Syria. It is the story of Elif and Patrick, of their portentous liaison and of a momentous illusion.
Elif's name and biographical details have been altered for the purpose of this story to protect her family. The Foreign Ministry in Berlin is also aware of her case.
'We Would Kill These Women'
The camp in which Elif finds herself locked up in early September is in Hammam al-Alil, a dusty town in northern Iraq, famous for its springs. It isn't far from Tal Afar, the city from which Elif had to flee. The camp for IS wives looks like an open-air prison, as large as a football field and surrounded by barbed wire. The 1,400 women and children here are from Turkey, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but also from as far afield as China, France and Germany. An aid organization has put up tents, and the exhausted women lie on mattresses and blankets inside. They all wear dark abayas, just as they did in IS-controlled territory.
The Kalashnikov-wielding Iraqi soldiers who guard the camp aren't shy about showing the hatred they feel for the prisoners. One guard says: "We would kill these women if the international aid workers weren't here." It took hours for them to agree to allow DER SPIEGEL to interview Elif, and they interrupted several times during the discussion. They refused to allow pictures.
Elif wants to tell her story. She is hoping for help. All she wants is to return home, to be free and light like she used to be.
The camp is chaotic, but Elif seems calm, almost apathetic. She nurses her youngest son as she tells her story -- and no matter how often she is bothered by the soldiers, she reacts with resignation. Abdur Rahman, her oldest son, stares after a man in the camp, one of the Iraqi soldiers. "Hey, daddy," he calls. "Daddy? Heyyy daddy!"
Soon, Islamic State's military defeat in Iraq will be complete. At that point, the focus will shift to retribution and reconciliation, not just in Iraq but also in the countries IS followers used to call home.
German officials believe that around 70 German wives of IS fighters are still in Iraq. In total, around 940 Islamists from Germany traveled to Syria and Iraq, most of them Muslims from immigrant families. More than half of them are still overseas, but many would like to return. And what should Germany do about the wives? How much guilt do the women bear? And what about the children, who are the victims of their parents actions?
France and other countries have provided data to Iraq about citizens of theirs who traveled to the region to join IS, primarily out of domestic-security concerns, in the hopes that they will be tried in Iraq. German officials, by contrast, are worried about extra-judicial executions -- or even show trials, should Iraq be eager to show how many foreigners supported IS. Membership in a terrorist organization is punishable by death in Iraq. Just a few weeks ago, Baghdad opened proceedings against 16-year-old IS-supporter Linda W. from Saxony, who was arrested a few weeks ago in Mosul.
Elif K. wonders what is going to happen to her and the children. "I always wanted to complete my university studies," she says. She was born to an immigrant couple in a small German town and a university degree would have been a significant achievement. She grew up in a row-house with a small yard, a neat and tidy world. She would vacation with her family on the seaside, where they once even stayed in a five-star hotel. Elif loved the beach and the all-you-can-eat buffet. "But I never took more than my fair share," she says. It is the kind of thing she says often: It's important to her to emphasize that she always obeyed the rules.
When she was younger, Elif had the same friends as her siblings, made frequent visits to the fitness studio and enjoyed shopping with pals. She didn't drink or smoke. She was a girl who wanted to be good and her parents always knew where she was. But Elif wasn't a good student and says that her siblings were always better at everything. Still, she managed to finish school and even went to university for a couple of semesters. When she talks about it, she sounds as though she spent her life being what she thought she should be.
Elif grew up in a Muslim household, but religion played no role in her upbringing. And she wasn't particularly interested in Islam either -- at least until 2011, when she met a new set of friends and the man who would take her to another world. In the city where she went to university, she met young women from Morocco and Pakistan. One of them introduced her to Patrick K., a young German man of her age who had converted to Islam.
Elif says that she found him physically attractive, that he was her type. She can't explain more precisely why she fell in love with him. At first, she felt bad for him. He had grown up in an orphanage, had never seen his mother, his father never looked after him. They got to know each other better online. Before their first date they exchanged a few questions over a messenger program.
How did you join Islam?
What is your education level?
What do you do for work?
Why would you like to marry?
How do you imagine a marriage?
Which qualities should a woman have? When would you like children?
"Totally normal questions," she says.
Elif explains how she rediscovered the Koran. "The verses went directly into my heart." Her favorite sura, she says, is No. 56. In it, the believers are divided into three groups -- with the lucky on the right side, the unlucky on the left side and then the foremost. The "foremost"? "The foremost are those who will be placed close to Allah in the Gardens of Bliss." She says: "I always wanted to be one of the foremost." Patrick's favorite sura, she says, was No. 78. It is, she explains, about revenge and punishment but also about a "triumph" for the "righteous," with "walled gardens and grape vines, and young maidens of equal age, and overflowing cups."
She didn't wait long to get married. Elif was 23. That same year, they slaughtered a sheep, but only invited his friends to the celebration. Elif stopped her studies and moved in with him. Patrick isolated her from her family. "I was suddenly always at home. I wanted to see my parents, but that wasn't allowed." She was forbidden from making contact. One year later, she gave birth to their first child, Abdur Rahman.
A Journey into War
Elif likes talking about her life before IS and often says how good her parents and siblings were. She sounds like someone who doesn't understand her current situation -- a bit disoriented, like a person used to taking orders. She says Patrick's work consisted of cooking at Muslim celebrations. In the evenings, they watched videos of the people suffering in Syria. They went to benefits organized by a group called Helfen in Not, or help in need. The intelligence agencies suspect the group supports jihadi organizations.
"The videos personally really spoke to me," Elif says. "I wanted to do something." She says she asked her friends for donations. "And then came this thing, that we flew to Syria." Employees of the group, she says, brought the couple and their son to the airport in the summer of 2013. They traveled to Turkey, to Gaziantep at the Syrian border.
Elif was four months pregnant when she walked over the green border with her suitcase. "I wasn't planning on staying long," she says. "I wasn't very worried that, for example, that they would shoot rockets."
They arrived in the city of Asas near the Turkish border. The IS controlled the city at the time. "They were very nice and were happy that we had come to help," says Elif. An apartment was prepared. They didn't pay any rent.
But they had arrived in the war. At the time, Asas was embattled. Elif says she wanted to go home once she figured this out. Patrick answered: "You just arrived, stay, it's far away." She complied, and they stayed half a year in Asas. "There were dead, battles, shots fired. From the start, I didn't really like it there," says Elif. She says she spent a lot of time at home because she was pregnant. Her daughter came into the world in December 2013, in a birthing center. Patrick was very happy about the child. Becoming pregnant was one of the duties of the women in the "caliphate," because it needed subjects.
When IS lost ground in Asas, women and children were brought to Raqqa, the unofficial Syrian capital of the "caliphate." There, Elif lived in an abandoned villa with her children and other families in the winter of 2014. They waited for Patrick, who stayed behind to defend the city. When he arrived, the family moved into different housing. She didn't like Raqqa. "Nowhere else was that bad," she says.
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