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

A student from Germany followed her husband to Syria to join Islamic State. Now the 29 year old is stuck in an Iraqi army camp for prisoners of war with her three children as she awaits her fate: either a return to Germany or draconian punishment.

Marcel Mettelsiefen / DER SPIEGEL

By (Text) and Marcel Mettelsiefen (Photos) 


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.

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