Terrorist Bookkeepers New Documents Help Identify Islamic State Returnees
It isn't always easy for European authorities to prove that returning jihadists fought for Islamic State. But a new data leak from the terror organization could help. SPIEGEL has seen the books kept by IS bureaucrats.
In July 2014, Muhammed H., from the German city of Wuppertal, apparently decided to leave territory under the control of Islamic State after a stay of one month. His decision was duly processed by the IS bureaucracy and his file was updated accordingly.
The terror officials noted both his real name and his nom de guerre ("Ismail al-Almani" or Ismail the German). In addition, the officials noted that H. had served the terror group as a "fighter" and that he was leaving IS territory via the city of Jarabulus; the reason for his return was listed as "family." They returned his passport to him and then he was free to go.
His file, though, stayed behind with IS. For a time, at least.
The word "state" in the terror group's name is no accident: IS seeks to establish a country-like entity and the group's followers dream of a caliphate. A corollary of that desire is the maintenance of an IS bureaucracy that keeps what seem to be halfway decent records. But for supporters of the militia, this urge to play state could have unpleasant consequences. Recently, exit forms such as the one filled out upon the departure of Muhammed H. have been smuggled out of Islamic State territory and have ended up in the hands of German security officials. SPIEGEL and SPIEGEL TV have obtained a significant trove of these explosive records in Arabic. In total, they provide information about some 400 jihadists who have left IS territory, including around 20 Germans.
Many of these IS personnel files specify why jihadists left the group's territory. Most often, family or medical reasons are noted, but other entries sound more ominous. IS bureaucrats wrote "secret mission" on the form of one man who could be German but whose identity hasn't yet been firmly established. "Skills: Murder," the form reads.
The discovery of the files has provided investigators with important evidence. German federal prosecutors are currently pursuing more than 130 cases in connection with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, with an additional 50 having been referred to state prosecutors. The numbers are unprecedented, but it has been difficult for justice officials to prove wrongdoing. It is, after all, impossible to question witnesses, carry out raids or monitor telephones in the warzones. As such, it is often difficult to obtain evidence that will stand up in a court of law.
But the newly discovered IS files could now help investigators prove that returning jihadists were indeed members of a terrorist organization.
Wife on a Chain
Some of the extremists named in the papers currently remain at large. Security officials are keeping a close eye on them because they are considered dangerous. But it isn't possible to arrest many of them because investigators haven't thus far been able to prove their Islamic State membership. In several instances, including that of Muhammed H., officials didn't even know prior to the discovery of the files if they had really been in Syria and joined Islamic State.
Following his return from jihad, Muhammed H., 20, didn't act as though he sought to avoid attention. In early 2015, he led his wife on a chain through Wuppertal, with one end of the chain around his spouse's wrist, the other -- as can be seen on photos in his case file -- affixed to his backpack. His wife was completely veiled.
On a Wednesday in July, reporters from SPIEGEL TV approached Muhammed H. on the street, a muscular man with a beard and a cap. His appearance was reminiscent of those seen on Islamist propaganda videos: arrogant and resolute. When asked if he had been with IS, H. answered brusquely: "You're lying. You are a liar. I don't want anything to do with you." He then walked away.
H. was on the way to visit an apartment he was hoping to rent for himself and his wife -- an affordable three-room place with a kitchen and a bathroom. During his apartment search, he had told other landlords in the town of Ennepetal, just outside Wuppertal, that he and his wife were both on welfare.
In his father's apartment, H. is thought to have established a kind of living-room mosque with other radicals. One senior security official says that H. is extremely well connected and is one of the "key figures in the scene." He says H. is "completely unpredictable."
H. is part of the second generation of the notorious Islamist scene in the Wuppertal region -- a scene that once formed around the Salafist group Millatu Ibrahim, which was banned in 2012. The group produced the German-speaking IS propagandists Christian Emde and Mohammed Mahmoud in addition to the formerly Berlin-based rapper Denis Cuspert, now an IS poster boy. The first German to carry out a suicide attack for Islamic State -- Robert B., who killed 50 people in the Syrian province of Homs -- likewise belonged to the group.
No Incriminating Contacts
Police believe that Muhammed H. could be capable of carrying out an attack at any time and is classified as a so-called "endangerer," denoting someone who could pose a security risk. Federal and state police officials currently list around 500 Islamists in this highest risk category and they are monitored as intensively as possible. Around half of them are currently in Germany.
Last August, H. tried to travel to Syria once again, but federal police stopped him and his wife at the Düsseldorf airport before they could board a flight to Istanbul. Investigators believe that they were planning to make their way to Islamic State-held territory. Wuppertal security officials established a task force to investigate Muhammed H. -- which they named "Chain" in reference to his walk through Wuppertal with his manacled wife.
H. was kept in investigative custody for a month after his detention, but officials ultimately had to let him go because they were unable to come up with proof that he had really been intending to travel to Syria. His telephone and computer produced no evidence -- no incriminating contacts, messages or chat protocols. He also wasn't found to be in possession of any compromising documents. "He is clever, there is no doubt," says one investigator familiar with the case.
Since then, H., a German of Turkish origin, has been free and has remained so despite the discovery of the Islamic State files. One reason is that officials are currently in the process of determining whether the files are authentic. Terror investigations must meet high legal standards and Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) is carefully examining the IS lists and how they got to Germany. "Much of the data is plausible and consistent with what we know," says BKA head Holger Münch. "That would seem to indicate that the material is authentic." But investigators must prove that the files are real; it's not enough that they look real. Otherwise, the documentation won't hold up in court.
The documents originally came through the black market on the Turkish-Syrian border, a place where antiquities, drugs and oil are secretly brought into Turkey from areas under Islamic State control. Files, too, are among the goods smuggled, and not all of them are authentic.
This spring, a massive IS data leak became apparent. Thousands of digital personnel files found their way from the IS to Turkey and were sold for significant amounts of money to journalists, agents and activists. In some instances, files from different batches were pulled apart, newly packaged and changed. In the process, there were frequent data transfer errors, with names and dates sometimes being changed. That makes the data even more difficult to deal with for German officials.
One informant who is well networked in Syria says that the IS fighter responsible for the data leak wasn't fully aware of the importance of the data he passed along. It was, the informant says, a Syrian rebel who ultimately recognized the value of the files and bought almost 50,000 data files. SPIEGEL received them through an intermediary. Other media outlets, too, have examined elements of the data trove, most of which were entry forms kept by the terror militia. Islamic State didn't just interview foreign volunteers when they left IS territory, but also interrogated them upon arrival in Syria and kept records of their answers.
For security officials, the departure records that have now appeared will likely be of particular significance, because they could provide additional information about who has returned to his home country and when. Of the 800 German Islamists who traveled to Syria and Iraq, for example, around one-third have returned to Germany.
One of those is Lennart M., a married watch-maker who fought for Islamic State. That, at least, is what it says in his IS file. He lives in a neighborhood behind the Hamburg airport, an area that, with its subterranean garages and broad balconies, looks like a showcase for social housing. There is designer garden furniture on his ground-floor terrace.
A social welfare recipient in Germany, M. crossed into Islamic State-held territory in Syria on May 17, 2014, according to the IS files. As a deposit, M. handed over his passport, two iPads and an iPhone. The electronic devices remained behind when he left IS territory again that summer.
SPIEGEL approached M. in Hamburg on a recent Ramadan evening shortly before 8 p.m., about two hours before it was time to break the fast. The 23-year-old M. was walking to the subway. "You're allowed to travel abroad," he said, when confronted with his IS file. "There's nothing wrong with it." He added: "That's a fake."
It is thought that M. became radicalized via contacts in the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement, a group that emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has been banned in Germany since 2003, but has continued operating underground and its aim is that of establishing a caliphate.
Names, Nicknames and Nationalities
A veiled woman peaked out from behind the curtains of M.'s apartment, likely his 19-year-old wife Betül. She is known to the authorities because she asked a passerby in Duisburg to borrow his mobile phone two years ago. The man informed the police because something didn't seem right to him about the girl in the veil. Later, her parents lodged a criminal complaint, saying that their daughter was being held against her will, but the complaint went nowhere. Lennart M.'s presumed involvement with the IS terror group has likewise not resulted in his arrest.
IS collected information about those returning home in Word documents. The files now in circulation were compiled between the end of 2013 and spring 2015 and are named after months in the Islamic calendar: Rajab, for example, the seventh month, or Ramadan, the ninth month. Up to 62 Islamists are listed per month, with their names, nicknames and nationalities recorded in various fields, in addition to other information.
The data isn't just of interest to security officials the world over, but also for researchers. A team under the leadership of Bryan Price, at the West Point military academy in the US state of New York, was the first to systematically analyze the Islamic State files. The team examined the IS entry forms of 4,173 foreign fighters that US broadcaster NBC made available to the researchers.
"If we are going to effectively combat our enemies, we must understand them first," says Lieutenant Colonel Price, who is the head of the donation-funded research institute Combating Terrorism Center (CTC). The research team examined the information provided by the jihadists, most of whom traveled to Syria in 2014, upon their arrival in the war zone. They compared their origins, age, education background, religious knowledge and skills.
"The diversity in all areas is of particular interest," says Price. "From teenagers to people in their sixties, from the uneducated to university graduates, there are people from all walks of life." Many in the West, he says, hold the cliché that only frustrated, single men are interested in joining IS. That, though, says Price, is inaccurate. The myth of a state based on Islamist principles -- one which also needs educated members -- exerts a powerful attraction on educated sympathizers as well, Price says.
He says that IS also possesses the ability to learn and adapt quickly. In contrast to previous groups, the terror organization has a personnel management system worthy of the name, Price says, adding that IS officials make special note on the forms of exceptional skills or knowledge exhibited by the recruits.
"Especially interesting for IS bureaucrats seem to have been people who had military and hacking experience, in addition to people with visas for Western countries," says Brian Dodwell, an IS specialist at CTC. Indeed, it looks as though Islamic State was already planning attacks by those returning to their homelands at a time when Western security officials still believed such attacks were unlikely in Europe.
Among recruits traveling to IS-held territories from Germany, CTC researchers noted a stark lack of religious knowledge. That likely also holds true of Sinan A., a Turkish German whose name can be found in the IS files. The 27-year-old is currently being tried in Berlin for alleged membership in the terror group Deutsche Taliban Mujahedeen. The group was close to the Taliban and was active on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border several years ago.
Until recently, officials only had vague indications that A. may have made his way at some point in 2014 from Waziristan to Turkey and then onward to Syria. In September 2015, he reported to a German consulate in Turkey and was arrested on Dec. 18 that year after he landed at Tegel Airport in Berlin.
The recently discovered IS document pertaining to Sinan A.'s departure from Islamic State-held territory indicates that he belonged to the militia for two months in the early summer of 2014. IS bureaucrats noted the reason for his departure as "therapy." The entry has proven helpful to investigators, who now have an additional piece of evidence in their attempt to convict A. Whether he sought out therapy upon his return is unclear.