Masoud's Revenge Syrian Refugee Helps Germans Hunt Down IS

As a prisoner of Islamic State in Syria, journalist Masoud Aqil suffered torture and death threats. Now in Germany, he is helping law enforcement officials hunt down former IS members who came to Europe as refugees.

Masoud Aqil

Masoud Aqil

By Jonas Breng


At the climax of the hunt -- one which was to give Masoud Aqil his freedom back -- he clenches his fists and holds his breath in dread. Aqil is hiding in the parking lot of an industrial park in Bavaria and he carefully peers out onto the street from between the cars. On the right, he can see the refugee hostel, on the left, a shoe store. On the street in between, a man is approaching on a bicycle. Is he really the terrorist?

Aqil leans forward slightly to get a better view -- the man he is looking for has a scar on his forehead. "That's the bastard. Oh god, I recognize him," Aqil whispers. The man with the scar pedals unhurriedly into the courtyard in front of the hostel.

By the time the man appears, Aqil has been waiting in front of the hostel for seven hours. During the wait, he speaks of revenge and of the gratification of no longer feeling like a victim. But on that evening in May, as the man who Aqil believes is an Islamic State (IS) terrorist rides by, Aqil cowers motionlessly. For a couple of seconds, he is once again prisoner 6015, a captive of Islamic State, doomed to death. The Islamists humiliated Aqil, and they tortured him. They said they were going to cut his head off with a knife, like an animal.

A Kurdish journalist from Syria, Aqil is 23 years old. He was kidnapped there by IS and survived for 280 days in their prisons of torture -- until he was released as part of a prisoner exchange and fled to Germany.

But here, in the peace and quiet of Europe, the terror of Syria caught up with him. Aqil ran into an old acquaintance from the other side -- a fighter for Islamic State. Both of them are now refugees in Germany -- a victim and an alleged perpetrator, one in northern Germany and the other in the south. It is a situation that shows that some refugees brought the war with them when they fled -- and it shows why it is so difficult for German investigators to distinguish between criminals and their victims.

Reason To Be Afraid

It is often the case that people want to remain anonymous in stories such as this one. But Aqil insists that his real name be used. He wants to demonstrate that the terrorists have no power over him. Aqil, though, is still afraid, and he believes that he has reason to be fearful, even here in Germany. That's why he is helping out German investigators on other cases as well.

Aqil is from Qamishli, a city in the largely Kurdish area of northern Syria. His father was a wheat farmer and owned a large plot of land while his mother often cooked her son a meal of eggs and tomatoes. It was a good life.

Aqil moved to Aleppo to attend university, where he began studying English-language literature, reading Hemingway and Faulkner -- only returning to Qamishli in 2013 after the university was bombed. A brother-in-law managed to get him a job at the Kurdish radio station Rudaw.

Aqil interviewed Kurdish officers and wrote both about concerts in the city and about politics. He was quick and smart -- and he found the work easy. If there is such a thing as freedom in times of war, Aqil was able to enjoy it.

But that life came to an end on Dec. 15, 2014. Together with his colleague Farhad Hamo, Aqil set out that morning for the city of Tall Alu for an interview with a clan leader on the edge of IS-held territory. Hamo drove while Aqil dozed off in the passenger seat. After about an hour, Aqil says, Hamo suddenly woke him up with a jab to the ribs. Aqil opened his eyes and saw a group of men in front of them. It was an Islamic State assault unit -- only about 50 meters away.

Later, in prison, Aqil kept reliving that moment -- thinking of the couple of seconds he and Hamo maybe could have used to turn around and floor it out of there. But in the moment, it was like they were paralyzed. One of the IS fighters came up to the window. "Who are you? Where are you going?" he asked, according to Aqil. He was wearing the kind of vest often worn by suicide bombers and a green facemask and was carrying an M16 assault rifle.

Aqil says: "We had microphones and cameras in the trunk. We couldn't have denied it. The only thing going through my mind was: We shouldn't be here."

Blindfolded and Handcuffed

The Islamists brought the two journalists, Aqil continues, to a school that they used as a prison. Aqil was blindfolded and handcuffed. They began beating him for a few minutes and then pulled him up on a rope by the hands. I'm going to die, Aqil thought to himself.

The terrorists wanted to know where he came from, for how long he had been a journalist and whether he belonged to the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, Islamic State's most feared enemy. The Islamists opened his laptop, Aqil says, and scoured his hard drive. For every one of his Twitter posts, they hit his naked legs with a wooden club. There were 154 posts, he says.

When the fighters pulled him and Hamo out of their cells the next morning, Aqil yelled: "What's going to happen to us?" An IS guard ran his finger across Aqil's neck: "What do you think? We're going to cut off your head," the man said according to Aqil.

They were led in front of an open-air Sharia court. Aqil describes how they kneeled trembling on a gravel square in a cold, dusty wind. They were surrounded by around 10 IS members, though it was impossible to know for sure because of his blindfold. The judge had a high-pitched voice and screamed most of the time. The judge, Aqil says, shrieked that he had decided to execute the "devils." Immediately.

Afterwards, as the fighters shoved he and Hamo into a car, Aqil whispered: "Brother, be strong. Our time has come."

But then, the car didn't just drive into the desert somewhere, but to Shaddadi, a town 60 kilometers away, stopping in front of a small prison. Somebody had apparently decided that the two reporters could prove more useful alive than dead.

In Shaddadi, Aqil continues, they forced him into orange coveralls and threw him into a cell holding four other men. It stank of excrement and sweat. A small man was crouched down in a corner: "I'm Nihab," the man said. Like Aqil, Nihab was from Qamishli and had been locked up for a minor infraction. Aqil collapsed next to Nihab and closed his eyes.

When the guards in the coming days tossed moldy hunks of bread into the cell, the two shared it between them. Aqil was younger than Nihab, but when Nihab cried, Aqil put his arm around his new friend's shoulder and told stories of Qamishli. It proved helpful, mostly to calm Aqil's own fears. Nihab showed him a small pen that he had managed to keep hidden from the guards.

"It's like a movie," Aqil told himself. "I have to watch and wait for it to end. It will be over eventually."

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Inglenda2 10/04/2016
1. Irresponsible journalism?
This story may be true, but if it is, THE SPIEGEL has put Aqil in danger by publishing his picture. The IS is not a harmless club, it is a deadly movement with many supporters in Germany. Here the hunter may soon find out that it is he himself who is now hunted. When will the Media in Germany wake up to the danger of radical Moslems who already live among us? Must we first have the same problems which have shaken France and Belgium?
fish2064 10/06/2016
2. Brave man stating the obvious
"Germany made a mistake by letting all of these people in," says Aqil. "Now, the terrorists are here." Never underestimate human stupidity (Merkel and those who cheered her on) and arrogance. Anyone who could objectively look at the situation knew terrorists were being invited to Europe.
DPoynter 10/13/2016
3. irresponible journalism???
Inglenda, "This story may be true"....you're not reading an article from Putin's Russia Today or some pseudo media outlet that only exists to hate the West/NATO/EU/USA. Rest assured, that Spiegel wouldn't show his picture without Mr. Aqil's expressed consent (they are professional journalists who have editors). While the press cannot always be perfect, Spiegel like others can be held liable in court if they make a mistake on this type of article. The same cannot be said for the internet mob. Often, I wonder why the comment section is open for international edition. Many readers can't seem to grasp that Spiegel publish an opinion piece and the readers who comment cannot (or, perhaps, will not) comprehend that it represents the viewpoint of the writer.
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