Daughters of Jihad: The German Women of Islamic State
Much is known about men leaving Germany to take up arms on behalf of Islamic State. Less has been reported about the flocks of women traveling to Syria to join the jihad. Experts view them as a growing terrorist threat.
Fatma B.'s path to jihad began where the Jews of Augsburg used to live. The southern German city's Bismarckviertel, not far from the historical city center, was once home to a thriving Jewish community -- before they were driven out by the Nazis.
Fatma B. lived here as well. A doe-eyed 17-year-old with black hair, she resided here with her parents and three siblings in a fourth-floor apartment of a newer building, complete with a steel balcony hanging over the street. The family's shoes are arranged neatly by size outside the apartment's front door and the staircase is filled with the odor of pork roast emanating from below. Fatma's father, Hamdi B., opens the door. "What do you want? She's gone," he says gruffly.
His hair carefully combed, he tips his head to the side. It's not hard to imagine 48-year-old Hamdi B. as a friendly, even cheerful, man. But now his eyes are full of nothing but sadness. "She is gone," he repeats.
The police already visited the family home to ask him about Fatma's disappearance and he is scheduled to appear in court soon as a witness. "I have said everything there is to say," Hamdi B. insists, as though that could protect him from additional questions.
100 German Women in the War Zone
They are questions for which he has no answers. He has been tasked with explaining the unfathomable: the fact that his daughter is one of the young Muslim women who turned away from the Western world to start a new life behind full veils in Syria or Iraq -- in a world where women's rights don't exist, where there is no running water, where health insurance is unheard of. According to German security officials, around 100 women from Germany have headed to the war zone thus far. More than half of them left the country in the summer of 2014.
Many traveled to the region with their husbands, but many others left as single women on the search for partners. Some even wanted to fight on the frontlines themselves.
Hamdi B. doesn't want to hear about any of that. He says that his daughter is "in Turkey," a common claim made by many parents of missing children seeking to protect themselves. They tell their neighbors, or the police, that their children are on vacation, somewhere abroad. Anywhere. But not in Syria. In Fatma's case, however, officials are certain she joined the jihadists in Syria.
Most of the women who have left Germany to join Islamic State are between the ages of 16 and 27 and come from all corners of the country: from Lake Constance, from the Alpine foothills, from the Rhine River region, from the Ruhr Valley, from Bremen, from Hamburg and from Augsburg.
A Small Group Radicalizes
To be sure, the Salafist scene in Augsburg is small and not thought to be violence prone. But even here, there are those who propagate adherence to Sharia law. One of them managed to radicalize a whole group of young women in Augsburg.
Fatma B. and her older sister Amine were part of that group. Hamdi B. saw that his daughters were changing, particularly when they began covering their faces. But what, he asks, could he have done? "It isn't forbidden to wear a veil," he says. Plus, what should a father do when his daughters opt for a life of virtue rather than one full of boys and alcohol?
But then, Hamid B. did finally seek to intervene -- after Fatma met a young man from Morocco on the Internet. At 16 years of age, she wanted to become engaged. Her parents were adamantly opposed, but it was already too late.
"Of course I could have applied pressure sooner," Hamdi B. says. "But what does pressure do? Children at that age do what they want." He shrugs his shoulders.
Fatma disappeared in December of 2013 and her father went to the police to report her as missing. But they could do little to help and today, Hamdi B. believes that law enforcement officials are partly to blame for his daughter's fate. "What kind of country allows an underage girl to leave without permission?"
The 'German House'
One month after Fatma's disappearance, her father traveled to Turkey and into Syria with his daughter Amine. They managed to track down Fatma in a mountain village not far from the Syrian city of Latakia. The village is home to what German investigators refer to as the "German House, a place where many jihadists from Germany initially go to get oriented in Syria.
Hamdi and Amine managed to convince Fatma to return home to Augsburg and they contacted the police in Germany to notify them of their impending arrival so as to avoid problems at the border. But they hadn't told investigators about the trip prior to leaving. Still, the family could have resumed their normal lives in Augsburg's Bismarckviertel neighborhood. The daughters may even have turned away from radical Islamism. But that is not how things turned out.
Young women who join the jihad almost always leave behind desperate parents -- like the father of two daughters, then aged 15 and 19, from the industrial Ruhr Valley. When he noticed that the two were radicalizing, he turned to the police for help. He suspected they were preparing to travel to the Syrian battleground.
Last November, the two daughters finally tried to leave, but they only made it to the departures hall of the Düsseldorf airport before being stopped by German federal police officers. When their parents showed up to take them home, they shrieked at them. "I'll cut your head off!" one of them screamed. And: "I'm going to kill you when you're sleeping!"
The Poison of Salafism
Since then, their father has been fighting to reestablish a connection with his daughters -- and against the poison of Salafism. He is also doing all he can to keep their stories under wraps. He doesn't want anybody at their school, including their best friends, to know about his daughters' attempt to join the jihad. "Otherwise, the two wouldn't have a chance," their father says.
As a rule, young women are radicalized outside the home. That was certainly the case with 17-year-old Jenny S., who first became a regular visitor to the Masjidu-I-Furqan Mosque in Bremen before donning a burqa and heading for Syria. Fifteen-year-old Sarah O., from Konstanz in Germany's far south, spent some time at an Islamic school in Algeria before heading for Syria. She sent out a photo of herself holding a Kalashnikov via WhatsApp: "By the way, I've joined al-Qaida," she wrote. In the case of Samra K., 16, and Sabina S., 15, it is thought to have been the Viennese preacher Mirsad O. who led them into the jihad.
How, though, can Islamic preachers exert so much power over their flock? The phenomenon can best be explained from an emotional perspective, says terrorism researcher Peter Neumann at King's College in London. "The young girls fall prey to romantic ideas of old: Here, the knight in shining armor, there, the chosen princess at his side," Neumann says.
Fighters are "revered like pop stars" by the girls, Neumann says. "The girls want to take care of them and to be with them." Another factor could also be the desire to provoke that is common among teenagers. "Salafism is the most provocative form of rebellion in tolerant Western societies," Neumann says. "You can't really do anything more extreme than that."
The Brides of Jihad
Jihad brides aren't just recruited in Salafist mosques, but also with the help of Internet propaganda. As an example, officials point to a blog written by a German who calls herself "Muhajira," or emigrant.
Under the heading "A True Heroine," she writes about her life "on the foundation of jihad, on the foundation of honor." She reports that her trip to Syria was "like a story from a picture book." The feeling is indescribable, she raves. "Finally, I am free to wear my niqab as I like without seeing and hearing ridicule." The blogger is also open about helping find girls for fighters. "Because there are a lot of unmarried mujahedeen here, we will find the right brother," she wrote in one entry. One bride who she helped is particularly happy, Muhajira reports. "Her sisters are now eager to come here and marry a mujahedeen as well."
There are plenty of online marriage markets for young Salafists, including contact sites like ask.fm. One entry there reads, for example: "Courageous lion, steadfast and unwavering, is looking ..." Until recently, a blog for women called "My Life in Syria" posted videos along with harmless diary entries about doing laundry, shopping and cooking. "I have a longing for the mountains, the rocks and the sites of jihad," the blogger wrote in one entry. The site has since been deleted.
Pro-jihad propaganda aimed at women is careful to avoid images of decapitated enemies, opting instead for mountains and flowers. It seeks to show how wonderful the role of women in Salafism can be. "It's all very bucolic," says one intelligence officer.
To ensure that the trip to Islamist arcadia is successful, there are WhatsApp groups that provide travel tips: Travel in Western clothing, without headscarves and veils; do not travel in the company of bearded men.
German security officials are seriously concerned about the number of young women joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq. Society's image of women makes them "the perfect terrorists," says one intelligence agent. He says they are stopped and searched less often than men, which makes them more effective planners, fund raisers and, in the worst case, suicide bombers. They are ideal for preparing attacks, security officials say. "Because of their largely unobserved preparatory work, women contribute to terrorist attacks," one official said.
'Under the Flag of Islam'
One of the suspected terror accomplices is Karolina R., with investigators believing the Bonn resident provided support to to the Islamic State (IS) terror militia. At the beginning of May 2013, she traveled to Syria together with her husband and their seven-month old infant Luqmaan. Police found a text on a computer in her parent's home in which she enthused about "living under the rule of the black flag, under the flag of Islam."
In Syria, she lived in a village that was struck repeatedly by missiles and bombs. Karolina R. wrote that the men set off on combat missions during the day before returning home at night. In the meantime, the women would cook, clean and take care of the children. Although she wrote that she was never attacked, she advised other women, "Learn to shoot and learn how to use weapons! Because when it comes down to it, you'll have to know how to use them!"
Karolina R. appears to have filmed videos in Syria showing her husband Fared Saal together with their infant son. In one video that has been obtained, Saal says, "Baby, if I get killed, at least we have another video of the two of us." In another, he sets his child on his lap as he sticks a hand grenade in his chest pocket.
After a fire in their home in Syria, Karolina R. returned to Germany, where officials arrested her. A trial against the 25-year-old began in Düsseldorf's higher regional court two weeks ago, where she is answering to charges of providing support to a foreign terrorist organization. Germany's federal prosecutor has accused her of providing her husband, who is fighting with the IS, with around 11,000 ($12,535) and film equipment. "At most, my client simply looked after her husband," says defense attorney Carsten Rubarth. "She wasn't there to provide funds to IS."
Halting the Flow to Syria
So far, German justice officials have had difficulty bringing Salafist Muslim women to justice. There are a number of reasons for this: One is that women tend to boast less than men about their acts and another is that fewer pass through the terror militias' training camps. A draft law negotiated by Chancellor Merkel's cabinet last week now includes a passage that, they hope, will make it easier to prosecute female jihadists. If the bill passes, all types of terrorism financing will be prosecutable in the future.
By now, as the recent efforts demonstrate, there is no question that local prosecutors are trying to use every legal avenue available to them to prevent people from traveling to Syria. Last Wednesday, the Munich Public Prosecutors' Office announced it had pressed charges against a female German jihadist for "participation in the Syrian civil war."
Andrea B. of the town of Immenstadt in Bavaria's Allgäu region converted to Islam in 2012 and then left her partner, with whom she had two children. At the beginning of 2014, she took her two daughters -- three-year-old Filiz and seven-year old Melisa -- and moved to Syria, where she became the "second wife" of a man who was fighting for the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front.
With the ups and downs of the war, the new family moved around often. Andrea B. learned how to use a weapon, and investigators claim that there were firearms and hand grenades in her home. B., who received vocational training in retail sales, had sent pictures of her two daughters to friends. In them, the two girls appeared increasingly unkempt.
When Andrea B. returned to Germany from Syria in May 2014, police arrested her upon arrival at the airport. The father of her children had filed child abduction charges against her and the 30-year-old was stripped of custody of the children. Now, B. could face up to 10 years in prison on charges of the "preparation of serious acts of violent subversion."
Revolting Against Society
Often enough, female jihadists have little idea what they are getting themselves into in Syria. In the northern city of Bremen, sociologist Berna Kurnaz provides counseling to the relatives of female Islamists who have returned to Germany. She's familiar with their family problems and their sometimes precarious circumstances. "The girls are often revolting against a home in which they are misunderstood or a society in which they don't feel appreciated." She says that Salafist preachers offer simple solutions to myriad problems, basically sending out the message that all that matters is being a "good Muslim woman." But once they arrive in the war zone, the girls are sealed off from what's going on around them. "They don't even understand just how dangerous the situation they have placed themselves in really is," Kurnaz says.
Once there, the women are "entirely dependent on the kindness of the men," says Hans-Joachim von Wachter, the head of the Bremen state chapter of the Office of the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency. Sources within Western intelligence services report that the jihadists also engage in so-called "temporary marriages". In most instances this means the relationship lasts for the duration of sexual intercourse -- and whether the woman enters into it voluntarily or against her will matters little.
Controversial interpretations of the Koran are used as justification -- readings which hold that the gratification of jihadists is purportedly in accordance with the will of Allah. An internal analysis from the security authorities states that this has been used as the basis to "force women into marriage and sex in several dozen instances."
If a woman's husband is killed in the war, her fate can also take a brutal turn. "The women are then simply passed on to the next fighter," says one high-ranking intelligence official. Or, perhaps even worse, they are left to their own devices. Wachter of the Office of the Protection of the Constitution says women in those circumstances stand "little chance" of escaping the situation.
Stuck in Syria
Sarah K. of North Rhine-Westphalia could become such an example. In Germany, she married Mustafa K., a former parcel delivery man from Dinslaken. As her husband made his way to the war in 2013, she followed him, bringing along their child. Once in Syria, Mustafa K. gained notoriety after he was photographed holding up a decapitated head. The image made its way around the world.
Last year, Sarah's parents tried to get her back to Germany. They made it to an Islamist-controlled region where they saw men with weapons fighting for IS and veiled women. They also ultimately found Sarah, but she turned her parents away and asked them to leave. "It's too dangerous for you here," she reportedly told them.
That was months ago. The family home in a duplex has a red brick facade and even though their daughter's new married name is still affixed to the mailbox, Sarah hasn't returned. What is known is that she gave birth to a second child in Syria and her husband Mustafa died in December. Her mother is full of a mixture of hope and anguish. She would probably do whatever she could to see Sarah and her two grandchildren again. German authorities say they have information that Sarah wants to return, but that she's unable to manage it on her own.
Burkhard Freier, the head of the state branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in North Rhine-Westphalia reports on several women who are stuck in Syria and don't know how they can get back home. When women actually do manage to get back to Germany, his Bremen colleague Wachter says, it borders on the miraculous.
Hamdi B. of Augsburg actually managed to perform that miracle for his daughter Fatma. But the happiness it brought him to have retrieved his child from Syria with life and limb spared was only short-lived.
Amine B., the older of the two sisters, married a young man and moved with him to the eastern part of Germany's Westphalia region. Her husband, has a boyish face and is wearing a thin beard and harem pants and holding a prayer book in his hands when he answers his door. May we meet with his wife? "That's impossible if I'm not there," the husband responds. When asked about the trip to Syria, he says, "I have never heard anything about it."
He then abruptly sets off on a lecture on discrimination against Muslims. He says Sharia law is misconstrued in the West, that the talk of atrocities like stonings and the hacking off of hands distorts its image. Nevertheless, he still holds the view that the stoning of an unfaithful woman is justifiable, at least as a deterrent. "A woman who knows she could face such punishment would never do anything like that," Amine's husband is convinced.
His daughter Fatma has since returned to Syria. The public prosecutor has opened an investigation and the police have classified her as a threat to public security.
Officials say that Fatma B. has not only succeeded in returning to the war zone. She has also fulfilled her wish of getting married -- to a jihadist, of course.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles