They were 11 of them in all, nine angry men and two of their wives, and they all wanted to fight against the occupiers. But waging jihad can be hard -- especially if you're overweight or have been spoiled by your mother. When they set off for Afghanistan from Hamburg in early 2009, they were brimming with enthusiasm about vanquishing the oppressor. As time wore on, though, their new home became very uncomfortable.
At the Hamburg branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the 11 Islamists were known as "the travel group." Several of its members had been under observation for a long time. "We knew all of them," says one official. Despite the surveillance, however, no one -- including the intelligence officers -- noticed how the group was speaking about their forthcoming trip.
The group's members were regulars of the Taiba mosque on Hamburg's Steindamm Street. Formerly known as the Al-Quds mosque, it had been the place of worship for the Hamburg cell of the 9/11 terrorists. As it happened, this is also where another group of fanatic Muslims apparently became radicalized. Officials believe that it was only a matter of months, maybe even weeks, between when the idea of the trip to Afghanistan was hatched and when the group departed.
The group's 11 members may not have achieved much, but at least they succeeded in becoming famous -- perhaps even infamous. In June and July, two of them were arrested in Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively, and two more are believed to have been killed in a recent drone attack. Most of the time, they were on the run.
Indeed, the group's wanderings through the war zone reveal more about the nature of jihad than any propaganda video placed on the Internet. They were a diverse bunch with roots in many places, including Afghanistan, France, Germany, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia. When they left Hamburg, some of them had still been living at home with their parents in the rooms they'd grown up in. They fancied themselves fierce warriors, but they turned out to be major failures.
The Lure of Jihad
The 11 knew each other from the Taiba mosque. Following Friday prayers, they were part of a group that would kneel on the well-worn carpet in front of a man named Bashir, who would deliver sermons in a nasal voice about the purity of the Islamic faith and the suffering of its believers. In August, the Hamburg authorities decided to shut down the mosque. It had previously been frequented by a number of men who voiced support for armed resistance in Afghanistan against Western troops, including those from Germany. But, for some, words were not enough.
Members of the group ranged in age from 21 to 55. Most of them hadn't accomplished much in professional terms. In fact, one was a former junkie, one was a failed businessman with a crazed brother and another was a pothead with a criminal record. Many of them were unemployed. Intelligence officials don't believe there was any particular ringleader, nor have they been able to figure out exactly who came up with the idea of waging jihad. But suddenly, in the winter of 2008, all of them were burning with excitement to do so.
For them, life seemed to have some meaning now. They shared a common goal. And there, in Afghanistan, they could make heroes of themselves. They figured they would be welcomed by their Afghan brothers in faith.
The Many Roads to War
Their plan called for them to split up into four small groups. On February 4, Assadullah Muslih was the first to board a plane. Muslih, who was born in Kabul, had left his native Afghanistan in the late 1970s and was granted political asylum in Germany. For several years, he has been going back and forth between Hamburg and Pakistan. Muslih was the man with connections in the war zone -- the jihadist smuggler.
A month later, on March 4, a group of five boarded another flight. Ahmad Sidiqi, an Afghan-German, brought his wife and younger brother along. In the early 1990s, Sidiqi and his family had moved to Hamburg from Kabul. He had dreamt of getting a high school diploma and a university degree and starting his own company -- but he had failed at almost everything. Shahab Dashti, a friend of Sidiqi, came along with his wife. Sidiqi had purchased the five tickets at a travel agency in Hamburg's main railway station. The flights were one-way -- Hamburg to Peshawar via Doha -- and he paid for them in cash.
A day later, the seventh and eighth member of the group set out. They reached Afghanistan by land, presumably traveling through Turkey and Iran on the way. One was Naamen Meziche, who was born in Paris and was 38 at the time. The other was Rami M., then 23, who was born in Frankfurt. The latter had only moved from Frankfurt to Hamburg a few months earlier to be with his wife, whom he had met online. He wasn't a particularly athletic type, he lacked discipline, and he was overweight.
Meziche, on the other hand, was the complete opposite: He was very clear-headed and deeply familiar with the Koran. Meziche would have loved to help fight the Americans as a volunteer insurgent in the Iraq war, but he had unfortunately been arrested in Syria en route. Naamen and Rami -- one pious and one pudgy, one 38 and the other 23 -- hit the road together. The journey to Afghanistan took several weeks. It's not hard to imagine that it was extremely trying for both of them.
On March 9, the last three men in the group had intended to make their way from Hamburg to the war. There was the Kazakh Michael W., the Russian Alexander J. and Mohammad M., an Iranian. But they didn't get far. Police seized Mohammad M.'s passport before he had a chance to leave Frankfurt Airport. And security officials stopped the other two in Vienna after finding a sheet of paper with a "Code of Conduct for Jihad" in one of their bags.
Though they were allowed to continue with their journey, they must have realized that it had been foolish to pack the piece of paper -- especially since they could have committed to memory the tips listed, such as "Remain calm during battle" and "Don't desecrate corpses." When they arrived in Pakistan, the police were already waiting for them. They were thrown in jail and quickly sent back to Hamburg.
Of the 11, these three didn't even reach their goal. And Muslih, the jihadist smuggler, disappeared without a trace. At 55, he was the oldest of the bunch, and chances are he never really wanted to fight anyway. Of the remaining seven, two were wives of the would-be warriors. Eventually, they all met up in Mir Ali, a town in Pakistan's lawless North Waziristan region -- Taliban country.
Germans Experience Jihadist's Remorse
It isn't necessarily the case that the Islamic Jihad Union, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the other splinter groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan were eagerly awaiting these five men and two women from Hamburg, even if the new arrivals from Germany were highly motivated. One might ask what they could have done with a handful of guys who had led comfortable, fairly inactive lives in their German apartments. Bedridden, feverish and afflicted with diarrhea, they were probably more of a burden than a boon to jihad.
According to all accounts provided by those who have come back, when new would-be jihadists arrive, the Afghan commanders get particularly excited about one thing: their travel funds. Recruits are required to pay for their rifles and grenades out of their own pockets. And laptops, binoculars and warm jackets are happily accepted as tender. In other respects too, there tends to be a sharp contrast between the expectations that the two groups have for each other in the field.
'Beautiful and Loving Brotherhood'
The Islamists trickling out of Europe view Afghanistan as a subjugated land that can only be liberated from the grasp of imperialists with their help. For the group that left Hamburg in February and March 2009, Afghanistan was nothing less than a prelude to paradise, in which warriors and martyrs were required to prove their worth. And, at least in the early stages, the dust in their mouths still bore the taste of adventure.
On a video that can be viewed on YouTube, Shahab Dashti sits in front of a scrubland backdrop. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan put the film online on Oct. 3, 2009. For the shoot, Dashti had an AK-47 lying across his lap. In his left hand, he held a black sword, as he tried to describe all the benefits of life in the armed resistance in the rosiest terms possible.
"And another secret about jihad," Dashti says in the propaganda video, "is this powerful, indescribable, beautiful and loving brotherhood shared among the mujahideen, brothers from the most diverse countries -- from Russia, Morocco, Tunisia, China, Turkey, from Europe, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran -- all together in one dugout. Allah brought their hearts together."
Later in the video, Dashti's brothers in arms hop off a pick-up truck. They are smiling, happy men, and all of them appear to be wearing the same new model of ankle-high sneakers. Though their clothes might be covered in dust, at least their shoes will be sparkling white when they enter paradise.
For the five men and two women from Hamburg, the jihadist lifestyle turned out to be harder -- and more expensive -- than they had anticipated. Before long, they had to pay for their own food and accommodation. With increasing frequency, their parents, relatives and friends would receive letters asking if they could perhaps send along €500 ($700).
Likewise, winters in the Hindu Kush region can get really cold. For days and weeks on end, the would-be jihadists had to do without meat, bathrooms and warm showers. And then they had to sit around with Uzbeks without being able to understand a single word they said. During their telephone calls and in their e-mails back home, they sounded less and less enthusiastic and more and more discouraged about waging jihad. Rami M., for example, the overweight one, would complain about having to march for long distances with a heavy weapon on his shoulder.
The first of the jihadi dropouts was the 23-year-old younger brother of Ahmad Sidiqi. Like Rami, he really wasn't much of a help to his comrades in arms. At the beginning of the year, he traveled back to Hamburg to stay with his parents, where he has been recovering from his exertions.
Spilling the Beans
And Sidiqi's brother wasn't the only one. After all the hardships, others from the original group also wanted to return to their comfortable former lives. In June, Pakistani police picked up Rami M. as he was making his way to the German Embassy in Islamabad. He was wearing a burqa as a disguise, and he had a broken leg. Rami M. is now back in Germany, where he is being held in the town of Weiterstadt in the state of Hesse. There, in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence, he has been eagerly sharing with investigators everything he knows about this exhausting war.
In July, the elder Sidiqi was arrested by US forces in Kabul. Once in captivity, he also started providing his interrogators with a wealth of details, including information about alleged meetings with high-ranking al-Qaida members. It is currently not clear whether he will be extradited to Germany.
According to reports from Pakistan, Shahab Dashti and Naamen Meziche were killed in a US drone attack on Mir Ali two weeks ago. The only people left from the original group are the two women, both of whom are now pregnant.
Alexander J. and Michael W., who never managed to join the other jihadists in the field, are still living in Hamburg. When asked whether he would be willing to speak about what he experienced on his journey, Michael W. said that he'd consider it -- for half a million euros.