Photo Gallery: Unwanted IS Prisoners of War

Foto: Sipa Press / action press

Germany's Conundrum What to Do with Islamic State Returnees?

Dozens of Germans who fought for Islamic State are in prison in northern Syria. Among them are alleged murderers and torturers, but also women and children. The German government lacks a coherent plan for dealing with them. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

"Do you know what the best thing about my jihad for Allah was?" Bajram G., an Islamist from near Bonn who is classified as a potential threat by the German authorities, asked an acquaintance of his over Facebook. The best thing, he wrote, answering his own question, was shooting three enemies to death, all of whom were "infidels." Then he took one of his victim's phones, he wrote, called a woman in the contact list and told her he was standing with his boot on the victim's head. The woman, he claimed, started screaming.

It's not clear whether these atrocities ever really took place, or whether G. was simply trying to sound important. What is clear, though, is that the Islamist has since dramatically changed his tone.

In a letter to his family in Germany, he wrote: "I miss you very much. Maybe you've heard I've been captured?" The letter was delivered via the Red Cross from a detention camp near the northern Syrian  town of Qamishli. In another letter, he wrote: "Mama, please let me know how you're all doing and whether you know how to get me out of here. What do the authorities say? I just want to come home. I want to get out of here."

Bajram G., 25, is a German citizen and the son of immigrants from Kosovo. He was only 20-years-old and still in school when he disappeared from Germany and, according to investigators, joined Islamic State (IS). He is one of thousands of Islamists who left Europe to join the fight, a large number of whom are now sitting in prisons run by the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia YPG. These fighters of the "Caliphate" have now become prisoners of war.

The German government must now grapple with several difficult questions: How should it deal with these prisoners of war? Must someone like Bajram G. be repatriated? What would be done with him once he returned? So far, Berlin has yet to come up with any concrete answers .

Playing for Time

Authorities have been deliberating for some time about what to do with the overseas IS fighters. In the past few weeks, the defeat of the militant group has become tangible, with the last remaining fighters having barricaded themselves in an area smaller than a single square kilometer. Many foreign fighters have spent months, or even years, in prisons in northern Syria and Iraq -- so far, without much prospect of ever returning home.

In recent months, the Syrian Kurds and their U.S. allies have pressured the Europeans to take back their citizens and put them on trial. But so far, the Europeans have been playing for time.

According to German diplomats, Berlin made the decision to not to get too involved with the imprisoned jihadists. "Our marching orders were, 'We're actually required to, but we're not going to,'" says one official. Now, however, the clock on this evasive tactic has run out.

A recent tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump put the issue at the top of the agenda: "The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them........"

The German government immediately rejected Trump's demand, and not only because it considered his threat to be impudent. "It's certainly not as simple as one might believe in America," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer weighed in as well: "Each individual case must be clarified locally before anyone is put on a plane." And German Justice Minister Katarina Barley told DER SPIEGEL: "We must ensure that former IS fighters cannot move around freely in our country. Quite a few have long had warrants out for their arrest. Others must be consistently monitored as soon as they enter Germany."

Elusive Evidence

Despite such verbal protestations, Berlin seems to have realized that it can no longer ignore the problem. Germany needs to come up with a clear position and a plan about what to do with the IS returnees.

Contrary to what Foreign Minister Maas led the public to believe several days ago, German intelligence officials have already gathered a great deal of information about most of the captured IS supporters. Their goal is to have enough incriminating evidence for the police to arrest the Islamists should they ever set foot in Germany.

German investigators get their information from allies, from the testimony of reformed terrorists, from wiretapped phone calls or photos on the internet -- and through interrogations conducted by the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence service, which has interviewed many prisoners in northern Syria.

At least 63 men and women who traveled to the war zone from Germany are now in Kurdish custody in Syria and 42 of them have a German passport. Germany has issued arrest warrants for 18 of the IS supporters, including Bajram G. It's been more than a year since he was allegedly captured in a skirmish with Kurdish troops. G.'s lawyer in Bonn, Mutlu Günal, says his client regrets ever having traveled to Syria. "He wants to come back home and face legal proceedings before a German court," Günal says.

In other cases, though, German prosecutors lack clear evidence. It's often difficult to prove people were members of IS, especially for women, even though many were just as ideologically deluded as their male counterparts. Mere presence in a war zone is not punishable by law, Germany's Federal Court of Justice has ruled.

Time Is Running Out

But sometimes investigators get lucky and find the evidence they're looking for. With Lucas Gläss, for instance, a Dortmund resident who is believed to have joined IS, authorities got their hands on his IS registration form, which had been filled out in June 2014 by the terrorist group's "Border Directorate." His name was incorrectly listed as "Luks Kalas," but there was no doubt about his commitment to jihad: "Fighter," the IS administrators noted. Today, Gläss claims that he never participated in any battles.

In the case of Martin Lemke, a welder from the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, important witnesses have already spoken out against him in Germany. One IS returnee reported that Lemke was an interrogator for the IS secret service. Another witness presented the German police with a photo of Lemke in a black IS uniform and claimed Lemke had beheaded his brother. Lemke, who was arrested several days ago along with his wife Leonora, denies ever having murdered or tortured anyone, but does admit to having been part of the IS terror apparatus. Other Germans have documented their own atrocities in propaganda videos.

Bringing IS supporters back to Germany from Syria would be risky. Many have become depraved, some have combat experience and others are traumatized, which may also hold true of the women. It's hard to say how they would behave upon return to Western civilization. It would be necessary to intensively monitor them, which would require significant personnel and would be expensive. Still, a growing number of politicians have come to the realization that there is little alternative.

"We have to take back the German jihadists who have been detained abroad. There's no way around it," says the interior minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Herbert Reul. "It may not be easy to communicate politically that we're helping extremists who have declared war against our value system return to Germany." But, he continues, if they are German citizens, their return cannot be blocked. "That's why it would be smart for us to start preparing now and sensitize both security officials as well as youth and social workers."

Middle East expert Guido Steinberg, from the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says: "The Kurds and the U.S. have contributed much in the fight against IS. That's why Germany should heed their request and repatriate German IS supporters." Even if the move is unpopular -- and likely to further alienate voters in upcoming state elections in eastern Germany -- it is necessary, he says. "Time is running out," Steinberg adds.

'Time for Germany to Step Up'

The situation is northern Syria is delicate. If the U.S. follows through on its troop withdrawal, as Trump has suggested it will, it's unclear whether the Kurds will be able to retain control of the IS prisoners. There is a real danger that some fighters might go free and "travel to Europe and Germany uncontrolled in order to become active there," says Irene Mihalic of the Green Party. "Such a scenario must be prevented."

Initially, the Kurds fought the jihadists out of self-defense. But after their victory in the city of Kobani in 2015, when they liberated many IS-held areas, they became indispensable to the U.S. as auxiliary troops. They handled IS prisoners differently than some militias in neighboring Iraq, which often executed the extremists after brief interrogations. The Syrian Kurds, by contrast, threw the men in prison while women and children were placed first in cordoned off sections of refugee camps and later in detention centers near Al-Malikiyah in northern Syria, where they have been since 2018.

The Kurds thought they were doing the world a favor by imprisoning the terrorists and their families. They also believed the prisoners would give them useful diplomatic leverage in their international struggle for recognition. But in fact, almost no countries wanted their extremists back. On the contrary: With the exception of Indonesia, which dispatched diplomats in summer 2017 to pick up two women and their children from a camp in Ayn Issa, near Raqqa, almost no country has made much of an effort to reclaim its citizens.

"We lost thousands in the war, many of whom died to capture these people," complained the foreign minister of the de facto Kurdish administration in Syria, Abel Karim Omar, in an interview with DER SPIEGEL several months ago. "Now it's time for Europe, Germany to step up."

Retrieving Carla

Some former acolytes of the "Caliphate" have been in camps near the Turkish border for as long as two and a half years since running away from IS. Their relatives in Germany were told over and over again that they had to wait for Turkish authorities to grant them entry. But nothing ever happened.

The German Foreign Ministry says it cannot currently "provide its normal citizen services for German nationals" in Syria, "regardless of what allegations they face." The German Embassy in the country has been closed for years. "This can be very frustrating for relatives," the ministry allows, but insists that nothing can be done.

For that reason, many families have struck out on their own.

The news that turned Josefin Steinhauer's world upside down reached her shortly before Christmas via WhatsApp. "Hello mama," her daughter Carla wrote from Syria, "I know what I'm about to say is a lot to take in." More than three years ago, the now 31-year-old went to join IS with her three children, leaving behind her husband and mother in the German city of Oberhausen. For a long time after that, there was no contact.

The house in which she and her new husband -- an IS fighter -- lived with her children had been bombed a week ago, Carla wrote. Her 9-year-old son had died. "Inshallah," God willing, his death was "quick and painless," she said. Her daughters had survived, but now she desperately needed money in order to escape and for medicine.

Josefin Steinhauer wanted to help her daughter. Together with Carla's German husband, she flew to Turkey, while her daughter tried to cross the border with the help of a Syrian smuggler. But rather than reaching Turkish soil, Carla and her children ended up in the Turkish-Syrian border area and the plan to ferry her across the border with the help of Turkish secret service failed.

Instead, Carla and her children are now living in a tent camp in the Syrian city of Azaz, which is controlled by Turkey. There, just a few kilometers from the border, they must now endure. As for Carla's IS husband, he was taken into custody by Turkish soldiers.

"I stood on the Turkish side and knew: My two children who had survived were so close," says Carla's German husband and father of their daughters. "And I still can't take them into my arms." Every day, he talks to his 7- and 9-year-old daughters in the camp by telephone.

Josefin Steinhauer is in contact with the German Embassy in Ankara and has written countless emails, she says, "but it hasn't helped." Carla and the daughters must urgently be extricated from Syria, she says. "No one needs to be afraid of her. She's not going to walk around with a suicide vest. She told me that she never did any fighting." Public prosecutors in Duisburg are investigating the young woman for suspected terrorism. It remains to be seen whether they can gather enough evidence.

A few days ago, Carla sent an email from the camp to the German Embassy. Rats were climbing over their beds, she wrote, and her daughters were sick. A Foreign Ministry official responded a day later that the government was exploring options to get her out.

'Most Dangerous People in the World'

Even after Trump's Twitter threat, many EU countries are still refusing to repatriate European nationals who joined IS. "We're talking about some of the most dangerous people in the world," says someone close to the Danish prime minister. "We shouldn't take them back."

Italy, too, is wary of letting IS supporters back into the country. And Britain even withdrew the citizenship of a 19-year-old IS supporter last week to prevent her from returning to the country. Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who are suspected of being members of an IS group that beheaded Western hostages, have also been stripped of their citizenships -- and are now expected to be extradited to the U.S. In an unprecedented move, British Interior Minister Sajid Javid even assured the Americans in advance that the UK would not pursue a guarantee that the two men not be executed. Both deny ever working as IS executioners.

Germany is also debating whether it should strip IS fighters of their citizenships in order to block their return. But that's not possible if a person possesses only German nationality, according to Frank Schorkopf, an international law expert in Göttingen. Germany's constitution prohibits making a person stateless. It's a different story, though, for fighters with dual citizenship, Schorkopf says: A hardline interpretation of the law could allow for the revocation of their German passports. After all, he argues, they had disavowed Germany by fighting for the "de facto regime" of IS.

There is a similar plan in the coalition agreement of Germany's current government, though the details are controversial. "It must be made possible in the future to revoke German citizenship from dual nationals who were involved in hostilities of a terrorist militia abroad," says German Justice Minister Barley. A law drafted by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer was submitted to the Justice Ministry last November for review. "It's clear we need solutions that are in accordance with our constitution and the rule of law."

The law, though, likely won't apply retroactively and will likely only apply to fighters who join terrorist militias in the future. Which means it wouldn't solve the current problems. That is why the realization is slowly taking hold in Berlin that Germany has to do something about its citizens currently detained in northern Syria. "Politically, no one wants to take back IS supporters. Legally, however, Germany is obligated to repatriate its citizens," says Lower Saxony's interior minister, Boris Pistorius. "We, too, demand repatriation from other states when we deport their nationals." Alleged perpetrators must be given "due process," not "in an extraterritorial detention center such as Guantanamo."

The German government is looking into how it could transport German IS fighters back home. There would be no collective deportation, but rather fighters would be brought back one by one or in small groups, like the French are considering. For a long time, Paris was of the opinion that French jihadis should be tried abroad. But now, with the help of the Americans, around 50 adult IS supporters and their children might be extracted in small groups. The threat of a possible withdrawal of U.S. troops and the chaos that could follow was apparently enough to spur the French to action.

From a German perspective, it would be ideal to escort the prisoners across the border to Erbil, in Iraq, where they could be interrogated by German police officers at the German Embassy. Questioning by Germany's intelligence service, the BND, is not enough to secure a conviction back in Germany according to German law. In a criminal case, strict rules apply -- including informing an accused person that they are under no obligation to incriminate themselves.

But transporting the prisoners through Iraq would only be possible if the government in Baghdad played along -- and refrained from bringing the foreign fighters to justice themselves in Iraqi courts, where a death sentence would be a distinct possibility.

'Lazy' Officials

The father of Dirk P. from Stuttgart has for months been advocating that his son be transferred home to Germany. There's no hiding his frustration; he accuses German officials of being lazy. A former photojournalist, P.'s father still cannot fathom why his son went over to IS. For him, the terrorists are "lobotomized imbeciles." He knows that his son brought this onto himself, but he's still doing everything he can to get him back to Germany. "He's still our son."

What exactly Dirk P. got up to while he was with IS remains unclear. P. was a professional orthopedic shoemaker who told reporters he had never fought but only made prosthetics for the injured. The Kurds, on the other hand, believe he was also involved in atrocities.

His father has managed to secure himself some prominent assistance, tapping former German Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin. She is convinced it would be possible to bring Dirk P. back to Germany and that the German judiciary could deal with his case.

There is one thing, however, that makes his case more complicated: Dirk P. got married when he was in IS territory and had a child. What would happen to the child and the mother if he were transferred back to Germany, is unclear. The woman is Syrian -- and their marriage invalid under German law.

By Jörg Diehl, Julia Amalia Heyer, Martin Knobbe, Roman Lehberger, Christoph Reuter, Fidelius Schmid, Andreas Wassermann and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt