The Returnees Former Islamic State Members Open Up to Investigators
Part 2: 'Hell on Earth'
Visitor Room 3 of the Oldenburg prison is a bare space with a green floor and a gray table in the middle. You can see the massive walls topped with barbed wire through the barred window. The rain clatters in the inner courtyard.
Harry S. speaks with a muted voice. He has followed the attacks of the past few weeks on TV from jail. Nice, Würzburg, Ansbach. He had immediately flashed back to images of the atrocities in Syria, Harry S. says: stonings, executions, chopped-off hands, bodies that had been riddled with bullets. These were the atrocities of the terror militia he had joined. The nom de guerre they gave him in Syria was "Abu Saif," meaning "father of the sword."
"What you experience there is hell on earth," Harry S. says. "It was the biggest mistake of my life." He now only calls IS the "so-called Islamic State," because for him it is now clear that "this is a criminal organization acting under the cover of Islam." He says it turns people into monsters.
Harry S. was a member of the terror militia for just under three months before he managed to flee to Turkey in the summer of 2015. He hadn't yet completed his combat training.
When he boarded his flight to Germany on July 20, operated by an airline called SunExpress, Bremen police special forces were already waiting with an arrest warrant. It took several months for Harry S. to break his silence, but then it all flowed out of him.
Details from Inside a Terror Regime
From October to February, seven days a week from morning until night, Harry S. told intelligence operatives, police officers and investigators from the Federal Prosecutor's Office about his time with IS. The transcripts of the interrogations are several hundred pages long.
They include disturbing details from inside a terror regime, many of which were previously unknown to authorities. Harry S. told the officers about the internet café in Syria's IS stronghold, Raqqa, where he and his jihadist friends socialized ("everybody there is German"). He named fighters from Bremen, Wolfsburg, Bonn, Berlin and Solingen. And he said which of the Germans killed prisoners at a mass shooting in the desert of Palmyra.
Harry S. also told the authorities more about the attempts to recruit people for attacks in Germany than any previous IS returnee -- one month before the November 13 attacks in Paris.
Inside the prison's visitor room, Harry S. recalls the situation. He had barely just arrived in Syria when two masked men -- supposedly Frenchmen from Marseille, who worked for a kind of IS secret service -- showed up at an IS safe house. They asked if he was ready to sacrifice his life for the "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They said there were already enough men in France who were ready to undertake the ultimate act. "But we desperately need people who will go to Germany to carry out attacks," they told him.
He says that later an Englishman and a German-Russian drove by in a car with black-tinted windows, also masked and heavily armed. He reports they claimed that thus far all volunteers for Germany had gotten cold feet and they needed "action," and referred to attacks in Germany, England, worldwide, that would be "coordinated to be simultaneous."
An IS 'Office' for Foreign Attacks
Many details suggest the men came from a secret IS unit responsible for operations in foreign countries. Its leader is alleged to be Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. Harry S. talks about an "office" for attacks in foreign countries that creates lists of volunteers.
Würzburg, Ansbach -- he believes these are just the beginning. "They want these kinds of reactions, they want the politicians to say it's the refugees' fault, that they have brought the terrorism with them," he says. "They want to create this black-and-white image."
A few weeks ago, Harry S. had to defend himself in front of the Hanseatic Higher Regional Court of Hamburg. It was a short trial. After only four trial days, the court sentenced him to three years in prison -- an unconventionally mild punishment for a member of a terrorist group. S. appeared in a white shirt and recalled even the most minute details.
Sometimes he described things so thoroughly that the presiding judge had to stop him. He interrupted the accused, saying, "This has ended well." "Yes, it ended well," S. answered, relieved. His remorse seemed convincing. "Today you are no longer a terrorist," the judge said in his ruling, "but back then you were far from simply being a follower." In a propaganda video, S. could be seen carrying the IS flag through the frame while wearing a camouflage uniform with a Beretta sticking out of his holster.
Harry S. would now like to warn young people from making the same mistake he did. Through his lawyer, he has taken up contact with an organization that focuses on preventing Islamist radicalization. Once he has served his sentence, he would like to speak with students and tell them: "No matter what crisis or bad situation you are in, there is no justification for joining IS. You not only throw away your own life, but also the lives of those you love."
Political, economic and intelligence experts are urgently looking for key witnesses like Harry S., who can convincingly counteract IS propaganda -- though so far they haven't been successful. As a result, the expectations they have of former jihadists are correspondingly high.
"These descriptions could have a strong influence on young people if they reach them personally," says Peter R. Neumann, professor of security studies at King's College London. "The testimonies would be an important component of a prevention program. The crucial thing is to reach young people before they are reached by extremists."
But these former jihadists are in danger, since their former comrades view them as turncoats who should be punished. The authorities' third key witness, Harun P., had such an experience.
The German-born son of Afghan immigrants traveled to Syria in September 2013 because he "feared having to serve jail time for previous convictions," as he later told investigators. He had been caught perpetrating petty crimes in his hometown of Munich.
In Syria he joined not IS, but a terror militia called Jund al-Sham. Harun P. passed the training camp and got to know the house near Latakia where many Germans make a stop on their way to jihad. "Most of the time we didn't do anything except clean, cook, do laundry, keep weapons clean," he later said, describing the everyday life of the terrorists in the "two-story villa."
After his combat training, he took part in an attack on Aleppo's jail. Harun P. was part of the reserves. He later shot a mortar shell over a wall -- which worked against him in court.
As a witness, Harun P. was particularly valuable. He explained the structure of the little-known terrorist group Jund al-Sham to investigators. And he could identify countless members of the militia who later switched to IS.
Harun P. apparently only declined to join IS because he "didn't like the people." He told the investigators that one of them "ran his mouth off to me, which I can't stand at all."
After his return, he was sentenced to 11 years in jail in Munich in what has been the toughest sentence meted out against a returnee from Syria so far by German authorities. Unlike the cases of Nils D. and Harry S., state prosecutors accused him of having committed acts of violence. The Munich Higher Regional Court prosecuted him for taking part in the attempted murder of 400 people.
Harun P.'s testimonies have led him to be threatened by former comrades. When he recently testified in a trial against a different Islamist, he was attacked in the local prison. Sources in the intelligence community say the lawyers of other jihadists are also trying to go after him legally.
In the Berlin trial, P. once again identified Islamists whom he knew. He also refuted their accounts: "We did almost nothing humanitarian. Food and money from Germany was all given to the fighters," he reported. Locals had told him: "Screw off! Since you've been here, everything is much worse."
Other extremists are appalled by his willingness to talk. But Harun P. just keeps going. He's scheduled to appear as a witness in more trials soon.
- Part 1: Former Islamic State Members Open Up to Investigators
- Part 2: 'Hell on Earth'