The Returnees Former Islamic State Members Open Up to Investigators
When Nils D. turned his back on the Islamic State (IS), he thought about sex. He had spent a year serving the terrorist militia, performing guard duty and working as a cook. He had discovered severed heads on the street and watched beheadings. He had listened to the screams of people being tortured and looked on as they were hung from metal poles with their hands tied behind their backs. These are the kinds of atrocities he had exposed people to as a member of a special unit that was tasked to arrest alleged spies, traitors or other opponents of IS.
But by the beginning of November 2014, he wanted out. He came up with a false pretense to travel to Turkey. He wanted to meet his mother and sister in Istanbul and then journey onward to his home in Dinslaken, Germany, a town in the country's Ruhr region.
Nils D. has never said what was going through his mind that day, but his mobile phone's browser history provides some answers. He perused a list of the most wanted criminals on the German Federal Criminal Office's website because he feared he might get arrested in Germany. He also looked up ferry connections from Turkey and long-distance buses to his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia, because he feared getting checked at the airport. He also looked on the website of a popular retailer for new plus-size clothes because he needed an inconspicuous outfit and was too corpulent for normal attire. In addition, he searched for hotels in Istanbul and for sightseeing tips in the city for the days he would be spending with his mom and sister, Annika.
Most of all, though, Nils D. thought about sex. He searched for terms like "Red Light Istanbul" online. One query result contained the heading, "Bordello in Istanbul." His phone also saved the names of dozens of relevant porn clips he had played.
Before he boarded a bus from Istanbul back home, he deleted the data stored on his mobile phone. The images of him with his buddies in battle gear, the photo of him standing behind a masked, bound man holding a pistol to his head -- all of it was supposed to disappear before his return.
Today, Nils D. is being held in a German prison as a convicted terrorist. The Higher Regional Court in Düsseldorf sentenced him to four years and six months behind bars.
D. got away with a fairly light sentence because he is one of the few former jihadists who have cooperated extensively with the German authorities. For investigators, men like D. are highly valuable because in most cases the authorities have no idea what the Islamists from Germany have done in the service of IS. Often they are unable to even verify that the accused had actually been a part of IS, which is essential in order to secure a conviction on charges of being a member of a terrorist organization.
German security agencies are tasked with investigating terrorist networks and preventing attacks. But with the exception of wiretapped telecommunications, they often have too little evidence at their disposal, because most of the more than 200 people who have returned from the combat zone are keeping silent -- or lying.
In order to obtain more lenient sentences, a few jihadists are now confessing in court that they traveled to Syria. But their statements seldom go beyond the evidence that has been presented against them, and they don't turn in other accomplices.
However, three men have proven to be exceptions and have been cooperating extensively with the authorities. They include Nils D. of Dinslaken, Harry S. of Bremen and Harun P. of Munich, who fought in Syria for the terrorist group Jund al-Sham.
The three are taking a considerable risk. Other Islamists consider providing testimony to be treason -- and it's possible they will seek to retaliate.
Having gone from being terrorists to key witnesses, the three appear to have undergone an astonishing transformation. If their statements are to be believed, neither Nils D., 26, Harry S., 27, nor Harun P., 28, knew exactly what they were signing up for in Syria. They were radical Muslims, but they weren't leaders or fighters -- they were more hangers-on. "It's usually those who were at the periphery of a group, whose ideologies haven't yet hardened, who work with judicial authorities later," says one expert who often works with such key witnesses.
From Cards and Cafés to the Caliphate
Prior to his field trip into the realm of the murderous IS band, Nils D. had been a good-for-nothing. He would sleep until mid-day, then surf the Internet and meet up with his buddies in a café, where they took drugs, drank booze and played cards. They didn't have any hobbies and they lacked any enthusiasm. The company that had provided him with vocational training fired him because he wasn't attending the vocational school courses that were part of the program. Afterward, the most he found were temporary jobs. "I was a pothead," Nils D. says. "I didn't feel like doing anything."
This continued for years. Then D. discovered Islam through his cousin Philip B. and became a Salafist. He was still serving a sentence for grand theft when his cousin and the other guys went to Syria to fight. Then, during the autumn of 2013, D. also traveled to the "caliphate."
During his trial in the dock of the Higher Regional Court in Düsseldorf, Nils D. said "he wanted to see things for himself." He then quickly became part of the murderous system. In Manbij, he joined a special IS unit. The force's task was to capture suspected traitors, spies or deserters. D. is believed to have taken part in up to 15 missions.
He also knew what happened to the men he had helped to capture. The former pothead from Dinslaken knew about the wooden crates they would be placed in. There were large ones in which they could stand, sandwiched. And there were small ones in which the prisoners could only crouch -- sometimes for days at a time.
Nils D. sported a typical Islamist beard. Whenever he went out, it was always dressed in black and with his face covered. He attended five executions as a spectator. "I had goosebumps all over," D. would later tell investigators with the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Düsseldorf. "But after a while it bounces off you."
One time, he held a pistol to the back of the head of a bound prisoner and allowed himself to be photographed. Why? "It was incredibly stupid," he says today. "I'm sorry. The man probably didn't even notice." He claims that he never committed physical violence. Nils D. also denies reports that he abused or killed prisoners.
He told investigators there were several times when he wanted to leave the caliphate. One time a rebel offensive got in his way, and on another occasion a leader didn't want to send him to Germany on a mission. Nils D. claimed he would have used an attack order like that to escape and said he was not interested in acting on IS' behalf in Germany. At least by his own account.
'The Best Thing in the World Is Martyrdom'
But D. still hasn't made any statements about having broken with IS' ideology. He says he wanted to leave because the organization has built up a "total surveillance state."
He managed to get out in November 2014 under another false pretense. He told his superiors he wanted to bring his daughter to IS and traveled to Turkey with their permission. He didn't come back.
Once he had returned to his mother's place in Dinslaken, he only partly sought to resume normal life. "He wanted to go party, but that wasn't his thing," one of his friends told investigators. "He wanted to go to the brothel, but he couldn't work up the courage."
At the same time, he remained an open Islamist. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was "our president," and, "What he says, we have to do," he told one acquaintance. "The best, the very best thing in the world is martyrdom," he instructed his new girlfriend. When he found out that a close friend had died fighting, he took it as good news. "Of course I am pleased when my friend doesn't burn in hell," he would later say.
One day he began talking with an acquaintance about his time with IS in his car, which had been bugged. He spoke of the ID he had been given as a member of a special unit. That was enough for investigators. They arrested him in January 2015, three days after the attack on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Initially, Nils D. had been far from willing to talk. He told one experienced anti-terror investigator that they had nothing concrete against him and they would "embarrass themselves in court." He even threatened to retaliate "once I'm out."
Investigators then left and didn't return for months. After a while, however, they were able to reconstruct the data on his mobile phone. By that point, they were aware not only of the browser history with the porn, but also of the photo with the hooded prisoner and the images of his fellow fighters from Dinslaken.
"That's when he changed his mind," the investigator who questioned Nils D. at the time told the court. When he spoke, he did so soberly, almost without emotion. But the exchange of glances between the investigator and Nils D. during his testimony indicated a certain amount of sympathy. The official had been sympathetic toward the terrorist because he had already testified over 40 times; and Nils D. toward the investigator because he had been fair to him.
Connections Between Germany and Paris Attacks
D. has since let himself be interrogated even more. He disclosed the connections between the Paris attackers surrounding Abdelhamid Abaaoud and his accomplices in Dinslaken. He made it possible to initiate numerous investigative proceedings and trials. He described the structures of his special IS unit in greater detail than anyone before him.
He also provided new details about the leadership roles of Germans in IS. Among other things, he provided information about a previously unknown German who allegedly worked in the IS security apparatus under the nom de guerre "Abu Hager" -- a man who still has not been positively identified to this day.
Nils D. has already completed more than one and a half years of his prison sentence, and it's possible he'll get released early for good behavior. He is also participating in a reintegration program organized by the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution in North Rhine-Westphalia, the agency responsible for monitoring extremist behavior in Germany. Intelligence officials and investigators describe him alternately as a "goldmine" of information or a "stroke of luck." Some even believe he could have made a good police officer. "He's got a gift for observation, a feel for hierarchies and an excellent memory," says one person.
But there's one aspect of policing he doesn't appear to be very skilled at: prevention. Despite his extensive testimony, Nils D. so far hasn't distanced himself from radical Islam. Or from the fact that Islamic State murders and terrorizes. That it has nothing to do with Islam. That the tales of heroism in the "caliphate" are nothing but propaganda. There hasn't been a single word about any of this from Nils D. So what is it that's driving him to come clean with officials?
"It can be assumed that one of the main reasons is the hope of a shorter prison sentence," says one high-ranking security official. "There's no such thing as instant de-radicalization. When someone has been in that deep, it takes months or even years."
Nils D. apparently hasn't made it that far.
Harry S., on the other hand, has.
'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.
Defendant Harun P. at the start of his trial in Munich in January 2015.Foto: REUTERS / MICHAELA REHLE/ REUTERS
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.