A Nightmare Scenario Come True Berlin Worried about IS Fighters Coming Home

The German government long shied away from bringing German Islamic State fighters and their families back from Syria. But with the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, that hesitancy is coming back to haunt Berlin.

A woman and her child in the al-Howl camp in northeastern Syria.
Delil Souleiman/ AFP/ Getty Images

A woman and her child in the al-Howl camp in northeastern Syria.


They got away. For months, the women and children were locked up in the Ayn Issa camp, located around 45 kilometers from the border with Turkey. But now, the internment facility has been dissolved and hundreds of followers of the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS) are free, including at least four women from Germany and their children.

"Bombs are falling constantly," wrote one of the German IS women via WhatsApp shortly before the Kurds abandoned their post. Now, they are allegedly planning on making their way across the border into Turkey and from there back home to Germany.

Another Islamist woman claimed to have made it with her daughter to a small village near the border. They, too, want to return to their home in the German state of Hesse.

Whereas the families of the German IS woman are looking forward to the return of their daughters and grandchildren, it is a nightmare come true for security officials. The Turkish military invasion in northern Syria has led to a situation where control may soon be completely lost over the thousands of IS fighters who had been held by the Kurds in camps and prisons in northern Syria.

In Berlin, concerns are growing that following the release of the women, the men might be next -- and that they could be able to find their way into Europe undetected. Security officials fear that some of them may bring along intentions of carrying out an attack.

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Indeed, Berlin is now paying the price for having been so hesitant for so long. For almost two years, both the Kurds and their erstwhile American protectors urged Germany and other EU member states to take back the IS followers from their countries. The Foreign Ministry in Berlin consistently used as an excuse the fact that due to the ongoing civil war in Syria, Germany no longer had a consulate general in the country. But that didn't seem to stop other countries -- such as Kazakhstan and Kosovo -- from taking their IS followers back.

The End of a Political Career

In truth, nobody in Berlin was willing to take the risk. Flying IS supporters back to Germany would have been extremely politically sensitive. And if even one of those who returned were to carry out an attack, it would likely mean the end of a political career or two.

Senior government officials are now realizing that it was a mistake to play for time. The current situation is pure chaos, with unpredictable consequences for the security situation both in the region and in Germany. Indeed, given the chaos in Syria, Islamic State could be ripe for a comeback. The leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who remains in hiding, has called on his followers to help free others from prison.

"I am concerned that IS is regaining strength," says Thomas Haldenwang, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency. "The conflict in northern Syria could also lead to foreign IS fighters getting out of prison and returning to Europe, in the worst case unnoticed," he says. "Security agencies must be vigilant."

Twenty-six-year-old Kadir Topcu, who goes by the alias "Abu Yakub al-Almani," is one of the IS followers that German security officials would like to have seen remain in Kurdish hands a while longer. He was taken prisoner in spring during the battle over the last IS stronghold of Baghuz. A German of Turkish descent originally from Hamburg, Topcu spent almost six years with the terrorist militia. He is currently locked away in a prison cell in northeastern Syria.

The danger of IS fighters finding their way to Europe appeared to have dissipated this spring with the apparent victory over Islamic State -- at least for as long as the Kurds retained full control over the prisons and camps where IS fighters and their families were being held. But German security officials have observed that the Kurds have begun reducing the number of guards at such facilities. That reduction is a direct consequence of the Turkish incursion into the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, with every available man and woman of fighting age being mobilized to meet that threat.

'Brothers Are Dying'

Cüneyt Topcu had essentially given up hope of ever seeing his son again, until he saw him in a report aired by the U.S. broadcaster CBS. The journalist who produced the spot filmed prisoners in northern Syria, and Kadir could be seen for a couple of seconds in the footage, dressed in his orange prison garb. "I'm from Germany," he said, speaking English.

Kadir Topcu, a former small-time criminal, traveled to Syria in summer 2014, where he lived in the IS stronghold of Raqqa together with his wife and children. Every now and then, he would send out messages from the warzone. "Brothers are dying and they are smiling," he wrote on Facebook.

Topcu is thought to have served in a number of different battle units and there are photos of him posing with weapons of war. Public prosecutors in Hamburg are investigating him for possible membership in a terrorist organization.

"The German government is afraid of people like Kadir, I can understand that," says his father. "But he was born and raised here. Kadir should receive his punishment here. He, and especially his children, should be brought to Germany."

A view of the al-Hawl internment facility, where IS families are held.
AFP

A view of the al-Hawl internment facility, where IS families are held.

A mobile phone picture of Topcu's three young children makes it clear that they are in a desperate state. Their arms are as thin as twigs as they lie on a blanket beneath a white plastic tarp, apparently sleeping. One of the boys is only wearing a dirty diaper, with a three-month-old infant next to him. Luise Meier, whose name has been changed for this story, breathes heavily as she shows the photo, sitting at a living room table in the Billstedt neighborhood of Hamburg. They are, after all, her grandchildren, the offspring of Kadir Topcu and Meier's daughter, who ran off to IS as a teenager. She gave birth to two children in Raqqa, with the third being born in the al-Hawl internment camp after she was taken prisoner by the Kurds. More than 70,000 people are housed in the gigantic tent city, with thousands of foreign IS families being held in a separate part of the facility.

The fact that Meier has learned anything at all about her daughter and grandchildren is because of a mobile phone being passed around among the foreign IS women. "Every now and then, my daughter can use it for a short time," Meier says. "And when she does, she begs me: Mama, get me out of here."

In Assad's Hands

The situation in al-Hawl is getting worse by the day and the camp is also home to hardcore Islamist women. One European, who has long since abandoned her commitment to IS, described in a WhatsApp message her fear of the entrenched IS followers. And another fear has been added more recently: that the camp could fall into the hands of the Assad regime.

In Berlin, terrorism experts from several ministries maintain a confidential list of all IS followers from Germany who are currently incarcerated in Syria. In February, the officials included 38 men and women with German passports on the list. Now, there are 84.

The German government's hesitancy to bring them home can be explained by a somewhat sensitive note attached to the list. Fully one-third of the names are thought to pose a threat to public safety, a category known in German as "Gefährder." That comes to a total of 19 men and eight women. German officials believe that they could be capable of carrying out violent acts, including terrorist attacks.

For quite some time, the German government found itself in a relatively comfortable position. The Kurds had the IS fighters under control, with the women and children being held in camps and the men locked away in prisons. The guards also gave Western intelligence agencies access to the prisoners for the purpose of interrogations.

But even though Germany has gathered sufficient evidence in many of the cases to haul the IS members into court back home, the Chancellery and the ministries responsible -- the Interior, Justice and Foreign Ministries -- were reluctant to bring them back.

There was a time when the German government was seriously considering bringing at least those women back to Germany for whom there was no evidence that they had been involved in a crime. Internally, officials referred to them as "white vest" cases. But then, security experts took a closer look at their files and determined that many of them were still deeply indoctrinated. More than 50 women IS followers from Germany would likely be initially allowed their freedom were they to return. Others would have to be kept under surveillance, some even around the clock.

'Nobody Wants to Have Them Here'

As has become apparent, in other words, the wait-and-see approach hasn't been successful. And it has also made it more difficult for Germany to pressure other countries to take back their own Islamists. Armin Schuster, a domestic policy expert from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said back in February: "We can't expect other countries to take back those we would like to deport because of the security threat they present while at the same time refusing to accept German IS terrorists from Syria."

Eva Högl, deputy head of the Social Democrats (SPD), says: "Nobody wants to have them here. But as a constitutional democracy, it is our duty to accept the return of German citizens and try offenders in a court of law."

In practice, though, it's not quite that simple, particularly after the American withdrawal from the region. "Because of the current war scenario, we have no possibility to bring people back right now," Högl says.

For a time, it looked as though an IS tribunal in neighboring Iraq might provide a possible solution to the difficult situation. But both Baghdad's insistence on being paid millions for each individual case and the fact that the country immediately sentenced French IS fighters to death once they were transferred to Iraq has dampened Berlin's enthusiasm for the alternative.

Earlier this month, representatives from a number of EU member states, including Germany, met in Copenhagen. Together, they developed the idea of establishing a tribunal in Iraq that would include Western judges in addition to those from Iraq as a way of making up for the significant shortcomings of the Iraqi judiciary. But rapid implementation is unlikely, says one government official. "We are running out of time." A domestic policy expert from the opposition Free Democrats (FDP), Stephan Thomae, agrees. "It would take months, probably years, to set up an international tribunal," he says. "It's too late for that now."

Several months ago, Thomae had demanded that Germany fly out its IS fighters and put them on trial at home -- and was heavily criticized for the suggestion. Now, he feels vindicated. "The government's inactivity is coming back to haunt it," he says.

Opposition politician Irene Mihalic of the Green Party believes that the government should particularly take responsibility for the more than 100 children, who, in contrast to their parents, are victims rather than perpetrators. But thus far, German diplomats have only managed to extract three orphaned children and one seriously ill infant from the warzone. "It can't continue like this," says Claudia Dantschke from HAYAT, a counseling center aimed at the deradicalization of Islamists. "The traumatized children only know a life of fear, war, bombs and then malnourishment in the camps."

Even More Difficult

But the Foreign Ministry has remained guarded. The government is fundamentally willing to bring back children, ministry sources say, but they must first submit to DNA tests to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are, in fact, German. That process, they say, can take several months and Germany would have to rely on assistance from aid organizations. Furthermore, the already challenging situation has been made that much more difficult by the current situation in the region.

The German government is particularly reluctant to bring the children's mothers back to Germany as well, even though a Berlin administrative court ruled that the country had to do exactly that in a case brought by lawyer Dirk Schoenian. The case involved an IS follower from Wolfsburg who is being held in the al-Hawl internment camp with her three children, with the court ordering in July that an immediate identity verification be carried out. Once it had been completed, the court ordered, the government would have to bring her and her children back to Germany without delay.

The Foreign Ministry in Berlin immediately appealed, and the appellate court is expected to issue a verdict soon. Around a dozen additional families are waiting expectantly for the conclusion of the case.

Danisch Farooqi, sitting in a Hamburg apartment, is also waiting impatiently to see how the current situation might be resolved. He is looking for news from Syria and has just typed the term al-Roj into Google, the name of an internment camp for IS women and their children. It is where his nine-year-old daughter Aaliya is living in a tent together with Farooqi's ex-wife.

He hasn't seen his daughter for years. In summer 2014, his ex-wife left to join Islamic State with her new husband and Aaliya, who was three at the time. They were taken into custody by the Kurds in late 2017. The new husband, an IS fighter from Tunisia, was sent to prison and his wife was taken to a camp for IS families.

Farooqi can only learn how his daughter is doing indirectly, via the counseling center HAYAT, which has contact to German families in the camp. "I have tried everything to bring my daughter back to Germany," Farooqi says, including writing letters to Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. But nothing has come of his efforts.

And now, he is more worried than ever before. Ever since Turkey marched into northern Syria, Farooqi has hardly slept a wink.

By Hubert Gude, Martin Knobbe, Roman Lehberger, Christoph Reuter and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt

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