Masoud's Revenge Syrian Refugee Helps Germans Hunt Down IS

As a prisoner of Islamic State in Syria, journalist Masoud Aqil suffered torture and death threats. Now in Germany, he is helping law enforcement officials hunt down former IS members who came to Europe as refugees.
Von Jonas Breng
Masoud Aqil

Masoud Aqil

At the climax of the hunt -- one which was to give Masoud Aqil his freedom back -- he clenches his fists and holds his breath in dread. Aqil is hiding in the parking lot of an industrial park in Bavaria and he carefully peers out onto the street from between the cars. On the right, he can see the refugee hostel, on the left, a shoe store. On the street in between, a man is approaching on a bicycle. Is he really the terrorist?

Aqil leans forward slightly to get a better view -- the man he is looking for has a scar on his forehead. "That's the bastard. Oh god, I recognize him," Aqil whispers. The man with the scar pedals unhurriedly into the courtyard in front of the hostel.

By the time the man appears, Aqil has been waiting in front of the hostel for seven hours. During the wait, he speaks of revenge and of the gratification of no longer feeling like a victim. But on that evening in May, as the man who Aqil believes is an Islamic State (IS) terrorist rides by, Aqil cowers motionlessly. For a couple of seconds, he is once again prisoner 6015, a captive of Islamic State, doomed to death. The Islamists humiliated Aqil, and they tortured him. They said they were going to cut his head off with a knife, like an animal.

A Kurdish journalist from Syria, Aqil is 23 years old. He was kidnapped there by IS and survived for 280 days in their prisons of torture -- until he was released as part of a prisoner exchange and fled to Germany.

But here, in the peace and quiet of Europe, the terror of Syria caught up with him. Aqil ran into an old acquaintance from the other side -- a fighter for Islamic State. Both of them are now refugees in Germany  -- a victim and an alleged perpetrator, one in northern Germany and the other in the south. It is a situation that shows that some refugees brought the war with them when they fled -- and it shows why it is so difficult for German investigators to distinguish between criminals and their victims.

Reason To Be Afraid

It is often the case that people want to remain anonymous in stories such as this one. But Aqil insists that his real name be used. He wants to demonstrate that the terrorists have no power over him. Aqil, though, is still afraid, and he believes that he has reason to be fearful, even here in Germany . That's why he is helping out German investigators on other cases as well.

Aqil is from Qamishli, a city in the largely Kurdish area of northern Syria. His father was a wheat farmer and owned a large plot of land while his mother often cooked her son a meal of eggs and tomatoes. It was a good life.

Aqil moved to Aleppo to attend university, where he began studying English-language literature, reading Hemingway and Faulkner -- only returning to Qamishli in 2013 after the university was bombed. A brother-in-law managed to get him a job at the Kurdish radio station Rudaw.

Aqil interviewed Kurdish officers and wrote both about concerts in the city and about politics. He was quick and smart -- and he found the work easy. If there is such a thing as freedom in times of war, Aqil was able to enjoy it.

But that life came to an end on Dec. 15, 2014. Together with his colleague Farhad Hamo, Aqil set out that morning for the city of Tall Alu for an interview with a clan leader on the edge of IS-held territory. Hamo drove while Aqil dozed off in the passenger seat. After about an hour, Aqil says, Hamo suddenly woke him up with a jab to the ribs. Aqil opened his eyes and saw a group of men in front of them. It was an Islamic State assault unit -- only about 50 meters away.

Later, in prison, Aqil kept reliving that moment -- thinking of the couple of seconds he and Hamo maybe could have used to turn around and floor it out of there. But in the moment, it was like they were paralyzed. One of the IS fighters  came up to the window. "Who are you? Where are you going?" he asked, according to Aqil. He was wearing the kind of vest often worn by suicide bombers and a green facemask and was carrying an M16 assault rifle.

Aqil says: "We had microphones and cameras in the trunk. We couldn't have denied it. The only thing going through my mind was: We shouldn't be here."

Blindfolded and Handcuffed

The Islamists brought the two journalists, Aqil continues, to a school that they used as a prison. Aqil was blindfolded and handcuffed. They began beating him for a few minutes and then pulled him up on a rope by the hands. I'm going to die, Aqil thought to himself.

The terrorists wanted to know where he came from, for how long he had been a journalist and whether he belonged to the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, Islamic State's most feared enemy. The Islamists opened his laptop, Aqil says, and scoured his hard drive. For every one of his Twitter posts, they hit his naked legs with a wooden club. There were 154 posts, he says.

When the fighters pulled him and Hamo out of their cells the next morning, Aqil yelled: "What's going to happen to us?" An IS guard ran his finger across Aqil's neck: "What do you think? We're going to cut off your head," the man said according to Aqil.

They were led in front of an open-air Sharia court. Aqil describes how they kneeled trembling on a gravel square in a cold, dusty wind. They were surrounded by around 10 IS members, though it was impossible to know for sure because of his blindfold. The judge had a high-pitched voice and screamed most of the time. The judge, Aqil says, shrieked that he had decided to execute the "devils." Immediately.

Afterwards, as the fighters shoved he and Hamo into a car, Aqil whispered: "Brother, be strong. Our time has come."

But then, the car didn't just drive into the desert somewhere, but to Shaddadi, a town 60 kilometers away, stopping in front of a small prison. Somebody had apparently decided that the two reporters could prove more useful alive than dead.

In Shaddadi, Aqil continues, they forced him into orange coveralls and threw him into a cell holding four other men. It stank of excrement and sweat. A small man was crouched down in a corner: "I'm Nihab," the man said. Like Aqil, Nihab was from Qamishli and had been locked up for a minor infraction. Aqil collapsed next to Nihab and closed his eyes.

When the guards in the coming days tossed moldy hunks of bread into the cell, the two shared it between them. Aqil was younger than Nihab, but when Nihab cried, Aqil put his arm around his new friend's shoulder and told stories of Qamishli. It proved helpful, mostly to calm Aqil's own fears. Nihab showed him a small pen that he had managed to keep hidden from the guards.

"It's like a movie," Aqil told himself. "I have to watch and wait for it to end. It will be over eventually."

Preparing Himself to Die

Aqil says that he was tortured regularly, mostly at night. IS men, he says, would beat him with cables or metal rods. Afterwards, as he lay on the floor with the metallic taste of blood in his mouth, he would think about the taste of the dish his mother used to make for him. "On some days, we were happy to be tortured," Aqil says. "That meant that death would wait."

On Fridays after prayers, the terrorists would shoot some of the prisoners. Aqil says he could hear the gunfire in his cell, after which the Islamists would force him to watch the videos on a mobile phone. "Look, journalist, what we did to your friends," they would say. Aqil would try not to throw up. "We are going to burn you alive," one of the IS fighters told him, Aqil says.

At some point they learned that Nihab might be released. Aqil tore a piece of paper out of a Koran and, using Nihab's pen, he wrote a kassiber, a secret message: "My dear father, my dear mother, I wish so badly to be with you at this moment. I miss you so much, but I am well. I know you are doing all you can for my freedom." Nihab shoved the note between the layers of the sole of his shoe and was released a short time later.

Masoud Aqil's prison calendar

Masoud Aqil's prison calendar

Aqil kept a calendar on a second scrap of paper, drawing a line each evening. He carried the slip hidden in his underwear. "I needed order. I didn't want to go crazy from fear."

A few days later, a broad-chested IS leader in sunglasses arrived at the prison. It was probably Abu Luqman, the IS provincial governor from Raqqa, Aqil says. Kneeling in front of a black flag, Abu Luqman ordered that Aqil be brought to the so-called central prison, a football stadium in the terrorists' stronghold of Raqqa.

It was February and the drive took five hours and there was snow in front of the stadium when they arrived. When Aqil's blindfold was removed, he found himself in a cell measuring two meters by one meter. From then on, Aqil slept on the damp ground next to his excrement. Under a thin felt blanket, parasites ate their way into his skin.

At some point, Aqil began talking to himself, for hours at a time -- until one night he heard Hamo's voice. His colleague, Aqil thought, must be just a couple of cells away. "We prayed as loud as we could so that we could hear each other's voice," Aqil says. "So that we knew we weren't alone." At night, Aqil dreamed of wool socks and of his girlfriend.

Beneath his skin, the vermin lay eggs -- and Aqil scratched himself until blood ran down his arm.

Freedom

When IS fighters pulled him out of his cell after about 100 days, he could hardly stand anymore. But his ordeal wasn't over and he was repeatedly brought to different prisons. Aqil didn't understand why Islamic State kept him alive. He had been imprisoned for about seven months -- his beard had grown down to his chest -- when prison guards made a video of him, forcing him to read a statement before the camera. It was about ransom money and a prisoner exchange. "I was of course hopeful," he says. "But a Kurdish journalist had never before survived IS captivity."

One evening in September, it was the 279th day of his imprisonment, one of the guards called out Aqil's name. Together with several fighters from the Kurdish militia YPG, he was taken to a pick-up. The men were forced to lie on top of each other in the bed of the truck, which then drove off into the night on a bumpy gravel road. Aqil says that he tasted the sand of the desert and once again prepared himself to die.

But the IS driver had a radio with him and Aqil heard the word "exchange site" through the receiver. He couldn't believe it. "I was shaking, but maybe it was just a trap and they would blow us up in the last second."

The exchange took place between the front lines in the desert south of Hasaka. "Tell the infidels they must obey Islam," said one of the terrorists before they took off Aqil's handcuffs. Aqil was put on a motorcycle and driven to the other side. He was free.

In the weeks that followed, Aqil met friends and relatives, but his fear persisted. On the street, he kept glancing over his shoulder, thinking that enemies could be lurking everywhere. He wanted to get away from the terror and away from the war. So he decided to travel to the safest country in the world, a place where two of his brothers were already living: Germany.

When Aqil and his mother crossed the German-Austrian border by train, Germany was involved in a bitter debate about the events that had taken place on New Year's Eve in Cologne, which saw dozens of women sexually harassed by migrants. Just months before, arriving refugees had been met with open arms and applause, but now, the mood was shifting. Many Germans were now wondering who these foreigners were who were coming to their country for protection. The Germans were concerned about their security.

'Now, the Terrorists Are Here'

Initially, Aqil and his mother ended up in a refugee tent in northern Germany. Not long later, in March, three IS terrorists blew themselves up in Brussels and investigators uncovered a terrorist network that spread across several countries, including Germany. Politicians and security personnel warned that Islamic State was able to smuggle fighters into Germany by way of the refugee routes.

A huge number of migrants arrived in Germany without papers and it was impossible to determine who they were. How, then, could officials differentiate between real refugees and terrorists? "Germany made a mistake by letting all of these people in," says Aqil. "Now, the terrorists are here."

He opens his laptop and points to a screenshot of a Facebook profile showing a grinning man in sunglasses. When Aqil saw this photo for the first time, he could hardly breathe. He knew this Arab with the scar on his forehead.

The man is from Qamishli and had lived just a few streets away from Aqil until, in 2013, he suddenly disappeared from the city, parts of which were under the control of the Kurdish YPG. At the same time, Aqil says, images of the man holding a Kalashnikov and standing next to IS fighters appeared on his then-Facebook profile. He had apparently become one of them.

After the terrorists kidnapped Aqil, his brother contacted the man with the scar on his face via Facebook. It was a desperate attempt to ask for help from an Islamist -- and he of course didn't get an answer.

"He is evil incarnate," says Aqil, biting his fist. "Everyone in our city knew that he belonged to them." Now, the man has a new Facebook profile and there are no longer any images of him with other IS fighters. Aqil's brother stumbled upon the new profile and forwarded it to Aqil. The man's new hometown was also listed: a city in Bavaria.

The night after his brother sent him the screenshot, Aqil couldn't sleep. He came to Germany so that he could live in safety. But now, the terror was here too.

At some point that night, Aqil got up and started researching, looking through Facebook profiles and contacting members of the YPG militia. He wanted to find the man with the scar and expose him to the German police. Aqil, the former prisoner, had become a terrorist hunter. "I had to do something to protect Germany," Aqil says. Now, Aqil is working on a number of different cases for two German investigative agencies. He has already been able to deliver the names and locations of several suspects from his time as a prisoner. The investigators hold him in high regard.

An Extreme Challenge

But the first case was the man with the scar. In May, after Aqil had found out where the man was living, he climbed aboard a train to Bavaria. "If I wasn't certain, I wouldn't steal the police's time," he says on the ride and pulls a thumb drive out of his pocket where all of the pictures and information is stored. Rapeseed fields and gardens speed past outside.

It is pouring down rain when Aqil climbs up the stairs to the offices of the criminal police. Two special investigators with the Bavarian police forces have traveled there to meet him. They lead Aqil into an interrogation room with a poster of a Bavarian landscape on the wall. "You don't have to say anything that would incriminate you," says one of the investigators. Aqil takes a deep breath.

Following the interrogation, the investigators are satisfied and they take Aqil seriously even if he is unable to provide clear proof. "The man seems credible. We have no reason to doubt the information. But it's a complicated case," one of the two says.

Cases such as this one present an extreme challenge to the special investigators. How are they supposed to gather evidence that will stand up in court about people who have no paper trail? A scar, the testimony of another refugee: that's often not enough. Plus, there isn't a police force in Syria that they could turn to for help. In recent months, the two special investigators have looked into more than 30 complaints of the type they received from Aqil. Only one suspect has been arrested.

This time, too, the officers began investigating. They interrogated the man with the scar and searched both his laptop and mobile phone -- but found nothing. So Aqil decided to call on the man himself. Two days later, he was sitting in the parking lot of the industrial park.

And then everything went quickly. When the man biked into the courtyard of the refugee hostel, Aqil froze. He could have stopped him to talk to him, but he stayed where he was. "I can't," Aqil whispered.

Later, the man was standing in front of the hostel entrance smoking a cigarette, providing an opportunity for a couple of questions. "Are you from Qamishli in Syria?"

"Yes." His voice was quiet and tight. "How did you know that?"

"The police were here a short time ago. What did they want from you?"

The man remained silent. His fingers fished a second cigarette out of his pack. But he didn't light it.

"Have you ever been a member of Islamic State?"

"Bullshit," he said fiercely and threw the cigarette into the corner. His hands were shaking as he quickly shoved them into the pockets of his pants.

From DER SPIEGEL
Foto: DER SPIEGEL

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 40/2016 (October 1st, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

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