Written by Claudia Dantschke and Alma Fathi
Translated by Alper Taparli
1. A ROUGH OVERVIEW OF THE CURRENT SITUATION
October 13, 2017:
“They live, that’s so wonderful that I can’t describe it in words.” “That’s the most important thing; everything else will be okay as well.”
A chat between a counselor for deradicalization in Germany and a mother, whose Daughter suddenly disappeared two years earlier and after a while reappeared in the “caliphate” of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS). Together with her husband, who also comes from Germany, she had become part of a totalitarian system that is responsible for countless atrocities and crimes against humanity, such as the killing and enslavement of countless Yezidi men, women, and children.
The couple actively supported this system for two years. When the IS lost more and more ground in 2017, the “caliphate” shrank and the spouses were not spared from the numerous bomb attacks, the first doubts arose. At that time they were in Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the IS, where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by airstrikes by the US-led international anti-IS coalition, waged hard house-to-house combat against the IS terrorist militia. They made the decision to surrender to the Kurds rather than remain loyal to ISIS. They wanted to go back home to Germany. Knowing full well that the former comrades would not hesitate to shoot them, they dared to flee in life-threatening circumstances. On October 13, 2017, the mother in Germany received the liberating message:
They made it and they are alive.
That was three years ago. The SDF separated the couple, he was taken to a Kurdish prison, she was taken to one of the Kurdish refugee camps in northeast Syria, where foreign IS families are being held in separate security areas. At the beginning there were German secret service employees, whose questions they answered in great detail, and journalists with whom the spoke too. But Germany was still a long way off for them. Knowing full well that a prison sentence awaits them in Germany, the desire to come home was unbroken.
The problem of the repatriation of German citizens who have joined IS has not yet been resolved. About one hundred men and women from Germany are still in the Kurdish camps or prisons in northeast Syria. There are also around 130 children. Quite a few of them were as disillusioned with IS at the beginning of their imprisonment in Syria as the couple described in the introduction. The ideological narratives and images of the enemy had cracked and doubts arose. And three years later, today? In Chapter 2 we try to get to the bottom of this question.
With the support of the families of origin in Germany, many women – despite threats from camp inmates who still adhered to the IS ideology – commissioned lawyers to force the federal government to bring them back to Germany under German law. Many have had success with it, but only on paper. The proceedings, conducted exclusively through written documents, in which the Federal Foreign Office, as the competent institution, vehemently argued against repatriation. In addition to the lack of diplomatic relations with Syria, the Federal Foreign Office argued with references to the security risk for Germany that these women would pose. This has left deep marks with these women and their Families of origin. While the women in the camps always find a way to contact their families of origin, deradicalization institutions, but also dubious or even extremist support networks despite the strict mobile phone ban, the men in the prisons can only be contacted once a year or even more rarely when the Red Cross is able to forward letters.
The outbreak of the 2020 corona pandemic made the situation even worse. As a result, quite a few women place their hopes in smugglers who get them out of the camps. When Turkey invaded northern Syria in autumn 2019, the Kurds had to give up the Ain Issa camp, and the inmates fled in all directions. The German women who then made it to Turkey have since been deported to Germany. In particular, the al-Hol camp in the al-Hasakah province can hardly be secured by the SDF. Time and again women from Germany managed to secretly leave the camp with their children. Some of them have made it to Germany via Turkey. But not all of them want to return to Germany. Where they live and whom they join to survive is also a question of time and the conditions. Nearly all jihadist networks are still active in Syria, including IS.
To relieve the al-Hol camp and the prisons, the autonomous self-government in northeast Syria (Rojava, also AANES) issued a general amnesty for 25,000 Syrian women and children in autumn 2020, the majority of whom are members of IS jihadists, but there are many internally displaced persons among them also. Men, too, benefit from this amnesty, especially the elderly and the sick or low-ranking convicts, provided they have a guarantor. According to the Kurdish news agency ANF, despite this announced amnesty, there are currently 65,000 people in the al-Hol camp, including 30,000 from Iraq and almost 10,000 foreign women and children(ANF, last seen on 21.10.2020).
According to the ANF, Al-Hol is considered the most dangerous camp in the world because IS cell structures could form in the camp. For this reason, especially Western European women and children are increasingly being taken to a newly built camp near Camp Roj, where a harsh accommodation regime prevails. Cell phones are strictly forbidden there and women’s clothing is also regulated – black hijab and niqab are not tolerated.
From a security perspective, the strict ban on cell phones can be understood, after all, there have been repeated attempts to escape and to contact IS-related circles. In various audio messages, most recently on October 18, 2020, the “official spokesman for the Islamic State, Shaykh Al-Muhajir Abu Hamza Al-Qurashi”, the successor to the former self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was killed at the end of October 2019, announced that IS has never forgotten the prisoners and will never forget them and “that their brothers in all wilayaat (cities/provinces under Islamic management) are ready to die on the prison walls to free them” (Excerpt from the translation of an audio message in a German-language IS-related Telegram channel, read on October 19, 2020). For the families in Germany as well as for their daughters and grandchildren in the Syrian-Kurdish camps, however, the cell phone is the only connection to one another. The fear of those who are still in the al-Hol camp, of losing this connection to their families is correspondingly great. In those cases in which the daughters and grandchildren are already in the new camp, this break in contact has already become reality, because the Kurdish guards seem to be able to really enforce the cell phone ban in this camp.
“We have determined that the conditions for women and children in these Syrian detention camps are reaching the threshold for torture under international law because of the inhuman and degrading treatment, and it is imperative that the women and children held there to be returned” said the UN Special Rapporteur (October 7. 2020) on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Combating Terrorism on the occasion of the return of a five-year-old orphan girl to Canada.
On September 28, 2020, special rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council presented an Amicus Curiae letter (a kind of statement) in a case before the European Court of Human Rights. In which they criticized the failure of Western governments to repatriate their nationals from detention camps in north-east Syria and described the repatriation as the “only reaction under international law, especially with regard to the particular vulnerability of women and girls in the camps”.
Elham Ahmad, President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), said that the Rojava authorities have repeatedly urged the international community to take their citizens back, but few countries have heeded the call. “With regard to the foreigners, this is discussed with their own countries,” said Ahmed, describing the return of foreigners as “difficult”.
But the question of repatriation is no longer that clear. The Federal Foreign Office is said to have handed over a list with the names of a total of 25 German women and children to representatives of the Kurds at the beginning of 2020 and asked them to be transferred. But the Kurds refused. The Kurdish side, so it is said in a report on tagesschau.de (German daily news show), has emphatically explained “that adult women cannot be sent back because they are to be prosecuted locally”. The autonomous authority and the representation of the self-government of northern and eastern Syria in Germany immediately denied this report, but between the lines, it sounds more like a confirmation.
It should not be ignored; it says in this “denial”, “that the crimes committed by many of the arrested ISIS members were perpetrated against the people of northern and eastern Syria. Accordingly, it is important to conduct on-site investigations in order to adequately deal with these crimes legally and allow the victims of the crimes to have their say. In this context, the Federation of North and East Syria has repeatedly expressed its willingness to cooperate with international actors. We demand extensive cooperation from the international community in the legal prosecution of crimes committed by the terrorists of the so-called IS”.
Sweden is now said to have advocated this position and asked the European Union to set up an international tribunal to persecute IS fighters instead of sending them back to individual countries. According to the Swedish Foreign Ministry, a delegation met with the autonomous administration responsible for the Syrian camps at the beginning of October 2020 to discuss the AANES initiative for local court proceedings against adult camp residents.
From January or February 2021, Swedish IS suspects in northern and eastern Syria will be tried in courts of the Autonomous Administration with the participation of Swedish legal observers, the Rojava Information Center reported on October 22, 2020, via Twitter. Just like the report on tagess-chau.de, Dr. Hans-Jakob Schindler, Senior Director of the Counter Extremism Project New York and Berlin, describes a paradigm shift on the Kurdish side. At the same time, in an interview with The National, he refers to the general legal question of the status of the Kurdish areas in Syria, which are not an internationally recognized country, which is why it is not clear under which law these people will be prosecuted. Germany in particular is likely to have a very difficult time doing this.
It can hardly be expected that these questions will be resolved in the near future, even if all current activities such as the increased repatriation of sick children and orphans to different countries sug-gest that the Kurdish side is serious about its paradigm shift. For families in Germany and their daughters, sons, and grandchildren in Syria, this uncertainty is an enormous psychological burden. Families of origin are crucial for reintegration if relatives who have emigrated to IS are returned. If they are emotionally and structurally able and ready to offer the returning person a stable environment, at least initially, to reintegrate them into the family, this is of enormous importance for the further course of deradicalization.
When the issue of returnees became acute in the winter of 2019 with the fall of Baghuz, the last IS bastion in Syria, it was still understandable that the federal government rejected premature repatriation with a view to the security aspect. The fear outweighed that due to a lack of evidence, the former IS activists would have to roam free in Germany. Due to intensive investigations and more and more statements from those who have already returned, the situation is now completely different. Even with regard to women, the investigative authorities have several criminal law para-graphs at their disposal in order to obtain at least one arrest warrant: §129a / b StGB – formation of a terrorist organization; §89 StGB – preparation of a serious act of violence endangering the state Section 235 StGB – deprivation of minors; Section 171 of the Criminal Code – the violation of the duty of care or upbringing if you have left with children. And international law can also be used for criminal prosecution when it comes to war crimes such as the slave trade or the expropriation of apartments or houses.
However, the more time that passes, the more questionable it is whether convictions will even lead to incarceration. Because the judges will take into account the time already served in the Syrian-Kurdish camp or prison, possibly in a factor of one to three. In the case of the couple described at the beginning that would mean nine years.
Even if no arrest warrant can be obtained, Germany is now well equipped to take care of each individual returnee relatively closely. In seven federal states – initiated and financed by the advice center for radicalization of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) – a return coordination program has been set up that keeps an eye on the entire process and coordinate the measures between state and civil society actors.
Experience so far with returning women and men who are looked after in this close-knitted network shows that reintegration and the associated distancing and exit work is a very lengthy process, but can be quite successful. The longer the repatriation takes, however, it is to be feared that both the family of origin and the potential returnees will feel abandoned and turn away from the Federal Foreign Office because of the experiences in the prisons and prison camps, the uncertainty of the repatriation and the signals in the documents of the administrative court proceedings being sent out. The victim’s narrative is increasingly coming to the fore and the actual act, the support of the IS terror regime, is slowly fading. This is, also with regard to the 130 or so children who are at the mercy of this context and who are shaped by it, not a good starting point for deradicalization.
2. FROM “PARADISE ON EARTH” TO “HELL” AND BACK
“What makes you so cold that you forget your sister? That you don’t help them? That you are of no use to this ummah? Fear Allah! What would you do if it was your biological sister? Or your mother? You would try everything possible. But you forget your sisters by Allah! We can’t even imagine what they’re going through there, Alhamdulillah. Fear Allah! If your heart doesn’t tremble, your eyes don’t cry and your hands don’t do anything when you see how these Mushrikun(enemy of god, polytheists) treat our Akhwat(Sisters)”.
Excerpt from a Telegram channel of IS-related women from October 9, 2020
These and other admonitions and calls for help are spread every day via social media and chat channels. They are highly emotional and appeal to the conscience of the so-called “brothers and sisters”. These posts in the chat groups have different content, but they all have one thing in common – they appeal to Muslims’ sense of responsibility and want them to feel guilty about their “inactivity”, their way of life (consumption, security, etc.) or their “wrong” behavior. Afterward, people are always asked to act, donate, pray, or write letters.
There are threats of hell punishment in the other world or God’s punishment in this world. This emotionalized way of addressing is and has been the core component of the radical jihadist ideology since the beginning of developments in Syria and Iraq. It is therefore worth checking how the content and, in some cases, the actors of the propaganda have changed after the military end of IS. We concentrate on content from various chats on social media and observations from the direct practical work of the HAYAT advice center.
As already mentioned, a prompt solution to the repatriation problem of German citizens who are being held in Kurdish camps or prisons in north-east Syria is not to be expected. Some of the German women and men have been in Kurdish captivity for more than three years. The others did not leave the IS area until the spring of 2019 after the fall of Baghuz. There were various reasons for this. Some families could no longer leave the IS area, while others stayed voluntarily.
At first, many of the women were happy to arrive at the camps. The last few days in the IS area were marked by war, hunger, and fear. Women reported that there was no more food or water. The IS leadership also no longer bothered to take care of its members and brought itself to safety. This treatment and the negative war experiences led some of the women to distance themselves for the first time or to the realization that they had destroyed their own lives and that of their children by emigrating to a war zone. Many of the women were ready to return to Germany after their capture by the Kurdish forces.
According to HAYAT, a large number of German women in the camps are distanced but continue to support a return to Germany. With these women, dissociation work and, in the best case, de-radicalization work is possible, as the ideology has already been questioned by them or has started to crack. They are often in an intermediate stage in which their thinking is torn. They are still ideologically shaped and cognitively influenced, but their new life situation in the camps now gives them the opportunity to take on new perspectives.
This affects different areas of life such as communication with their families, access to the Internet, and alternative sources of news (outside of the IS networks). In particular, access to news that is not regulated or colored by propaganda seems to be helpful for the individual examination of one’s own situation. In addition, the contact with the outside world (sometimes also with the advice center, lawyers, former friends, and classmates) and with the family has a very positive effect and feeds the desire to return.
The women endeavor to behave inconspicuously in the camps, to avoid disputes and conflicts with other residents. Nevertheless, a complete cognitive detachment is only possible to a limited extent under the current circumstances; as they continue to find themselves in an environment in which other women continue to exert ideological, but also psychological and physical pressure. Despite their fears, the dissociated women are ready to accept all the consequences such as imprisonment, giving their children into foster care, etc. The long and partly understandable hesitation of the federal government with regard to their repatriation leads to great uncertainty among these women, which is linked to the question of whether they will ever get a second chance and be part of society again.
“They’ll never take us back” and other similar statements shape the consultations with them. The sooner you can work with these women personally, the greater the chances of initiating a lasting reflection process. The prospect of a future in Germany, no matter what it looks like – in prison or on the loose – is the minimal basis for deradicalization work. Someone who has an uncertain future ahead and possibly also fears being convicted abroad is hardly able to develop a positive future perspective and to build an alternative identity.
In addition to the disaffected and sometimes distant women, there are also a number of ideologically convinced women who pose a real threat to democracy. For some of these women, their stay in the camps and the uncertain future further strengthened old thought patterns. The former “opponents” of IS, the Kurds, were continuously or again constructed as “enemies” and the “bad” treatment in the camps was interpreted in the old context of perception. Due to the poor hygienic conditions, the meager food and water supply, the lack of medical care, and much more, the women in the camps are concerned with daily “survival” and also have no strength to critically deal with their own past. Often they are also unable to understand their own situation as a consequence of their own actions, or even to think about the fact that this life situation in the camps will remain a permanent condition for many of the Syrian natives because they have not been “saved” by their government. Rather, they persist in a victim narrative (“Muslims as victims and oppressed”), which continues to determine their interpretation matrix.
The circumstances in the refugee camps are also suitable for being used propagandistically in terms of ideology. Thus, in the various “sister channels” there are always descriptions of the camps, which are connected with calls for help and requests for money. Although life among the “unbelievers” (e.g. in Germany) is also repeatedly denounced as a mistake, it is contrasted with the meager life in the camps and an obligation to help is derived from the better life situation.
(…) “What is it with you/us from Germany? We are simply hesitating? Aren’t our closets full to the brim with clothes and our refrigerators full of supplies? While women and orphans are starving and have nothing to change their clothes?
Excerpt from a telegram channel of IS-related women from September 25, 2020
During the heydays of the IS, there were already numerous “sister forums” and offers. These structures were further developed in the war and crisis zones in Syria and Iraq and continue to exist in the camps (online and now also offline) today. As a result, they are also gaining enormous importance for the scene. Due to the absence of men who have been killed or imprisoned, women now have a more active and important role in propaganda. They organize donations for the “sisters” in the camps, sell used (clothes, books, etc.) and new things (dolls, coffee cups, etc.). They organize “sisters” exchange markets, religious events, and offers for children.
These offers and networks existed even before the rise of IS. After the military ending, however, they gained in importance and experienced a new revaluation. The basis for this new development was the “propaganda gap” created by the death or capture of the men. As a result, a qualitative professionalization as well as a quantitative increase in German women’s networks can be observed. One reason for this is the fact that women in the camps are freer in their actions – also freer than in the IS area. According to Gina Vale, the imprisonment of women and their autonomous actions in the camps therefore marks a new turning point for female activities in the IS. Another important aspect concerns the topics of the speeches and their reference context. The themes for recruitment at the beginning of the military conflicts in Syria and Iraq were designed more for an international audience; they addressed the atrocities committed by the Assad regime against the local population. There were also German-language sites (websites, Twitter, and later Telegram channels, Facebook, Instagram), but they were mostly run by men and were more likely meant for men. Only during the heydays of the IS increased the number of “travel reports” of German female Jihadists, but these “offers” were rather small compared to for example English, Arabic, or Turkish language offers. This changed noticeably after the fall of Baghuz in March 2019. There are a number of new German-speaking women’s aid networks that have made it their mission to support the “imprisoned sisters”. Although jihadist prisoner networks did exist before, such strong female participation and independent content is rather a recent development. In addition, the impression has been created that the suffering of “German sisters” can be marketed better than the suffering of “sisters” in general and non-specific. There are therefore hardly any reports on the situation of the Syrian population and their suffering in the chat forums. This context of reference, which is experienced as more immediate, is the new central motor for activities on the scene. For the women who are in the camps, these networks are sometimes the only (if there is no supporting family) or additional means of obtaining money. This creates a financial dependency that can lead to them remaining in the networks.
Independently of this, there are also a number of radical women in the camps who want to enforce rigid religious norms among the other inmates by means of threats and self-established Sharia courts. The Syrian Kurds repeatedly take action against these structures within the camps, but often cannot completely prevent assaults and acts of violence. A rethink or reorientation toward a more liberal way of thinking is only possible to a limited extent in this environment, and only a few women succeed.
The longer the women are left in the camps, the more difficult it will be for counseling centers to reach them. In the context of the radical ideology’s interpretation, Germany’s refusal to bring its citizens home is a further confirmation of the victim narrative: “Human rights do not apply to Muslims”, “Muslims are oppressed all over the world”… This supposed unequal treatment is the core content of the radical ideology and is used again and again for emotional addresses. The feeling of “discrimination” among those affected in the camps is further nourished by this and, as with a self-fulfilling prophecy, is “confirmed” again and again by the experiences in the camp. A reflection on the reasons for internment in the security areas of the camps does not take place in this context of interpretation. This interpretation misjudges reality and offers a way out to negate personal responsibility for the situation. It corresponds to the dichotomous world view and continues to follow the friend-foe constructions of ideology. Thus, for some of the women, the stay in the camps can be another reason for an increasing radicalization or consolidation of ideology. In addition, there is another security risk that should not be ignored. Due to a lack of control, bribable guards and a well-organized smuggling network, some of these women manage to escape from the camps time and again. Those who do not want to return to their home countries stay in Syria and hide. Others go to Turkey or other countries where they go into hiding and are supported by other sympathizers. The majority of these women continue to depend on the ideological networks of the IS or marry in order to make a living. To what extent it is possible to break away from the scene in these cases when such a strong dependence exists, remains questionable. This is especially true for women who no longer have any social ties in their home countries and/or act in this way for fear of prison sentences and having their children taken away.
3. THE CONSEQUENCES FOR DERADICALIZATION WORK
The long time spent in the camps and the uncertainty about one’s own future has serious consequences for counseling. This is true for those who have already distanced themselves from the camp as well as for those women who still adhere to the IS ideology.
A partial distancing from the IS on the basis of personal experience does not automatically lead to an intellectual rapprochement with democracy and the German state. Certainly, some of the women have learned to appreciate the security and comfort they enjoyed in Germany, but this does not lead to an identification with the democratic social system. In many respects, staying in the camps for a long time is a major obstacle to deradicalization work. It is a great challenge to teach these women the basic values of democracy, such as human rights, the rule of law, freedom of opinion, plurality, and much more if they perceive these human and basic rights as non-existent in their subjective reality or get the impression that these rights do not apply to them. This experience of “unequal treatment” possibly reinforces old ways of thinking that “Muslims are always discriminated against” and treated “worse”. It also supports the narrative fed by propaganda that “Muslims are not welcome in Germany anyway” and “can never be part of this society”.
The fact that, in the view of the German government, these people are terrorists is often not perceived or perceived as unjust by the persons concerned themselves. Distancing oneself from the IS and the jihadist scene is thus far from being deradicalization. This includes many other steps that can only be taken in a secure framework. An essential component of this is the examination of one’s own identity and a reinterpretation of life with its various aspects. This is only possible in Germany. After the return, there are ongoing preliminary proceedings, prison sentences, and other sanctions such as bans on leaving the country, passport notes, etc. These measures are justified and must be carried out by the security authorities, but even these can be perceived as too harsh, disproportionate, unfair, etc. by those affected. In the context of the consultation, it is therefore of great importance to reflect on the state measures together with the affected persons so that they do not fall into old patterns of thought, see themselves as victims and withdraw.
For the family environment, which is also affected by these measures, this can also lead to mistrust, fear, and/or distancing from the state or state institutions such as the youth welfare office, the police, etc. However, the families and social environment of the returnees are of central importance for deradicalization work and should therefore be won over as potential partners. In most cases, they have the closest relationship to the returnees after their return and can therefore best influence further development. Especially in those cases where there is no direct contact between the person and the counseling center before the return, this is the only way to come into direct contact with the person without a forced context and to start counseling if desired.
The long stay in the camps is very harmful to the children of those affected. Due to their situation, they often have health problems and are often not developed in line with their age. Psychosocial abnormalities can already be detected in some of these children. Save the Children already pointed out in February 2019 that these children need long-term psychological help to cope with what they have experienced. Especially children between the ages of ten and 14 years of age experience nervousness, withdrawal, aggression, nightmares, and night-time wetting.
Many of the German children are still very small (often under four years of age) and therefore do not yet understand the situation. This changes the longer the children are left in the camps. In addition to the physical and psychological deficits, there is ideological indoctrination. As the children grow older, they become more receptive to the ideology or the automatic imprint of the dominant social environment. Even though the women, some of whom are distanced, try to keep their children away from ideological influences in the camps, this is only partially successful and can leave its marks on the children.
It remains to be seen what consequences the long stay in the camps will have for German society if these women and their children should return one day. From the point of view of the HAYAT counseling center, it is very damaging to leave the women and especially the children in this ideological environment and not to offer them any alternative. The children are still very small and good reintegration into society would still be possible at this time. It is unclear, however, what this might look like after several years of ideological indoctrination and influence. Therefore, the return of these women and children should be carried out quickly, if only for security reasons. The experiences of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have already clearly shown in the past that the joint internment of radical individuals is not a good solution, but only generates more radicalism.
For the German version of this text please click here.