Hundreds of radical Islamists from Germany have headed to Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State. Many have since returned home. Now the country’s court system is gearing up for the coming legal battles — and facing myriad challenges.
The players at TuS Makkabit Frankfurt remember Kreshnik B. as a reliable defender. As a member of the Jewish football club’s youth B-team, he kept opposing players away from his goal and even shot a few of his own. Kreshnik B., who is Muslim, happily wore the blue jersey of the team, despite it being decorated with Hebraic lettering and the Star of David. “He was proud to take the field with the star,” club leader Alon Meyer recalls.
Not even three years after playing for the team, Kreshnik swapped the football field for the battlefield. In the name of Allah, he allegedly joined the radical Islamist organization Islamic State in its fight to set up an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. “Jihad these days is an individual’s duty,” he wrote his sister from the Middle East and asked her to pray that he might fall as a martyr. “I’m chillin’, fighting, doing my job for Allah. I take my Kalashnikov and bismillah,” he rhymed.
The five months that Kreshnik B., now 20, spent in Syria fighting for Islamic State are now the subject of a case which began in Frankfurt on Monday. He stands accused of membership in a terrorist organization and of “preparing a serious act of violent subversion.”
His trial marks the first time that a presumed Islamic State fighter has appeared in front of a German court. It won’t be the last. The number of jihadists who have left the country for Syria along with the number of Islamic State’s supporters in Germany is already much higher than it ever was during the Afghanistan conflict. Currently, there are around 140 investigations under way in Germany against Islamic State fighters or their supporters. And the number is climbing. Federal state prosecutors have taken on 33 cases involving more than 60 suspects, but the flood of cases has begun clogging up dockets across the country.
Politicians have also begun considering ways to stop the jihadists and their increasingly bold propaganda promoting the “holy war.” Last Friday, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière made any form of support for Islamic State illegal and an association of state working groups under the leadership of the Hesse Interior Ministry is currently looking into ways of preventing young Muslims from sliding into the militant Islamist scene in the first place. The aim is to combat the consistently rising number of young Muslims joining the jihad.
‘Tell Mom She Shouldn’t Be Frightened’
In many ways, Kreshnik B., the son of refugees from Kosovo, is a typical representative of jihad Made in Germany. The indictment claims that he boarded an Istanbul-bound bus in Frankfurt with six others in 2013. From there, they continued on to Syria.
“I really don’t care which group I end up fighting for,” Kreshnik wrote to his sister during the journey. “The most important thing is that I fight for Sharia and that I can do many deeds to serve God.” As fate would have it, he ended up joining Islamic State near the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Other extremist groups refused to accept the inexperienced men from the West, most of whom were unable to speak Arabic. But Islamic State took almost all of them, as cannon fodder, suicide bombers or, should it become necessary, hostages for ransom money.
Kreshnik B. went through a weapons training program, performed guard duties and fought. Back in Germany, his parents went to the police and were apparently ready to travel to Syria to convince their son to come home. “Tell mom that she shouldn’t be frightened, because I have my weapon with me,” Kreshnik wrote to his sister.
But the fun of jihad didn’t last long. Soon, Kreshnik began complaining to his sister of harassment from his commander, and of arguments and boring guard shifts. On one day, he reported, “three or four people” from his group died. We “shot tanks and tried everything, but nothing worked.”
Then, the head of the group came and said: “I need four people to go in who won’t come out alive.” The German jihadist wasn’t prepared for such a mission after all and traveled back to Frankfurt on Dec. 12, 2013, where he was arrested.
Part of the Salafist Scene
Exactly what pushed young people like Kreshnik B. to risk their lives in faraway wars was long a mystery to German authorities. But security officials recently assembled an 18-page report examining the radicalization process. It has provided some initial answers, and its findings, in some cases, are surprising.
The report notes that, of the 378 people who had headed for Syria with “Islamist motivations” by the end of June, more than 40 were women. Sixteen of them were minors, with the youngest having just turned 15. Almost two-thirds were born in Germany and roughly half of them left with the intention of joining the jihad. The overwhelming majority, 84 percent, are believed by authorities to be part of the Salafist scene.
In no way were all of Germany’s radicalized Muslims on the fringes of society or people without a future. More than 100 of them had received their diplomas by the time they left, with 41 of them having completed the Abitur, Germany’s college-prep diploma. Forty-three were enrolled in universities.
The “most important factor for radicalization” were friends, the study found. In 114 cases, they had a significant effect on those who headed off to join the jihad. Indeed, a jihadist’s circle of friends was found to be more important than the work of recruiters or radical preachers in Salafist mosques. In two-thirds of the cases, the Internet played a role in the radicalization process.
The report, which was commissioned by the Interior Ministry, conspicuously lacks ideas for how to address the growing number of fanatical Islamists. The fact that it took more than a year for the vast majority to become radicalized — theoretically providing sufficient time to intervene — offers a glimmer of hope. But family members, non-Islamist friends, teachers or social workers only rarely notice the subtle changes occurring in those close to them as they become more radical.
‘I Love Allah More’
Ismail I. marks something of an exception — his transformation took place extremely rapidly. He will likely become the next German to answer before a court for allegedly having joined the jihad in Syria. The trial is set to begin in Stuttgart at the end of October.
The Lebanese-born 24-year-old hasn’t had much success in his life. He was able to receive his high school diploma, albeit at a lower-tier Realschule, but was unable to find a traineeship afterwards. Drugs and truancy led to his expulsion from a vocational college, after which he worked for short stints at a bakery and at a KFC in Stuttgart. His marriage only lasted a few months.
Ismail I. then became acquainted with several significant figures in the German Salafist scene, including the preacher Sven Lau, who recently made headlines by sending a “Sharia Police” out on patrol in Wuppertal. After taking part in a pilgrimage with Lau, Ismail I. is thought to have flown from Düsseldorf to the Turkish city of Gaziantep on Aug. 22, 2013. From there, he took a bus to the Syrian border. He left a letter behind for his family reading: “I love you, but I love Allah more.”
In Syria, he allegedly joined Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a Chechen-dominated group of Islamist fighters that merged into Islamic State over the course of last year.
In the autumn of 2013, Ismail I. apparently flew back to Stuttgart at the group’s behest. There, he went on a shopping spree for the war, buying large amounts of camouflage clothing, night-vision devices, scalpels and Celox, a drug which slows bleeding. For €850, he also purchased an old station wagon that he and a helper planned to use to drive his purchases back to Syria. But they didn’t get very far. They were arrested on Nov. 13 at an Autobahn rest area between Stuttgart and Ulm.
The case of Ismail I. illustrates the challenge facing the German judiciary as it addresses the muddled Syrian civil war 3,000 kilometers away. Several different groups, subgroups and sub-subgroups are involved in the fight there and it isn’t easy to tell which ones are affiliated with Islamic State.
Federal prosecutors, who charged Ismail I. in May, must conduct precise investigations. They are responsible for all cases having to do with crimes committed in connection with membership in or support of a foreign terror organization.
History has shown that many such trials last more than a year. Officially, the federal prosecutor’s office describes them as “unique challenges for criminal investigations.” Unofficially, federal prosecutors recently sounded the alarm in the Justice Ministry — if the number of such cases continue to rise, the office will sooner or later be overwhelmed.
In Kreshnik B.’s case, a deal is in the works which could provide some relief to all involved. The court this week indicated that Kreshnik B. may be given a lighter sentence should he provide a comprehensive confession. Ahead of the trial, his defense attorney and prosecutors reportedly met with the judge to pave the way for just such a deal. Either way, given the possibility that Kreshnik B. would be convicted under juvenile law, his sentence isn’t likely to be severe. The defendant’s attorney, Mutlu Günal, told SPIEGEL that he would be open to a plea bargain.
But policymakers face an even more difficult challenge than jurists when it comes to jihad tourists. Officials believe that 120 people have returned to Germany from Syria thus far, but in many cases it isn’t clear what the person in question was doing in Syria — whether they fought and, if so, for whom. Most importantly, it isn’t clear in all cases whether they represent a threat now that they have returned home. The report compiled by security officials notes that only two dozen of those who have returned are “being cooperative with authorities.” The others are refusing to talk — and refusing to answer the question as to whether they intend to bring Islamic State’s fight to Germany.
Domestic policymakers have recently spoken of “banning” Islamic State in Germany. But in order to do so, it has to be proven that the group has built up club-like structures here — which it hasn’t yet. Last Thursday, domestic intelligence officials from across the country held a telephone conference to discuss what rules could be put in place instead. The next day, Interior Minister de Maizière announced that all acts in support of Islamic State were banned.
Whether the ban will be effective in the fight against Islamic State activists remains to be seen. The edict will certainly be helpful in locking away individual Islamic State supporters for up to two years should they display the group’s flag, use its symbols or spread its propaganda videos in the Internet. But banning Islamic State as a group isn’t yet possible because the group as such doesn’t exist yet in Germany. As such, de Maizière is operating in a legal gray area. “We want to nip the establishment of organized terror structures in the bud,” he said last week.
Another problem is the need to draw a clear line between Islamic State logos and normal symbols of Muslim belief. In individual cases, that might be tricky, one reason that the ban remained under consideration for so long. “We wanted to be sure that we wouldn’t offend the religious sensibilities of Muslims,” de Maizière said. He hopes the edict now issues will have a “deterrent effect.”
Other proposals have gone much further. One which is particularly popular among members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats would see a provision added to the criminal code that was once used to combat Germany’s left-wing terror group Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF).
“We have to once again make it criminal to solicit sympathy for terror organizations,” says CDU domestic policy expert Armin Schuster. “That would likely hit Islamic State supporters in Germany the hardest.”
The opposition in Berlin, however, continues to reject a further tightening of anti-terror laws. There are already “sufficient levers available to impose bans and limitations” on terrorists and their supporters, says Green Party domestic policy expert Irene Mihalic. “They just have to be forcefully applied.”