Their sons moved from Cologne to the war in Syria. They kept slaves and rose up the ranks of Islamic State leadership. Their parents would send them care packages with popcorn and Kalashnikov magazines.
Excerpts from the final chat between the son and his father in the spring of 2021:
Son: Why did you make a new statement? You just want to suck up to the infidels.
Father: With children like you, who needs enemies?
Son: God shall never give you another child. You’ve embarrassed us so much.
Father: I have lost everything because of you. Do what you want, you no-good.
Son: Just you wait. I love my mother. She was always a mother. You were never there. You never cared about us. The infidels should throw you into prison, too. There are pictures of you with a weapon in your hand and an IS flag.
Father: So what?
The father is sitting at a white lacquer table and scrolling through the screenshots of the last conversation he had with his son. He says he hasn’t heard from him in weeks and that he has since deleted his number, which had been saved in his contacts for several years as “my Ismail.”
It’s an evening in April and he seems exhausted, his voice subdued. He has invited us into his living room in a Cologne suburb to talk about his sons’ ingratitude and about their mother’s mistakes. But not about his own.
Ahmet S. is 53 years old. He wants to talk about his two sons, Ismail and Emre, who became high-ranking officers of Islamic State in Syria. And about his ex-wife Perihan S., who stole from her German neighbors to support her sons’ rise.
Along with Perihan S., Ahmet S. is also currently on trial at the Higher Regional Court in Düsseldorf. Since the start of a wave of trials in German courts against residents and citizens of the country who went to the Middle East to join Islamic State, parents are also now being tried for providing support to the terrorist organization. They stand accused of purchasing empty Kalashnikov magazines, balaclavas and combat knives for their sons and of having sent money to them in Syria on several occasions. Their sons, meanwhile were living in the homes of those who had been displaced and held Yazidi slaves. Emre is now being held in a Kurdish prison camp in Syria. Ismail is selling supplementary dental insurance to people in Germany from a call center in Ankara. Their parents back in Düsseldorf are facing potentially extensive prison sentences.
It is here where they have spent the last 18 months telling the court why they didn’t stop providing support to their children as they waged war in Syria.
It seems their father is still searching for answers to these questions himself, a search that takes him back to the childhood of his sons and his relationship with his former wife.
A timeline lies on the table in front of him, which he has headed: “Important Events.” He has reconstructed them from the nearly 60,000 pages of files and the transcripts of his family’s phone calls, which had been monitored for years. And from his leopard-print notebooks. The timetable is organized by key points: “Children gone.” “Sent Ismail 300 euros.” “I was in Syria.” “Took out a loan of 10,000 euros.” “Weapons orders started.”
The timeline, written in all-caps, seems like an attempt to grasp how his sons from Cologne could have gone off to join a war that had nothing to do with them. It’s also possible, though, that he’s just sorting through what happened so that he can convince himself that he didn’t fail as a father.
Ismail, his father says, didn’t stop drinking out of a bottle until he was nine.
He holds a picture of his two sons from those childhood days, posed in front of a red backdrop. Emre, the tall one, is on the left. Ismail, the little one, is on the right.
The boys were still children he says, when their mother tucked them into bed one night, turned off her mobile phone and flew off with the man she was having an affair with for a week of summer vacation in Antalya. He says he wanted to leave her when she got back, but she threatened to jump out of their 15th-floor window if he did.
He destroyed her mobile phone, but stayed with her.
Looking back, Ahmet S. says that forgiving her might have been the one mistake he made over the years.
Animal lover Ismail and his kittens
He was 16 when he fell in love with her. She was in training to become a dental assistant in Cologne, while he was a baker not far from Ankara. She was his cousin, the daughter of immigrant workers who had gone from Turkey to Germany – and who returned to his Turkish village every summer for vacation. They wrote letters to each other for four years. In 1989, he married her in her father’s summer garden in Turkey.
He says the money he earned as a baker was never enough for her. She always wanted more, he says, and she moved back to Cologne. He followed. They lived in a collection of high-rise residential buildings rising out of the flat surrounding countryside.
They had their first two sons there – Emre first, followed by Ismail 15 months later.
Ahmet S. has sorted the pictures of his sons on his laptop according to subject. He opens a folder called “Ismail and his cats.” He shows the photos: Ismail with cats on summer vacation. Ismail with cats outside. Ismail with his first cat Sissy in a run-down, single-family home in Cologne’s Rondorf neighborhood, where his parents moved at the end of the 1990s. They didn’t want their sons to grow up in a high-rise apartment complex.
They wanted them to become something.
Emre, the older of the two sons, was always more of a go-getter, his father says, the one who would always be the first to do things, despite being more timid. He put blonde streaks in his hair and wore an earring. He had beautiful girlfriends who would spend the night in his childhood bedroom despite his father’s disapproval. Ahmet S. shows a photo of Emre sitting in front of the computer, snacking and smiling at the camera.
Emre loved caramel popcorn from the supermarket, his father says, and his parents would send it to him even when he was in Syria.
The father, Ahmet S., worked on the assembly line at a packing machine manufacturer. The mother cleaned neighbors’ homes, doctor’s practices and law offices. She also managed the dish-washing operation at the buffet restaurant of an IKEA store.
Ahmet S. says his wife cheated on him repeatedly and that she taped her second mobile phone to the bottom of the trash can in the bathroom. One time when he caught her, he hit her on the head with a bottle. He says the boys were often alone during that time, and when both parents were home, things got loud. He, the father, grew addicted to gambling and the mother to shopping. She bought her boys everything they wanted: computers, mobile phones, video game consoles, expensive clothing.
Years followed during which the father moved in and out of the house repeatedly. Years in which, he says, he divorced the mother but continued to live with her for the boys’ sake. In the stages of trying to be a normal family, they flew together on beach holidays, to Disneyland Paris and even booked a trip to America, because the boys wanted to go to Disney World in Florida.
Emre started cutting classes more and more often and insulted his teacher. At one point, he was suspended from school for a few days and never returned.
He and his brother worked at the Veneto ice cream parlor. Their father wanted them to learn how long you have to work to earn 20 euros. Emre soon started dreaming of opening his own ice cream parlor. He wanted to make a lot of money. But then, he quit because he felt cheated out of his share of the tip money.
From his childhood bedroom, he sold expensive laptops on eBay that he never delivered, and before long, he started clicking through the hate-filled messages of the German Salafist scene and started ordering blank guns on the internet.
A few weeks before their planned trip to America, something happened that the father sitting at the lacquer table in Cologne refers to as a “stupid child’s thing.” The judge at the regional court, had a different name for it: “conspiracy to commit murder.”
The brothers’ history of radicalization coincides with a time when a new movement was forming in Germany. Young people, mostly men who were searching for meaning in their lives, were following Salafist preachers like Pierre Vogel and Sven Lau. They wanted to belong to something.
Those were the years that saw the arrest of the Sauerland Group, a terrorist cell that sought to attack American soldiers with car bombs.
Emre and Ismail, who both wanted to become heroes in the scene, planned their own attack.
They set up an ambush for police officers.
Ismael, 15 at the time, laid down on a blanket at the edge of the forest and faked an emergency. It was Emre’s idea. His plan was to cut off the officers’ heads so they could steal their weapons and raid a military barracks.
The policemen fired into the air and Ahmet’s sons fled. They were arrested the next day.
Schoolboy Emre in the bedroom her grew up in: “The boys were often alone during that time.”
Emre was sentenced to three years in prison and Ismail was given nine months on probation.
At the time of Emre’s early release from prison, Pierre Vogel was making the rounds through German cities, drawing crowds of thousands at rallies reminiscent of pop concerts. He would marry young couples on stage and explain to his followers why they should reject the Western lifestyle. There was a growing movement of young people who wanted to create a new home for themselves. Those who chose this home could be absolved of all their sins and collect points that could lead them to heaven. It was a kind of youth rebellion against their parents and the society they had been born into – a rebellion conceived and manifested in the major cities of Western Europe.
A movement that grew increasingly radical.
After Emre’s arrest, his father says he banned his sons from using computers. And then he drove them to a back-alley mosque, some 60 kilometers away in the city of Solingen. Ahmet S. says it seemed like a normal mosque and that nothing struck him as being conspicuous.
The mosque was led by Mohamed Mahmoud, a radical from Austria. After serving time in prison for a bomb threat, he had come to Germany and founded the Millatu Ibrahim movement, which quickly gained a reputation. Its nearly 50 members were the attack dogs of the scene. Their poster boy was Denis Cuspert, a German rapper from Berlin who went by the name “Deso Dogg.”
Emre was fond of the preacher – he lent him his video camera, took care of printing the flags, obtained recording equipment, shot their videos and brought his little brother along. In a later interview in Kurdish captivity, he would call this period the beginning of his “career in logistics.”
“Things just went downhill for me. I felt so, how do you say, drawn in by Mohamed Mahmoud. I loved the mosque a lot. I liked the people there a lot and I only wanted to be with them. Then I also started to radicalize myself, to see everything as being a bit worse, to see everything in black and white, only good and evil …”
“Yes, and then the war started in Syria, and we saw on the news how the children there were being bombed and slaughtered. And then Mohamed Mahmoud said Islamic society is like a single body. If it hurts anywhere, the whole body has to get up and do something about it. So, we started thinking: Yeah, what can we do there?”
In October 2021, the two brothers emailed their parents to say goodbye, telling them that if they no longer heard from them, they would see them in paradise.
Before the sons left Germany, they lived alone in a small apartment. Emre had married a young woman from the scene. Their leader from Solingen had left Germany and moved to Egypt. During the last two months before their departure, the brothers defrauded companies including the electronics store ProMarkt, the supermarket chain Rewe, IKEA and H&M of goods worth more than 30,000 euros.
They drove to Istanbul in a rented brown Ford Kuga. Their mother joined them on the trip. They left the car at the Istanbul airport and took a flight to Cairo. At first, they stayed in a hotel, visited the pyramids and then said goodbye to their mom before continuing on to Mohamed Mahmoud.
They lived together with Mahmoud, rapper Deso Dogg and other followers from the scene.
Back in Germany, their mother drove Emre’s wife to the airport in Amsterdam who flew to join them.
An excerpt from the BKA’s interrogation of Ismail
“At some point, Mahmoud started with the Libya thing, that we would go to Libya and live there, because Gadhafi had already been overthrown. He said you can live freely there, that there’s no real government and that people leave you alone.”
There’s a folder on the father’s laptop labeled “Children 2012.” Emre is filming Ismail, who is sitting on the floor of a run-down apartment somewhere in Libya. From the window, you can see an empty, bombed-out house and the sea. Ismail looks sick. He swallows a pill and raises the bottle.
Emre: This isn’t what an ad for Vittel looks like. Do you know what you look like? Like a captured journalist in a third world country.
Ismail: You know what? That’s what I feel like.
A kitten walks into the picture. Ismail spills water and wipes it away with the cat.
The S. brothers in Libya in 2012 Video: Private
In another video, Ismail offers his brother chocolate and hand grenades. Ismail practices using weapons, organizes cartridge belts, does exercises and manages five push-ups.
The S. brothers in Libya in 2012 Video: Private
Such videos are just snapshots of two young men from Cologne – who are on their way to war.
Years later, Emre could be heard on a Kurdish station talking about his time in Libya. He said they lived in a kind of jihadist capital and received combat training. One night, they were allegedly taken to Benghazi, where they set up roadblocks and were given orders to shoot if any car tried to pass through.
“The fighting went on until dawn. Then the cars picked us up again. We didn’t know what happened. Then we saw the news: The American consul is dead.”
Back in the living room in Cologne, the father is holding his mobile phone and presses play. He says he doesn’t believe what Emre says in the recording. That he would have told his father if he had had anything to do with the attack on the American diplomat.
After his sons returned to Turkey with forged passports, they reunited with their parents. Their father says he offered to let them live in his home in the village. He told them they could become shepherds.
But the brothers continued onward to Hatay. Their leader from Solingen was already there.
A smuggler took Ahmet’s sons across the Syrian border. Their passports were burned, and they were taken to a training camp in the mountains and later to Aleppo. There, they uploaded selfies of themselves holding guns to their Facebook profiles.
During his later FBI interrogation, Emre’s recollection of their time in Syria filled 61 pages. He said that when they arrived, a Syrian fighter offered him his sister as a wife. Emre’s first wife had died in a car accident in Libya, so Emre got married a second time, but he divorced his second wife a short time later. He started looking around on the internet. There were chat groups on Facebook and “wedding forums” with young women from Western Europe who offered themselves as wives to fighters in Syria.
On Sept. 2, 2013, the parents of Samra N. filed a missing person report in Trier.
The next day, traffic police officers stopped a yellow VW Fox on the A3 autobahn between Frankfurt and Würzburg, a routine check. The mother of Emre and Ismail was at the wheel and Samra N. was in the passenger seat. The two women said they were on their way to see friends in Munich.
The next day, Samra N. flew from Vienna to Turkey. From there, she continued onward to Syria.
By this point, Ahmet’s sons had moved away from the front to the northern town of Jarabulus on the Euphrates River, a place where Turkish mobile phone networks are accessible and a place that had become the home of many refugees and a hub for combatants passing through. They lived in a concrete house with an outdoor toilet and a plastic table in the courtyard. They slept on mattresses and hung black flags over their pillows.
Weapon parts in the parents luggage in 2013
When Ahmet S. speaks of Jarabulus, he says it wasn’t actually that different from the Meschenich district of Cologne where he lived. His wife was the first to visit the boys there, a few months after their arrival, but the father went to see them not long later, staying in Syria for eight days. He shows photos and videos from his excursion to the civil war. He says he slept in the guest room and shows a picture with pink sheets, a hot water bottle and a Kalashnikov at the foot of the bed.
During the day, they went to the market to buy fish, made excursions to the Euphrates River and drove to the edge of the mountains for target practice.
In the evening, the family would sit together in front of the television and watch documentaries about German jihadists. He says they also watched a report about Sarah, Ismail’s new wife. She was sitting right next to them in front of the television. The 15-year-old high school student from Constance in southern Germany had just arrived a few days earlier.
An excerpt from Sarah’s farewell letter to her parents
“Assalamualeykum, it’s me, Sarah. I just wanted to tell you guys not to worry. I went voluntarily and was not forced or kidnapped. Again, don’t worry, I’m in good hands. “
In his interrogation with Germany’s Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA), Ismail said he had earned a lot of money in Syria from chocolate. The truth, though, Ahmet’s sons quickly discovered another market: Fighters arriving in Jarabulus needed things like weapons, drones, balaclavas and combat boots.
Ahmet S. says that when he visited his sons, he saw rifle magazines everywhere in the shop windows on the market square, just as there are phones or printers for sale in shop windows in Germany
He says he thought to himself, well, if it’s not illegal there, then the kids should build their business, make some money and not have to be dependent on others.
From October 2013 onward, Ahmet’s sons ordered goods from German arms companies on the internet. Assault rifle magazines, telescope sights, ear protection, rifle slings, a pistol grip. Most of the goods were ordered for delivery to their mother’s address in Cologne and paid for by their father.
Ammunition in Ismail’s apartment in Raqqa
Ahmet S. says his ex-wife told him he did nothing for the children, anyway, so he could at least make his bank account available. He says she always promised that if anything happened, she would take responsibility for the whole thing and that she gave him the money for the goods along with extra cash for him to send to his sons. His ex-wife also soon started giving him money for his gambling debts, as well.
The father did his gambling from the lacquer table in the living room. He used the website StarGames, and ended up losing almost 30,000 euros.
By then, Perihan S. had set up her own system for providing for her sons in their distant home.
Mother: I’m working at Mrs. L.’s right now. Baby, did I send you your allowance this month? …
Emre: No, when are you going to send it?
Mother: Tomorrow … We found another pile of gold.
Emre: Where are you finding it?
Mother: Jewelry pouches, suitcases, we filled up two, three bags today … We’re doing some serious gold mining here.
Emre: Some look for gold in water, but you find it in apartments.
It all started with a notice she posted in the supermarket, says Mrs. L. The 76-year-old is sitting in her sunroom in Cologne, and she says she has known “Peri” since 1994.
She says Peri was never much of a cleaner, but was always been warm and friendly. Over time, she says, Peri took off her headscarf, found a younger boyfriend, dyed her hair blonde and started wearing skirts that were shorter and shorter. But Mrs. L. also recalls how, over time, her furs disappeared from the basement. At some point, her diamond wedding ring disappeared, and one day, when Peri came to clean, she was wearing her missing heirlooms in her ears.
Long before the incident with the earrings, she had taken her cleaning lady to her tennis club, where she recommended her to the Feld family. When Mrs. Feld died, Perihan S. went with Hans Feld to his wife’s grave and planted flowers. Mrs. L. says that Hans Feld bought her expensive bags, paid for her tennis lessons and gave her money to cover her ex-husband’s gambling debts. He let her move into the nicest of his four Cologne apartments and bought her a car.
Eighty-five-year-old pensioner Feld is sitting in the living room of his home in Cologne’s Zollstock district. He calls Emre’s and Ismail’s mother “my butterfly.” Next to him on the couch is a white pillow with Perihan S.’ face printed on it.
He says the he had noticed that his money was disappearing with his “butterfly” around, but that he also thought to himself: I can’t take it with me to the grave, anyway.
She had always been there for him, he says, and he wanted the best for her. They’re all just taking advantage of her, he’s certain of that. He says he asked her several times and she didn’t have a clue about weapons. He says she just has that helper syndrome, and that’s why she did that thing with the suitcases and the airport.
Excerpt from Ahmet S.’s timeline
“Oct. 27, 2013, Peri flew to Turkey.”
“Oct. 28, 2013, Peri crossed the border into Syria.”
“Nov. 4, Peri left Syria.”
“Nov. 4, I went to Syria.”
In the fall of 2013, German arms companies continued delivering goods to the mother’s address in Cologne: pistol magazines, tactical duty gloves, black full-face neoprene masks.
A neighbor accepted the packages when the mother wasn’t there. The neighbor says that when she once asked what was rattling around in the packages, Perihan S. answered that it was kitchen stuff for her boys.
On Nov. 17, Emre ordered another 250 Kalashnikov magazines to be shipped to Cologne. Two weeks later, his mother went to the airport again and checked in a suitcase and a trolley. The security staff opened her luggage and found 50 empty assault rifle magazines.
Perihan S. was still allowed to fly.
Three days after her return to Cologne, she received a WhatsApp message from her son Emre: “You could come back again now, couldn’t you? And then again next week? Where is the problem? We’ll pay for the tickets.”
Two days later, she tried again. This time, she was stopped with 183 empty assault rifle magazines, 31 pistol magazines and three scopes.
The files are silent about why investigators let her fly the first time. This time, though, they banned her from leaving the country. They confiscated her passport and initiated legal proceedings on the suspicion of violating Germany’s Weapons Act and the Foreign Trade Act.
The authorities had also, by this time, opened an investigation into her sons for possible membership in a terrorist organization abroad.
Ismail: Suddenly, my mobile phone stopped working. Perhaps Mrs. Merkel wanted to listen in.
Mother: Haha, yeah sure …
Perihan S. had at least four different telephone numbers and communicated with her sons on Telegram, WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook. Her car was under surveillance. The mother suspected that her communications were being monitored, and yet she continued talking to her sons about the color of the mold in Syrian apartments, about their wives’ arguments with each other, about orders of popcorn and warm socks. And about the Turkish taxi drivers in border towns that were to be used to transport money.
Everyday Life in War
Mother: Have you heard from the children? I spent the whole day trying to reach them.
Father: In Jarabulus they blew up a car, 26 dead. The IS did it.
Mother: The who?
Father: The opposition IS group. You’ve never heard of IS?
Mother: Are they our people? Did the kids do it?
Father: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is called IS.
Father: You should watch the news once in a while!
In January 2014, fighting broke out around the city of Jarabulus. The sons holed up in a cultural center. Once the fighting ended, Emre fled to Turkey with his wife, who was pregnant.
Excerpt from a phone call between the mother and Emre on Jan. 22, 2014:
Emre: It was very difficult. We walked through a swamp, our clothes are totally filthy. I lost my shoes. I arrived here in socks … Mom, can you send salad dressing, spaghetti bolognese and sucuk?
In the living room in Cologne, the father says that whenever there was a loud noise, Emre was always the first to run away. Ismail, he says, may be quieter, but he’s also braver.
Father S. (middle) in Syria
Ismail stayed in Syria and had by then earned the nom de guerre “Abu Hureira,” father of the kitten.
Telephone call between the father and Ismail on Jan. 24, 2014
Ismail: Sarah made tea and popcorn, we’re sitting in front of the stove.
Father: Oh, how nice, so you are drinking tea without your father … Who has control of the city now?
Ismail: The older brothers.
Father: You mean Islamic State? …
Ismail: There is no one else here, only IS …
Father: They’re holding a peace conference in Geneva right now …
Ismail: No one wants peace …
Father: I don’t know … You ordered some stuff from your mother. How are you going to get it?
Ismail: When my brother receives the stuff, he’ll send it to me.
That spring of 2014, Ahmet S. was also stopped at the airport while attempting to fly weapon accessories to Turkey. He, too, was banned from leaving the country.
Ahmet S. is still angry with the officials to this day. He says he checked on Amazon and the weapon parts were legal to order in Germany and legal to order in Turkey, but they were three times as expensive there. He wanted Emre to have a good start in Ankara – he should sell the stuff and make a bit of pocket money.
Father: Are you not thinking of going to Turkey?
Ismail: I’m setting up the house here. Did you see? I’ve got a new washing machine, fully automatic.
Father: I’ve seen it.
Ismail: Microwave, stove … I got it all for free. The rugs.
Father: Spoils of war?
Ismail: Yes, all of it.
With the Islamists conquering more and more cities in the spring of 2014, Ismail and his wife Sarah took over guard duties in Jarabulus.
He told his mother on the phone how they were “police” now and that they needed money because he wanted to buy Sarah that “big black piece of metal” that he was always walking around with himself. IS guards would check whether residents were dressed according to the rules, whether they smoked or drank alcohol and whether the shops remained closed during prayer times. The two were paid $118 a month for their services.
Phone conversation between the mother and Ismail on April 26, 2014
Ismail: I have a new cat, a very small one.
Mother: Oh, how sweet.
Ismail: Looks like Sissy, yellow-black-white, so colorful. Do you know what we named her? Dünya … (which means “the world” in English)
Mother: Oh God, another little thing that needs milk?
Ismail: She doesn’t need milk – she already eats meat, but as you know, they will drink as long as mama has milk.
A few days before IS captured Mosul and proclaimed a “caliphate,” the parents back in Cologne learned that a grandchild would soon be born in Syria. Ismail’s wife was pregnant. He took over the shop space of someone who had been driven out of Jarabulus. At the same time, Emre founded a company in Ankara, which he named Warrior Gear, to send supplies to his brother.
A growing number of people were fleeing the country and more and more volunteer fighters were traveling to Syria. They needed weapons, combat clothing and drones.
Ismail was able to negotiate a monopoly with the IS, a kind of “exclusive arrangement,” as Emre referred to it in his FBI interrogation. Anyone looking for military equipment in Jarabulus had to buy it from Ahmet’s sons. The parents may have since been banned from leaving Germany, but they continued sending their sons money, and Emre ordered the goods on the internet. In his transactions, he used the name of a Syrian soldier whose documents Ismail had sent him: “Kassab,” meaning butcher.
He bought 300 Chinese rifle slings and 30 solar-powered mobile phone chargers. He ordered American military pants, Russian military fatigues and German combat goggles. Emre packed them in a bag, drove to the border and handed them over to a Syrian smuggler.
The pants that Emre bought for $25 were then sold by Ismail in his new store for $100. Goggles worth $26 sold in Jarabulus for $75, and $20 chargers went for $150.
The brothers communicated through the chat channels of the video games “Command and Conquer” and “Act of Aggression.” Emre would go to hookah bars, bus stations and the restrooms of business centers to meet with couriers.
The guest room: a Kalashnikov and a hot-water bottle
If you ask their father if he thought the things his sons were doing was reprehensible, he answers: “Do you think Emre was the only one who was doing something like that? Everyone was selling weapons to make money.”
In the summer of 2014, the world watched as IS terrorists executed more than 50 Syrian soldiers and decapitated American journalist James Foley. Two weeks later, they killed his colleague Steven Sotloff. In September, they murdered British aid worker David Haines, followed a short time later by two more of his colleagues.
In December, Emre ordered 20 combat knives with saws, brown and black, from the German company Frankonia in Bavaria.
Ismail on a Turkish beach vacation after his return from the war in Syria
He used his grandparents’ apartment in Ankara as the delivery address. The apartment ultimately became his office and warehouse. The brothers didn’t need to come up with some sort of complicated system to grow their business with the IS. In Turkey, it seemed to be enough that Emre had a customs official who would bring his goods into the country and that he could bribe the border guards.
In the summer of 2015, Kurdish units temporarily seized part of the border. The brothers’ route had been cut off. Boxes started piling up in their grandparents’ apartment in Ankara.
Grandmother: The house is full of merchandise, heaps of merchandise. He bought too much at once.
Mother: He’ll sell it …
Grandmother: He eats all day, from morning until night … and lies around all day, sleeps and can’t even get up in the morning.
The FBI estimates that from September 2014 to February 2016, the brothers ordered up to $2 million worth of equipment from the Turkish company Meydan Kamp in Istanbul alone. Emre said during his interrogation that he purchased more than $8 million worth of goods for Islamic State.
By that point, Emre had a bodyguard. Within a year, Ahmet’s sons had made a name for themselves in Syria as the logistics guys from Germany. Late in the summer of 2015, Ismail traveled to Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate, where he was offered a position in the Islamic State’s main procurement office: “first procurement officer” in the Office of Electronics.
Meanwhile, Emre became the “first purchasing offer.” His little brother was now his boss.
From that point on, the brothers were no longer doing business with the IS – they were working directly for the organization. The goods went to the supply depot in Raqqa. Emre networked worldwide and placed an order with an IS purchasing officer in Hong Kong for 300 Skywalker drones, which had a range of 50 kilometers and a flight time of three hours.
The FBI claims that IS drone pilots used them for bombing runs. Emre bought anemometers from the American company Kestrel. They were distributed to IS snipers in combat operations.
He obtained eavesdropping devices from Colorado that the FBI claims were used by IS fighters to intercept the radio frequencies of their opponents.
Emre ordered military boots from Germany. Frankonia continued to supply knives and red dot sights. The firm Tatonka in Bavaria delivered combat belts. Swiss Eye sent combat goggles from the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
At the end of 2015, at the time IS killed 130 people in Paris, Emre attracted the attention of the special police in Ankara. But he wasn’t brought before an investigating judge. Instead, the deputy chief of police wanted in on the business.
The police officer began warning Emre about raids against IS members in Ankara. He invited him to a nightclub, where Emre fell in love again, this time with a Ukrainian stripper. His wife Samra had left the country by that point and their son was born in Germany. Emre never met him.
Ahmet S. says his son paid 100,000 euros to get the dancer out of the brothel and later 10,000 euros for a small dog she wanted.
Grandmother: I don’t know, both of your sons are a disgrace. Others raise their children properly.
Mother: The main thing is that they are alive and healthy.
Grandmother: One here, the other there, what a disgrace! What use is it if they’re healthy?
Mother: What if they die? Or if something happens to them? God forbid.
Grandmother: Even death wouldn’t be worse than that … For a dead man, you cry for one day, but for a fool you cry every day.
Ismail was promoted in Raqqa in spring 2016. The main procurement agency of Islamic State had a total of four departments: weapons, vehicles, medicines and electronics. The IS appointed Ismail to head of the electronics procurement office. At age 23, Ismail was now managing the high-tech war.
“Bought the slave girl.
Ismail and his wife Sarah moved into an apartment in Raqqa with columns and sitting areas. They had their second daughter there and bought cars, gold and slaves.
As the caliphate spread, IS fighters took over an increasing number of Christian and Yazidi towns and villages, where they killed the men and enslaved the women. IS members could buy these women at a market in Raqqa. A slave woman between the ages of 30 and 40 was sold for the equivalent of 50 euros, while girls under the age of nine cost 134 euros. Early on, the slave market worked like a lottery, with women each receiving a number and a slave master assigning the numbers to IS members.
On Jan. 21, 2019, lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of Hollywood star George Clooney, got in touch with Germany’s Federal Public Prosecutor General in Karlsruhe.
The questioning of her client lasted eight days and filled 300 pages. In it, the woman, who managed to flee to Germany, recounts how IS fighters came to her village in northern Iraq and beheaded the men and older women. She talks about being separated from her family before being raped and beaten. Of how she fled and was caught, whereupon one of her owners scorched her feet with a hot knife. How the men made her clean, wash and pray. How they photographed her and then kept selling her on from city to city, 14 times, until she was ultimately bought in Raqqa by Ismail and Sarah.
“Umm Hureira (Sarah) told me she had chosen me for Abu Hureira (Ismail). If Sarah didn’t like a slave, Ismail didn’t buy her … Ismail locked me in the room, tugging at my clothes. I crossed my arms in front of my chest. He said: If you fight back, I’ll hit you. He undressed me and told me to wash. He gave me a blue dress with gray stitching.”
She told investigators about everyday life in a German family in Raqqa, she talked about cocoa-colored flower rugs, of televisions with receivers, of a blond mother who called via video chat and sent money.
According to the investigation file, Ismail and Sarah bought at least three female slaves during their time in Syria. When the women arrived in the household, two Yazidis were apparently already living there, one of them around 13 years old.
When Ismail came home in the evening, according to the testimony, he would ask what his slaves had been doing during the day. The women were only allowed to take cold showers. They wore old clothes and weren’t allowed to eat meat. Ismail would allegedly hit them if his cats hadn’t been fed properly.
The IS issued a manual to its slave owners regulating what they were allowed to do with the women: Sexual intercourse with a slave who had not yet reached sexual maturity was permitted if the slave was suited for it. It also stated that sexual intercourse was only available to those who took complete possession of the prisoner.
In Raqqa, Ismail had been bothered for quite some time about the new lifestyle his big brother had adopted in Turkey. Emre was now living on the Turkish Riviera with his Ukrainian stripper.
At some point, Ismail broke off business relations with his sibling. Emre traveled to Syria to settle the dispute. Upon his arrival, Ismail gave his brother a slave.
“After Abu Hureira (Ismail) told me that he would give me to Abu Dua (Emre), I didn’t speak and I cried for a long time. Ismail then left me alone in the room with Emre. I said to him: How can you sleep with me when I slept with your brother two days ago? … Abu Dua raped me twice that night.”
All three of the former slaves are now living in Germany.
Ahmet S. met the women in the courtroom. He says the interpreter translated every word for him -and that he apologized to the women. In his living room in Cologne, he says he doesn’t really understand why Ismail would have done such a thing. He says that one slave was as old as his mother and the other was much uglier than Sarah.
Emre: Ismail is a total bastard. I shot at him.
Father: Why? Man. Did you hit him? What’s wrong with you guys?
Emre: I’m waiting here like a dog. He wants all my money. Otherwise, he says he’ll turn me in. I told him they would kill me if he did. He says: So what? I dragged him out of the car. He tried to run me over.
In 2017, as Ahmet’s sons were fighting with each other, the IS began losing one city after the other. Kurdish militia fighters and the Syrian and Iraqi armies had launched offensives, and Russian and American fighter jets were bombing IS positions. By October, the caliphate has lost its capital city Raqqa.
By the time the Syrian army announced its victory over IS, the brothers had fled with their wives, children and slaves to Hajjin, a town on the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, the last place IS still controlled.
The brothers saw each other for the last time in late November 2017.
Ismail stayed on in Hajjin, where his wife gave birth to their third daughter on Dec. 12, 2017.
Emre set off on foot toward Iraq – with his slave at his side.
“Mom, I’m alive.”
Emre has been in Kurdish captivity in northern Syria since November 2017.
Ismail works in a call center in Ankara, where he sells supplemental dental insurance to customers in Germany. After fleeing with his family, he spent 10 months in Turkish custody. Today, he drives a white BMW with gull-wing doors.
Sarah was deported to Germany with her three daughters and is now being held in a prison in the town of Iserlohn.
From prison, she wrote Ismail many letters
“At lunch time, I always clean my cell … I always have school until 1:30 p.m., except on Friday … Please buy something for the children. Maybe “Frozen” dolls or Barbies. Just check the internet and see what’s out there. All three had their birthdays …”
Her three daughters are in the care of a German youth welfare office.
Ahmet S. is sitting in his living room. A young couple is picking up the bench seat that he sold. He says he doesn’t need it anymore. His second wife has now left him as well and his employer also fired him after two decades of working for the company. The trial is to blame, he says, one that he insists has nothing to do with him.
Perihan is currently in pre-trial custody. She now has a new last name. Hans Feld adopted her. He died of COVID-19 in February.
This week, the judges are expected to announce their verdict in the case. For Sarah, the prosecutor is requesting a sentence of seven years and six months, five years and three months for the mother and three years and three months for the father.
When asked whether he considers his sons to be terrorists, Ahmet S. laughs.
No, he says, his sons are a disgrace to all terrorists. They didn’t even fight at the front, he says. All they did was make money, take slaves and live their lives. And whenever things got tight, Ahmet S. goes on, they would always say: “Mama, send some money.”
The Reporting of this Story
In researching her Ph.D. thesis, DER SPIEGEL contributor and researcher Sarah Klosterkamp spent six years attending the trials of Germans who left the country to join the Islamic State and later returned home. The case of one Turkish-German family stood out from the others because it was the first time that parents who provided support for their children in the war were put in the dock. Together with DER SPIEGEL reporters Özlem Gezer and Timofey Neshitov, Klosterkamp reviewed nearly 60,000 pages of files. The team read through interrogations and transcripts of wiretaps and evaluated expert reports and bank statements to trace the system that ultimately led to the trial.
The father, Ahmet S., opened his doors to the reporters, sharing his diaries, family photos, emails and messages that his sons had written to him, as well as photos and videos taken during his own visit to Syria. The team also interviewed people who know the family, including a former employer of the accused and the pensioner Hans Feld, who ultimately adopted the mother. Most of the people interviewed by the reporters believed they had done nothing wrong.