In mid-November 2019 Turkey deported two women suspected of having supported the Islamic State (IS) in Syria to their country of origin: Germany. One of them, 21 year old Nasim A. was arrested immediately after her arrival at Frankfurt airport. According to media reports, she had left Germany in 2014 to join the terrorist organization. She reportedly married one of its fighters. In early 2019 she had been arrested by Kurdish security forces and had spent time in the now notorious prison camp al-Hawl.
These returns highlight an important development in the situation of the jihadist phenomenon in Germany: the returnees are coming and they will likely mostly be female. As of June 2019 authorities counted 1050 individuals that had left for Syria and Iraq. This number has not changed since December 2018 and is unlikely to change significantly in the near future – if conflict dynamics do not pick up and offer a new easily accessible battlefield. About 25 per cent of those that left are women. According to federal authorities about a third of departees has returned by now. For about 116 returned individuals authorities have evidence that they were active for IS. According to numbers provided by the German government, as of October 2019 there are still about 111 alleged IS supporters incarcerated in Syria and Iraq. Among them are 70 women and 41 men. Many will try a return to Germany.
Considering that the number of departees has dropped, returnees have become the main focus of law-enforcement. Returnees are a two-fold challenge for security services in Germany. A potential threat of violence (e.g. terrorism) has to be contained and prosecution has to be pursued for past acts. While the former necessitates the competent and timely exploitation of intelligence and high-quality information sharing arrangements (see below), the latter hinges to a large extent on the legal framework. While men who participated in the fighting in Syria are the logical target of repression measures and the judicial system, there is uncertainty with individuals where such evidence is missing, as well as for women and children.
We have a rough idea of how many years former members of IS are sentenced to, when they return to Germany. Based on data made available in late 2018 we can calculate an average of sentence durations: 4,4 years (rounded). Erasing one outlier that comes down to about 4 years (based on 24 concluded trials). This is in line with an analysis published elsewhere which generated the data independently, though this is based on numbers for 2014 to 2017 only and comes in at a slightly lower number of years (3,9 years). All of these numbers are also only based on persons that were convicted under article 129a and 129b of the German penal code which prohibits the support for a (foreign) terrorist organization. A change of the penal code (article 89a) in 2015 has also made it a crime to travel abroad to participate in terrorist activities outside of Germany (which includes training) and even to attempt to. Since these cases are delegated to the state level, however, we have no unified statistics for them.
Courts overwhelmingly sentence men. How to deal with the women has been the focus of recent debates. While initially they escaped prosecution because their activities within the IS-caliphate were not considered as support of a terrorist organization (house work such as cooking, childcare, washing, cleaning) this has changed and the women are increasingly prosecuted and considered a threat to society in Germany. Hence, in June 2018 Germany’s highest court decided to consider certain acts to be actual support of a foreign terrorist organization punishable under law. If women were active in the religious police or as propagandists for IS this is considered active support. In cases where this is absent authorities have referred humanitarian law (e.g. living in houses of ethnicities that have forcefully removed). This reflects legally that the perception of female IS members as simple followers of men has changed to sometimes ideologically highly indoctrinated self-propelled extremists who fulfilled their sometimes martial role allocated to them by the organization and its embedded worldview. In late 2018, Germany’s federal attorney indicted then 27 years old Jennifer W. for the support of a terrorist organization as well as for violation of international law. According to the prosecution, she was a member of the IS-religious police in Falluja and Mosul. In addition, she and her husband allegedly bought a 5 years old girl on the slave market and let her die from thirst and exposure after she had wet the bed.
As for the kids of the IS-supporters it is now widely accepted among professional and security officials that they should be considered to be victims themselves who are in need of help by the state. This can mean that the state facilitates the return of the children independent of the fate of their parents. In summer 2019, for example, German authorities repatriated four children who had been incarcerated with their parents in al-Hawl or were orphans. The current discussion among the responsible institutions and decision makers focuses on the question of psychological treatment for the often traumatized children, (re)integration into German society and the linked danger of stigmatization if their background becomes known in their kindergarten and school and how institutions should manage such situations. It has also involved discussions on whether it could be necessary to remove children from their highly extremist families. Though, a general policy has not evolved. Decisions on an individual basis are necessary. While it is still hotly debated whether Germany should facilitated the return of its own nationals that fought for IS, the Higher Administrative Court of the states of Berlin and Brandenburg decided in November that Germany has to repatriate the children together with their mother because there is no indication that the mother is a concrete security threat. In its decision, the court rated the protection of the relationship between mother and children higher than potential security concerns.
In addition, to the issue of returnees, Germany is still regularly confronted with plots originating from individuals who unsuccessfully tried to become foreign fighters (sometimes due to state measures that prevented their departure) or possibly were too young during the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Such individuals have repeatedly planned terrorist attacks. One of the most significant plots was the plan allegedly made by a Tunisian man and his German wife to build an IED containing Ricin poison.
As a response to the terrorist threat German authorities list individuals they suspect of being willing to undertake terrorist attacks as so called “endangereres” (Gefährder). Germany’s Federal Police most recently listed 679 individuals in this category. Another 509 are considered “relevant persons”. This is a drop from the 748 “endangereres” listed in March 2019. While the policy tend to prevent “endangerers” to leave Germany to join terrorist organization on their respective battlefields, authorities began in 2018 to deport some of them to remove their harmful influence from the domestic context. At the same time, the federal government has suggested a law to deprive individuals linked to terrorist organization abroad and hold more than one nationality German citizenship. For historical reasons, German law forbids the deprivation of citizenship when an individual solely holds the German citizenship and would end up stateless. Since the law cannot be invoked retrogradely it would only affect future cases should it pass.
After 9/11 and the 2004 Madrid attacks, Germany reformed its counterterrorism legislation and strengthened information sharing structures setting up among other things a dedicated fusion center and established a basic version of a counterterrorism strategy. These regimes were strengthened in the context of the war in Syria, resources allocated to authorities investigating jihadist terrorism was increased on federal and state level (e.g. Federal Criminal Police). In particular, more special personnel such as experts on Arabic and Islamic studies was hired.
Furthermore, an umbrella of radicalization prevention carried by state and civil society institutions has unfolded in Germany in recent years. In 2016, the federal government published a “Strategy to Prevent Extremism and Foster Democracy”. In the document it noted that authorities were working with nearly 700 civil society actors. The paper sketched out a plan to optimize this already existing cooperation within a comprehensive strategy. A 2017 review of the network structure that offers consultation in cases of individual radicalization nations-wide underlined the positive evolution of Germany’s prevention structures. The coordination between state (in particular, security services) institutions and civil society actors, however, and even between different state institutions is sometimes still impeded by a lack of trust and different working cultures. Furthermore, strong and complex German data protection regulations need to be incorporated into these relationships. Nevertheless, these structures are now prepared to receive returnees from the battlefields of jihad or are already working with them.
The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Bremen State Police or any of its officers