Reports of Linda W. a teenage girl from Pulsnitz in Saxony who travelled to Istanbul in 2015 to enter Syria, caused large horror and controversy in Germany. The 15-year old girl was radicalised and left her family and life behind to join Daesh and marry a fighter from the so-called caliphate. Two years later, Linda W. was arrested in Mossul and regretted about what she had done.
The story of Linda W. is not the only case where radicalisation has affected children and teenagers. It is easy to reach out to them via the Internet and manipulate their thinking and actions. On the other hand, many children are not given the chance to make their own decision, being born into areas controlled by Daesh and raised in warzones. Currently, small children with German citizenship are held back in Syria and Iraq, having been brought to Daesh by their parents or even being born there. Now, the Federal Government of Germany has made it their mission to help these children come back home.
Within the last few months, Daesh has experienced significant backlash in both Syria and Iraq. Subsequently, foreign fighters have expressed their will to return to their home countries. Many of these foreign Daesh fighters, together with their wives and children, are currently accommodated in refugee and prison camps in Syria and Iraq. Through dialogue with the Department of Foreign Affairs, many are trying to return home. Meanwhile, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has expressed a warning regarding the potential security risk posed by radicalised and traumatised Daesh children raised under extremist Islam teaching. Regarding the extent to which the German Federal Government is involved to help German wives and families of Daesh fighters return to Germany, staff of German Consulates provides aid for German citizens on site, though acknowledging possible proceedings and criminal offences in accordance with the German Consular Law. Actual numbers of women and children affected are not available.
The German Bundestag (updated 15.12.2017) sent us some data about the situation of Germans who were living in areas controlled by Daesh. According to it, there is evidence of about 960 people from Germany who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join and fight alongside Daesh and other extremist groups. Approximately 20% are women. The majority of these people are below the age of thirty and about 5% were minors at the time of their departure. More than half have German citizenship and about 20% have dual citizenship.
Among those who have already returned, information provided by the Federal Government shows that about 80 people have actively participated in war in Syria or Iraq and completed military training by extremist groups. For the majority of returned people, there are no details about their activity on site. About 150 people that have departed from Germany to join militant forces in Syria and Iraq have died. And approximately a third of all departed people have by now returned to Germany, about 15% of these are women.
The treatment of returning people from Daesh poses a big challenge. Are they solely regarded as a threat? What can be done to help re-integration? In 2013 the Public Prosecutor General of the Federal Court of Justice in Germany has initiated preliminary proceedings against people under suspicion of criminal offences after having departed to Iraq or Syria. Among the people who have departed between 2013 and 2017, 166 have been investigated. Among these, 22 proceedings resulted in a verdict and 21 in suspension, 73 are still being investigated. Out of the 166 investigated individuals, 40 have by now returned to Germany.
Regarding the concrete risks and dangers posed by returnees, the Federal Government says that it needs to be assumed that the majority of returning people may hold on to their extremist beliefs. Their ability to inconspicuously move in Western states (through adjusted appearances and possession of legal Western travel and identity documents) facilitates extremist organisations to encourage them to plan and carry out terrorist attacks in Germany and surrounding countries. Predominantly males that have been ideologically indoctrinated, militarily educated and fought during their stay in Syria or Iraq pose a security threat.
Depending on the duration of their stay in areas controlled by Daesh, there is a potential that minors have experienced extreme teaching during their stay there, resulting in radicalised views and actions. An Islamist or Jihadi mindset could prevail with minors even after their return. Nevertheless, this depends on multiple factors and cannot be assumed with certainty. There is also a possibility that radicalised views have not been adopted with lasting impacts and can be eradicated upon return.
In April 2017 the government institutionalised the National Programme for Prevention against Islamist Terrorism, working for prevention of terrorism, prevention of radicalisation through the Internet, prevention through integration and de-radicalisation in the enforcement of legal sentences as well as advancements in the effectiveness of prevention.
The Federal Government stated clear that it is doing its best to protect its citizens, help returnees come home and re-integrate into society without overlooking the potential threats they may pose to society in the future.
By Julia Jana Lemcke – University of Westminster/UK
Die Zeit (2017) ‘Terror-Kinder: Angst vor jungen Dschihadisten in Deutschland’, Zeit Online, 19 October. Available at: http://www.zeit.de/news/2017-10/19/terrorismus-terror-kinder-angst-vor-jungen-dschihadisten-in-deutschland-19160802
Mascolo, G. (2017) ‘Regierung will deutsche IS-Kinder zurückholen’, Tagesschau Online, 22 November. Available at: https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/is-kinder-105.html