The German government is puzzled by them. The Syrian Kurdish fighters regard them as deadly foes. But perhaps it is the Iraqi people who knows supporters of the Islamic State best. Having had to deal with Al Qaeda in Iraq, a forerunner of the terrorist organization, and then having almost one-third of their country taken over by IS militias, one could argue that Iraqis are only too well aware of what the extremist group is capable of and what kind of danger its foreign members represent, should they be repatriated.
And this question is being asked urgently. Last week, none other than Donald Trump called on European countries to take back their citizens who became IS fighters and are currently detained by US allies in Syria. Germany, France and Britain should put them on trial at home, the US president said.
According to the German Interior Ministry, some 1,050 people left the country heading for IS-held territory in the Middle East. Around a third have apparently returned and about 270 German women with their children are still in Syria and Iraq. Unlike Trump, many in Germany believe the country will be better off if these ragtag Muslim fundamentalists stay well away. But others are calling for their repatriation.
So what do Iraqis think Germany should do with the German citizens who joined the IS group?
Last week Baghdad agreed to repatriate around 20,000 Iraqis captured in Syria, including suspected IS members. But ask around in Baghdad and the locals there seem just as divided as the European public. The Islamic State group was one of the cruelest and most barbaric militias Iraq has ever known – and this is a nation that has suffered horribly at the hands of dictators, terror groups, militias and foreign invaders. In Iraq, the local courts have come in for criticism for reacting in kind, sentencing suspected IS members to death without pause, or often much of any due process. That sort of eye-for-eye justice is accepted, and even celebrated, by many Iraqis who want revenge for the deadly havoc the IS group wreaked on the nation, for lost family members, property and livelihoods.
Out of sight, out of mind
Other Iraqis, however, take a more humane approach – though an unscientific survey of opinions certainly suggests this group is in the minority. “Nobody is born a terrorist,” says one Baghdad local, who wished to remain anonymous because his opinion could be construed as dangerously forgiving of IS militants. “But there are many reasons why they become terrorists. If they loved life, they wouldn’t have become part of this religious anomaly,” he argues. “Intensive rehabilitation is needed to change their misconceptions about religion and moderate Muslim clerics need to play a role in this.”
Many of the Europeans who emigrated to live in Mosul – Iraq’s third-largest city, which fell to IS in 2014 – or Raqqa, the terror group’s stronghold in Syria, in what they mistakenly hoped would be a “true” Islamic state, were a valuable asset for the founders of the group. Most of the IS members currently in custody in northern Syria (at least, those who are speaking to media) deny they ever picked up a gun. They mostly express a longing to return home and to end to their suffering. But there are two things worth considering here, Iraqis say. Firstly, a lot of the Europeans who went in search of “the Caliphate” and were disappointed, have managed to slip away and get back home: The assumption is that those who have willingly remained with the group as its fortunes changed, are a smaller hard core.
And secondly, as Iraqis who lived in Mosul point out, no matter what they actually did, whether they engaged in actual violence or not, the foreign IS members in Mosul were most certainly willing and highly visible cogs in what would become a very organized, very brutal machine. As non-combatants, their lives in a city like Mosul may have been fairly normal. After all, for several years, Mosul was not a war zone. But it was also a life, where cruelty, violence and injustice were accepted, everyday occurrences. Most of the foreign recruits did not suffer this. As migrants and IS members, they were a kind of a new and frightening upper class in Mosul, allocated homes confiscated from Iraqi owners, given salaries and positions of power and allowed internet access. Most ordinary Iraqis – even those who supported the IS group – weren’t so lucky.
The Iraqi government now says their returnees from northern Syria will be housed in a desert camp in Anbar province. Judging from conditions in similar camps for IS families that already exist in Iraq, the hope is that this problem, which also arouses much emotion in Iraq, will literally die out, in miserable isolation.
Far-flung desert camps are obviously not an option for Germany, although by leaving its citizens in limbo in Syria or Iraq, it could be said that, in effect, the German government is doing the same thing as the Iraqi government. Over the weekend, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that while German citizens may return to the country, bringing back German IS members who are imprisoned in Syria is more complicated than it sounds. “These people can come to Germany only if it is ensured that they can immediately be taken into custody,” Maas said.
Don’t trust them
Germany has flown a handful of the young children of IS group members home, giving other relatives custody while the parent remains in prison in the Middle East. But the reasons why Western governments, like Germany’s, don’t necessarily want to bring back their older, errant citizens are many and varied. They may pose a danger to the general public; there is difficulty and expense involved in getting them out of Syria (where Germany no longer has an embassy), and putting them on trial in a German court would be problematic since hard evidence of crimes committed in Iraq or Syria will be hard to come by. For example, one German woman, known as Jennifer W., who returned to Germany was initially allowed to go home to Lower Saxony because of lack of any evidence against her – even though she was a regular part of the IS group’s extremist morality police patrols in Iraq. She would eventually be prosecuted for her part in the death of a five-year-old “slave girl.”
Unlike in Iraq, where the law states that anyone who “supported” the IS group can also be punished, Germany doesn’t have any laws against simply choosing to live in what’s been described as a “death cult.” Yet, according to the many Baghdadis, that is exactly what is needed. They don’t believe the foreign converts would simply forget why they came all this way, the way they lived and why they stayed on. Having lived with the IS group and observed foreign converts’ enthusiasm first-hand, Iraqis’ message to Germany is: Don’t trust them.
“The fighters should be trialed and subjected to rehabilitation and they need to be monitored in the future,” says Mustafa Habib, an Iraqi journalist based in Baghdad specializing in Iraqi politics and security. “Because it’s difficult to say whether those who fought with IS would easily abandon these extremist ideas. This tactic of disappearance and false repentance means that if they can return home easily, Europe will be at risk.”
Zanko Ahmad, an editor working in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, agrees. “Any leniency would mean a threat to Europe,” he says. “It is hard to make them give up their extremist ideas. Is it logical for a victim and a murderer to live freely in the same society?,” Ahmad argues. “For example, there are many Yazidis who emigrated because of the IS group. They now live in Europe, having lost all the members of their families at the hands of foreign fighters. How will they feel if they see those murderers on the streets?”
Cathrin Schaer is an editor with Handelsblatt Today. She also is editor-in-chief at Niqash.org, a website specializing in Iraqi current affairs. To reach her: [email protected]