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German Islamist suspects on trial in Düsseldorf

Two men accused of fighting for a terrorist organization in Syria are on trial at Düsseldorf's Higher Regional Court. One remains silent - though the other is struggling to cope.

Sebastian B. is a pitiful sight. The deep, dark circles under his eyes are visible even when you look at him through two thick glass walls. His shoulders are slumped, and his shaggy hair and pale, unshaven face make him look more like a hipster than a man who has to answer for his actions in a militant Islamist group in Syria.

Co-defendant Mustafa C. seems to be cut from a different cloth. The 27-year-old sits quite relaxed in the courthouse. While the charges are being read, C. sometimes acts bored or even amused. He comes across as confident. Is he confident because he is innocent or because he knows that there is no evidence to back the allegations?

Close-combat and weapons training

On January 22, the two Syria returnees were arrested at their homes in Mönchengladbach and Herford, Germany. Since then, they have been kept in custody prior to the trial. In June, the federal prosecutors brought charges against them for membership of a foreign terrorist organization and for preparing acts of violence dangerous to the state.

Deutschland AMutlu Günal, Verteidiger von Mustafa C

Günal says some of the witnesses in the trial are unreliable

The course of events reads like an adventure story. Both defendants traveled to Turkey and were taken across the border to Syria by smugglers in 2013. According to the charges, they took part in close-combat training, weapons training and were active in combat missions. Sebastian B. is said to have even registered as potential suicide bomber.

They supposedly did all this in the name of a sub-group that calls itself "Muhajiroun Halab," which belongs to the "Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar" (JAMWA) alliance. Many of the members come from the Caucasus and Europe. Around November 2013, their leader Abu Omar al-Shishani is said to have sworn an oath to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which meant a part the group was merged with the "Islamic State" militia.

One can only speculate whether this triggered Sebastian B.'s return to Germany. But in any case, in mid-November 2013, after less than three months in Syria, he turned his back on the battlefield and set foot on German soil again. Mustafa C. may have held out until September 2014 because he had risen to the position of deputy commander of a small fighting force, if the allegations prove to be true.

A convicted jihadist as a witness

Witnesses are supposed to shed light on the situation but they supply "uncertain evidence," says Mutlu Günal, Mustafa C.'s defense attorney. The case becomes even more uncertain when witnesses provide information to make themselves look better. Günal is alluding to Ismail I., who was convicted in March this year for his involvement in combat operations in Syria. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison and now he is doing everything he can to reduce the time, says Günal. Ismail I. has lied so often that he is causing difficulties in court. That is why his client, Mustafa C., seems so optimistic.

Salafist und ehemaliger linksextremistischer Terrorist Bernhard Falk

Bernhard Falk is a key figure in the German Salafist scene

The 27-year-old was radicalized in Mönchengladbach in 2008. He moved out of his parents' home and subsequently joined a Salafist group in Germany in 2011. When the court asked for a statement, the attorney, who has represented several other alleged Syrian fighters, said no. He said C. will "be represented silently." He believes that Sebastian B. will not be able to handle the trial and cannot endure the pressure in detention. "Everyone is different," adds Günal tersely.

Sebastian B. does come across more as a victim than as a bloodthirsty jihadist - perhaps the victim of a messed-up life. His lawyer, Michael Murat Sertsöz does not want to go into detail, but does drop hints of abuse, drugs, and foster families. He wants to request the exclusion of the public for the next few days of negotiations. B. definitely did not have a happy childhood. "Then you're receptive to promises of salvation," he says, obviously trying to explain the process of radicalization and his client's connection to the Salafists.

B. converted to Islam about five years ago, and now he has a wife and child. Imprisonment caused the first marital crisis: his wife recently told him she would refuse to wear a headscarf. His client, says Sertsöz, responded in a surprisingly relaxed manner. He could not see any traces of radicalization. In any case, one could not blame him for the atrocities ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Like many other Muslims, he wanted to help his religious brothers. "Even if he had been fighting, you would have to tell him what he did wrong," says Sertsöz.

Make friends instead

Bernhard Falk shares the same view. The convicted left-wing fighter is a key figure on the German Salafist scene who also went to the opening of the trial. He meticulously wrote down the names of all those involved, because he wants to visit all the Muslim prisoners, says Falk. He even claims to have recruited Sebastian B's lawyer.

People like Sebastian B., who have taken part in the fight against Assad, may one day "be historically recognized as freedom fighters," says Falk. He does not understand why Germany is so harshly punishing people who oppose the dictatorship in Syria. If Germany were prudent, it would try to make new friends. "When they get out of here, do you really believe that they are un-radicalized?" asks Falk - and it does not sound like a question.

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