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German 'IS' recruit Lamia K.'s journey to Iraq

Mohammad Massad | Naomi Conrad
August 9, 2018

Iraqi courts are sentencing foreigners who have belonged to the "Islamic State" group. DW traces the story of two of them, Lamia K. and her daughter Nadia. Both were handed life sentences in Baghdad this year.

Iraq: Baghdad courtroom
Image: picture-alliance/AP Images/K. Kadim

It was 2014 when Lamia K. packed her bags and, her two teenage daughters in tow, moved to Syria to join the "Islamic State" (IS), which was sweeping across Iraq and Syria

A divorced woman in her early 50s at the time of her departure, Lamia kept mostly to herself, former friends and acquaintances told DW.

Lamia grew up middle class in Rabat and moved to Trier, in western Germany, in the mid-1990s with a grant to pursue a postgraduate degree in German studies. There she met a man who converted to Islam to marry her and with whom she would go on to have three children: a boy and two girls.

One friend in Trier, one of a handful of Moroccan women who met each other regularly, described Lamia as strong-minded.

Back then Lamia went to mosque for the important religious holidays, but stopped wearing her headscarf after she settled in Germany.

People interviewed by DW agreed that Lamia, who has dual German-Moroccan citizenship, was liberal, "normal."

"She wasn't conservative or radical," her friend recalled.

'I don't understand'

The family moved to the western German city of Mainz, where Lamia's husband had a job.

And, then, Lamia changed radically.

"I don't understand what happened," a friend told DW.

Lamia and her husband divorced while the children were still small. She eventually took them to Morocco for a couple of months and then moved back to Germany and settled in the southwestern city of Mannheim. 

It's unclear why she moved to Mannheim, which, security officials say, is by no means a hotbed of radicals.

In Mannheim, Lamia was withdrawn, said a woman who recalls seeing her and her daughters in the neighborhood, and donned a veil and long black skirt.

"She would never have socialized with the likes of me," said the woman, who is also of Moroccan descent, explaining that she wears short skirts and no headscarf. 

And, the woman added, "she must have been terribly lonely."

Lamia was, it seems, drawn in by the radicals who stalk online forums and chat rooms, hoping to lure recruits to IS, which by mid-2014 had declared its "caliphate." Her son stayed behind when Lamia took her daughters to join the group.

"I was absolutely shocked to hear what she did," one friend said.

Radicalized older

Lamia was unusual in that she became radicalized at an older age. Many of the roughly 1,000 Germans who left to join IS starting in 2013 are younger, often in their late teens or early 20s.

Read more: Many jihadis from Germany have German citizenship: Report

German authorities estimate that about a third of the people who left the country to join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq have returned, including roughly 50 women. According to the Interior Ministry, about 270 German women and their children are still in the war zone in Syria and Iraq and a dozen more are being held by national authorities with their children in camps and prisons. 

Read moreChildren of 'Islamic State' struggle to integrate in Germany 

They include, of course, Lamia, her older daughter, Nadia, and Nadia's toddler, who was born to an IS fighter whom she married in Syria. Lamia's younger daughter had severe mental and physical disabilities and was reportedly killed in Iraq.

Iraqi forces arrested Lamia and Nadia with a group of other women and their children in 2017 in Mosul, IS's de facto capital in Iraq, after wresting the city from the group's control in a prolonged, bloody campaign. 

The women and the child have since been transferred to a prison in Baghdad. 

Sentenced to life

Iraqi authorities are trying the women who lived with IS alongside the foreign fighters who flocked to join the group.

First Lamia was sentenced to death in January by a special court in Baghdad for providing "logistical support and helping the terrorist group to carry out crimes." The sentence was commuted to life.

Then, earlier this month, Nadia was handed a life sentence for belonging to the group.

According to news agency reports, Nadia said she did not believe in IS's ideology. However, she had earlier admitted to the judge that she had received a salary from the group every month.

Nadia's lawyer stressed that she was a minor at the time and that her marriage to an IS member in Syria was "not a decision taken by an adult in full conscience."

The trials of foreign fighters and their wives are often rushed, according to rights groups. And torture is widespread. Judges make little effort to obtain evidence that real crimes were committed, said Belkis Wille, the senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, who has attended several trials.

Because officials assume that defendants had willingly moved to the country to join IS, "there is a very strong desire on the Iraqi side to give harsher sentences to foreigners," Wille told DW. "It's one thing if you live in a village and wake up to your village having been taken over by IS, but very different if you decide to leave your country to join IS."

And, Wille said, the authorities make no exceptions for women: "When it comes to the prosecution of the foreign women, there seems to be this feeling that by virtue of you having been a foreigner in (IS) territory that means you're guilty."

According to the news agency AFP, Iraqi courts have sentenced more than 300 people, including about 100 foreigners, to death for belonging to IS, while about as many have received life imprisonment.

Wille said judges showed no interest in investigating whether women might have been brought to Syria and Iraq against their will by husbands or other relatives.

Aftermath of a genocide

German authorities investigating

It's a very sensitive topic in Germany: Officials who spoke to DW off the record stressed that they do not want to be seen as interfering in the justice system of a sovereign state. They plan to let the trials run their course — and to apply careful pressure when death sentences are handed down. 

Officials say they are working to ensure that people convicted serve the remainder of their prison sentences in Germany. But they have to tread lightly, given that there is little public appetite within Germany for alleged members of a terror group to return.

Several women and their children have returned home. It's possible that they will face legal repercussions. 

This year alone, German authorities have launched dozens of such investigations. So far, courts have taken the stance that simply living in IS-controlled territory is not enough to justify arrests.

Read more: German authorities arrest former "Islamic State" wife 

Former friends and acquaintances of Lamia's are still trying to understand why the woman who seemed so unexceptional changed so radically.

"I just don't know," one friend told DW. "How can a self-confident woman become radicalized like that? It's simply inconceivable." 

Editor's note: Deutsche Welle follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and obliges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.