Back from Syria and charged with fighting for the "Islamic State," the German Ebrahim B. no longer has illusions of "five-star jihad" and now advocates against extremism. His trial begins on Monday.
Ebrahim B. wanted to be a hero. According to the German Federal Prosecutor's Office, he was even willing to sacrifice his life as a suicide bomber for the "Islamic State" (IS). Now, he has changed his mind and may perhaps still become a hero: Ebrahim has publicly revealed the atrocities and the brutality of IS and openly distanced himself from the organization. His testimony casts a negative light on IS recruitment propaganda, and he may just prevent others from falling for such myths and going to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
The man says he now wants to warn others - and there are plenty to warn. IS's appeal to young people has not waned. Authorities estimate that more than 700 Germans have joined groups like IS in Syria's multifront civil war. Some believe the numbers are much higher. The psychologist and Islam researcher Ahmad Mansour believes that closer to 2,000 German men and women have found their way to IS.
At the end of May 2014, Ebrahim flew to Turkey, where he crossed the border to reach a refugee camp in the Syrian town of Jarabulus. There, he had to give up his passport and cellphone and decide whether to become a fighter or suicide bomber. According to the prosecution, Ebrahim chose the latter. German authorities estimate that more than 90 Germans have died fighting for IS and similar groups in Syria and Iraq. Among them were at least seven from Wolfsburg.
Ebrahim is one of 20 young people from Wolfsburg known to have gone to Syria. Yassin Oussaifi indoctrinated and recruited them. Until he was banned from a Wolfsburg mosque, he guilt-tripped the young people who flocked to him. Ebrahim recalled Oussaifi asking, "How can you sleep in peace when young Muslims are starving and women are being raped?" Oussaifi, who is now apparently a high-ranking Shariah judge, knew how to lure young people to IS; for instance, he promised them they would drive expensive cars and marry four women.
Once he arrived, Ebrahim witnessed constant IS paranoia and an omnipresent fear of spies. Even he himself had been temporarily suspected of being a spy. To intimidate him, he was locked into a blood-smeared cell in which a decapitated body was thrown. At the end of 2014, Ebrahim escaped. He says he has reformed and would rather live in a German prison than as free man in Syria.
'Returnees are disillusioned'
Groups trying to prevent young people from falling for IS's pull have been waiting for a deserter like Ebrahim for a while now. Peter Neumann, an extremism researcher at London's Kings College, said Ebrahim's example could also motivate others to make public statements. "Many returnees are disillusioned and would like to tell their stories, but they are afraid of the consequences," Neumann told the German public broadcaster ARD. "It is important that people who consider going to Syria ask themselves critical questions," Neumann said. "Many of them are under the impression that everyone who goes there is incredibly happy, incredibly determined, motivated, has no doubts and is completely convinced of the ideology. And this dropout has dispelled myth of determination and unity,” the scholar added.
IS leaders are quite aware of this. The organization knows that accounts of the returnees could shatter the illusions of potential recruits.
Susanne Schröter, a professor of ethnology at Frankfurt's Goethe University, echoed the idea that a disillusioned fighter like Ebrahim could help deter young people from joining such groups. According to the professor, many who sign up to join IS and groups are lured by "the idea of a great project that will change the world radically; it is legitimized by God and it requires the help of every individual." However, she said, they often find that things are very different when they arrive: "There are people who wanted to be fighters but ended up in a car wash. Young women who wanted to find a fairy tale prince ended up working as prostitutes. Others were put off by human rights violations. If they tell it like it really is in the Islamic State, then they would mar the images conveyed in propaganda."
Marwan Abou-Taam works for the State Criminal Office of Rhineland-Palatinate. A political scientist with a Ph.D. in Islamic studies, Abou-Taam views storytelling as the key motive in the radicalization process. "Basically, young people here are looking for a role in this society and, on the other hand, they sympathize with certain negative developments in Syria, in Iraq and elsewhere," Abou-Taam said. "We have two issues at hand: One is a domestic one and the other foreign. We have to encourage youth to partake in society here and make it clear that they can do it. On the other hand, we have to make a greater effort to end wars in a civil manner.”
If Ebrahim's testimony proves to be extensive, he could expose even more flaws in the terrorists' tales.
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.