In Syria and Iraq, young men from Germany are fighting for the terror group 'Islamic State.' Porous borders allow them to cross in and out of the countries; policies for dealing with those who return are still lacking.
He is young, is of Turkish origin and grew up in many ways as a typical boy in Hamburg. But changes emerged once the young man came into contact with Salafists, says Hamburg politician Gülnur Can, who is acquainted with him.
"It all started perfectly harmlessly," Can recalls, noting that led the family not to realize early enough what sort of company their son had begun to keep. "He started by complaining about the way his sisters dress and tried to tell them what they should wear. Suddenly, he began accusing the family of lacking religious conviction for sitting in front of the television and watching while innocent Muslims were being murdered."
While the rest of the family was on vacation, the young man packed his bags and headed to the Middle East to join forces with Islamist groups there. He's not at all the only one following radical propaganda. In Germany alone, an estimated 400 men are believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight on behalf of the "Islamic State" and other Islamist groups. Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) has registered five jihadists from Germany who have carried out suicide bombings in Syria and Iraq.
In order to arrive at the battle zones, at least some of the young men have crossed through Turkey.
Lax border controls
The Turkish government insists its border to Syria is closed. But individuals and vehicles have repeatedly been able to cross from one side of the border to the other. Weapons and ammunition have allegedly been transported, as well. The border totals 900 kilometers (560 miles), including over treacherous terrain. Syrian refugees are among those who profit from that. But laxity in border controls also benefits criminal organizations - and potential jihadists. The Turkish government says it decisively rejects the terror militia of the "Islamic State" and other extremists. Nonetheless, Turkey's Western partners are growing suspicious.
Gülnur Can says she could hardly believe what she learned from Germany's embassy in Ankara when she joined the family of the young man from Hamburg in trying to locate him. "The German ambassador confirmed that the Syrian border is uncontrolled, so that pretty much anyone can come in and out," she said. "We were shocked."
For German authorities, the porous crossings represent a twofold problem. It makes it harder to prevent young men from heading into conflict zones and joining up with terror groups. Additionally, jihadists could also come back to Germany - including via Turkey.
"No one comes directly from Syria to Bremen," Bremen Interior Senator Ulrich Mäurer said on German public radio. The Social Democrat politician had a number of exchanges with his colleagues on the topic in recent weeks in an effort to understand the route taken by Islamist fighters.
"The young men head to Turkey. People think it's a vacation, but then the men go over the border. They come back by way of other countries to Frankfurt and ultimately return to Bremen," he said.
Mäurer added that it's very difficult to determine whether a given returnee took part in the Islamists' violent campaigns. "Of course, there is no normal co-operation with Syria," he said. For that reason, suspected jihadists in the region are observed by the police and the BfV. "It takes a lot of personnel, but I don't see an alternative," Mäurer said.
Middle East and Islam expert Michael Lüders views the Islamist fighters coming from Syria and Iraq as a serious challenge for security officials. "You have to keep a vigilant eye when it comes to those who come back," he said on Bremen radio. "It could easily become a problem in the mid-term. In the short term, though, we aren't concerned."
In another radio interview, BfV head Hans-Georg Maassen spoke about "an elevated abstract danger," but stressed that concrete evidence of plans is still lacking.
Calls for rehabilitation programs
On the other hand, there are those who return to Germany having turned their back on the Islamists. "We've seen that a certain number of people come back who are ready to cooperate with the police and help prevent young people from leaving," Mäurer said.
Left party parliamentarian Ulla Jelpke has called for the establishment of rehabilitation programs aimed at stopping disillusioned returning fighters from drifting back into the Islamist scene and becoming a terror threat.
Gülnur Can supports that idea, saying many young men involved don't see themselves as heroes, but are traumatized. "If they manage to make it back at all, they have to be halted and given psychological assistance," she says and appeals to the affected families not to hide due to shame or guilt but to turn to the authorities - in order to prevent greater misfortune.
A comprehensive concept for dealing with former jihadists has not yet been developed by government officials, however.