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The future of German IS brides

July 28, 2017

The case of runaway jihadi schoolgirl Linda W. has raised the question of what will happen if she returns to Germany. Membership of "Islamic State" is not trivial, but a mere prison sentence could be counter-productive.

A woman in a burqa walks across a square in Munich
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ Frank Leonhardt

Linda W. wants to go home . The 16-year-old girl, who left her hometown in the eastern German state of Saxony to join the terrorist "Islamic State" (IS) organization in Iraq a year ago, told journalists she regrets ever going to Iraq.

"I want to go home to my family," she said. "I want to get out of the war, away from the weapons, the noise."

Iraqi soldiers arrested Linda in Mosul, a former IS stronghold, in mid-July. The teenager is currently thought to be in the hospital wing of an army base in Baghdad. Unter Iraqi law, she could be sentenced to death for being a member of a terrorist organization.

But capital punishment does not exist in German law. Here, the sentence for joining a terrorist organization is a prison term of between one and ten years, according to paragraph 129 of the German criminal code.

Read more: Children survive 'Islamic State' hungry and traumatized

German girl arrested in Mosul – Q & A with journalist Amir Musawy, who visited her

Membership of a terror organization 

However, it is not yet clear whether Linda will ever step foot in a German court. According to the German Justice Ministry, there is no extradition treaty in place between Germany and Iraq. But the Foreign Ministry is working on returning the women home. 

The Federal Public Prosecutor General in Germany has launched a preliminary investigation against Linda and three other women caught in Iraq, "who we believe are German," a spokesperson for the Federal Prosecutor's office told DW.

Read more: Iraqis wonder what will follow 'Islamic State' in Mosul

The four women are suspected of being members of a foreign terrorist organization. Linda stated she was willing to cooperate with German authorities - if she is allowed to return.

"Being a member of IS is a serious offense. If they return to Germany, their first stop would be pre-trial detention," Frank Buchheit told DW. He is responsible for extremism prevention within Baden-Wurttemberg's State Office of Criminal Investigation. "But someone who enters the criminal justice system is also supposed to leave it a better person. That's why things like psycho-social counselling are important, too." 

A recent case in Germany has shown that a long stay in prison without serious re-integration measures can actually be counter-productive when it comes to deradicalization. Anis Amri, the young man who drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market and killed 11 people in December 2016, was in an Italian jail for four years. That spell of detention did not rid him of his violent, Islamist ideals.

Building trust

A prison sentence alone can not be the solution, since the overall goal is to truly convince young extremists to turn away from violence so they can be reintegrated into German society.

Thomas Mücke is the director and cofounder of the Violence Prevention Network, a German NGO that works in extremism prevention and the deradicalization of young people. He has worked with several Germans who have returned to their home country after a stint with IS. Mücke says that he and his colleagues start working with the extremists as soon as they enter pre-trial detention.

"We want to win their trust," Mücke told DW. "Many of them are starting to have doubts about their ideology and that's our starting point. Of course we continue to work with them throughout their time in prison and afterwards."

Facebook Screenshot of the German girl captured in Mosul
According to media reports, Linda W. was mistaken for a Yazidi slave before she was arrestedImage: Facebook/المكتب الإعلامي للنائب حجي كندور الشيخ

The long process of deradicalization 

Susanne Schröter, director of the Frankfurt Research Center on Global Islam, also stresses how important long-term conversations are in working with people who radicalized at a young age.

"Success in deradicalization doesn't come easy. You have to be able to deal with many disappointments," Schröter told DW. She said that getting to youth early, before they fall victim to extremist ideologies, is vital: "The focus has to be on prevention."

It's not clear yet how Linda W. became so enamored with what IS represented that she traveled into a warzone. So far, she has only said that she made her way to Iraq via Turkey and Syria and that she lived in Mosul with her husband, an IS fighter who died shortly after her arrival.

Read more: How IS radicalizes teenagers through the internet

Mücke says that getting to the details, including whether Linda committed any crimes during her time in Mossul, will involve many hours of careful conversation, as "she'll likely be highly traumatized."

It remains to be seen what the immediate future holds for Linda W. and the other alleged German IS brides. Whether they will have to appear in court in Iraq or in Germany and when a trial would begin. In response to DW's questions, the Federal Prosecutor's office only said they do not comment on ongoing investigations. 

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker