PERSPECTIVE: ISIS Death in SDF Prison Raises Questions About Repatriation Before They Face Death

“I am a mother whose son went to Syria in 2014 and joined IS. I follow your posts and also your videos about the prisoners in Syria. My son is a German citizen and is in Hassaka, in the big prison in Gheweran under the YPG. According to the Bild newspaper, my son suffered from tuberculosis in December 2019 and he was also found injured. Is there a way that you can also do an interview with him? I have not received any sign of life from my son since December 2019. And I also know that he became a victim of this IS propaganda and has long distanced himself from this ideology. I thank you in advance. And wish you a nice day.”

This is the kind of message I often receive on Twitter and WhatsApp from worried ISIS family members and even from the ISIS women themselves held in the camps. Messages that arrive since it’s become widely known that I’ve made hundreds of in-depth psychological interviews with ISIS men and women held by the Iraqis and the Syrian Democratic Forces in Northeast Syria. This one posted in July 2020 is from Zeynep T.,[1] the German mother of ISIS member Kadir Muhammed Topcu, a youth born in Hamburg, Germany, on October 11, 1993.

Zeynep is distraught over not having any news of her German citizen son who went to Syria in July 2014. “At that time I didn’t know what he was going to do. He walked away from us as if he was going on vacation. He also called from vacation 2 times. After that he disappeared over 6 weeks. I only found out from him in September 2014 that he was in Syria. It was a big shock for all of us at the time.”

This shock has been repeated thousands of times all over Europe. Youth recruited by friends, or on-the-ground recruiters, or by ISIS videos and recruiters active on the Internet quietly slip out of their homes without telling their parents where they are going. The parents only learn when they are already inside Syria. And even then, these shocked parents often don’t realize the extent of it all, what it means that their offspring have traveled into Syria.

“I didn’t know that he was joining the so-called ISIS,” Zeynep tells me. Zeynep was born in Turkey but is a German citizen who has lived in Germany for over 52 years. She doesn’t speak English but has figured out how to use Google translate to communicate with me. When I tell her that I haven’t interviewed Kadir, but could ask for him on my next trip into NE Syria and also explain that the German Justice authorities have been working with the organization I direct, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) on behalf of eventually repatriating the Germans held in prisons in SDF territory, she is gladdened by the news and writes more: “I hope that this nightmare ends at some point and that our children can go back. Thank you very much.”

When Kadir was born in 1993 in Hamburg as a German citizen, no one knew at the time that his Turkish roots and Muslim background and the strained marriage of his parents combined with events in Syria would make him vulnerable to ISIS recruitment 21 years later. “He was always a polite boy and a very respectful person towards us,” his mother writes. Yet like many immigrant families, theirs was under stress and ultimately fell apart. “I am a divorced mother with her 3 children and Kadir was my middle son,” she explains.

“He didn’t have a good childhood. He suffered a lot because of the divorce from my children’s father,” Zeynep explains. Kadir was 7 years old when his parents’ marriage crumbled. Later, perhaps feeling lost without his father, Kadir started to act out. “When he was 14 he became a criminal and he also did drugs and didn’t get into good circles,” Zeynep writes. Unable to control him, she admits, “I had to hand him over to the youth welfare office with the aim of protecting him from his bad friends. He spent 4 years away from our apartment in a youth facility very far away in another city.”

“Then he came back to me and tried to train to be a chef,” his mother recalls. But the job training is not what would save him from drugs and criminality. Kadir had found redirection in his life through his religion, which could have been his salvation had it been a different time, if ISIS hadn’t been active on the scene during the same time period.

“In the meantime he started in a completely different direction,” Zeynep explains. “He went to the mosque regularly because he was from a Muslim family. He tried to become a good person. He wanted to give his life a new direction.” Like many parents of troubled and drug abusing youth, Zeynep was unaware of the many leaders in the mosques and on the ground in Germany preaching an extremist version of Islam, so blithely unaware that she was pleased to see her son embrace their religion and begin to clean up his act. “As a mother, you are happy to see that your son is becoming more sensible,” she writes, although now she realizes her mistaken belief that he was on a good path. She didn’t know then that a terrorist group that had hijacked their beliefs operating thousands of miles away would also lure her son into their grasp. “That’s what I thought back then. I just didn’t know what worse could come. I thought that things are looking up for him now.”

In 2014 when Kadir told his mother he was going to Turkey for a vacation she believed him. When she later learned that he had gone into Syria, she was shocked but still didn’t realize what it all meant. She claims that she didn’t know he was inside ISIS. “He kept telling me I only live here to learn the language of my religion and I work here to help my brothers. In the meantime he married a [German] woman there and they had children. It was only in the last 2 years that I learned from him that he had joined this Baghdadi [ISIS]. But I didn’t hear from him about the situation there. It was always in a perfectly normal world with his wife and children.”  Indeed, her story matches many of those told by other European parents and by ISIS members themselves. Their children quietly steal away, only to call them from inside Syria and tell them half a story while the calls become fewer and spaced further apart and their son or daughter sounds more and more emotionally numb until there are no more calls, only silence and painful wondering what has happened.

Of course Zeynep could follow news of the sudden rise and equally swift demise of ISIS as her son lived under bombardments without telling her much of the reality of his life. As ISIS was chased out of Raqqa to Mayadeen and then down the Euphrates to face their final territorial demise in Baghouz, Zeynep watched the news with worry. “It wasn’t until February 2019 that his wife and children surrendered to the PKK [how ISIS refers to the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF] as living conditions became more and more difficult. And in March 2019 my son fell into the hands of the SDF.”

After that, Zeynep didn’t know what had happened to him, until he resurfaced on the news. “I thought he was dead at the time but rediscovered him on an English news broadcast in September, that he was alive!” Zeynep recalls. “He said on TV that he was German. That’s when I knew he was alive and in prison.”

Like many of those held in prisons in SDF territory, Kadir was facing disease and overcrowded conditions. “In December I found out from a German report that he is seriously ill and needs help with medication. I asked the German Foreign Office to help me at least send him medication, but I was not helped in any way,” Zeynep recalls.

Indeed, theGerman government has been reluctant to deal with SDF, a non-state actor with ties to the PKK, a designated terrorist group. “In May, beginning of June 2020, I found his name in a published SDF list that he will go to court in Syria.” At that time, the SDF and Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES) was announcing in exasperation that it was going to begin local trials of ISIS prisoners given that their home countries, including European countries, were refusing to repatriate and bring them to justice at home. It should be noted that most ISIS foreign fighters were radicalized at home and also entered Syria illegally via Turkey, so Syria never legally admitted them into the country.

I hadn’t heard from Zeynep for three months and I hadn’t been able to request an interview with her son because COVID-19 kept me from traveling to Syria to continue our ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project interviews of ISIS prisoners held there. Zeynep resurfaced on Sept. 2 to share her tragic news.

“Hello Anne, I hope you are doing well,” she wrote. “I learned today from the German authorities that my son died of his injuries. He had had a leg injury and TBC [tuberculosis] for the past year and must have died from food deprivation and water shortage. For me, the news was just a confirmation of my suspicions. I would say it would be a good thing if, in their programs, they could vouch for the repatriation of the prisoners there as soon as possible. Because my son wasn’t the first and he wasn’t the last to die there either. Time is running out. No matter how many innocent children there are in camps and prisons. Please help the dying local people. Thank you.”

Reading her letter, I could feel her pain as I am also a mother of a son, luckily one who was never deceived by a terrorist group as hers was. “Yesterday I got the message from our police that he was now dead,” Zeynep writes as I wonder what impossible grief she must be feeling – the painful ruminations of her son’s life gone off track, her anger at the terrorist group that deceived him and her disappointment in her own country authorities for failing to protect him once he was taken off the battlefield. If repatriated to Germany, he would surely have been prosecuted and likely gone to prison, but probably would have lived. Tuberculosis, which he likely caught in the SDF prison, doesn’t have to be a life sentence with proper medical care which he didn’t have in NE Syria, but would have had in German prison.

While international human rights laws and obligations are still being hotly debated as they pertain to the ISIS detainees held in NE Syria, some legal experts assert that the home countries of these ISIS detainees originating within the EU have strong legal obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, Article Three’s prohibition of torture and inhuman treatment. Usually this article is applied within the EU to sending anyone to their home country if there is a risk of torture or maltreatment, although some legal experts argue that the reverse is also true, that it is against the convention to fail to protect EU citizens. Indeed this article has been recently interpreted in a recent ruling regarding a Palestinian accused of terrorism but residing in Norway, stating that not only are EU citizens, but everyone on EU territory, is absolutely protected by it. Likewise, legal experts also assert that it is an obligation under the Geneva Convention that all countries who have been belligerents in a combat need to receive their combatants back within as short a time possible after the hostilities come to a close. An unjustifiable delay in the repatriation of POWs or civilians from a combat zone constitutes a war crime under additional protocol one in the Geneva Convention. Hence those countries, like Germany, who have been part of the global coalition that fought ISIS, would under the Geneva convention be considered belligerents in the combat and need to repatriate their citizen combatants home – precisely these ISIS detainees who have been the subject of so much debate. The Geneva Convention rules are intended to facilitate the return to peace toward the end of conflicts and will always involve persons who pose security threats to the receiving country, namely traitors, and in this case ISIS members. Nevertheless, these combatants are still expected to be received to their home country under the Geneva Convention. Moreover, under the Geneva Convention, these individuals are perceived to be in dire need of protection because of the generalized threat within the combat zone and because they risk falling between the war and the ensuing peace.[2]

This was certainly the case for Zeynep’s son. He was injured but imprisoned in Syria while his country failed to repatriate him. It appears he contracted TB in prison while he waited and hoped for his home country to act on his behalf. He has now died as a result of the failure to repatriate. Does Zeynep, a German citizen, now have legal claim against her own country for failing to save her son, also a German citizen, who at a young age and after a troubled childhood made bad decisions for himself and his future by joining ISIS? Has Germany by failing to repatriate Kadir gravely breached international law? Most likely Kadir’s life could have been saved had he been repatriated and received state of the art medical care in Germany.

Kadir’s is not the only case like this. Over the last year, hundreds of children imprisoned in Camp al Hol in NE Syria have died and adult detainees also have died in the camps and prisons. Sadly, things are only looking worse with the first case of COVID-19 having been discovered recently in Camp al Hol.

Kadir’s mother states, “Of course, if he had received help from Germany immediately, he would have definitely lived. And it was fine with us that he would be held responsible here by staying in prison. That would be good for us and good for his children and his wife. Because it is better to live in hope than without hope.”

Indeed, there was hope for Kadir, because if he had been successfully prosecuted and imprisoned he could have been put in one of the many successful German rehabilitation programs where he could have learned that ISIS teaches a hijacked and violent interpretation of Islam unrecognizable to the majority of Muslims and that a more moderate interpretation of Islam is still able to positively direct his path, helping him to avoid drugs, stealing and other forms of criminality. He would also have learned that this more moderate interpretation of Islam would never have misguided him to become a terrorist enemy combatant within a group declaring enmity to his homeland. Likewise, a moderate version of Islam would never have directed him to leave his mother and home to move to a conflict zone.

While Zeynep still doesn’t know how her son got radicalized in Germany, she has her suspicions. “I think they were friends or contacts from Mosques,” she writes. “Because back then there were so many preachers running where the young people got their Islamic knowledge. Today, thank God, these preachers are all forbidden.” Indeed, this also is a failure of the German government, to detect these virulent violent influencers early on and put a stop to them before young men and women were lured into a combat zone and a terrorist group.

Zeynep’s son is never coming home. She does have grandchildren who escaped from the camp and who have made it back to Germany. “My daughter-in-law and their 3 children together managed to come to Germany via Turkey in May 2020. She is the first returnee who has not been arrested,” Zeynep writes. “Therefore I would like to protect them and not mention the names of her and the children because she should have the right to start over with her children.” It seems the reintegration of Zeynep’s grandchildren and their mother over time has been positive as she adds, “They come to visit me every weekend. It is a pain-relief for my sad heart as a mother and grandma. In the beginning I had to be very careful because to achieve the trust of children who are born in war zones and have lived there takes a lot of love and time. But now they know me and love me just as I have loved them for years. I cannot replace their father for them, but I may accompany them with my love and care.”

When asked if she has a message she would like to convey to the German government, Zeynep answers, “My message to the [German] federal government is that you should give your German citizens a right to life, whether they are women, children or men. Because everyone is innocent until his guilt is established on the basis of facts and not assumptions. And that you can also edit these in our jurisdictions. It is so unfair to leave these people to their sad and cruel fate.” Indeed, Kadir was never publicly charged with any crime either in Syria or Germany, yet he died languishing in prison without his country coming to his aid.

She also states, “I hope that the country can get more trust to take their people back. Nobody is perfect. These youth [who went to Syria] were all so young and they didn’t know what they have done. And the Baghdadi group manipulated our children in a not good way. I’m very sad about that, that I lost my son to ISIS. And these people really have no clue about true Islam. They just used our children for their dirty projects.”

Hopeful that any good can come from her son’s death, Zeynep adds, “I hope that with the death of my son a milestone can be set to bring many back and to give these children a new chance to live better and to see their mistakes and that nobody is perfect and without mistakes. Because we humans can learn through mistakes. And also future generations can be protected against making such mistakes again.”

Many ISIS cadres now in prisons in Syria downplay the crimes they committed and deny that they fought for the group in hopes of evading prosecution and further imprisonment. Zeynep’s son never shared with her that he was a fighter and he may not have been one, given that he was disabled before he even went to Syria. She writes, “I only know that he only did humanitarian jobs in Syria. Like working in hospitals or doing translations. He didn’t tell me much about his work. But I know very well he wasn’t a fighter, because he had difficulty walking. He had broken his ankle several times.” From ICSVE’s 247 in-depth interviews of ISIS cadres, I can attest to the fact that there was an injured bureau in ISIS and those with medical conditions that precluded them from becoming fighters were indeed assigned to administrative jobs. They were, however, still cogs in a huge killing machine.

There’s no doubt that those Westerners who joined ISIS turned their backs on their own countries and made their own decisions to willingly join a group that hates the West. Yet many of them faced significant discrimination at home and went believing a utopian dream that ISIS had spun over the Internet. Many have told me that they or their wives were spit on and insulted for wearing the Islamic face covering and that they also faced under- and unemployment due to being conservative Muslims. Many who traveled from Europe to ISIS believed that they would be helping the Syrian people – a people who were killed in far larger numbers by Assad than by ISIS. Many also believed the ISIS propaganda that portrayed their state building as moving toward creating an Islamic utopia where dignity, purpose, significance, equality, prosperity and a conservative Islamic lifestyle and values would be offered to all. They went with hope in their hearts, hope that for some got totally replaced with hate.

Kadir believed in the ISIS dream and lost his life for it. He was 21 when he left, and he may have harbored many ill intents in his heart when he did. Or he may have simply been deceived. His mother wishes that Germany had felt enough pity to bring him home to face justice. If they had, he would likely not have died and maybe would have been one of the success stories of the rehabilitation programs running in most prisons in Western Europe these days. In Kadir’s case, we will never know if he could have been turned around. Perhaps the others deserve to be rescued and set on a new path? Kadir’s mother certainly thinks they should get this chance and it seems likely that international law and democratic values will eventually dictate their return to face justice at home, but tragically this seems likely only after many other mothers, grandchildren and sons and daughters have also died. Our countries need to act, or we will likely see more Kadirs: children growing up like him, troubled without their fathers, some growing up in ISIS camps where the virulent messages reverberate all around them and will likely catch many in their grip. It’s time to bring the children and their parents home to face justice and hopefully be rehabilitated and reintegrated back into society.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

[1] Her name has been changed at her request.
[2] Dr Hellestveit, International legal obligations to repatriate women and children, Presention at the
Round-table Discussion on Repatriation and Prosecution of Foreigners Detained in Camps in Syria zoom Conference, September 2, 2020
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Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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