ISIS Women in Court: Jennifer W. – Enslavement Resulting in Death

The women who left Germany to join ISIS and returned are standing trial. This CEP blog series follows the trials of some of these female returnees, including Monika K. (read here), Nadine K. (here and here), and Marcia M. (here). An overview of the state of prosecutions in Germany can be found here (available in English and German) and recent developments in repatriation here.

Jennifer W. was the “first ISIS member who was put on trial anywhere in the world for international crimes committed against Yazidi victims.” She was convicted before the Higher Regional Court in Munich in October 2021 for, inter alia, her involvement in the death of a Yazidi girl, but the public prosecutor successfully appealed the verdict. As her second trial comes to an end, this blog reflects on Jennifer W.’s case.

According to the 2021 verdict, Jennifer W. was raised by her mother and did not have contact with her father. She left school early without a degree and never held a job. As a teenager, she was friends with Muslims and Yazidi Kurds and became interested in Islam, the Kurdish community, and the war in Syria. Through her relationship with a man of Turkish origin, Jennifer W. converted to Islam in 2012 and adopted very conservative religious practices and worldview. Shortly after the declaration of ISIS’s “caliphate” in June 2014, she decided to travel to Syria.

Jennifer W. first stayed in guest houses for women (madafa), where all unmarried foreign women in ISIS territory had to reside until they were married. After a short-lived first marriage with a German-speaking ISIS member, she met Taha Al J., an Iraqi national who held Quran readings (ruqia) at her madafa. Jennifer W. showed interest in marrying him but made clear to Taha Al J. that she was not keen on taking care of the household. In response, Taha Al J. offered to procure help. Without Jennifer W.’s knowledge, he bought Nora T. B. and her five-year-old daughter Reda as domestic slaves. They were Yazidi and had been enslaved by ISIS since August 2014, when the terror group carried out a genocide against the Yazidi community.

Fallujah, Summer 2015

Jennifer W. and Taha Al J. married according to Islamic law in summer 2015. On their way to Fallujah, Iraq, the couple picked up Nora T. B. and Reda, keeping them as slaves for six weeks. The mother and daughter were not permitted to leave the house without authorization. Occasionally, Reda was allowed to play with other children in the neighborhood. The couple exploited Nora T. B. for household chores. Jennifer W. made sure that they could not escape and gave Nora T. B. orders, including to carry out Muslim prayers. While it was Taha Al J. who regularly physically abused Nora T. B. and Reda, it was Jennifer W. who often complained about their behavior, knowing her husband would punish them.

A Crime Against Humanity

On a hot summer day, Taha Al J. first made Nora T. B. stand barefooted outside in the courtyard. He then tied Reda against an outdoor grid of the house’s courtyard in the midday heat with her arms above her head. She was tied up so high that she could not support herself on her feet. At first, Jennifer W. did nothing to prevent this. When she finally saw the child hanging, she realized the life-threatening situation and told Taha Al J., who did not react. Finally, Taha Al J. took Reda inside, but when Jennifer W. tried to give her some water, the girl’s mouth was too stiff to open. When Taha Al J. took the child away, Reda “was irrecoverably unconscious or already dead." Jennifer W. then held a weapon to Nora T. B.’s head, threatening to shoot her if she did not stop crying, despite her obvious distress from Reda’s death.

Unsuccessful Return to ISIS

After the child’s death, Taha Al J. and the mother were questioned by ISIS security officers. Nora T. B. did not return to the couple’s household and Taha Al J. was supposed to be taken into custody, but the couple managed to escape and flee to Turkey. Jennifer W. was arrested at the German embassy in Turkey, where she had been asking for travel documents. In February 2016, she was extradited to Germany, where she continued to live with her mother and gave birth to a daughter, the child of Taha Al J.

Jennifer W. had planned to return to ISIS. However, she discussed Reda’s death and her travel plans with a trusted contact that turned out to be a person who was in contact with the German security authorities. She was subsequently arrested on her way to Greece.

Highest Sentence for a Female Returnee

Before the Higher Regional Court in Munich, Jennifer W. finally confessed, though only partially, to traveling to ISIS territory and her husband’s ISIS membership. She denied having exploited Nora T. B. and argued that she did not dare to try and save Reda for fear of being pushed or locked up by her husband.

After 77 days of trial and based on the evidence presented in court, the 8th Criminal Senate found that “the defendant did not make an effort to save the child, even though she recognized that the child was in an imminently life-threatening condition.”

In October 2021, Jennifer W. was convicted in first instance for membership in a foreign terrorist organization, aiding and abetting an attempt to commit murder by omission, aiding and abetting by omission an attempt to commit a crime against humanity in the form of killing a human being, and aiding and abetting by omission an attempt to commit a war crime against persons in the form of killing a person to be protected under international humanitarian law as well as crimes against humanity.

Jennifer W. was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the highest prison sentence for a female returnee in Germany to date.

In November 2021, the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt convicted Taha Al J.—who was arrested in Greece on a German arrest warrant—of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and bodily harm resulting in death and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The legally binding verdict represents the “first conviction of an ISIS member for genocide anywhere in the world.”

A Less Serious Case?

The public prosecutor, however, appealed the verdict against Jennifer W. and in March 2023, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe (BGH) largely lifted the verdict. Originally, the 8th Criminal Senate had argued that this was a “less serious case” of enslavement, limiting the maximum prison sentence. Following the prosecutor’s arguments in the appeal, the BGH found that the court had not taken into account all the case’s aggravating circumstances, especially the “inhuman motives and goals of the defendant” and referred the case back to the court in Munich.

The next blog in this series will focus on Jennifer W.’s second trial in summer 2023.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

Fact:

On January 23, 2019, two car bombs exploded outside of a mosque in Benghazi, Libya, killing 41 people and injuring 80 others. No group claimed responsibility for the blast, but remnants suggested an ISIS affiliate was responsible.  

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