ISIS Women in Court: Marcia M. – A Perfect Cover?

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. The first part on Monika K. can be found here, and the second part on Nadine K. 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.

Two masked and heavily armed guards stand in front of the Higher Regional Court in Celle. It is the trial against Marcia M. that has warranted this increased security. The German Federal Prosecutor charged this female returnee from Lower Saxony with membership in a foreign terrorist organization as well as a war crime against property, often referred to as “looting.” However, the defendant’s involvement in the planning of a terrorist attack in Germany makes this trial different from others.

“I was Pretty Radical at the Time”

After growing up in a Christian home, Marcia M. converted to Islam in 2010. Through her relationship with her first husband, who she married in 2011 in Tunisia, Marcia M. was becoming more and more involved in the extremist Islamist circle in Wolfsburg, Germany. Her radicalization process continued during the marriage to her second husband Oğuz G. He was a board member of the mosque of the extremist organization Islamic Circle in Hildesheim. In 2021, the mosque’s imam known as Abu Walaa, a leading ISIS authority, was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison for recruiting several of his followers to travel to Syria and join ISIS. In autumn 2015, Marcia M. also left Germany to join the terrorist organization. In court, she says that she was “pretty radical at the time.”

The Perfect Cover

Once in ISIS territory, Marcia M. and her husband lived in several locations in Syria and Iraq. There, she started contacting trusted “sisters” in Germany who sympathized with ISIS’s goals. Her objective was to find two women willing to marry ISIS fighters. Their future husbands would come to Germany for “work.” However, in reality this was intended to be a cover to allow several duos of fighters to carry out several terrorist attacks, for example, on a music festival in Hildesheim. Their marriage was expected to provide these fighters with the perfect cover. But one of the women, who was being recruited as the “wife of convenience,” turned out to be a contact of the German domestic intelligence service (BfV). In September 2016, this woman had already forwarded the instructions she received online by Marcia M. to the BfV, who started an intelligence operation. In the end, the plot never succeeded, since the fighters, which in the internal communication were referred to as “packages from Syria,” never reached their destination.

From Kurdish to German Detention

After several attempts to leave ISIS territory had failed, Marcia M. and her husband surrendered to Kurdish forces in October 2017. In detention, they provided details of the plot (including the various German-speaking ISIS members that were involved) to the German foreign intelligence service (BND) and the CIA. After spending five years in several prisons and camps in Northeast Syria, Marcia M. was repatriated by the German Foreign Office in October 2022. In this sense, her case is also unique. So far, Germany’s approach to repatriation of their nationals from Northeast Syria has been to only return minors together with their mothers. An adult woman with no children of her own, Marcia M. was repatriated on “humanitarian grounds.” According to the Foreign Office, the few German women remaining in Syria have refused to be returned with their children. Like other female returnees, Marcia M. was arrested upon her arrival at the airport in Frankfurt and is currently in pre-trial detention.

Remorse and a Partial Confession

On the first day of her trial on April 17, 2023, Marcia M. pleaded guilty to almost all charges levied against her by the Federal Prosecutors. For example, she admitted having recruited several women as ISIS members. She also confessed that—as a trained electronics technician—she was, for a very short time, leading the fabrication of wire connections, which might have been used for booby traps. However, Marcia M. denied fabricating suicide belts, having fired a weapon, or offered to carry out an attack herself. She also denied having lived in a “looted” house, which would amount to a war crime. In her statement, Marcia M. also stressed her own suffering, from enduring a difficult pregnancy and several miscarriages to the horrible conditions in Kurdish detention facilities. Now, she claims that she wants to understand what led to her radicalization.

“She was Right, Everyone Else was not.”

One week after this statement, Marcia M. encountered for the first time in person one of the women she had tried to recruit to marry a potential attacker. Songül G. recounted the online conversations with—presumably—Marcia M. to plan the fighter’s arrival. Songül G. argued that her primary goal was to travel to Syria. Once she learned that Marcia M. had managed to get to ISIS territory, she became “very important” to Songül G. At first, Marcia M. started giving her advice. Songül G. gave interesting insights into Marcia M.’s personality, describing her as “very dominant,” “resolute,” and “aggressive.” In a Facebook chat group with other German ISIS sympathizers, Marcia M. would directly attack those who had different views, threatening to delete them from her friend’s list. Songül G. argued that when Marcia M. suddenly tried to convince her to stay in Germany, she agreed to the plan because she did not want to upset Marcia M. At the time, it was not important to Songül G. “if I hurt other people or not.” Songül G. also explained that Marcia M. said she wanted to fight. Looking at the defendant, Songül G. said that she was not surprised to see Marcia M. sitting in the courtroom without a veil, since “they all come back and take down the headscarf.” On the witness stand, Songül G. presents herself as repentant and reformed. However, in her own trial, the presiding judge found Songül G. to be calculating, manipulative, fanatic, and “highly conspiratorial.” For her support of an ISIS plot, Songül G. had been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison—more than the prosecutors had asked for.

The Many Faces of Female Returnees

A central challenge that underpins all the trials against female returnees is whether they are as disillusioned as some try to portray themselves in court. Are they only pretending and hiding their real motives? It will take time to evaluate whether returned women have really distanced themselves from ISIS ideology and critically reflected their decisions. Germany has been one of the most active countries prosecuting women returning from Syria and Iraq, including prosecutions for war crimes. The trials are providing important insights into the variety of profiles, motives, and behavior of female returnees after their return. One observation is that most German women who traveled to Syria should not be considered naïve or mere victims. At the same time, involvement in attack planning, as is the case with Marcia M., remains the exception. One of the challenges for the prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration of female returnees will be to ensure that the convicted women assume responsibility for their crimes, while at the same time critically review and question the factors that led to their radicalization.

Marcia M. is facing up to 10 years in prison. The trial is expected to continue at least until June 2023.

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