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), Marcia M. (here), and Jennifer W. (here and here). An overview of the state of prosecutions in Germany can be found here (available in English and German) and recent developments in repatriation from Syria here.
The last week of August 2023 was an important week for the prosecution of female returnees in Germany. Two prominent trials ended: On August 29, Jennifer W. was convicted in second instance for her role in the enslavement and death of a five-year-old Yazidi girl and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Three days later, Marcia M. was convicted for her involvement in the planning of a terrorist attack in Germany and sentenced to eight years and six months in prison.
The German federal prosecutor had charged Marcia M. with membership in a foreign terrorist organization and war crime against property for having lived in a house that had been looted by ISIS from their original owners. The defendant had already spoken to German and U.S. foreign intelligence services about her role with ISIS in 2017, while still in a camp in northeast Syria. On the first day of her trial, Marcia M. admitted to almost all charges. However, this strategy did not work as well as she might have expected.
From Hildesheim to Tall Kayf
After converting to Islam in 2010, Marcia M. radicalized within prominent extremist Islamist circles in Wolfsburg and Hildesheim, Lower Saxony. She left Germany to join ISIS with her husband, Oğuz G., in autumn 2015. While her husband was fighting for ISIS, Marcia M. not only took care of the household, but also translated propaganda, participated in two ideological trainings, and was instructed in the use of firearms. The couple lived in several locations on ISIS territory, including in Tall Kayf, Iraq. Their accommodation in this small city north of Mosul was a point of contention in the trial. Marcia M. argued that the couple had declined other accommodation offered by ISIS because the house was too close to the front. Instead, they had allegedly rented a house next to their friends’ house in Tall Kayf on their own. The judges did not follow this argument and instead found that Marcia M. and her husband had been living in a hotel for a longer period of time. According to the verdict, this strained the couple’s financial resources. Hence, the judges found it unlikely that they declined ISIS’s first offer and did not ask for an alternative. Also, Marcia M. had written to her family that “they gave me a house.” Consequently, Marcia M. was found guilty of a war crime against property.
Marcia M. was also convicted for being a member of the Katiba Nusayba, a specialized female-only unit with headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. This unit “trained women as armed fighters and nurses” but also provided childcare. The brigade was dominated by foreign women and probably attached to the Katiba Anwar al-Awlaki. In 2022, U.S. returnee Allison Fluke-Ekren, the leader of Katiba Nusayba, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “providing military training to over 100 women and young girls in Syria on behalf of ISIS.” The judges found that Marcia M. had registered with the Katiba Nusayba in early 2017. They acknowledged that the defendant probably did not participate in weapons training since she was pregnant at the time and likely had not offered to carry out a suicide attack. But Marcia M.—an electronics technician—did, for example, manufacture wire connections, probably for explosive belts. She also acted as a driver. Other German female ISIS members had been involved with the Katiba, such as Carla-Josephine S., who had also been a driver.
Dynamics Among Female Returnees
Marcia M.’s trial also provides an example of the dynamics among former ISIS members after their return. Many were either already friends before departure or became friends during their time with ISIS or in the camps in northeast Syria. Upon return, these women often become key witnesses in trials of other female returnees. Fadia S., Solale M., and Sandra M. all testified against Marcia M., though they also mentioned positive aspects. While it is difficult to determine the motivation for female returnees to testify, it is likely that they are driven by the hope that helping law enforcement reflects positively on their case files. Fadia S. and Solale M. were convicted and sentenced to several years in prison in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Sandra M. is still under investigation. Their cooperation might positively influence a future decision for early release of Fadia S. and Solale M., or, in Sandra M.’s case, the sentencing decision.
After surrendering to Kurdish forces in October 2017, Marcia M. spent five years in several Kurdish-administered prisons and camps in northeast Syria before being repatriated. In his closing statement, her defense lawyer argued that the German government had delayed the trial by not returning her earlier. The judges disagreed. They argued that the Foreign Office did have Marcia M. “on their radar,” not least because of the federal prosecutor’s arrest warrant issued in 2016. However, they were unable to request an official extradition of Marcia M. from the Syrian government as she was held in facilities controlled by Kurdish troops. When the German Foreign Office began repatriating minors together with their mothers, cases had to be prioritized because of the high financial and logistical requirements. An adult woman with no children of her own, Marcia M. was hence returned to Germany on “humanitarian grounds” in the government’s last repatriation mission in November 2022. The court did acknowledge the long time Marcia M. spent in Kurdish prisons and camps, where she suffered harsh interrogations, a complicated pregnancy, and a miscarriage as mitigating factors.
The judges found the prosecutor’s “allegations almost entirely confirmed.” Marcia M.’s early and almost full confession was taken into consideration in the sentencing decision. Her prison sentence would otherwise have been “in the two digits,” according to the judges. However, the judges assessed that her confession was not based on “insight into wrongdoing and remorse.” They criticized that Marcia M.’s statement was “based on the state of the investigation.” According to the ruling, Marcia M. had acted “tactical” and seemed “forward-thinking in everything [she] did.”
The verdict is not yet legally binding as the defense has appealed. If her sentence is confirmed, Marcia M. would be the female returnee with one of the longest prison sentences in Germany, following that of Jennifer W. (14 years, final verdict pending), Nadine K. (nine years, three months, pending), as well as Sarah O. and Stefanie A. (both six years and six months).