The women who left Germany to join ISIS and returned are standing trial. This new CEP blog series follows the trials of some of these female returnees. An overview of the state of prosecutions can be found here (available in English and German) and recent developments in repatriation here.
The story of Monika K. seems to both confirm and challenge the stereotype that women in extremism and terrorism have no agency. First an obedient wife to an ISIS fighter, five years later, Monika K. was able to crowdfund more than $10,000 to get herself smuggled out of a refugee camp.
Since the start of the first trial against a German female ISIS returnee in January 2015, more than 32 female returnees have been convicted (at least in first instance) for their membership in or support of a foreign terrorist organization, violation of the weapons control act, war crimes, and other offences. On average, they received prison sentences of three years and eight months, including sentences suspended on probation. While the first trials received media attention (journalists, for example, reported about women’s role in the genocide against the Yazidi minority), interest in the topic has died down. Other issues are competing for headlines and the cases might appear similar. It is true that some elements such as marrying a fighter and having children are present in almost all cases. But there are unique aspects to each case that are worth analyzing. In this blog, the author will share her observations during several trials against female returnees in Germany. Although all willing German women have reportedly been repatriated from Northeast Syria, German men remain in Kurdish detention. Therefore, the question of how to prosecute returnees remains very relevant.
This blog series starts with the case of Monika K., who was sentenced before the Higher Regional Court in Düsseldorf on February 14, 2023.
From Germany to Syria and Back
Born in 1994, Monika K.’s radicalization process included well-known elements such as broken social connections in her childhood, instability at home, experiences of violence, and the longing for structure and belonging. She converted to Islam as a teenager, reportedly drawn to the clear rules and community, and subsequently married Mehdi J. under Islamic law. Following the wedding, she terminated her apprenticeship—barely leaving the house and following her husband’s interpretation of Islamic law. She increasingly began to adhere to radical religious views influenced, for example, by videos of prominent German Salafist Pierre Vogel. Eventually, the couple traveled to Syria and, in February 2014, Mehdi J. pledged allegiance to ISIS. Monika K. lived in various locations in Syria and Iraq and married several ISIS members before surrendering to the Syrian Democratic Forces in March 2019. After several months in the al-Hol camp in Northeast Syria, Monika K. managed to smuggle herself out and marry a Syrian smuggler and alleged ISIS member Abu Omar in Idlib. In September 2020, she was rearrested by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and deported to Germany together with her child.
A “Remarkable Trial”
Monika K.’s case is interesting for several reasons. First, according to her lawyer, it is rare that a defendant gives such a lengthy plea early in the trial, providing details on her radicalization and life with ISIS. Monika K. indeed showed an in-depth understanding of her—quite complex—case. As the presiding judge and prosecutors grow impatient with her unwillingness to name some of her companions, her lawyer argues that she would only protect people who had helped her.
Finances of a Refugee Camp
Second, Monika K. is one of the first female returnees charged and convicted for her activities in the camps, where she ran a “donation network for female members of IS.” Indeed, Monika K. admits to having partly managed the crowdfunding campaign “Justice for Sisters” from June 2019. Within two weeks, they received several thousand U.S. dollars and while the flow decreased and accounts were frozen, Monika K. managed to obtain enough money to finance her escape from al-Hol. She explains the complex system of crowdfunding via social media postings, private chats, and international financial services—including Western Union, MoneyGram, and the informal hawala system. Monika K. claims that she was no longer pro-ISIS and only used the willingness of ISIS sympathizers to send money but had no intention to support ISIS. Indeed, researchers find that in the camps, “money tends to keep coming only if the women maintain their support for [ISIS].” Yet, during the trial, Monika K. admits that she “knew how to talk (…), especially to men.”
Villa with a Whirlpool
Third, Monika K.’s case exemplifies the challenges around “looting” charges. She claims that in Hit, Iraq, she and Mehdi J. found an empty, but partly damaged villa. They were told the house belonged to a rich family who had left Iraq. They could live there but had to restore it themselves. The prosecutors, however, argue that Monika K. had committed a war crime against property. After the owners fled or were driven out, ISIS took over the house and gave it to Mehdi J., strengthening ISIS’s claim to this territory. As a foreign ISIS fighter, Mehdi J. did not need to find a house himself. Also, ISIS requested the villa’s return after Mehdi J.’s death, but Monika K. refused to leave, considering herself the rightful owner. In Germany, charges of “looting” have been used in around 10 cases to prosecute female returnees and were part of the arguments establishing their ISIS membership.
But while the defendant herself as well as witnesses and chat contents provided important insights, many questions remain. Where exactly was this house? If Hit was reportedly mostly Sunni and ISIS typically took over homes of “opposing parties,” who were the owners? Did Monika K. only pretend to be pro-ISIS to raise funds? Was Abu Omar, her last husband, really an ISIS member?
On February 14, 2023, Monika K. was convicted for membership in a foreign terrorist association according to §129a, b of the German criminal code and a war crime against property according to §9 of Germany’s international criminal code. She was sentenced to three years and six months according to juvenile criminal code. The months she spent in Kurdish detention are considered in this sentence. Other factors weighing in her favor included her plea; absence of prior convictions; her reported disengagement; and plans to participate in an exit program, start an apprenticeship, and focus on caring for her child. The verdict is not yet legally binding and both sides can appeal.
Monika K. lived through the height and decline of ISIS, married several ISIS members, received ideological training, spent months in Kurdish detention, and smuggled herself to Idlib after having managed an ISIS crowdfunding campaign. In her final statement, Monika K. says she regrets her decisions and is ready to bear the consequences.