What now for German IS brides when they return home?

The case of runaway jihadi schoolgirl Linda W. has raised the question of what will happen if she returns to Germany. Membership of "Islamic State" is not trivial, but a mere prison sentence could be counter-productive.

Linda W. wants to go home . The 16-year-old girl, who left her hometown in the eastern German state of Saxony to join the terrorist "Islamic State" (IS) organization in Iraq a year ago, told journalists she regrets ever going to Iraq.

Terrorism | 25.07.2017

"I want to go home to my family," she said. "I want to get out of the war, away from the weapons, the noise."

Iraqi soldiers arrested Linda in Mosul, a former IS stronghold, in mid-July. The teenager is currently thought to be in the hospital wing of an army base in Baghdad. Unter Iraqi law, she could be sentenced to death for being a member of a terrorist organization.

But capital punishment does not exist in German law. Here, the sentence for joining a terrorist organization is a prison term of between one and ten years, according to paragraph 129 of the German criminal code.

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Membership of a terror organization 

However, it is not yet clear whether Linda will ever step foot in a German court. According to the German Justice Ministry, there is no extradition treaty in place between Germany and Iraq. But the Foreign Ministry is working on returning the women home. 

The Federal Public Prosecutor General in Germany has launched a preliminary investigation against Linda and three other women caught in Iraq, "who we believe are German," a spokesperson for the Federal Prosecutor's office told DW.

Read more: Iraqis wonder what will follow 'Islamic State' in Mosul

The four women are suspected of being members of a foreign terrorist organization. Linda stated she was willing to cooperate with German authorities - if she is allowed to return.

"Being a member of IS is a serious offense. If they return to Germany, their first stop would be pre-trial detention," Frank Buchheit told DW. He is responsible for extremism prevention within Baden-Wurttemberg's State Office of Criminal Investigation. "But someone who enters the criminal justice system is also supposed to leave it a better person. That's why things like psycho-social counselling are important, too." 

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A recent case in Germany has shown that a long stay in prison without serious re-integration measures can actually be counter-productive when it comes to deradicalization. Anis Amri, the young man who drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market and killed 11 people in December 2016, was in an Italian jail for four years. That spell of detention did not rid him of his violent, Islamist ideals.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where did it come from?

The "Islamic State" (IS) — also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh — is an al-Qaida splinter group with a militant Sunni Islamist ideology. It emerged in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their goal is to create a worldwide "caliphate." It gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 after a blitzkrieg military campaign that resulted in the capture of Mosul.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it operate?

IS is believed to be operational in more than a dozen countries across the world. It controls territories in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria at the height of its expansion in 2014.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Who is fighting back?

The US leads an international coalition of more than 50 countries, including several Arab nations. Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, which all support the Syrian government, also fight IS. Regional forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga (above) and US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, fight IS on the ground. The Iraqi army and militia have pushed IS from large parts of the country.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How does it fund itself?

One of IS' main sources of income has been oil and gas. At one point, it controlled an estimated one-third of Syria's oil production. However, US-led airstrikes deliberately targeted oil resources and the Syrian government as well as US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters have retaken most oil wells. Other means of income include taxes, ransom, selling looted antiquities and extortion.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it carry out attacks?

IS has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks across the globe. The militant group has targeted capitals across the EU, including Berlin, Brussels and Paris. IS leaders have encouraged so-called "lone wolf" attacks, whereby individuals who support IS carry out terrorist acts without the direct involvement of the group.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

What other tactics does it use?

The group uses various tactics to expand its power. IS fighters have looted and destroyed historical artifacts in Syria and Iraq in an attempt at "cultural cleansing." The group has also enslaved thousands of women from religious minority groups, including Yazidis. IS also uses a sophisticated social network to distribute propaganda and recruit sympathizers.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How has it impacted the region?

IS has further exacerbated the ongoing Syrian conflict. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled their homes, many traveling to Europe in pursuit of refuge. Although it has lost all of its strongholds, the militant group has left extraordinary destruction in its wake. Areas affected by the militant group's rule will likely take years to rebuild.

Building trust

A prison sentence alone can not be the solution, since the overall goal is to truly convince young extremists to turn away from violence so they can be reintegrated into German society.

Thomas Mücke is the director and cofounder of the Violence Prevention Network, a German NGO that works in extremism prevention and the deradicalization of young people. He has worked with several Germans who have returned to their home country after a stint with IS. Mücke says that he and his colleagues start working with the extremists as soon as they enter pre-trial detention.

"We want to win their trust," Mücke told DW. "Many of them are starting to have doubts about their ideology and that's our starting point. Of course we continue to work with them throughout their time in prison and afterwards."

According to media reports, Linda W. was mistaken for a Yazidi slave before she was arrested

The long process of deradicalization 

Susanne Schröter, director of the Frankfurt Research Center on Global Islam, also stresses how important long-term conversations are in working with people who radicalized at a young age.

"Success in deradicalization doesn't come easy. You have to be able to deal with many disappointments," Schröter told DW. She said that getting to youth early, before they fall victim to extremist ideologies, is vital: "The focus has to be on prevention."

It's not clear yet how Linda W. became so enamored with what IS represented that she traveled into a warzone. So far, she has only said that she made her way to Iraq via Turkey and Syria and that she lived in Mosul with her husband, an IS fighter who died shortly after her arrival.

Read more: How IS radicalizes teenagers through the internet

Mücke says that getting to the details, including whether Linda committed any crimes during her time in Mossul, will involve many hours of careful conversation, as "she'll likely be highly traumatized."

It remains to be seen what the immediate future holds for Linda W. and the other alleged German IS brides. Whether they will have to appear in court in Iraq or in Germany and when a trial would begin. In response to DW's questions, the Federal Prosecutor's office only said they do not comment on ongoing investigations.