Sexual Slavery as State Doctrine – “They were a huge attraction”

The German parliament recognized the massacres of Yezidis by the Islamic State as genocide on 19 January 2023. Below is the 2020 article by WELT correspondent Alfred Hackensberger on German ISIS fighters and their defenseless victims. Through Hackenberger’s in-depth field research in Syria and Iraq, German prosecutors were able to interview witnesses in the trials of German ISIS fighters. On 11 January 2023, the trial of Nadine K. (aka Umm Safiya) began in Koblenz, Germany. The 37-year-old is accused of crimes against humanity when she was with Islamic State and for “enslavement” of a Yezidi woman in Syria and Iraq. Alfred Hackensberger interviewed Nadine K. during his investigation in Syria and Iraq, and based on that, witnesses were heard by German prosecutors in this and two other court cases in Germany.

By Alfred Hackensberger

“She will be right with you,” says an older gentleman in a white caftan after opening the heavy front door. He smiles amicably and invites us into his spacious living room. “Actually, my niece never talks to journalists, but she has made an exception for you,” he explains before disappearing into the back of the house.

It is quiet in the living room, only some distant sounds of children playing in the street. The rays of the afternoon sun fall through the windows. The house sits on one of the hills of Khankhe, a Yezidi village in autonomous northern Iraq.

Below, at the lake’s edge of the Mosul Dam, are countless white containers. It is a Yezidi refugee camp. It takes a while before 17-year-old Sorin enters the living room. Her head is bowed. With a shy salute, she takes a seat on a mattress in the far corner.

She has tied her reddish-blond hair into a ponytail. She wears a black t-shirt with a large rainbow printed on it. Three glittery stripes in blue, red and gold. “Don’t be ordinary” is written in curved white letters underneath.

Sorin during the interview with WELT AM SONNTAG correspondent Alfred Hackensberger. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

In Sorin’s life, hardly anything has been ordinary since the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization abducted her. That was in August 2014, when the Islamist extremists overran the Yezidi homeland of Sinjar, a city in northern Iraq.

A few days earlier, they had declared their caliphate in Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Sorin’s family was murdered, and she was captured by the group and sold. She was only 12 years old then. Her white complexion and youth made her very popular with ISIS fighters.

Sexual abuse as a weapon of war

In total, the Sunni extremists abducted about 7,000 Yezidi women and girls since that summer six years ago. Mass sexual abuse was a weapon of war and an integral part of the ISIS genocide against the Yezidis.

They regarded the ethno-religious minority as a community of devil worshippers. Just as the Prophet Mohamed had persecuted the “infidels” in the seventh century, the Islamic State also wanted to destroy the Yezidis.

Ten thousand people were killed, mostly men and boys over 12 years old. The stolen children were sent to re-education camps, and the abducted women had to convert in order to give birth to Muslim babies.

Their more than 5,000-year-old religion, a monotheistic hybrid of elements of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, could disappear forever. Women were spoils of war, as in the campaigns in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Their sexual enslavement is one of the worst crimes of our time. One in which Germans nationals were also involved.

Twenty-six times she was sold, Sorin says. Twenty-six men, twenty-six rapists, twenty-six times the victim of disgusting fantasies. Some Yezidis managed to escape after one or two years or were ransomed for thousands of dollars. Sorin, however, had to endure five years — an eternity in captivity.

“I’m talking to you because I want justice,” she says. “The people who did this to me must be punished.” Tears roll down her face, which speckled with freckles and tiny, small, pubescent pimples. She is nervous and rubs her fingertips together. Her gaze wanders across the mottled tile floor and eventually lingers on one spot.

Suddenly, she seems as if sedated. With oversized pupils, she stares absently into space.

Sorin’s hope for justice for what was done to her has not yet been fulfilled, and ISIS’s other crimes against the Yezidis also remain largely unpunished.

The judicial apparatus in Iraq has neither the expertise nor the capacity for extensive proceedings. ISIS members are tried in summary trials that often last no longer than 20 minutes and barely meet the stands of Rule-of-Law.

There are also astonishingly few trials in other countries. Yet more than half of the ISIS fighters come from abroad. According to estimates, a total of some 40,000 people from more than 85 countries travelled to the caliphate, at least 5,000 of them from Europe.

More than 1,000 Germans also followed the ISIS propaganda to Iraq and Syria. They were promised heaven on earth and became accomplices in the realization of a totalitarian hell.

At least a few ISIS fighters and their wives have to stand trial in Germany. In early October [of 2020], the Hamburg Higher Regional Court sentenced Omaima A. to three and a half years in prison for, among other things, aiding and abetting the “enslavement of a Yezidi girl.”

The court did not believe the widow of rapper Denis Cuspert (“Deso Dogg”), who affirmed that she had merely been a housewife and mother in the caliphate and had not known about the crimes committed.

This is how many women of ISIS fighters bring their story. The men, on the other hand, usually admit to having known about the crimes committed by their fellow fighters, but not to having participated in them. Months of research by WELT AM SONNTAG in Iraq and Syria shows how deeply involved the ISIS Germans were in the group’s reign of terror and the role they played in the enslavement of the Yezidis.

The perpetrator and his wife: Omaima A., who has since been sentenced to prison, with her husband Denis Cuspert, alias Deso Dogg. He is said to have been killed in 2018.

Sorin still remembers all the stages of her martyrdom. Tal Afar, Mosul, Raqqa and all the other cities in Syria and Iraq to which they was taken. The houses where they were locked up, the rooms and how they were furnished.

She can describe each of her tormentors. She knows their names, what clothes they wore and their physical features. Sorin can recite places, people, and the exact chronology like a Litany.

But when it comes to describing individual events, she falls silent again and again. Sometimes for minutes at a time. She sits completely motionless on the mattress with her legs folded under her and her eyes averted. In these moments, she seems so fragile, as if a simple touch would be enough to make her disintegrate.

The men came from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq – and Germany. Two German ISIS fighters imprisoned the girl in Raqqa for over four months. “One was named Abu Noah, the other Abu Yahia,” Sorin says.

“The first had a prosthetic leg and the other was very muscular.” The men must be Cem K. and Murat D. The involvement of Murat D. in the trafficking and abuse of the Yezidi girls and women had first been reported by newspaper Bild in 2018.

In Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate, they had rented a villa with a garden to sexually abuse girls. Besides Sorin, the Germans held another Yezidi woman named Maha captive on the second floor.

The rapist came after dinner

“When Abu Noah was in a bad mood, he used to beat me and Maha,” Sorin recalls with tears. “He would always come when he was done with his normal family life. Usually after dinner or when he had a day off that his Egyptian wife didn’t know about.”

Like many other fighters, Abu Noah kept taking time off from ISIS’s strictly conservative family life. The routine life with a housebound wife, children and five mosque visits a day was apparently too monotonous. The house in Raqqa was a popular meeting place, says Sorin, also for many other Germans.

The excesses in the German ISIS community were no secret. They were part of the bizarre normality in the caliphate, which the wives of the German fighters also consciously tolerated.

This becomes clear when one tries to reconstruct the family life of the Germans in Raqqa at the time. This is not easy, because since the fall of IS, the witnesses of this everyday life have been scattered across countries and continents.

One of them lives in the Al-Hol camp, an internment camp for a about 60,000 ISIS fighters and their families in northern Syria. Khadija is the name of the 28-year-old. She is named after the first wife of the Prophet Mohamed.

The trained beautician with Arab roots grew up in Leverkusen. Even today, she is covered from head to toe. Only her heavily made-up eyes can be seen through a slit in her face veil.

Alfred Hackensberger (l.) talking to a German woman who now goes by the Islamic name Khadija with child in her arms, next to her a security guard at the camp. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

“The Yezidi women had to dance naked in front of the men,” Khadija recounts with obvious disgust. “And then they grabbed their breasts.” Khadija’s husband is no stranger to this: Fared Saal from Bonn once posed in a video in front of piled-up corpses. “We slaughtered them like animals,” he boasts in the clip. Today, Saal sits in a Kurdish prison in northern Syria.

Where exactly the terrorist from Bonn is being held is hard to determine. The exact places where the fighters are being held are usually kept secret by the Kurdish militias in northern Syria. But with a little negotiating skill, it is possible to get the Kurds to bring individual prisoners to the Rmelan military base, where one can talk to them.

The German Fared Saal (l.) at the Islamic State. (Source: twitter.com/bjoernstritzel)

Marcel Burzynski, 27, wears black track pants, blue bathing slippers and a turquoise V-neck sweater that looks odd in the sparse visitor’s cell in Rmelan.

Burzynski belonged to the so-called Lohberg Brigade, a group of about 25 young men from the Lohberg-Dinslaken district. Several of them worked in torture prisons run by the ISIS security service Emni, and at least two of the Lohbergers lived in Syria with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the 2015 Paris attacks.

Burzynski initially appears relaxed as he talks about everyday life in the caliphate. And about the “Yezidi thing,” as he puts it. The “Yezidi thing” was something “no one could escape,” Burzynski says. He grins. “These Yezidis were a huge attraction when they were distributed in different cities. All you had to do was pick them up.”

When asked about Sorin’s German tormentor Abu Yahia, aka Murat D., Burzynski knows immediately who is meant. “I met him while still in Dinslaken,” Burzynski says. “What a puller he was! What a criminal!” Burzynski sounds disparaging. “He had a thing for Yezidis. He even married one. Then he dumped her heavily pregnant.” Burzynski grins again.

The German Marcel Burzynski, ISIS member in captivity of the Syrian Democratic Forces, here at one of their military bases in North and East Syria. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

Burzynski claims that the Federal Intelligence Service has interrogated him in prison probably three times. “I don’t remember exactly how many times,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “I’m not interested in Germany anyway,” he adds after a short pause, putting on his provocative, superior grin again.

Yet he himself has little influence over his fate. Like the other German ISIS fighters in prisons in northern Syria, he is stuck in a hopeless position and the situation in the Kurdish camps is poor. The German government does not want to bring back fighters like him; they are a high and unpredictable security risk.

Should Burzynski nevertheless return to Germany someday, he will face legal proceedings. If, on the other hand, the Kurds have to deal with the ISIS prisoners on their own, Burzynski’s prospects are probably no better. He is alleged to have tortured for the Emni. Burzynski, however, denies this accusation. He had only stood guard at the entrance gate. “Barricade open, barricade closed,” he says.

The Kurdish guard taps his finger on his cheap wristwatch. Visiting time is over. But Bruzynski still wants to know what happened to Abu Yahia. “Is it true that he’s in jail?”

In fact, Sorin’s tormentor is currently serving a five-year prison sentence in Kosovo. A court in Pristina has found the German-Kosovar, who grew up in Herford, guilty of rape and membership of a terrorist organization.

However, what he did to Sorin has not yet been considered in the sentence. Their testimony could mean Murat D. goes behind bars for several more years. But so far, no law enforcement agency has taken up her case.

There is a chance that Sorin’s other tormentor will also end up in court: Cem K., alias Abu Noah, who grew up in northern Hamburg as the son of parents of Turkish origin. Today, like Bruzynski, he is in custody in northern Syria.

From fitness trainer in Hamburg to ISIS terrorist

You can tell that the tall man entering the prison’s visiting room used to work as a fitness trainer in Germany.

He does have a limp, and his prosthetic lower leg – a steel tube with a wooden foot on the end – protrudes from under bright green sweatpants. Still, the ISIS fighter looks well-toned in his loose, black-and-white checkered shirt.

His chest is broad, his back massive. He must be at least six feet tall. This must be the man Sorin was suffered from. That fragile girl on the mattress in Khankhe. What must be going on in the mind of a man who imprisons a twelve-year-old girl and rapes her over and over again?

Cem K. alias Abu Noah is in custody in North and East Syria. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

“I don’t know,” Cem K. says, shaking his head, when the subject of the enslavement of the Yezidi girls comes up. “I have nothing to do with it.” He will repeat it several times. No, he said, he have never met a girl named Sorin. “No, I don’t know her,” he says when shown a photo.

He even asks for a second look and gets so close to the laptop that his nose almost touches the screen. “Nah, totally unknown. Who is she supposed to be?” he asks. Then he claps his hands as if that takes the subject off the table. “Enough of that,” he shouts. “Let’s better talk about something else!”

Cem K. left to join the so-called holy war in Syria in 2014 at the age of 27. Six months later, he lost his lower left leg in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar. “I was on my way into town to do some shopping, and we were bombed,” he says.

At that time, Tal Afar was the hub for the distribution of thousands of Yezidi women. The captured women were temporarily camped in schools and other public buildings, like goods to be distributed across the ISIS caliphate. Cem K., however, claims not to have heard anything about this.

(Image: WELT)

Instead, he talks about the pain the prosthesis causes him. That he can hardly walk with it and absolutely needs a new one. Letters are clumsily carved into the upper part made of skin-colored hard plastic.

This is a list of the most important things in life, explains Cem K. and pulls up his trouser: “Thanks, World of Arab, Trust, Family.” You only realize what is really important when you are in prison, he says, thinking for the first time.

As the visit draws to a close, once again the direct question: “Did you rape the Yezidi girl or not?” The 33-year-old puts on a mischievous expression: “If you don’t make a big fuss about it, nobody will know,” he says and winks.

It is clear from his expression that he expects some kind of understanding – as if rape between men is negotiable after all. He does not want to answer any more questions and remains silent until the guard ends the visit.

The silence of the perpetrator masks a contradiction that can hardly be resolved, no matter how far one tries to penetrate the mind of the ISIS fighters. Like Cem K., they give the impression that such things do happen among people. That it may not be so palatable, but that it is somehow normal.

That there is no need to make a big deal out of it. But without intending to, the young men, in their defiant and at the same time depressed manner, reveal that they know very well how disgusting the vast majority of people will find their deeds, for example the people in Germany among whom they grew up.

A fatwa for dealing with enslaved women and girls

To override the laws of this normal world, the Islamic State has established its very own system of good and evil. In it, the abuse of the Yezidi women was not only permitted, but explicitly desired. The directive came from the very top.

There was a fatwa, a 24-point religious legal opinion for dealing with the enslaved women and girls. The ISIS radio station publicized it and broadcast special programs about it.

Any owner could basically have sex with an “infidel woman.” Even with girls who had not yet reached puberty, sexual intercourse was allowed thereafter. If sexual intercourse with the girls was not yet physically possible, one was allowed to “enjoy oneself even without sexual intercourse.”

Anyway, even if they were still virgins, they could be raped immediately after capture.

IS enabled a male-dominated society and gender-based violence,” explains Elizabeth Pearson of King’s College in London. “In the caliphate, men were able to become ‘real men’,” says the scholar, who has published an in-depth study on women, gender and ISIS radicalization.

“They were able to reinvent themselves, leave their past behind. They got a new identity in a new country with a new language.”

But of course, the new fighters brought their past experiences with them to the caliphate. “You don’t get rid of the past just like that,” Pearson says. Many of the ISIS fighters had rather low education and, before their “revival experience,” already had social problems that caused them to become criminals.

In the caliphate, they were given almost unlimited power and which they could exploit at will without fear of being punishment. After all, what they did was desired by their state and covered by the ideology. Rape, enslavement, torture – it was legal. A climate in which sexualized violence became the norm.

When you talk to them, you sometimes get the impression that they want to return to their old normal. At least, that’s the impression they want to give. Cem K., for example, describes his time with ISIS as a “mistake based on ignorance. He had come to Syria to help, but the Islamic State manipulated him, he says.

“The caliphate was like a shark tank, full of lies and intrigue,” he says, trying hard to appear affected and remorseful. He expressed similar sentiments after his imprisonment in a letter to his parents, who have been fighting for his return to Germany ever since. Back to the land of infidels their son once left.

“The EU countries are of course aware of the involvement of their nationals in ISIS crimes,” says Gian Aldonani, head of the Yezidi aid organization Hawar in Cologne. The organization supports Yezidis in northern Iraq with food, educational projects and different therapies to help them cope with their traumatic experiences.

Justice is a long time coming, Aldonani says with a sigh. But at least in Germany, something is happening now. More and more ISIS supporters are being tried for war crimes and genocide.

The Federal Republic is even taking on a pioneering role, he adds. “This shows other countries how to proceed,” says Aldonani, who fled to Germany with her family as a child in 2001.

Several trials against ISIS members are currently underway in this country. There are, for example, the proceedings against Jennifer W. in Munich and her ex-husband Taha al-J. in Frankfurt. The defendants are alleged to have killed a five-year-old Yezidi girl.

In Düsseldorf, Sarah O. and her parents-in-law are on trial for enslavement and smuggling weapons for ISIS. The charges were brought for crimes against humanity, war crimes, human trafficking for labor exploitation and participation in genocide.

“The charges in the current ISIS trials, which are based on these facts, make direct reference to the crimes committed against the Yezidis,” says attorney Natalie von Wistinghausen, who represents the joint Yezidi plaintiffs in three trials. Sections 129a/129b of the German criminal code, on the other hand, are “only” about membership in a terrorist organization.

Sarah O. in the courtroom. (Image: Picture Alliance/DPA)

Under this criminal offense, many ISIS supporters in Germany and other countries had previously been convicted but were then released after just one or two years. “Only the International Criminal Code opens up the possibility of prosecution for war crimes, crimes against humanity and for genocide,” von Wistinghausen says.

The law came into force in Germany in 2002 and enables the German judiciary to also prosecute crimes that were committed abroad in accordance with international law. “And that can even be done if there is no direct connection to Germany,” the lawyer explains. “The principle of international law applies.” The message to war criminals: you can no longer feel safe anywhere.

So much for the theory. In practice, proceedings take a long time. There are several reasons for this, and it is not solely because of the authorities. Many witnesses to ISIS barbarism first came to Germany in the course of the wave of refugees in 2015-16. A total of 85,000 Yezidis from Iraq and Syria sought refuge and protection in the Federal Republic.

Particularly important for the criminal investigations were the approximately 1,200 Yezidi women and children who were brought to Baden-Württemberg under a special humanitarian program, among them Nadia Murad, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize. The 27-year-old was abducted during an ISIS raid on her home village. Her mother and six brothers were killed.

Murad’s extensive testimony in Germany encouraged other women to come forward. But that took time. And it is not only the victims who need time; the perpetrators are not so easy to catch either. Many left Syria only over the course of the last two years, as the collapse of the caliphate became apparent.

They fled to Turkey, were captured there and only extradited months later. Others made it directly to Germany, where they were often first put under surveillance before being arrested.

Gian Aldonani and her comrades-in-arms want to help in the process of coming to terms with the past. Their organization Hawar has an extensive network in Iraq that systematically records the crimes committed against Yezidi women. Names of the perpetrators, locations, times and courses of events are archived.

But German authorities have shown little interest in cooperating, says Aldonani in disappointment. “The evidence, however, is often complicated, but with our contacts we could provide important facts.” The German investigators missed an opportunity to make the situation clear.” As laudable as the authorities’ approach may be in general,” she says, “they unfortunately don’t exhaust all possibilities.”

The criticism is directed primarily at the Central Office for Combating War Crimes (Zentralstelle für die Bekämpfung von Kriegsverbrechen, ZBKV) in Meckenheim, a small town south of Bonn. Founded in 2003, the ZBKV is part of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and is responsible for international criminal offenses. It used to investigate war crimes in the Balkans, Congo and Rwanda.

Syria is currently the department’s focus. The crimes committed by the Assad regime, and, especially, the crimes committed by Islamic State. According to the BKA, a total of 1070 German Islamists, men and women, have traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2012, 260 have apparently been killed in fighting.

The wives feel completely innocent

A “number of people in the lower three-digit range” are currently sitting in prisons and camps abroad, mainly in Syria, Iraq or Turkey, and some are “willing to return.” About one third of those who left the country are now back in Germany.

According to the BKA, there is an ongoing dialogue with non-governmental organizations, including those that advocate for the rights of the Yezidis. The declared goal is “the identification of suspects for criminal prosecution and the preservation of evidence for a later conviction.

Accordingly, the ZBKV also accepts incoming tips and informs the Federal Prosecutor’s Office. However, it said, investigations are lengthy “due to the complexity and the nature of the crimes in war and crisis zones.”

When the wives of ISIS fighters are suspected of having been involved in the crimes of their husbands, they like to point to the traditional Islamic family model, according to which the husband, as guardian, is responsible for the entire family. As a woman, you can’t be guilty of anything. After all, they only cooked food and looked after the children.

It is difficult to prove otherwise if there are no witnesses. According to a decision of the Federal Supreme Court in May of last year, wives can at least be prosecuted for membership in a terrorist organization. Provided they have lived in a house that was “taken into possession in violation of international war law.”

In many cases, however, there is much more at stake. This is shown by the example of Nadine K., who was called Umm Safiya in the caliphate and has been interned in the Al-Hol camp in northern Syria for over a year. She is one of a total of 64 German women in the camp who want to return to their homeland. Preliminary proceedings are said to be underway in Germany against 70 percent of the women in the camp. Nadine K. is said to be among them.

Her floor-length black dress is dusty, white rims of sweat have dried in the dark fabric. In addition, Nadine K. wears a black veil, headscarf and gloves. The usual dress code in al-Hol, where fanatical IS women still call the shots and punish with beatings anyone who does not adhere to the dress code.

The German Nadine K., alias Um Safiya. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

Nadine K. sits down on the sofa in the camp’s visitor container and takes the youngest of her two daughters in her arms. She explains that she joined ISIS in 2017 with her husband, an orthopedic surgeon from Syria. Together, she says, they wanted to help the people in the country. “Living under Sharia law, in a just society, was a great basic idea,” she says. “Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.” Still, she stayed with the terror group with her husband until the end, until their downfall in Baghuz.

The Syrian city on the Euphrates River was ISIS’s last bastion. And for Sorin, it was the last stop in her enslavement. When the terror group was finally defeated militarily in Baghuz, Kurdish militias also freed the Yezidi girl. In the weeks before, Sorin says, she had been living in a hole in the ground in Baghuz, barely two meters long, one and a half meters wide and one meter deep.

A blanket hung over it, stretched between two wooden slats. Around her, nothing but craters from bombs and mortar shells, bullet holes, debris from destroyed pickup trucks and cars. “There was panic, everything was endless chaos with constant gunfire and explosions,” Sorin recalls. Her head still down, she speaks softly. “It was horrible, I just hid in this hole in the ground and prayed nothing would happen to me.”

And then there was the hunger: “In the end there was only dirty water to drink, and like everyone else I had only grass and leaves to eat.” A shell fragment hit her in the arm, but she survived. She was relieved when she saved, she says today, safe on a mattress in the house of her uncle, who took her in.

She can’t tell much more. Not even about the moment of her liberation. Any talk is difficult for her. The wounds left by ISIS are too deep.

Nadine K. claims to have known nothing about the terror campaign against the Yezidis. She claims that she was only a housewife and that she took care of the children. “We didn’t have a slave,” Nadine K. claims when we ask her about it. According to our information, she did enslave a woman, for more than three years. Her name was Navin. “No, we did not have a Navin,” Nadine K. affirms once again.

Navin is now 26 years old and lives again with her parents in a small Yezidi village near Dohuk in northeastern Iraq. When we show her a photo of Nadine K. and her daughter in the Al-Hol camp’s visitor container, she recognizes her immediately. “How is the little one?” asks Navin. “Where is the big sister?” She looked after the two of them, she says, and also cooked and cleaned.

The Yezidi woman Navin was freed from a Syrian camp where she was staying with the family that kidnapped her after ISIS collapsed. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

“Her mother made me slave day and night. She always had something to complain about and constantly insulted me,” the young woman recalls. She does not want to talk about the relationship with Nadine K.’s husband on this day in her parents’ living room, nor about the three owners before him. “Only in court will I say everything,” she says. “I want justice. They have to pay for what they did.” Her gaze freezes for long seconds.

It is the same look as in Sorin’s eyes. Even when the women speak of their suffering, they cannot describe it. Only traces of it are visible, and only in a some moments, in the few women and girls who survived. Many others have disappeared. Some 2,800 abducted Yezidi women never returned.

Alfred Hackensberger is correspondent for WELT. You can follow him via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.

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