By Hubert Gude and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt
Islamist extremist Harry S. wasn't in Syria for long. But during his stay there, he claims, Islamic State leaders repeatedly tried to recruit him to commit terror attacks in Germany. Security officials believe he could be telling the truth.
It was an early summer morning in the Syrian desert, with not a cloud in the sky, when Mohamed Mahmoud asked those gathered around him: "Here are some prisoners. Which of you wants to waste them?"
Not long before, Islamic State (IS) had taken the city of Palmyra, and now jihadists from Germany and Austria were to participate in the executions of some of the prisoners taken in the operation. They drove to the site of the executions in Toyota pick-ups, bringing along an IS camera team in order to document the atrocity in the city of antique ruins. Even then, Mohamed Mahmoud was known to German security officials for his repeated propaganda-video calls to join the jihad. On that early summer day in Palmyra, though, he didn't just incite others. He grabbed a Kalashnikov himself and began firing. That day, Mahmoud and his group of executioners are thought to have killed six or seven prisoners.
The story comes from someone who was in Palmyra on that day: Harry S., a 27-year-old from Bremen. "I saw it all," he says.
Harry S. returned to Germany from Syria and is now in investigative custody. He has told security officials everything about the brief time he spent with Islamic State and has also demonstrated his readiness to deliver extensive testimony to German public prosecutors. He stands accused of membership in a terrorist group. His lawyer Udo Würtz declined to offer a detailed response when contacted, but said of his client: "He wants to come clean."
German investigators are extremely interested in the testimony of the apparently repentant returnee, even as they are likely unsettled by what he has to say.
A Vital Witness
Harry S., after all, is more than just a witness to firing squads and decapitations. He also says that on several occasions, IS members tried to recruit volunteers for terrorist attacks in Germany. In the spring, just after he first arrived in Syria, he says that he and another Islamist from Bremen were asked if they could imagine perpetrating attacks in Germany. Later, when he was staying not far from Raqqa, the self-proclaimed Islamic State capital city, masked men drove up in a jeep. They too asked him if he was interested in bringing the jihad to his homeland. Harry S. says he told them that he wasn't prepared to do so.
Harry S. was only in IS controlled territory for three months. Yet he might nevertheless become a vital witness for German security officials. Since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, fear of terrorism has risen across Europe, including in Germany, and security has been stepped up in train stations and airports. And the testimony from the Bremen returnee would seem to indicate that the fear is justified. Harry S. says that, during his time in the Syrian warzone, he frequently heard people talking about attacks in the West and says that pretty much every European jihadist was approached with the same questions he had been asked. "They want something that happens everywhere at the same time," Harry S. says.
Harry S.'s path from the Bremen quarter of Osterholz-Tenever to the jihadists of Islamic State was not particularly remarkable. His radicalization was similar to many other young, directionless men from European suburbs, from the Molenbeek district of Brussels to Lohberg in Dinslaken. In Tenever, some of the residential towers are up to 20 stories tall.
The son of parents from Ghana, Harry S. grew up in "difficult conditions," according to a court file. His father left the family just as he was entering puberty. Even though Harry S. initially only managed to graduate from a lower tier high school in Germany, he dreamed of returning to his parents' homeland and working as a construction engineer.
There was even a brief moment when it looked as though he was going to get control over his life. But then, in early 2010, he and some friends robbed a supermarket, getting away with €23,500, and flew to the island of Gran Canaria for a vacation. It wasn't long before the authorities were on to them and Harry S. was sentenced to two years behind bars for aggravated theft.