The curious case of Harry Sarfo, former ISIS militant

There has been a stream of foreigners making their way through Turkey to Syria to join Daesh for some time. As the organization faced losses of territories and mounting death tolls of dead fighters, the number leaving the same way they came in has picked up as well. As we know, some of these fighters had not disavowed their ties to ISIS, but wanted to carry out attacks and were acting with explicit support from Daesh. Others had to sneak out, since leaving without the group’s permission has been equated with apostasy from Islam, and thus death.

One of these men has proven particularly talkative. Harry Sarfo, a German of Ghanian origin fought with Daesh before apparently having a change of heart. He fled back through Turkey and flew back to Germany, where he was arrested on arrival. He was tried and convicted of terrorist activities and sentenced to 3 years in jail, but questions remained about his activities while a member of Daesh. Sarfo denied taking part in any crimes and insisted he had been against Daesh violence before he finally quit and fled. The ensuing controversy around his story has grown and is outlined below.

His case might not have drawn much attention had he not been so willing to talk. He has been quoted in media around the world, from Russia to the USA, UK, Germany, and Ghana, where he was apparently born. The picture he paints fits with what many other defectors have described, and apparently prison officials as well German intelligence officials tasked with interrogating him found him credible. Others cast doubt on his credibility.

Sarfo’s multiple statements

Much of what Sarfo has to say portrays the organization as not merely brutal, but as going against Islam. In the NYT interview video linked below, Sarfo says he was drawn by the appeal of living in a place where Shari’a law was implemented, but that it took him barely one week to realize just how big of a mistake he had made by joining the group. He describes not only shocking things like children participating in war, but also the brutal punishments he saw meted out by Daesh. “The Islamic State is not just un-Islamic,” Sarfo stated, “it is inhuman. A blood-related brother killed his own brother on suspicion of being a spy. They gave him the order to kill him. It is friends killing friends.” These are the kinds of statements that are likely effective at dissuading potential recruits.

Sarfo claims to have been recruited for a specific branch of Daesh meant to carry out attacks abroad called “emni” or “أمني” in Arabic. A recent NYTimes article based on interviews with Sarfo describes the recruiting process in detail. Its soldiers have apparently been dispatched to Austria, Germany, Lebanon, Spain, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Tunisia and Malaysia, according to the NYTimes. He is the first I’ve seen to speak of “clean men” who are recently converted Muslims living in various parts of Europe helping Daesh terrorists on the ground. Sarfo described his interview and vetting process that Daesh put him through when he arrived in Syria, and he also describes how many would-be terrorists in England had backed out of their assignments, a constant problem for Daesh in its attempts to remotely plan attacks. Overall, his story and claims seem to corroborate other accounts from defectors.

Sarfo’s Radicalization

Sarfo’s past and path to joining Daesh, it must be mentioned, are actually quite common. An interview he gave to The Independent in the UK talked extensively about his past. Sarfo was not Muslim from birth, he converted around age 20. He was involved with crime and drugs as a youth, and met a jihadist recruiter in prison. Upon release, he joined a “radical” mosque in Bremen, and sought to travel to Syria to work with an aid organization, but was arrested multiple times and found himself back in Germany. This part seems questionable, as Sarfo had already shown signs of radicalization but was merely traveling to Syria to work in aid? It’s possible, but questionable. In her interview with him, Rukimini Callamachi of the NYT asked him these questions, and he responded that some elements of the mosque in Bremen turned him off, especially having to stop associating with non-Muslims. Upon his return, Sarfo  had to report to police while under watch for potential radicalization. His home was repeatedly raided by police and his passport was taken. He claims that this mistreatment at the hands of German police pushed him to join ISIS in April 2015.

Sadly, these patterns of radicalization are already documented and not unique to him. Sarfo’s path to becoming a jihadist after conversion in adulthood, as well as a life of crime, and time in prison are common themes for jihadists. I have written about this previously here. In summary, a fairly common example of radicalization supposedly culminated in Harry Sarfo feeling overwhelmed in Syria with ISIS, and he fled to escape with his life. Yet if that were all that happened, or indeed what happened at all, Sarfo’s story wouldn’t be so curious.

A Seemingly Incriminating Video
This week, Sarfo’s public story took an unexpected turn when the Washington Post published a video it claims was leaked to them from inside Daesh territory. The video is a series of clips of Harry Sarfo while he was a member, and it seems to contradict his testimony that he never participated in Daeshi violence. I say it seems because the video shows Sarfo pull out a handgun, point it at a group of regime soldiers who were already being fired upon, and shoot at them. Given how much they had already been shot at, there’s a good chance they were already dead. We can’t see this for certain, though, because another person moves in front of the camera right at the moment Sarfo seems to fire his weapon. The video cast clouds over the claims of Sarfo, as well as his loquacious appearances in media talking about what he claims to know. Sarfo’s attorney refused to comment other than saying “I can’t say anything about this…this is a surprise to me.”

Even more interesting, however, is the video itself. Given the proximity of the filming in the very beginning, it seems safe to assume that the filmer was a fellow Daesh member, but this is not so clear later in the video. How could someone who wasn’t a fighter or with Daesh get that shot? I think that largely rules out the idea that a civilian inside who isn’t part of Daesh filmed this and released it. Moreover, Daesh releases propaganda constantly. If they wanted to embarrass Mr. Sarfo and cast doubt on his stories, why not just put it in their own propaganda? To this author, it really seems that something just isn’t right. Why would someone on the inside of Daesh leak this video to the Washington Post? The murky nature of the motivations behind the release, and its exceptional nature lead me to explore some potential explanations.

A) One scenario would be that Daesh knows realistically that much of its propaganda is censored and taken offline before it is widely disseminated. Taking this into account, they decide to leak the footage to a source that wouldn’t be censored, the Washington Post. Strangely, there are no logos or watermarks added to the footage, despite the fact that Daesh regularly adds these. Moreover, the footage isn’t that incriminating to this author’s mind, so I wonder what they would have expected this to achieve? update: I realized I can’t think of a single time Daesh supposedly leaked anything to the press, so this would be unprecedented if that’s what really happened.

B) Another scenario is that the person on the inside who leaked it to the Washington Post is some kind of foreign informant/agent. There is a high probability that foreign intelligence agencies have sent agents  to join Daesh disguised as recruits. Think about it for a second- if it is sadly so easy for Daesh fighters to sneak into Europe, and Daesh is accepting hundreds of new fighters a week, how easy would it be for a foreign intelligence organization to get a spy inside, disguised as a recruit? It would be dangerous to say the least, but very possible. If someone on the inside wanted to get this information out to impact Sarfo’s trial, how would they do it? It seems that if the video was given straight to the German government, its provenance would come under question, and it would become clear the German government had some kind of spy on the inside, likely initiating a search for the person. Instead, it is given by the agent/s to journalists, who may or may not know who this person is, and they may genuinely think s/he is a Daesh member.

C) It is always possible that personal feuds not publicly known could be the reason that someone on the inside wants Sarfo, now escaped, to face more jail time.

D) Finally, it would also be possible that Daesh is very angry about what Sarfo has revealed and wants to try to call his credibility into question by releasing this footage that seemingly undermines his own story. Rather than trying to ensure he gets more prison time, they might want to cast doubt on his statements about life on the inside as well as the way the “emni” branch operates. For me, this still loops back to the doubts I expressed above.

Whatever the truth is, all of this has turned into a spat between the reporters at the Washington Post and Rukmini Callamachi at the NYTimes.

I think this tension between the reporters is unfortunate, because I don’t think reporter complicity with Daesh is what is going on. My hypothesis, outlined above, would explain this in a manner that didn’t involve any complicity by the Washington Post, and I also wonder whether active Daesh members would actually be willing to work with them. In the ensuing back and forth, a number of people accused Rukmini Callamachi of being too easy on Sarfo and basically accepting his lies.

There isn’t enough evidence to say definitively, so I have made clear that my points above are merely conjecture. I will update the story if new information becomes available. Point B in particular raises the points that the Washington Post focused on when they released the video, namely that German authorities were in a difficult position to deal with Daesh defectors like Sarfo when they can’t establish what the person did or didn’t do while in Syria or Iraq. That points to long-term issues with transitional justice that will likely lean on the lenient side as Mr. Sarfo’s 3 year sentence seems to indicate. But, also in relation to point B, what if German intelligence has information it gathered in secret that would affect a trial of a Daesh defector? Or another foreign intelligence agency?  How, if at all, would that info enter into the trial? There are sadly more questions than answers for now.

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