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.

Iraq expels families with ties to Daesh as part of transitional justice

This is the third installment of a series I write here on my blog about transitional justice in areas liberated from the Islamic State (Daesh). Iraq is facing the tough task of transitioning certain areas back to normal after Daesh was forced out, but it’s proving complicated. For one, the organization still exists and fights in other parts of the country (and the region more broadly). In many other cases, transitional justice is a postwar phenomenon, where once a treaty is reached or one side is defeated, the transition begins. Iraq is in the awkward position of having to begin this transition before the victory is complete, and indeed, without certainty of when (or if, scarily enough) it will come.

In these communities that are now under the control of the Iraqi state once again, residents know which families cooperated and aided Daesh, and which of these individuals remain. In the first installment, we looked at how informal tribunals held by Iraqi forces asked villagers to identify those who had collaborated with Daesh.

This method of relying on statements and not carrying out actual trials in court was likewise used in Dhuluiya and Hit, both small cities where several hundred residents related to Daesh fighers (or so they’ve been labeled by the state) were forced to leave. In the case of Dhuluiya, Daesh was actually forced out 2 years ago, but the follow-up action to force out these families only came recently.

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Reuters 9/9/16  

This raises a different question, where does the state expect these families to go? The Reuters report says some moved to neighboring cities and villages with family members, and that others may have left for Kirkuk province. One wonders how residents in those places will receive them, or if there will be any governmental program to notify residents? Will different governorates communicate with each other about these moving families? Have they already? It seems as though the Iraqi state is not willing to take the step of exiling them completely, as the first question would be, to where exactly?

The Iraqi constitution guarantees residents the freedom of living and settlement, as a Iraqi government official told Reuters. This same official, from the Ministry of Migration and Displacement, condemned forced expulsions as oppressive but would not comment on whether he knew they were happening.

Sadly, families being forced to move by the state in this fashion is not new in Iraq. The Ba’th government began policies of this kind, to my knowledge, in the late 1970s targeting  members of the Iraqi Communist Party as well as those the state labeled as تبعية إيرانية which loosely translates to “Iranian loyalty”. From what I have seen in archival research at Hoover, this included Kurds as well as Iraqi Shiites and these individuals and families were deported to Iran.

The tables have turned, with the “help” of the US invasion that overthrew Saddam, so that a Shiite-led government is now the one forcing some Sunni families to move because of their affiliation with Daesh. Sadly, the inexact nature of the process used by the state has almost certainly caught some in its web that shouldn’t be there. A representative of the UN Commisioner for Human Rights in Iraq, Francisco Motta, stated as much, worrying that “(P)eople who may have nothing to do with ISIL are effectively being punished for what a family member may or may not have done.”  Depending on how widely it is applied, this could become a huge factor in trying to stabilize the state and get Iraq back to normal. Only time will tell.

I have taken all information and quotes from this Reuters article.

Daesh on Trial? Hasty Executions Threaten to Torpedo Transitional Justice and National Reconciliation

About two months ago, I first wrote about a breakthrough in Iraq that marked the beginning of an important transitionary phase. Iraqi forces swept through various villages in the Anbar Province near Fallujah as part of the state’s attempts to take back areas controlled by Daesh. In the process, Iraqi forces faced a conundrum: how to deal with the members of Daesh caught in the process? How would it identify them if they did not announce themselves as such? They took a quick and dirty approach: Iraqi forces held informal open-air tribunals where village members were asked to publicly identify men captured as either being members of Daesh or not. It was a choice which expedited the process, avoided long and costly trials, but was nonetheless highly problematic. Evidentiary standards were nothing more than the vocal agreement of those present. I sketched out the long-term issues with this approach in that first blog as well. On top of all this, rumors swirled about the Hashd al-Sha’bi and their controversial presence at the time, more on this below.

Questions of transitional justice rose to the surface again this week when the Iraqi state executed 36 individuals convicted of taking part in the Speicher massacre (see here). One of the locations of the massacre was near Tikrit at a river police building inside former President Saddam Hussein’s palace complex. Daesh claimed responsibility for the massacres at the time. Yet there have also been claims, for some time, that others were involved. CNN Arabic ran a piece in September 2014 claiming that Ba’thists were involved in the massacre.  A month earlier, there were claims by an Iraqi MP that Daesh was not responsible for the massacres, but that members of Saddam’s tribe in Tikrit (among others) were. See the video (Arabic) here:

Trials were already underway for the Speicher massacre when Baghdad suffered yet another terrible Daesh suicide bombing in Karrada that killed several hundred civilians in the heavily Shiite area. In response to the Daesh suicide bombing, Iraqi PM Hadiar al Abadi vowed to speed up the trials of the Daesh-collaborators in the Speicher Massacre, culminating in the executions this week. Amnesty International was direct in its criticisms:
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The horrible conduct of these trials is a clear reason for questioning the guilt of those who were just convicted and executed. Just about everything surrounding the massacre was polemical and augured more violence and sectarianism in Iraq, still struggling to rid itself of Daesh and rebuild. If this were not enough, all of the victims killed were Shi’a, making overt sectarianism part of the crime and responses to it.

These details, along with persistent claims that the perpetrators were not part of Daesh but rather Tikriti tribesmen casts a dark cloud of suspicion over the trial and subsequent executions. That has some observers, like Dr. Abbas Kadhim, bluntly calling out the Iraqi government:

Needless to say, none of this points to Iraq being on the path toward transitional justice that faces the past and brings the truth to light so that it can be dealt with. Instead, it seems easier to blame Daesh and sweep the rest under the rug.

Finally, yet still more problematic for the future, are reports that up to 700 Sunni men and boys disappeared during the attempts to retake Fallujah from Daesh, leading to fears they were killed by Shiite militias working for the Iraqi government. If true, the ineffective and corrupt Iraqi government has a lot on its plate. Not only must it effectively ensure transitional justice for the crimes of Daesh, but it will find this very difficult if it cannot control the militias acting in its name. If it cannot even bring those responsible for the missing 700 to justice afterward, it will reinforce fears that the state cannot act independently of sectarian interests and actors. Given its recent track record, that is a real possibility, and an ominous one for Iraq’s future with the battle to seize Mosul from Daesh still looming on the horizon.

 

A glimpse into the Post-Daesh

 

A glimpse into the Post-Daesh

A recent news story might on the surface seem relatively inconsequential, but it likely is one of the first of many of its kind to come. It marks a transitionary period, one that has yet to begin in many places, that of areas conquered by Daesh being liberated and attempting to return to normal. In the case, an American man who defected from Daesh is facing charges from federal prosecutors in the USA for “material support of terrorism.” The man, Mohammad Khweis apparently fled Daesh of his own accord and handed himself over to Kurdish Peshmerga forces. So far, he is not connected to acts of violence or terrorism while a member, yet he faces charges nonetheless.
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The Guardian article which brought my attention to this raises interesting questions, but they’re entirely framed inside of the present: how should this be handled so that it can be of benefit for deterring others from joining Daesh? Is that done by prosecuting him, as federal officials seem convinced, or will that potentially deter some who have joined Daesh from defecting, or push them into defecting without handing themselves over to other forces? There are no clear answers.

As more and more battles play themselves out, many may fight to the death, but what of those captured alive, or who refuse to fight? Will all remaining members be incarcerated in their countries of origin? Given the instability in Syria it seems far more likely that Iraq may actually be in a position to use its justice system for former Daesh fighters- but Mohammed Khweis, pictured above, wasn’t a fighter by most accounts. Since merely going to Daesh territory is illegal for Americans, he is being prosecuted. I certainly wonder how effective putting him in prison can be, given that radicalization inside prison remains a troubling phenomenon we don’t know enough about (and one I wrote about in my last post, btw). It is very possible that Khweis would be welcomed by radical jihadis inside prison and venerated for his role fighting with Daesh. One could also see why he might not want anything to do with them given his choice to leave and reported arguments over ideology with other Daeshis, but the harsh realities of prison often force people to embrace groups they’d otherwise want to avoid. This question- how to deal with surviving members of Daesh and the manners in which these issues are resolved will have a lasting impact on the societies in these areas of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and others.

Rupture and Transition
As pointed to above, different areas are already experiencing the rupture of Daesh rule, I’ll call it sovereignty here for more clarity, and the immediate attempts to (re)impose the sovereignty of other actors over those areas. In parts of Iraq, Kurdish forces are the ones seizing control, while in Anbar as we’ll see below, it’s the Iraqi government and the Hashd militias that are imposing their rule post-Daesh. As Juan Cole noted recently, “(Y)ou have nationalist Kurds, hopeless Sunni Arabs and militantly nationalist Shiites. The Shiites, at 60% of the country, probably have the social and economic weight to keep at least the Arab areas together. But it could be a sullen, cold-shoulder unity.” Just as there was tremendous instability and uncertainty when the United States overthrew the Iraqi government, there lurks here the possibility of renewed instability and different, more chaotic forms of violence.

Daesh had formed what can be called a “network of violence,” a term I take here from Samer Abboud’s work on Syria, and arguably even became a state. This involved moving to monopolize the use of coercive force, something Daesh largely if not completely succeeded in doing. By this, I mean that violence was pushed to its borders- the sites of confrontations with other militias, and that inside the territories Daesh was the only organized actor using force to coerce or enforce law. That raises the question- what laws will be enforced post-Daesh? How will this be done? And until a complete monopoly on coercive force is achieved, which may take some time, who will enforce law? As readers might already have surmised, the struggles to (re)establish sovereignty can themselves be prolonged, violent, and usher in major changes, the nature of which is almost impossible to foresee.

To begin to venture answers to these questions, a recent VICE news report showed fascinating footage I expect to become an important part of Iraq’s history. Militias working for the Iraqi government moved into villages and towns surrounding Fallujah in the Anbar Province after Daesh fighters had been forced out. What the video shows, however, is dealing with the remnants of Daesh. Soldiers remove their flags, paint over their graffiti, and allow some residents to return to their homes that Daesh had seized. Most interesting and important, by far, were the open-air tribunals carried out by these militias. They had rounded up a number of men who were accused of being Daesh supporters in various ways. They brought these men before a gathering of village elders and local leaders (all men from what I can see), and asked in front of everyone- was this man with Daesh? Different people speak up affirmatively or negatively and are asked to provide evidence-how do you know? What did you see him do? Those determined to be Daeshis- some of whom are more easily spotted because they’re foreign and their accents give them away- are taken into custody and we are not privy to their fate.
Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 2.00.47 PM(screenshot taken from VICE News video linked below)

The manner in which these tribunals are carried out will have long-term implications for stability and reconstruction in areas Daesh controlled. One can see there is hesitation at times, people are either unwilling to speak up or gauging the tone of others before doing so. One can only imagine how tense those present must feel- they know the man’s fate and freedom hang in the balance. There are clearly power dynamics, potentially never voiced, but understood- about who is condemning whom and who does or doesn’t speak on a man’s behalf. This manner of extracting “truth” through public denunciation not only leaves the formal judicial hierarchy but remains highly questionable as we can see. In another scene, the Iraqi Colonel is notified of where men who collaborated with Daesh live, and we see him sitting in what I presume is their house, chastising them for what he says they did- they meekly deny it, but their guilt is presumed. Given the ad hoc and informal nature of these proceedings, combined with the very real and long-term nature of the results, those potentially wronged in this process will struggle to reverse them or prove their innocence.

 

This brings us to a point where I would like to draw on a basic framework for transitional justice drawn up by the ICTJ. They outline the four most important aspects of transitional justice to be criminal prosecutions, reparations, institutional reform, and truth commissions. We’ve already touched on the prosecutions above, with a hint of truth commissions, but reparations and institutional reforms are yet to be addressed. What might they look like? I imagine that reparations will have to deal with the large number of displaced citizens, though I fear addressing all the refugees forced to flee outside of their countries because of Daesh may prove too large. They will also have to happen in a much more formal and systematic manner than we see in the video. Addressing the needs of internally displaced citizens could be a means to make sure that the homogenization and sectarianisation do not cement in place. Those familiar with Lebanon after its Civil War know just how much the composition of so many neighborhoods changed, and how those neighborhoods are very different places today because undoing all that displacement proved too difficult. I think the state will have to do more than the ad hoc truth commissions it has taken so far, and doing so without some form of amnesty will prove very difficult.

All this being said, I certainly understand the desire to carry out this transitional justice quickly and efficiently, removing whatever remaining elements of support Daesh has. This is not the exclusive path forward. As my colleague Onur Bakiner pointed out while reading a draft of this piece, Turkey, for example, offered a form of amnesty to PKK fighters who were not implicated in crimes. Yet, the Iraqi state pursues a complete military victory. In this sense, the state, insecure because of prolonged weakness and crumbling sovereignty, reasons that no mercy can be shown to Daesh. Onur likewise pointed out to me that the combination of seeking complete military victory, no amnesty, and quick ad hoc trials on the ground comes dangerously close to victors’ justice. Combined with the factors I cited from Juan Cole above, this may undermine the very gains the Iraqi state sought by acting quickly.

Waiting to carry out this transitional justice, on the other hand, is not without pitfalls. Carrying out high-profile trials, especially ones where there may be domestic or international elements supporting those on trial, can test the strength of any state. How many of these would the state have to carry out? My guess is easily more than 2,000, depending on how many former Daesh fighters were part of each case. It would not be unforseeable for remaining elements of Daesh to attempt attacks on courtrooms, on institutions more broadly, to attempt to interrupt or stop trials in progress. The failure to achieve justice in those trials could mobilize thousands against the state. Lebanon, for example, could not carry out the trial of Rafiq Hariri’s accused killers on its own; Iraq managed to with Saddam Hussein but his trial saw a judge replaced for appearing too soft on defendants. Thus it is far from certain the Iraqi state is strong and stable enough to carry out the necessary trials against accused members of Daesh.
In summation, neither of the broad paths forward I sketched here is without problems; it will be a question of mitigating the downsides of whichever path is taken. The fighting that might bring an end to the war is sadly far from the end of the conflict. Major dimensions of Iraq and Syria’s futures remain undecided even after Daesh is defeated militarily. While Iraq remains fragile and the topic of partition is once again on the lips of many, Syria remains torn (to say the least) about Bashar al-Assad’s rule. If Iraq is seen as corrupt, inefficient, and weak, Assad is tainted with the legacy of his war on Syrian society and has no legitimacy to lead the country through the painful postwar transition and rebuilding, assuming he is potentially still in power. If he isn’t, Syria can move past his brutal rule but will have its own very painful transition period before that can be finalized.

On the upside, videos like this one show us the joy that people express once they’ve been liberated from Daesh rule. It is truly beautiful to see their happiness and cheer. This happiness can be a tonic for now in light of all the uncertainty, but sadly there’s much more still to be done.

I would like to thank Onur Bakiner for his insightful comments on a draft of this blog:)