From the Elbe into the holy war

Last year Phillip N. travelled to Syria and joined the Syrian branch of al-Quaida. Family conflicts, dubious friends and being stuck in the child protections system let him forget where he really belonged.
Winter has come

Just a few days before Christmas eve winter has come to Syria. Vast parts of the northern countryside have been covered by snow. Additionally glacial wind sweeps across the land which appears even bleaker than it already does during the droughts of the summer months. These days Phillip N. also protrudes from the depth of snow. To protect himself from the freezing cold he wears a black ski cap, hand gloves, a brown camouflage jacket and lined boots.
Winter in Syria: Phillip N.

Looking like a ninja he lets himself being photographed by an comrade. He raises his right hand with the finger pointing up and is carrying a Kalashnikov on his shoulder. It's the sign of the Shahada, the Islamic creed, with which jihadists like to beard all kinds of jeopardies. "Lā ilāha illā ʾllāh" – „There is no other God than God.” And thus god will have wanted everything to be as it is, regardless from the situation one might be stuck in and the possible dangers coming with it.

Since insurgent rebel groups and jihadists have been expelled from Aleppo by the Syrian army, a lot of German fighters worry over their future. After Turkey and Russia have reestablished their strategic relations and are even planning to push through a countrywide ceasefire, jihadist groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (former Jabhat al-Nusra), Jund al-Aqsa or the Islamic Turkistan Party are dealing with a lot of pressure. They are getting excluded from every diplomatic solution. Even the Bosporus regards them as terroristic organizations even though they had been provided with weapons and gear by Turkish intelligence for years in order to overthrow the Syrian regime.
Fighting for Syrian al-Qaida

N. probably imagined servicing the Syrian al-Qaida very differently from what it actually is like when he packed his bags and left the northern German homeland. He arrived in the north of the civil war torn country where al-Qaida has been able to establish relative stable structures of domination in form of an emirate. In 2015 the Syrian army almost completely withdrew from the province of Idlib. The victory of the preponderantly islamist rebels over president Bashar al-Assad seemed to be close. Cities like Idlib, Jisr al-Shugur, Saraqib and Darkoush had become the new homes of numerous foreign jihadists.
Jihadist Phillip N.

Phillip N. joined the most powerful Syrian jihadist militia, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Before him other Germans had also joined the group. N. started to call himself “Abu Khaled al-Almani” and was brought to a training camp which prepares new recruits for the fight. There he lived with other mostly young men of different nationalities whom he soon befriended. During the traineeship they had to learn how to handle weapons. Along with it came target practices with machine guns, throwing techniques regarding shells and the usage of anti-aircraft warfare. Finally Phillip N. was deployed on guard duty for the terrorist organization.

Looking upon old pictures of the approximately 20-year old the following question arises: “Why?” How and why do young people get the idea to swap their secure surroundings for chaos and war? Phillip himself did not want to talk about the matter with the blog. He has been on the security service's radar for a couple of months now.

The focus lies on Ditib – again 

N. originates from Itzehoe, a little city near the river Elbe in Schleswig-Holstein. He attended a comprehensive school and afterwards a so called “Berufsbildungszentrum”. He was very popular among the pupils, had a lot of friends and consumed alcohol and cigarettes every now and then. A former companion told the blog “He did not grow up very Christian.” Accordingly his familial environment wasn't very peaceful and he had a lot of arguments with his mother. At one point the situation escalated and his mother did not know what to do. So she committed him to the care of a youth center.
Official of Ditib in Itzehoe/Phillip N. (2014)

His friends mostly originated from Itzehoe and Hamburg, a lot of them being Turkish and Afghan. Through them Phillip N. encountered Islam about two years ago. He converted at the local Ulu Cami mosque (run by Ditib - the largest Islamic organization in Germany) in 2014. Up to his departure N. apparently regularly spent his time in and around the milieu of the mosque. The mosque was founded in 2008 and ultranationalist Turks as well as people who are close to the Salafist spectrum tend to meet there. They probably gave him a new feeling of belonging, a feeling of a family which would be there for him no matter what.

Over and over the umbrella organization Ditib has been confronted with allegations in terms of giving violent Islamists too much space in their environment. Whether in Dinslaken, Leverkusen or Berlin: Numerous Salafists with connections to jihadists were able to merge into the communities without much resistance. This undoubtedly is connected to the coinciding narratives regarding the Syrian war. Turkish ultranationalists and Salafists support the battle against the Assad-reign. Some due to the overt Turkish neo-ottomanist aspiration to expand territorially into the middle eastern region. Others due to religious-sectarian and anti-nationalist motives. In the case of Syria there have been remarkable approaches between the two normally opposing factions. Under the motto: The end justifies the means.

Ultimately it remains unclear who influenced Phillip vigorously enough so that he set out for the war in Syria out of wrongly understood idealism. Rumor has it that a Salafist from Hamburg “with contacts to al-Qaida” had been able to convince N. to join the terrorist organization. Through the Ditib-mosque in Itzehoe Phillip got “bad company” as well. The persons in charge of the mosque did not want to talk to the blog about the topic. But after the German jihadist Erhan Aydeniz from the Allgäu area died in Syria, Phillip N. himself wrote in august that Aydeniz had helped Phillip to “come home” to Syria. Accordingly he had met him there in person. In 2015 Aydeniz indeed confirmed to the blog that he had helped other Germans to get to Syria.