BERLIN • When 15-year-old Linda Wenzel started to wear long- sleeved clothes early last year, it quickly struck her classmates and teachers in the sleepy eastern German town of Pulsnitz as odd. Her conversion to Islam was noticed almost immediately in a part of Germany where only 0.5 per cent of the population is Muslim and where the backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel's pro-refugee policy had been stronger than almost anywhere else in the country.
Linda's school soon reached out to her mother and stepfather about the subtle changes, German prosecutors said. But when the teenager told her parents one day last July that she would sleep at a friend's place over the weekend, they later said, they did not suspect anything unusual.
By that time, Linda had decided to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), investigators believe. They said that after chatting online with members of the extremist group, she left home and travelled to ISIS territory, where she is believed to have remained for at least 12 months. The case prompted criticism of the German authorities, with many questioning why she had not been stopped from travelling abroad despite having shown signs of possible radicalisation.
Over a year later, Linda has been arrested by the Iraqi authorities, although the exact circumstances of the operation that led to her being taken into custody remain unclear. German officials have spoken to the teen, now 16, at an Iraqi military site where United States doctors are treating her for injuries, according to German TV network ARD.
But Germany has not officially requested an extradition, indicating she could face charges both in Iraq and in Germany. If sentenced in Iraq, Linda could face the death penalty, although German intelligence officials are reportedly in talks with their Iraqi counterparts over her return to Europe.
Speaking to ARD, Linda said that she hoped for a quick return to Germany and that she regretted her decision to join ISIS. "I want to go home to my family," she said.
TARGETING THE YOUNG
ISIL has turned terrorist recruitment and radicalisation effectively into a mass product mostly on young adults aged between 17 and 23 for the simple reason that they are unlikely to be government spies.
MR DANIEL KOEHLER, director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-Radicalisation Studies, on underage terrorists. ISIL is another name for ISIS.
As officials are deliberating how to transfer her back to Germany, prevention specialists and researchers wonder why she left Europe in the first place. Her case has renewed the spotlight on ISIS' continued ability to attract boys and girls across Europe to its cause, even as the overall number of adult recruits has dropped.
Underage terrorists have been a particular concern in Germany, where multiple plots by minors were foiled last year alone. In February last year, a 15-year-old girl stabbed a police officer in an attack allegedly inspired by ISIS. Last July, a 17-year-old Afghan refugee attacked passengers on a train in Bavaria after pledging allegiance to ISIS. And in December, a 12-year-old boy with Iraqi parents was caught planning a nail-bomb attack targeting a German Christmas market.
"ISIL has turned terrorist recruitment and radicalisation effectively into a mass product mostly on young adults aged between 17 and 23 for the simple reason that they are unlikely to be government spies," said Mr Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-Radicalisation Studies. ISIL is another name for ISIS.