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German Jihadists in Syria and Iraq: An Update

German Jihadists in Syria and Iraq: An Update
29th February 2016 ICSR Team
In ICSR's News, Insights

by Daniel H. Heinke, ICSR Associate Fellow*

The German security authorities recently published a new study that brings together information on 677 individuals who departed Germany for Syria or Iraq before June 30, 2015.

The analysis is based on data provided by the German police and domestic intelligence agencies both at the federal and state level. It was jointly conducted by the Bundeskriminalamt (the Federal Criminal Police Agency), the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (the Federal Domestic Intelligence Service), and the Hessian Centre of Information and Expertise on Extremism, and released by the Permanent Conference of the Ministers of the Interior of the Länder.

According to the German authorities, more than 800 people have left Germany for Syria or Iraq since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, though it is not possible to verify that they all reached the region. Around one third of the departees is known or assumed to have returned to Germany, of whom 70 are thought to have experienced armed combat with Islamic State, or at least undergone military training. About 130 Islamists from Germany are presumed to have been killed in the conflict.


Significant numbers of people began travelling to Syria or Iraq in 2012/2013. A first peak happened in the third quarter of 2013. Although numbers declined in the subsequent months, they peaked again in the second quarter of 2014 and remained relatively high during the rest of the year. At the same time, the number of departures dropped significantly in 2015, with only some 20+ in each of the first two quarters.


The departees are 79% male and 21% female. However, the share of female departees rose significantly after the proclamation of the Caliphate by the Islamic State on June 29, 2014, from just 15% pre-proclamation and an astonishing 38 % post-proclamation.

The age range is 15 to 62 years, with an arithmetic mean of 25.9 years. The largest group (188 individuals) belongs to the age bracket 22-25 years, while 139 were aged 18-21 years and 124 were aged 26-29 years. Again, there are significant differences between the groups who departed prior and after the proclamation of the Caliphate (coined ‘early departees’ and ‘late departees’, respectively): the mean age of the late departees is three years younger than the early departees (23.7 vs. 26.6 years); and the percentage of minors (i.e. individuals under the age of 18 years) is considerably higher (12% vs. 5%).

Of the 628 individuals with known marital status, 34% were single, 25% legally married and 32% married under Islamic law. 267 departees are known to have children. 60% of the 548 individuals with known living conditions owned a home prior to their departure. Close to 90% of all departees lived in urban areas.

61% of the departees were born in Germany, with a broad range of other places of birth, the most significant of which are Turkey (6%), Syria (5%), the Russian Federation (5%), and Afghanistan (3%). Including the individuals born in Germany, a total of 82.4% of all departees belonged to migrant families. With regard to this variable, there are no differences between the pre- and post-Caliphate phase.

63 departees are known to have attended a school at the point of their departure. 115 individuals are known to have begun a vocational training. Of these, 49% had completed this training prior to their departure, 31% had dropped out before, and 20% were still in training when they left Germany. 81 persons are known to have begun university studies, of which 14% had completed university, 28% had discontinued it, and 59% were still enrolled at the time of their departure. Another 94 individuals are known to have had a regular job at that point, while 147 others were unemployed.


At least 116 departees are converts. At least 547 individuals are considered to belong to the Salafi spectrum, while only 22 are known not have belonged to this religious current.

68% had contacts to supra-regional Salafists/Islamists and/or Salafi groups, including both smaller local formations and long-distance contacts. Five especially relevant groups were identified that contributed 10 to 19 departees each.

Criminal backgrounds

Two thirds of the departees have been the subject of criminal investigations. 225 individuals were suspected of or tried for criminal offences prior to their Islamist radicalisation, with violent attacks (assault, robbery, etc.) and property crime accounting for 29 % each, followed by drug trafficking (16 %). Politically motivated offences played no significant role.

After their radicalisation had begun, 264 individuals were suspected of or tried for criminal offences. Politically motivated offences (under German law) now accounted for nearly a third of these (31%), followed by violent attacks (24%) and property crime (20%). Drug-related offences dropped to just 4% of the total. Of the individuals with a criminal record, more than half (53%) were suspected of or tried for three or more offences, and nearly a third (32%) were suspected of or tried for six or more crimes.


The vast majority of departees were radicalised in “real life environments”. In most cases the internet played no major role, and only a few individuals were purely radicalised online.

With regard to the most important contributing factors, of the 514 departees whose respective radicalisation processes are known, 81% had contacts to extreme Salafi groups, which highlights the relevance of this orientation. Close social contacts with extremist views were assessed as relevant factors in 96% of the cases investigated.

In many cases the radicalisation process was very quick. Nearly half (48%) of all departees appeared to depart Germany within one year of the radicalisation process beginning, with close to a quarter (23%) departing within six months of the start of this process. 68% of the departees left within two years.

The tendency towards short radicalisation processes among supporters of Islamic State appears to have accelerated following the proclamation of the so-called Caliphate. The median duration of the radicalisation process dropped from 27 to 20 months, and correspondingly, the share of departees who left Germany within one year after the beginning of their radicalisation climbed from 42% to 60% in the post-Caliphate phase.

* Daniel Heinke is also affiliated with the Institute for Police and Security Research (IPoS), University of Applied Sciences (Public Administration) Bremen, Germany.

The complete analysis is available in German.

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