Germany on Sunday repatriated three women and twelve children who were being held in internment camps for members of the IS terror organisation in northern Syria.
The specially chartered plane landed at Frankfurt Airport early on Sunday morning after making an emergency landing in Vienna due to one of the children suffering from severe cramps during the flight. It then flew onto Helsinki where eight Finnish nationals arrived home.
It was the first time that Germany had been so active in organizing a repatriation for adult IS members. The mission, which was organised in partnership with Finland, was kept secret until the internees’ arrival in Germany.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he was “relieved” that the operation had gone smoothly. He stressed that it was a “humanitarian mission” but also hinted that “this happy news ahead of Christmas shows that we can make repatriations happen in further cases.”
Some 100 adult IS members with German nationality, plus a further 150 children, are currently interned in Kurdish camps waiting for repatriation. Human Rights Watch has described the conditions in the camps as “appalling”, but Berlin has largely resisted attempts made through the German court system to repatriate the families.
The German government argues that it is difficult to organise repatriations as that would mean working with the autonomous Kurdish region, with which it has no diplomatic relations.
“These were humanitarian cases, primarily orphans and children who were ill, cases in which a repatriation was deemed particularly necessary and urgent,” Mr Maas explained.
One of the three women, 21-year-old Leonora M. originally from the east of Germany, was arrested after the flight landed at Frankfurt airport, with prosecutors accusing her of membership of a foreign terror organisation.
According to Bild newspaper, Leonora M.’s husband had a senior role in IS’ feared internal security organization.
She is said to have supported him in spying on other German fighters inside IS and was subjected to threats from other inmates at the Kurdish controlled camp after her capture in early 2019. The threats to her life were a reason for her being repatriated, Bild reports.
While this is the first time that Germany has actively flown former members of the Islamist terror organisation back home, in November last year it assisted in the repatriation of a female Isis member and her family. On that occasion, Berlin was ordered by a German court to assist the woman in her return.
Berlin is not alone in its reluctance to bring back Islamist extremists. The UK takes one of the toughest lines of all European countries against former IS fighters and their wives.
While the British government has organized the return of a small number of orphans, it has also revoked the citizenship of some adults in order to prevent their extradition.