‘A great shock:’ How a small German town feels about local IS bride

Jennifer W’s journey to Iraq started years ago in Lohne, a small town in north-western Germany. The house she lived in is on a quiet street on the outskirts of town. It’s an idyllic, peaceful neighbourhood.

Since April, Jennifer W, whose full name is being withheld under German privacy law, has been standing trial in a Munich court as a supporter of the Islamic State terrorist group.

She is said to have stood by and watched as her Iraqi husband allowed a 5-year-old Yezidi girl to die of thirst in the blistering heat.

Among other things listed on the charge sheet, the 28-year-old is accused of negligent homicide and war crimes.

Jennifer W is one of the first alleged Islamic State supporters returning to Germany to be put on trial, but she is unlikely to be the last. Turkey recently started deporting suspected supporters of the group to their countries of origin.

A family of seven said to have been part of the Salafist community in the German city of Hildesheim, as well two women detained in a camp in Syria, have recently been returned to Germany.

What crimes these people actually committed, where they will live after their return, and whether they will be brought to justice in Germany have yet to be determined.

Jennifer W has been under surveillance by German authorities since she returned to Germany pregnant in 2016. When she wanted to leave for the so-called caliphate in June 2018, they pounced.

Jennifer W grew up in Lohne before moving to the Middle East with her Iraqi husband in 2014. The prosperous and largely conservative town has about 29,000 inhabitants. Sixty per cent of the population is Catholic.

Tobias Gerdesmeyer has been mayor of Lohne since 2012. He says Jennifer W came from a middle-class family and denies knowledge of any wider phenomenon of radical Islam in the community.

Lohne’s mosque is housed in a former factory building. The Islamic Community Milli Gorus (IGMG) in Lohne counts between 130 and 140 families as members. The IGMG is close to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party.

The community used to be predominantly Turkish, but since a new wave of refugees came to Germany in 2015, people have come from many nations.

“It was a great shock to us when the accusations against Jennifer W became known,” says Dirk Vulhop, a 45-year-old spokesman for the mosque, adding that the charges against her are “unimaginable.”

Jennifer W, according to Vulhop, never attended the mosque in Lohne. She was not a member and was not known by name or face. When the allegations became known, he nevertheless worried about the consequences it would have for Lohne’s Muslim community.

“Our fear was that this would change our good working relationship with many key players in the town,” he said, adding that a few months ago, when a fire broke out in an outbuilding of the mosque, he briefly feared it might be an attack.

Holger Teuteberg, 55, is the head of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Lohne. Teuteberg joined the AfD in 2013 when it was first founded.

Even though his party is known for its anti-foreigner rhetoric, Teuteberg says Lohne welcomed refugees during the crisis in 2015 and 2016 and generally does a good job of integrating non-Germans into the community.

Ursula Grosse Holthaus, the head of a local association that promotes integration in the town, firmly believes that only a minority of refugees and asylum seekers cannot be integrated and are in danger of radicalization.

“In Lohne we reach out our hand,” she says. “And we don’t let go.”

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