Her room is empty: no pictures, posters or photos on the wall, just the Arabic symbol for “Allah” hanging over the bed. There’s nothing to suggest that until recently a 17-year-old girl lived here. The girl, Merve S., disappeared several weeks ago. She and her 18-year-old friend, Ece B., apparently traveled from northern Germany to Syria via Istanbul to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Then Ece’s father took his own life. Her sister found him hanged in the stairwell of their apartment building in Geesthacht, near Hamburg.
The search for clues about what happened leads to Merve’s hometown, the working-class Hamburg suburb of Billstedt. It has 70,000 residents and row upon row of high-rise blocks. Heavy traffic roars along its four-lane roads. Merve’s mother told the local news station that her daughter had started sleeping on the floor, and eating and drinking very little. In hindsight, she thinks her daughter was preparing herself for the harsh living conditions of an ISIS camp. Merve wasn’t considered anything out of the ordinary at the Öncü supermarket where she used to work. A sales assistant describes the teenager as a quiet girl who “barely said a word.”
So what made Merve give up her teen life to join ISIS, a terrorist group that carries out massacres and atrocities against so-called “infidels”? Why didn’t anyone see the signs? Everyone at the mosque directly opposite Merve’s parents’ house denies knowing her. “People come here to pray, but they don’t introduce themselves by name,” a community representative says.
But one young woman, an acquaintance from Ece’s hometown, says she and her cousins witnessed the girls’ transformation. Büşra, 22, has long, blond-highlighted hair, tattoos and pink glitter on her fake fingernails. She is positive the two teenagers wanted to join ISIS and are in Syria. “They’ve thrown away their cell phones and torn up their passports,” she says. “I’m sure of it.”
Büşra last saw Ece in 2014. She describes her as a homebody who liked listening to music and hanging out with her girlfriends. But that all started to change two years ago, says Büşra, when Ece began avoiding eye contact with guys on the street — and then wearing a headscarf and, later, a black veil. Büşra says Ece and Merve probably met via the Facebook or WhatsApp groups for “sisters,” the term Muslim women use for their friends. The girls also went together to Billstedt mosque where apparently nobody knew them.
“They were just religious at first,” explains Büşra. “Then they fell into the wrong hands.” She said Ece was in contact with an ISIS follower from Hamburg. The teenage girls listened to radical sermons and “were manipulated into thinking they had to help out in Syria.” Büşra says she tried to convince them that ISIS thinks of women as “birth machines.” It didn’t work: “Talking to Ece was like talking to a brick wall.”
Ece was born outside Hamburg in Geesthacht, home to 30,000 residents and a deactivated nuclear power plant. She and her Turkish family lived in a first-floor apartment. Their building has a dirty white facade, rust-stained plasterwork, thin white drapes on the windows. The remains of an orchid decorate a windowsill.
Ece’s father, Ercan B., worked shifts for a brake-pad manufacturer for many years. The men he worked with call him a “good colleague” who would greet them on the street, sometimes exchange a few words. Otherwise, Ercan B. kept to himself and definitely did not discuss his daughter.
Ece first ran away to Istanbul in November 2014. The family managed to retrieve her after she was located using cell phone tracking and detained at the airport by Turkish police. Unfortunately, the local German state police did not notice her latest attempt to leave the country. In early June, she wrote her parents a note to say she’d gone on a school trip. She’d actually flown back to Turkey.
But her father knew the truth. And it was too much for him. Ercan B. ended his life in Germany in June, on a Sunday when his wife was away.
Germany’s intelligence service has logged nearly 700 departures to Syria since 2013, about 10 percent by women. Authorities don’t track minors. About 80 of the men who left Germany have already died in acts of jihad. No details have emerged about any female deaths.
“That’s not part of our faith,” says Mustafa Cakmak, the imam at Geesthacht mosque. “The Koran says: Anyone who kills a human kills the whole of humanity.” The girls found different interpretations online.
The local community made sure that Ercan B.’s body was washed and shrouded in white material within days of his death, in accordance with Muslim custom. Hundreds of mourners prayed for the deceased, and his family then flew to Turkey for his burial.
A group of men sits outside a snack bar the day after the funeral. Ece’s uncle is one of them. He’s dressed all in black and looks exhausted, even behind his sunglasses. The sister who discovered their dead father has been admitted for psychiatric care. Her uncle looks up briefly and says, “I don’t want to say any more.”