Lisa W.'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 and be back Sunday afternoon, they later said, they did not suspect anything unusual.
By that time, the 15-year-old had decided to join the Islamic State, investigators believe. They said that after chatting online with members of the extremist group, she left her parental home and traveled to Islamic State territory, where she is believed to have remained for at least 12 months. The case prompted criticism of German authorities, with many questioning why the teen had not been stopped from traveling aboard despite having shown signs of possible radicalization.
More than a year later, Lisa W. has been arrested by 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 U.S. doctors are treating her for injuries, according to the German TV network ARD.
But Germany has not officially requested an extradition, indicating that she could face charges both in Iraq and in Germany. If sentenced in Iraq, Lisa W. 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, the 16-year old said that she hoped for a quick return to Germany and that she regretted her decision to join the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. "I want to go home to my family," she said.
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 the Islamic State's 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 2016, a 15-year-old girl stabbed a police officer in an attack allegedly inspired by the Islamic State. Last July, a 17-year-old Afghan refugee attacked passengers on a train in Bavaria after pledging allegiance to the group. 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 radicalization 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 Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies.
The Islamic State has frequently used videos, songs and even games to recruit younger Europeans online. Children, however, are particularly susceptible because they lack experience in separating fact from fiction and are often not targeted in counter-radicalization schemes set up by government agencies and nongovernmental organizations.
Because of its federal structure, which puts regional governments in charge of police and domestic security issues, Germany has been even slower than other European nations in formulating such schemes. In several German states, concerned teachers or family members would have been able to call an expert hotline associated with local authorities by last July. There was no such program in the state of Saxony, where Pulsnitz is located, however.
There, a counter-radicalization center was opened by authorities in March - four years after the Islamic State seized its de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa, and long after Lisa W. and an estimated 900 other Germans had left their homes for the group's territory.
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