Having received a ‘holy call’, Harry Sarfo left the comfort of his home in the upper class city of Bremen in 2015 to join the Islamic State in Syria. In order to prove worthy of his calling, Mr. Sarfo drove four straight days before he could reach the confines of IS.
His efforts were met with a bump after masked Islamic State’s secret service members announced to him and his German friend that Europeans were no longer welcome at Syria. He added that their efforts were direly needed back home to carry out IS plan of waging terrorism all over the world.
According to a report by The New York Times, the IS secret service member was speaking openly about the situation, saying that they have loads of people living in European countries and waiting for commands to attack the European people.” This revelation was before the terrorist attack in Brussels and Paris. He stressed the need for more attackers within the regions of especially Germany, Britain and England. The masked man explained that it was important to have concurrent attacks within the three specified countries. Harry Sarfo recounted these conversations when he was interviewed within his maximum security cells by a New York Times reporter. Thousands of pages of French, Belgian, German and Australian intelligence as well as interrogation documents intercepted by The Times stated that the operatives belonged to an intelligence unit of the Islamic State known as the Emni. The unit has become a combination of an internal police force and an external police branch tasked with the export of terror abroad.
The Islamic State’s attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 brought global attention to the group’s external terrorism network, which began sending fighters abroad two years ago. Mr. Sarfo’s account in addition to those of other captured recruits, has further unveiled IS machinery for projecting violence beyond its borders.
What they describe is a multilevel secret service under the overall command of the Islamic State’s most senior Syrian operative, spokesman and propaganda chief, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Below him is a tier of lieutenants empowered to plan attacks in different regions of the world, including a “secret service for European affairs,” a “secret service for Asian affairs” and a “secret service for Arab affairs,” according to Mr. Sarfo.
Reinforcing the idea that the Emni is a core part of the Islamic State’s operations, the interviews and documents indicate that the unit has carte blanche to recruit and reroute operatives from all parts of the organization — from new arrivals to seasoned battlefield fighters, and from the group’s Special Forces and its elite commando units. Taken together, the interrogation records show that operatives are selected by nationality and grouped by language into small, discrete units whose members sometimes only meet one another on the eve of their departure abroad.
And through the coordinating role played by Mr. Adnani, terror planning has gone hand-in-hand with the group’s extensive propaganda operations — including, Mr. Sarfo claimed, monthly meetings in which Mr. Adnani chose which grisly videos to promote based on battlefield events.
Based on the accounts of operatives arrested so far, the Emni has become the crucial cog in the group’s terrorism machinery, and its trainees led the Paris attacks and built the suitcase bombs used in a Brussels airport terminal and subway station. Investigation records show that its foot soldiers have also been sent to Austria, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia.
With European officials stretched by a string of assaults by seemingly unconnected attackers who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, Mr. Sarfo suggested that there may be more of a link than the authorities yet know. He said he was told that undercover operatives in Europe used new converts as go-betweens, or “clean men,” who help link up people interested in carrying out attacks with operatives who can pass on instructions on everything from how to make a suicide vest to how to credit their violence to the Islamic State.
The group has sent “hundreds of operatives” back to the European Union, with “hundreds more in Turkey alone,” according to a senior United States intelligence official and a senior American defense official, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
Mr. Sarfo, who was recently moved out of solitary confinement at his German prison because he is no longer considered violent, agrees with that assessment. “Many of them have returned,” he said. “Hundreds, definitely.”
The first port of call for new arrivals to the Islamic State is a network of dormitories in Syria, just across the border from Turkey. There, recruits are interviewed and inventoried.
Mr. Sarfo was fingerprinted, and a doctor came to draw a blood sample and perform a physical examination. A man with a laptop conducted an intake interview. “He was asking normal questions like: ‘What’s your name? What’s your second name? Who’s your mom? Where’s your mom originally from? What did you study? What degree do you have? What’s your ambition? What do you want to become?’” Mr. Sarfo said.
His background was also of interest. He was a regular at a radical mosque in Bremen that had already sent about 20 members to Syria, at least four of whom were killed in battle, according to Daniel Heinke, the German Interior Ministry’s counter-terrorism coordinator for the area. He had also served a one-year prison sentence for breaking into a supermarket safe and stealing 23,000 euros. Even though the punishment for theft in areas under Islamic State control is amputation, a criminal past can be a valued asset, Mr. Sarfo said, “especially if they know you have ties to organized crime and they know you can get fake IDs, or they know you have contact men in Europe who can smuggle you into the European Union.”
The bureaucratic nature of the intake procedure was recently confirmed by American officials after USB drives were recovered in the recently liberated Syrian city of Manbij, one of the hubs for processing foreign fighters.
Mr. Sarfo checked all the necessary boxes, and on the third day after his arrival, the members of the Emni came to ask for him. He wanted to fight in Syria and Iraq, but the masked operatives explained that they had a vexing problem.
“They told me that there aren’t many people in Germany who are willing to do the job,” Mr. Sarfo said soon after his arrest last year, according to the transcript of his interrogation by German officials, which runs more than 500 pages. “They said they had some in the beginning. But one after another, you could say, they chickened out, because they got scared — cold feet. Same in England.”
According to New York Times report, while some details of Mr. Sarfo’s account cannot be verified, his statements track with what other recruits related in their interrogations. Also both prison officials and the German intelligence agents who debriefed Mr. Sarfo after his arrest said they found him credible.
Since the rise of the Islamic State over two years ago, intelligence agencies have been collecting nuggets on the Emni. Originally, the unit was tasked with policing the Islamic State’s members, including conducting interrogations and ferreting out spies, according to interrogation records and analysts. But French members arrested in 2014 and 2015 explained that the Emni had taken on a new portfolio: projecting terror abroad.
“They mostly use people who are new Muslims, who are converts,” he said. Those “clean” converts “get in contact with the people, and they give them the message.” And in the case of some videotaped pledges of allegiance, the go-between can then send the video on to the handler in Europe, who uploads it for use by the Islamic State’s propaganda channels.
The intelligence documents and Mr. Sarfo agree that the Islamic State has made the most of its recruits’ nationalities by sending them back to plot attacks at home. Yet one important region where the Emni is not thought to have succeeded in sending trained attackers is North America, Mr. Sarfo said, recalling what the members of the branch told him.
Since late 2014, the Islamic State has instructed foreigners joining the group to make their trip look like a holiday in southern Turkey, including booking a return flight and paying for an all-inclusive vacation at a beach resort, from which smugglers arrange their transport into Syria, according to intelligence documents and Mr. Sarfo’s account.
That cover story creates pressure to keep things moving quickly during the recruits’ training in Syria, and most get a bare minimum — just a few days of basic weapons practice, in some instances.
Eventually, Mr. Sarfo, perhaps because of his robust build — 6-foot-1 and around 286 pounds when he arrived in Syria, was drafted into the Islamic State’s quwat khas, Arabic for Special Forces.
The unit only admitted single men who agreed not to marry during the duration of their training. In addition to providing the offensive force to infiltrate cities during battles, it was one of several elite units that became recruiting pools for the external operations branch, Mr. Sarfo said.
Along with his German friend, he was driven to the desert outside Raqqa.
“Showering was prohibited. Eating was prohibited, too, unless they gave it to you,” Mr. Sarfo said, adding that he had shared a cave with five or six others. Even drinking water was harshly rationed. “Each dwelling received two cups of water a day, put on the doorstep,” he said. “And the purpose of this was to test us, see who really wants it, who’s firm.”
The grueling training began: hours of running, jumping, push-ups, parallel bars, crawling. The recruits began fainting.
By the second week, they were each given a Kalashnikov assault rifle and told to sleep with it between their legs until it became “like a third arm,” he said, according to his interrogation transcript.
The punishment for failing to keep up was harsh. “There was one boy who refused to get up, because he was just too exhausted,” Mr. Sarfo told the authorities. “So they tied him to a pole with his legs and his arms and left him there.”
He learned that the Special Forces program involved 10 levels of training. After he graduated to Level 2, he was moved to an island on a river in Tabqa, Syria. The recruits’ sleeping spots now consisted of holes in the ground, covered by sticks and twigs. They practiced swimming, scuba diving and navigating by the stars.
Harry Sarfo said he had started doubting his allegiance to ISIS during his training, after seeing how cruelly they treated those who could not keep up. Making the propaganda video provided his final disillusionment when he saw how many times they recorded each scene in the five-minute film. Back in Germany, when he had been inspired by similar videos, he had always assumed they were real, not staged.
He began plotting his escape, which took weeks and involved sprinting and crawling in a field of mud before crossing into Turkey. He was arrested at Bremen Airport, where he landed on July 20, 2015, and he voluntarily confessed. He is now serving a three-year term on terrorism charges.