Bremen, Germany — Since his arrest on terrorism charges, German militant Harry Sarfo has been an unusually talkative ISIS recruit, granting interviews from prison that were carried on front pages and news broadcasts across Europe and the United States.
German authorities permitted the access to Sarfo, whose story seemed to represent such a cautionary tale. He described atrocities he witnessed in Syria and ISIS’ efforts to enlist him for plots in Europe, always emphasizing that he spurned these approaches before making an improbable escape.
But in depicting himself as a disillusioned fighter who refused to commit violence, Sarfo left out some potentially incriminating scenes.
Previously unreleased video shows Sarfo moving doomed hostages into position for a public execution in Palmyra last year, and then apparently firing his own weapon at one of the fallen men. Rather than resisting involvement in the gruesome propaganda spectacle, Sarfo is shown shouting ISIS slogans to whip up the gathering crowd, pledging his loyalty in a pre-execution huddle and raising his fist in celebration at the burst of machine-gun fire.
The footage is at odds with almost every account Sarfo, 28, has given of his time in Syria, including his statements to German authorities that he merely “stood on the side” while the shooting took place and adamantly “said no to the killing.”
The video serves as an alarming example of how little European security services know about hundreds of militants returning to the continent after fighting in Syria — often with ISIS.
European security services face worrisome blind spots about more than 6,000 militants who left to fight in Syria over the past five years, a flow that has begun to reverse now that ISIS is losing territory. Despite his trip to Syria, Sarfo was able to board a return flight from Turkey last year and was arrested upon arrival in Germany.
The new evidence will “probably lead to a new investigation and case” against Sarfo, a senior German security official said. “The difficulty for authorities and the justice system is that we don’t have any independent source on the ground in Syria to describe whether what Sarfo or others like him have told us is indeed accurate.”
“We can see the videos, yes,” the official said. “But what has happened before or after that, we don’t know.”
Sarfo’s attorney, Udo Würtz, seemed stunned when shown the new video of his client. “I can’t say anything about this — this is surprising to me,” he said. Moments later, he said that the images show that Sarfo was doing “more than just standing around, yes, but I am not sure it will change his sentence.”
Würtz met with Sarfo on Tuesday at the prison in Bremen and showed his client a printed image from the video in which Sarfo is aiming his gun at the hostages in the video. Würtz said he was not authorized to comment on their exchange.
Sentencing documents indicate that authorities not only accepted Sarfo’s sanitized version of events but credited him for being forthright, concluding that he had “credibly distanced himself from the terror organization” once in custody by being willing to incriminate others.
Germany has been spared the devastation of terrorist attacks like those in Paris and Brussels, but the country remains a priority target for ISIS. At least 870 German citizens or residents have traveled to Syria and Iraq, officials said, and authorities estimate that one-third of those have returned.
Security agencies across Europe face a stream of “individuals who have battlefield experience in numbers that we have never seen before,” said Lorenzo Vidino, an expert on militancy at George Washington University. “There are cases where authorities have a good grasp of what the individual did. But in many cases, authorities simply know that an individual espouses jihadist ideology and went to Syria but possess no information on what he did while there.”
A complete account of Sarfo’s involvement with ISIS eluded German authorities even though he made little effort to conceal his association with the terrorist group and appeared in one of its propaganda videos.
That recording shows two ISIS operatives executing hostages who were forced to kneel among the columns in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which came under ISIS control last year. Sarfo appears only briefly in that video.
But ISIS camera crew in Palmyra captured other video in the city that was left out of the propaganda release.
Portions of this additional footage were provided to The Washington Post by an individual inside ISIS, which is eager to discredit Sarfo because of his repeated denunciations of the group.
In an April interview with the British newspaper the Independent, Sarfo said that he had “witnessed stonings, beheadings, shootings, hands chopped off and many other things.” ISIS is “not just un-Islamic, it is inhuman,” he said.
A German native of Ghanaian descent, Sarfo was in Syria for only a three-month stretch in 2015 before he fled and was arrested after returning to the German city of Bremen, his home town. But he has drawn extraordinary attention from authorities and news organizations because of his willingness to talk about ISIS’ efforts to use recruits from Europe in plots against their home countries.
The FBI has sought permission to question Sarfo, as have authorities from Austria and other countries, German officials said. The FBI declined to comment.
Sarfo was initially uncooperative with the police after his arrest in July of last year, German officials said. He changed his stance, however, after ISIS released the Palmyra propaganda video in August, confirming his association with the group.
Sarfo then submitted to lengthy interrogations, transcripts of which were obtained by The Post, telling investigators that he was approached upon his arrival in Syria by members of Amniyat, an entity within ISIS responsible for internal security and external plots. Sarfo said he refused requests to take part in attacks in Europe and was instead assigned to an elite fighting group. He also spent hours going over photos from Syria, helping investigators to identify other Western militants.
“A defendant in terrorism cases like Sarfo will always try to play down his own role,” a German security official said. “We did take this into account when we questioned him, but at the end of the day what counts is the evidence we have against this person.”
Sarfo “always claimed that he did not participate in any killings or executions,” the official said. Because of the disparity between his accounts and the video, the official said, other information Sarfo provided to authorities and journalists “will have to be questioned and no longer be considered trustworthy.”
The Washington Post