Thousands of starry-eyed young European men joined the Islamic State organization after its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed what would be his short-lived caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2014. They were predominately Muslims, but some were Christian converts to Islam.
Two of the recruits, Ferhat Keskin, a German Muslim, and Oliver N, an Austrian convert, are at the center of The Renegades: A Long Way Home, a gripping documentary by Mariam Noori and Lisa Maria Hagen. It will be presented digitally from March 4 to March 6 by the Goethe Institut in Toronto, the Toronto Jewish Film Society and the Neuberger Holocaust Center.
Keskin and Oliver served together in Syria in a special German unit and were based in Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State. Keskin, whose goal was to die as a “martyr,” was apparently killed in an air strike and buried in a mass grave in Raqqa. Oliver, wounded in battle, was convicted of being a member of a terrorist group after returning to Austria, and was imprisoned for two-and-a-half years.
Keskin’s older sister, Meral, a secular Muslim from Hamburg, was his best friend before he became an Islamic radical. She tried to keep in touch with him after he left Germany, but he discouraged her from contacting him.
Meral alternatively describes her brother as “normal, aggressive, delusional and wacky.” She says he withdrew into himself and was drawn to Islamic State after the death of his mother.
Oliver thought he could change the world by joining Islamic State. He really believed in its jihadist ideology, saying he went to Syria to slaughter “infidels.” He arrived in Syria on the day Baghdadi announced the formation of the caliphate. Oliver’s lawyer claims he was “misguided.”
Oliver says that Islam provided him with a sense of security and that his experiences in Syria made him strong.
In retrospect, he hates himself for having been duped by Islamic State. “I don’t recognize myself from that time,” he admits. Oliver, however, still considers himself a Muslim. Before joining Islamic State, he was “lost” and needed the comfort of a family. Oliver’s parents divorced when he was a boy, and his brother hanged himself at the age of 11. Glad to be back in Austria, he now appreciates its tranquility and peacefulness.
The film comes full circle when Oliver agrees to meet Meral. Their conversation is brief but frank.
Before Islamic State was militarily defeated in 2017, it not only sowed death and destruction in the Middle East and elsewhere, but also seduced a generation of Europeans like Oliver N and Ferhat Keskin, both of whom paid a heavy price for their misaligned idealism.