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A Father's Perilous Hunt For His Sons, Lost To Syria And ISIS

Joachim Gerhard's two sons joined the terror group ISIS, severed ties with home and may very well be dead. None of that will stop this German father's quest to bring his boys home.

Joachim Gerhard carrying pictures of his two sons
Joachim Gerhard carrying pictures of his two sons
Florian Plettenberg

KASSEL — The last time Joachim Gerhard received a message from his elder son's cell phone was a year ago.

"Hello Joachim," the text message said. "While defending their brothers and sisters in faith, your sons were shot … May Allah Subhanahu wa ta'ala send us more noble brothers like Hassan and Arif. Allahumma amin!"

Hassan and Arif are Gerhard's sons, at least those are the new names they took on after converting to Islam and leaving for Syria. The text message dates back to March 25, 2015, and was the last clue to the' whereabouts of Philipp and Ben editors' note: not their real names, whom Gerhard has dedicated himself to finding ever since they went missing.

He has traveled over a dozen times to the Middle East, convinced that his boys are still alive. He believes that Philipp (born in 1992) and Ben (born in 1996) are instead being held captive in Syria, and the text message is "fake."

Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) has told him that Philipp and Ben's file is closed. "What nonsense," says the father. "The BfV only wants to prevent me from looking for my boys."

Not faith alone

What torments him most is that unanswerable question: Why? Why did his sons go to Syria? Why did they do this to their parents? Gerhard can't believe that faith is the only explanation.

He describes his family. Philipp was a bit finicky, and very self-conscious, hot-headed from time to time. Ben, on the other hand, was the "softy," the one who was scared of spiders.

Both, he says, were attracted to expensive and trendy fashion. Both loved playing soccer and basketball. Not without fatherly pride, Gerhard talks about his sons' curiosity, politeness, helpfulness and independence. There was an artist in each of them: Philipp the actor, Ben the photographer.

In fact, in 2012, at 19, Philipp moved to Berlin to attend drama school. Back at home on break, he reconnected with his best friend, an Eritrean, who first brought Philipp to visit a mosque.

It was during a barbecue dinner in 2014 that Philipp asked his father the question that changed the family's life forever: "Papa, what do you think of Islam?"

Gerhard responded that he was not particularly interested in religion, but that based on what he had read and heard, Islam was supposed to be a decent and friendly faith.

Philipp saw a calling, and his brother Ben followed: both converted to Islam. From then on, pork, music, branded clothes, cigarettes and alcohol were relegated to the past. The brothers prayed five times a day, changing in their father's office before going to the mosque.

"I should have noticed something and taken drastic measures," says Gerhard. "But by that time, they were radiating inner peace and satisfaction."

In October 2014, Gerhard would see his sons for the last time — but he didn't know it yet. They were in his car, supposedly on their way to Vienna to visit friends.

Soon Gerhard realized that something was wrong. His ex-wife called him in tears.

"The children are gone. They want to go to Syria," she said.

Gerhard reached Philipp on his cell phone. The brothers would explain everything once they got back from Vienna, Philipp said.

But by then, he and Ben had already entered Syria. They sent their parents goodbye letters.

[rebelmouse-image 27090051 alt="""" original_size="300x450" expand=1]

The sons' packing list — Photo: Florian Plettenberg

Though father and sons stayed in touch, Philipp and Ben never revealed their exact whereabouts. In February 2015, for the first time, Gerhard prepared to fly to Gaziantep, Turkey — near the Syrian border — with two friends.

Gerhard's sons knew about his planned journey. Philipp tried to talk him out of it, saying, "Papa, you can't come visit. They have closed the borders, we don't know why. Please don't come, it's too dangerous."

"Are you held captive?" Gerhard asked.

"No, but we must not approach the border."

Gerhard was forced to leave without his sons.

Worth millions

Back in Germany, Gerhard started to read up on ISIS and terrorists, coming into contact with the well-known expert Jürgen Todenhöfer, who advised him against further journeys to Syria. He'd be worth millions as a hostage, Todenhöfer told him, and his entry in the country would be perilous.

But Gerhard didn't give up. Over the course of his next trips, he built a dubious network of middlemen and informants: Turks, Kurds, Syrians, even ISIS members, he says. In Germany, he hired a private detective.

Then, on March 6, 2015, Gerhard received a video. He hoped it would provide news of his sons.

They did appear in the video, sitting on a mountainside, both equipped with guns — Ben with an ammunition belt — and both had the beginnings of the full beard typical of ISIS members.

Ben spoke: "You think you're a hero, but you're quite the opposite. This video is our final break from you, for him he points at Philipp and me ... because you're working against Islam, and against us, because we are Muslims.

"We attest that there is only one God worth worshipping, and we will be your enemies until you attest that, too … I prefer every brother in the Islamic State, and every Muslim, to you. Why? Because you're working against the Islamic State." The connection broke off.

Joachim Gerhard still doesn't want to believe what he heard.

"If they are fighting down there, or doing other horrible things, then they are not my children anymore — but I still want to get them out of there," he says.

He struggles to account for his sons' behavior, relying on simple imagery and saying, "You have to imagine ten-year-olds playing Cowboys and Indians."

The last time Gerhard traveled to Turkey was two months ago; Todenhöfer, the terrorism expert, agrees that Philipp and Ben might still be alive, so the father is not ready to give up on his sons.

"I'll keep going there by myself. If I get captured, that's my problem," he says.

Gerhard encourages parents in a similar situation to go public. "Even if the BfV let my boys leave the country, something should be done to prevent a tragedy like this from happening to other families." Gerhard says, arguing that security forces should have more power in such situations, so they can "arrest people if necessary."

"It's not acceptable to watch people, to let them leave, and then to fear they will return with bombs," he says.

Gerhard has already planned his next trip: to Kobani, in northern Syria.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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