Syria Crisis

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 â€" 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 â€" 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.

The sons' packing list â€" 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 â€" near the Syrian border â€" 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 â€" Ben with an ammunition belt â€" 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 â€" 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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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