Editor's Notes: Behind the lines of jihad

Europe, Souad Mekhennet explained, continues to live in a state of denial.

JOURNALIST SOUAD MEKHENNET interviews jihadists on assignment (photo credit: ZELJKO PEHAR)
JOURNALIST SOUAD MEKHENNET interviews jihadists on assignment
(photo credit: ZELJKO PEHAR)
It was the summer of 2014, and Souad Mekhennet was heading toward danger. A reporter for The Washington Post, Mekhennet had scored an interview with a high-level ISIS terrorist. Abu Yusaf, she would later learn, oversaw the group’s hostage program and took a lead role in personally torturing his captives.
While the meeting was originally scheduled for the daytime somewhere along the Syrian-Turkish border, it was suddenly moved to late at night. Mekhennet was nervous. A year earlier German intelligence had warned her of an Islamist plot to lure her to the Middle East and then force her to marry a terrorist, but she decided to go ahead with the meeting. ISIS was just gaining prominence, and Mekhennet wanted to learn more about this up-and-coming terrorist organization.
She would end up returning safely from her interview with Abu Yusaf, whom, she learned, was born in Morocco but had been raised in the Netherlands. Their conversation made her think about her own upbringing as the daughter of Moroccan and Turkish parents born in Germany, and how, if things had gone a little differently, she could have been on the other side of the tape recorder that night.
This powerful story is the opening of Mekhennet’s new book, I was Told to Come Alone, which was published last month in the United States. I have been friends with Mekhennet since 2012, when we spent a year together at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, sharing a mutual interest in the Middle East, war reporting and radicalization.
Mekhennet’s book is full of these kinds of stories. For the past 20 years she has traveled the region for The New York Times and now the Washington Post, interviewing Islamic terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, Iran and beyond. She was, for example, the lead reporter on the team that uncovered the identity of “Jihadi John,” the British-accented ISIS spokesman who featured prominently in the terrorist group’s execution videos.
Her book is full of stories about meetings with different terrorists, like the German rapper Deso Dogg, who would later join ISIS and become the target of a US air strike in Syria in 2015; or of her arrest in Algeria, where she had traveled to interview Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
There is the story of her meeting with the leader of Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, whom like many of the terrorists she meets, asks if she is married. Accustomed to this type of banter, Mekhennet plays along: “Why, are you looking for a second wife?” she asks the sheikh.
It is a compelling memoir that takes readers not only behind the scenes of the jihadist world, but also into the world of a woman born in Germany but always perceived as a foreigner.
I spoke with Mekhennet this week to get her reading of what is happening in Europe with the current rise in ISIS attacks there. Many people can claim to be experts about terrorist organizations. Very few, like Mekhennet, have spent so much time behind the lines of jihad. She felt compelled to write the book to help educate people about what is really happening in Europe and the Middle East.
“People tend to look at [terrorism] as something that is related to the faith of a person, or something that comes from the outside,” she said. “But we have to look at what is happening in Europe.”
Almost all of Mekhennet’s journalism career has been with newspapers in the United States. In the beginning, when she first started interviewing jihadists, she tried to interest German news outlets, but one after another turned her down.
“People who came to ISIS from Europe often told me they felt they wouldn’t be accepted equally,” she said. “When I was a teenager, I had anger and fear, and it put me in a situation where I was raising the question of who I am and where I belong.”
Europe, she explained, continues to live in a state of denial. For years, she says, European security services knew that those who had fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later in Bosnia in the 1990s were arriving in the continent. “But it didn’t interest the security services, since the militants were mostly preaching against rulers in Arab and Muslim countries.”
Then in recent years, when some of these immigrants and their children started returning to the Middle East to fight against those Arab rulers, the same European security services again turned a blind eye, feeling that as long as the terrorists were outside the country, it wasn’t their problem.
“As long as we are dealing with things happening outside of Europe, they will not find real solutions,” she says. “The majority of attackers in France were on watch lists... Did any person ask how they were able to disappear and end up in Syria and Iraq?”
What troubles Mekhennet is when people simply write off Islam as being the problem. She is also Muslim – an identity which she says likely helped her gain access to senior jihadists – and throughout the book she often gets into heated and Talmudic-like debates with the men she meets. During her meeting with Abu Yusaf, for example, Mekhennet rebukes him for taking what she calls the easy way out.
“Jihad would have been if you’d stayed in Europe and made your career,” she told the ISIS leader. “It would have been a lot harder.”
Mekhennet was pushed into this line of journalism after she met the widow of an American firefighter killed in 9/11. At dinner one night, the widow asked Mekhennet why Muslims in the Middle East hate Americans so much.
“Why didn’t we know this?” she asked her. “Politicians didn’t tell us. You’re journalists, but you never told us.”
Mekhennet has dedicated her career to telling the world these stories. Considering the current threats to the West, we should pay attention.
In 2009, when I was this paper’s military correspondent, I was invited one day by the IDF to sail aboard one of the navy’s Dolphin-class submarines. It was a rare invitation – in the preceding decade, only two journalists had been afforded the opportunity.
We sailed out of Haifa and spent time floating 300 meters below the choppy Mediterranean for a routine training exercise. I spent just a few hours aboard the vessel, but it was enough to walk away impressed by the submarine’s capabilities.
Israel’s submarines are the country’s most expensive and most strategic military platform. According to some reports, the Dolphins are Israel’s second-strike capability, meaning that if the country is attacked by nuclear weapons, its submarines would be able to retaliate with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles of their own.
Whether this is true or not, the submarines are primarily of strategic significance, since they have the ability to go places without anyone knowing they are there. “The fact that you don’t know where it is and what it is doing, without a doubt strengthens Israeli deterrence,” the commander of Flotilla 7, which operates the submarines, told me at the time.
Today, Israel has five submarines with a sixth to be delivered in 2018. Last week, Germany’s National Security Council reportedly approved the sale of another three submarines to replace the original three which have been operational since 2000.
The arrests this week of a number of officials who were involved in the most recent submarine deal is not just another case of alleged corruption. This hits at the core of what is supposed to be Israel’s holy of holies: the IDF and the procurement of its most sensitive and strategic weaponry.
Three men stand out in the investigation. The first is David Shimron, the attorney who represented Miki Ganor, the representative of the German shipyard ThyssenKrupp which builds the submarines.
Shimron is not just Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s relative, he is his private attorney. There is almost nothing political that the prime minister does without going through Shimron. Every coalition agreement signed in recent years by Netanyahu was negotiated by Shimron. If you are a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, then you have Shimron’s phone number in your contacts.
Next is Adm. (res.) Eliezer Marom, former commander of the Israel Navy, who is reportedly suspected of receiving a bribe to advance the deal.
There is also V.-Adm. (res.) Avriel Bar-Yosef, whom Netanyahu had appointed to serve as his national security adviser, but had to withdraw his candidacy due to suspicions against him.
Imagine tomorrow that the Defense Ministry goes to the Pentagon and inquires about the purchase of an advanced fighter jet, or follows up on the talks recently held in Jerusalem with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and looks to advance new arms deals. Can they be relied on? Will the fear of corruption turn Israel’s foreign partners away?
This investigation has ramifications way beyond this specific submarine deal, or whether the investigation eventually somehow drags in Netanyahu. It is imperative that the police complete it as fast as possible. Justice is important, but so is the need for the defense establishment to be able to operate without a dark cloud hanging over its head.