The Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) is an enigma: most of what we know about it comes from the brutal media apparatus of the IS itself. It lets everyone see executions and war the terrorists are waging – but still, how does life go under jihadist rule? One man decided to find out for himself, spending 10 days in the ‘capital city’ of the IS and coming back alive. Today, investigative journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer tells his story to Sophie Shevardnadze.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Jürgen Todenhöfer, the investigative journalist who went inside the territory of Islamic State – welcome to this show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, recent events have seen several ISIS’ defeats, when the group moved into Shia or non-Arab territory, it was actually repelled. The Kurds score victories against them, the Shias, the Iraqi army – has the ISIS threat passed, in your opinion?
Jürgen Todenhöfer: The situation hasn’t substantially changed since December, and if the Americans or NATO are saying that IS lost 25% of the territory – this is just not true. This is not the truth. Maybe, they have lost between 5 or 10%, but this doesn’t play any role in the guerilla war, when people are moving.
SS: So, just to make sure – in your opinion, ISIS is as strong as ever?
JD: Yeah, it’s the same. Nothing has changed substantially, unfortunately, I would say.
SS: I just want to take you back a little bit about your journey into Islamic State, because I know you’ve spent 10 days inside ISIS – how did you manage to talk them into giving you safe passage?
JD: I know Syria very well. I love Syria, I’ve been there dozen times, and I like Iraq, I’ve spent a lot of time before the war and during the war, and after the war; and, for example, in Syria, I spoke to all the groups: Al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, the FSA, I spoke several times to president Bashar al-Assad, and, suddenly IS became very strong and I wanted to get the information – who are these terrorists? What is making them so strong? Why so many German jihadists go to the so-called Islamic State? So, together with my son, we wrote on Facebook letters to about 80 German jihadists. We got 15 answers, and out of these 15, in the end we had a guy from another, not that known terrorist group, and a guy from IS, and then this IS guy told us he was not allowed to speak with me anymore – I would be called by somebody else who is named by the leadership, and I had somebody from propaganda department, from media department, and so I had the connections – every normal journalist could have done the same.
SS: Okay, but, this is really playing with fire – who was that person who actually gave you the safe passage? Because journalists, you know, they get beheaded by ISIS all the time – we see it on YouTube, almost like weekly, so…
JD: I know. Even a friend of mine.
SS: Yes. So why were you sure that they wouldn’t change their mind and just take you hostage? I mean, the safe passage papers were just papers…how could you be sure that they weren’t fake, or they would protect you?
JD: I discussed via Skype with this guy from the media department, sometimes it took 2 hours, 3 hours, about the possibilities, about the guarantees and everything. To be sure, because my son, for example, always said “It’s a trick, they will behead you, they need German hostage!”, I had the impression that they gave the invitation as the Islamic State, as a state, and they wanted to show that if they give a guarantee by the state, they will stick to this guarantee. They have published it, I asked them to publish this guarantee on Twitter, I’ve been waiting some days to see if the real leadership would deny this invitation, they did not deny anything, and so I took the risk. For me, these 6 months when I was thinking “will I com back alive? Will I survive?” were harder than the 10 days in the Islamic State, because there I was sure…
SS: Are you saying that if journalists have actually followed your example and negotiated an official invitation from Islamic State, they would have spared their lives?
JD: Not everybody. Specialists – yes, because we are known as specialists for the Arab world, for the Muslim world, we have written books about it, we have our books translated into Arabic – and they have the feeling that we don’t go to such a country for show, but we try to find out the truth, and that we want to tell the truth. What I think they wanted to show to me…I always had to think – “what do they want?” – they wanted to show that they are really a state.
SS: We’re going to talk about that, and I really wonder how the whole infrastructure works, but what really strikes me is what you’ve said in the beginning of the show that you actually met an enormous number of young, educated, enthusiastic fighters that were arriving every day to join ISIS. You mentioned 50 Germans, you’ve also met people coming from places like New Jersey – how did they explain their choice to you?
JD: They didn’t tell me the whole story, I got the whole story by living with some of these IS terrorists during these 10 days; but people that I’ve met in the street, they’ve said “that’s the time of our life and we’re creating something completely new, a real Islamic State”, and they were fanatic, enthusiastic, and in the long discussion I could never understand why they were so enthusiastic and why they were able to kill, in a very perverse and brutal ways, innocent people. They were, I would say, completely brainwashed.
SS: When I hear you talk, you also portray ISIS as very fearsome, “the mighty ISIS” – but isn’t that precisely what they want you to say to the Western people? Fear is the ISIS PR weapon of choice after all…
JD: No, I think nobody has attacked the caliph stronger than I did. I made several public warnings to young Germans not to go to ISIS, they don’t like that at all, and I have said that this is not Islamic State, this is an anti-Islamic state. The only thing that I had to accept is that this is a state – it works as a state, it has traffic police, it has judges, it has social care, you have to pay taxes, and it’s not a good state, it’s not a perfectly working state, but it is a state. De facto it is a state. I don’t think that they are happy with what I have said, because there’s new audio-video by the caliph which came out and he’s practically answering to an open letter that I wrote to him, it was published across whole Arab world, by Al-Jazeera and four German newspapers, and several millions of people on my Facebook… And he is, in a certain way, answering to my attacks; and the fact that I attacked him personally, I think, in a correct way, but very-very strongly, doesn’t improve my security. For example, in Germany, when I was reading lectures about my new book, the last three cities and universities I asked to speak, didn’t give me the rooms for security reasons. They fear an Islamic attack… You cannot say that I have said what IS wanted me to say – I’ve never said what people wanted me to say. I have met Assad, I met him five times, so everybody said: “Oh yes, you are the spokesman of Assad”; I’ve met Al-Qaeda, so was I the spokesman of Al-Qaeda? I think, if we want to beat our enemies, we have to talk with them, and the relations, for example, the Soviet Union and Western countries improved from the moment when the Soviet leaders spoke with the Western leaders and then the Western leaders spoke with the Soviet leaders. Sometimes, politicians don’t speak with their enemy – Kissinger, for example, said: “Vietnam? I don’t have to talk to them. This is a 3rd-class communist, agricultural country!” and so some years later they had to leave Vietnam.
SS: Talk to me about ISIS’ media relations – I mean, they are surgically effective, the support for their activities overwhelming – who are the people making it happen? I imagine you’ve met someone who deals with their PR? Are they from the West?
JD: I don’t know that exactly, I suppose that the leading people in the media department which make this incredible, bloody, but nevertheless, professional propaganda, are from Germany. I think some of them are from Solingen, the guy I contacted via Skype was from Solingen too, and they were together with an English team, in which you have Jihadi John; that’s the Butcher, the killer, the guy who is beheading, not always, but usually, it’s Jihadi John. This is a German and British co-production.
SS: Have you met anyone personally from there?
JD: As you could read in my book, our driver, who was not only a driver, he was the boss of my escort, and he was this Butcher – this so-called Jihadi John. He always wore his mask, but I had opportunity to see him once in a special room in our restaurant and he got completely crazy and furious because I’ve seen him, and when we came back it was easy to identify his voice. We already identified his voice in the Islamic State, but then we could identify all the other things: his hair and his face… and, he wanted me to have a meeting with a British journalist, with the name…I will not say the name, because I don’t want to create problems for him…who was supposed to give me a letter to his family and a letter to David Cameron; and it known that it is Jihadi John, the Butcher, is just doing that – he keeps the relations between the families and the hostages. He wanted me to do the same thing. I refused, I said: “I will not appear in a video of the Islamic State – I will meet this journalist, if you want, but it’s either we film or nobody films; I will not meet this man if you film and if you try to use me for propaganda”.
SS: Let’s talk a little bit about the life under the Islamic State. I want the details. You’ve said Damascus is still paying salaries to government workers in Raqqa, which is the capital of IS – do those people support ISIS too? How that possible, how is does that work?
JD: The IS people I discussed this point, they told me – I was very surprised by that, but I had third person who made the protocol and noted every word – the ISIS people told me that if there would be elections in Raqqa, Assad would win these elections, because of many reasons. One of the reasons is because he is paying the salaries, and the IS people in Syria are not liked – that’s what they told me. They said “the population doesn’t like us, they don’t like the Europeans, they don’t like the guys from Caucasian region” and of the reasons IS is not liked in Syria is that in Syria, 70% of the fighters are foreigners. So it would be like Chinese people in Germany would be in the streets and would command and say what we have to do. In Iraq, it’s different. In Iraq you have only 30% of foreigners fighting, so that is not so obvious for the population, but in Syria IS, with 70% of foreign fighters is as an occupation force for the local population. They told me, “they don’t like us, and it’s not easy for us”.
SS: Now, you witnessed the bombing by coalition forces, the IS fighters escorting you to hide from drone strikes, were on a lookout for American bombs. So, the coalition air campaign is putting pressure on them, isn’t it?
JD: Yes and no. It is putting pressure on them personally. The American bombers and American drones found us, they saw that the terrorist commander that was with us, was transporting weapons from out van to some little bungalows, and then suddenly we had two drones and two bombers over us, coming down and coming down, and this is very, very strange, and that’s not easy for IS fighters, that was not easy for us neither, and of course, they fear the Hellfire rockets from the drones or the bombs the airplanes, because there’s no defense. But, in the other way, they think that American bombardments are in a certain way strengthening their position – because in these bombardments, a lot of innocents are killed. I believe, and I’ve seen, I was, as I told you, in Iraq during the war, in Afghanistan during the war, that more than 90% of the victims of bomb attacks and of drone attacks are civilians. And for every child the Americans kill in, let’s say, Mosul, you have hundred new terrorists, hundred new friends of IS – so that’s the reason they say: “Let them bomb us!”. Now, they found strategies to avoid the bombings; they don’t stick together. In Raqqa, we lived in a little apartment, and other IS fighters lived 500 meter away in another little apartment in the middle of a big house, where a lot of civilians are living – so it’s very difficult to hide them and to get them. Of course, militarily, the bombs have killed a lot of IS fighters, but more fighters came from the Western fighters.
SS: I am also wondering, how long can one keep it up; being constantly on the run from death from above?
JD: In Mosul you have… Mosul is a city with 2 million people, and 1 million is living in the suburbs; maybe, between 10 and 20 thousand IS fighters live in Mosul. When I was there, there were 5 thousand IS fighters. How will you eliminate 5 thousand or 10 thousand or 15 thousand fighters in a city of 2 or 3 million? You cannot. You have to destroy the whole city, as Americans have done in Kobani. Kobani doesn’t exist anymore, and IS had to leave, because they had no place to hide anymore. Bombarding is a wrong strategy, I can prove this to you with two figures: at the beginning of the War on Terror in 2001, we had some hundreds of international terrorists in Hindu Kush. Now, after 13 years of War on Terror, we have more than hundred thousand international terrorists in the world – so where is the success of bombings? There’s no success. We have created these terrorists, we have cultivated them.
SS: Talking about cultivating terrorists, you also say that the Syrian rebels U.S. supported are the same terrorists the U.S. is now fighting. How did that happen, and does Washington realize that?
JD: I think that the knowledge of Europe and of the Americans about the Middle East is very small. You criticized me, and I spent, every year during 50 years, my free time in the Middle East, and I know a little bit about the Middle East. Americans don’t know anything. They thought if they would attack Saddam Hussein there will be democracy in the Middle East – and what do we have now? Chaos in the whole Middle East, and we are surprised that in this chaos we now chaotic people, terrorists, like IS. So, I give you another example: the U.S. are supporting the FSA, these are rebels financed by Western countries. But these FSA fighters sell their ammunition to IS. The IS fighters told me: “we need them! We get almost all our ammunition from the FSA, and we also get weapons from FSA, and we get weapons from Kurds, and we hope that you will send a lot of weapons to the Kurds because we can, in the end, buy them on the market.” I saw German machineguns, I saw them myself. It’s a complete mess. I personally think, the only solution in the Middle East is that the Western countries should withdraw their troops from the Middle East, and their bases from the Middle East. We have nothing to do there. We don’t have bases in China, we don’t have bases in India, and we don’t need bases in the Middle East. It’s not our country, it’s the country of Muslims, them and Christians over there, but not of our countries. It’s a big mistake to think that the Middle East is our, our personal garden, where we can go whenever we want.
SS: Thank you so much for this insight into the world of Islamic State. It was quite interesting to see how it all functions from inside and to hear from someone who has spent so much time studying the Arab world. We were talking to Jürgen Todenhöfer, author of “Inside IS: ten days in the Islamic State”, a man who went into ISIS territory and came back alive, sharing his story with us. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.
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