“I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad,” by Souad Mekhennet, Henry Holt, 368 pp., $30
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One of the perils, it turns out, of being a female Muslim journalist covering Islamic radicalism is a near-constant stream of lovelorn text messages from jihadis.
Souad Mekhennet has spent the last 15 years covering global terror networks for leading U.S. and German outlets, a fair few of those years plagued by proposals of marriage from jihadis.
It’s not the most obvious occupational hazard, but then this excellent book is full of unexpected insights into the hazards of covering one of the defining issues of our age and the mechanics of Islamist terror and radicalization.
And amid the risks and the pure, hard slog of standing up stories on which so much depends, Mekhennet has to simultaneously struggle with constant suspicion of her own background and motives not just from the German and American authorities, but even from her own colleagues.
Born in 1978, Mekhennet began life as “something of a local curiosity” in a largely immigrant-free Frankfurt neighborhood. Raised in Germany by a Moroccan mother and Turkish father, Mekhennet grew up as an outsider whom society simply refused to accept.
As children, growing up in a fairly secular home, she and her three siblings studied Arabic twice a week but also joined church youth groups and had a Christmas tree at home. Some in her apartment building embraced the family, including a couple on the ground floor that had survived the Holocaust.
But neighborhood families still refused to let their children play with them and at school, because of their immigrant background, parents asked for her sister to be moved because she didn’t “fit in.”
Souad got increasingly angry when she saw how her submissive her father was, despite shabby treatment from his boss and others. “I noticed that my father never asked questions or talked back, even when the peopletreated him badly,” she writes.
She recalled one terrifying experience as a teenager when a car full of skinheads followed her and her younger brother, shouting that they were going to kill them.
“I sometimes wonder what would have happened if an Islamic State recruiter had found me in those dark moments,” she writes. “I’m not sure how I would have responded, or whether I would have been strong enough to resist.”
After graduating from journalism school in Hamburg, Mekhennet worked at a German radio station for more than a year before applying to work as a correspondent based in Rabat, Morocco.
“The editor explained that he wouldn’t send someone who came from a particular country to be a correspondent there. I told him that I didn’t understand this logic, but that it didn’t matter, because I was from Frankfurt,” she said, pointing out that following this line of reasoning, “he would have to immediately fire all the ‘German Germans’ who were covering Germany and bring in foreigners.”
The editor informed her that their meeting was over and she rushed out of his office just as the tears began to fall.
She recalled thinking at the time, “You will never be accepted as a full German. You don’t stand a chance in journalism.”
Finding her beat
Her experience means that she can be dismissive, sometimes hilariously so, of the radicals who claim their actions are justified by their mistreatment at the hands of Western society.
A Moroccan-born ISIS leader she met on the Turkish-Syrian border, who grew up in the Netherlands, told her his motivation for his actions – he was fed up with being treated like a second-class citizen just because of his ethnicity.
“You,” she told him with marvelous scorn, “have taken the easy way out.”
Mekhennet got her break after 9/11 following the German angle – the hijackers’ ringleader Mohammed Atta and several other key players had lived in Hamburg – as a contributor on a long piece in The Washington Post.
The beat was a good fit for her, playing into her interest in the causes of radicalization and allowing her to use her Arabic skills and knowledge of the Muslim community.
She landed a job at Der Spiegel, Germany’s most famous weekly magazine, although she later learned that the German security services had been asked to check her out.
“Did my family have links to any terrorist groups? How religious were my parents? Was I attending mosque, hanging out with the wrong people? Was I part of a sleeper cell, another Mohammed Atta in the making? As a Muslim and the daughter of immigrants, I was automatically suspect in Germany, the country of my birth,” she writes.
Rather than giving in to bitterness, she focused on trying to understand how young men were being radicalized, breaking the mold at a time when few Western reporters had talked to members of Al-Qaida or related groups.
A week after the fall of Baghdad, she headed to Iraq and ended up staying for months.
She helped break the story of the “extraordinary rendition” of Khaled el-Masri, seized secretly by the CIA and held for five months.
“It was the first time we could prove that an innocent man had been kidnapped and tortured by a Western government in the name of fighting terrorism,” she writes.
Post-Abu Ghraib, she increasingly had the “sense that the West, particularly the United States, had ceded the moral high ground it had once so proudly occupied.”
She sought out the families of young men who had gone to fight and she and an American colleague tracked down a group of radicals making and distributing propaganda.
One of them, “an angry-looking” man, proposed kidnapping and killing her colleague, while the American, oblivious to the events unfolding, kept smiling and practicing his few words of Arabic.
“Shukran, shukran [thank you, thank you],” he kept saying.
“Before you kill my colleague, you will have to kill me!” she shouted. Luckily, one of the “tenets of jihadi etiquette” is invoked: The host had to consent to the killing before it could happen with God’s grace.
Mekhennet does her best to minimize risks, but she admits to feeling terrified while on assignment. She does her best to find humor amid these perilous moments. During one interview with a Taliban commander, being driven through the dimly lit outskirts of Karachi, she stared out of the window, trying to work out their location.
“Maybe the air is not good,” the commander says, spraying car freshener around. “You look very pale.”
And yet Mekhennet remained a figure of suspicion, or even a useful if expendable asset. In Algeria, on the trail of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, she discovered that she had been followed by U.S. intelligence agencies and deduced they were hoping she would lead them to the group's leader Abdelmalik Droukdal, whom she was planning to interview. Her American colleague had left the country following a specific warning by the FBI.
“They thought I would lead them to Droukdal,” she writes. “They wanted to use me as bait to capture or kill him. I would have been caught in the middle. Anything could have happened.”
Mekhennet’s clear compassion, a sterling quality for a journalist, means that the book offers real insight alongside a captivating, thriller-style read.
It can be controversial to talk of “understanding” the causes of Islamic extremism, and Mekhennet makes no apologies for humanizing the perpetrators of radicalism.
One Taliban commander spoke to her shortly after his wife gave birth to twins.
“He sounded tired. ‘When you were a little baby did you cry during the night and during the day?’”
He later invited her to meet his wife and children, and he gave her the girl twin to hold.
“’She is crying all the night,” the commander said. “She wants all the attention. I have named her Souad.’”
In the pages of this book the terrorists are far from a sequence of single-minded, identical villains. They just as often pop up laughing, drinking tea, playing with their kids; one former aid to Zarqawi takes Mekhennet to shop for modest clothing for an interview and chooses her “the funkiest [abaya] in the shop,” covered with sequins and pink embroidery.
Yet Mekhennet never loses sight of the real victims. She repeatedly describes crying for the targets of the atrocities she encounters, and the book culminates in a heartbreaking epilogue when a member of her own family is killed in a shooting attack in Munich carried out by a disturbed youth with dual German-Iranian citizenship. To understand, she makes clear throughout, is not to condone.