Undercover Jihadi Bride
I read this book in one sitting and to be honest the writing style and constant divergence from the main theme was a bit of distraction and at times tiring , but the subject matter is one I am very interested in and there was much to appreciate and learn from Anna’s journey.
Her online encounters with a senior ISIS recruiter and his attempts to groom her , with the ultimate aim of having her travel to Syria to becomes his wife and live in “ paradise “ , gives the reader an insight into the road to hell many young vulnerable and disillusioned European women ( and men) embark on and invariably come to regret.
Unfortunately for them few can escape and many end up being slaughtered by those that entice them to the Islamic “paradise” . Not that I have an ounce of sympathy for any that choose that path , for there lay demons and if you dance with the devil there can only ever be one outcome!
Karma always collects it debts!
Previously published as ‘In the Skin of a Jihadist’
Twenty year-old “Mélodie”, a recent convert to Islam, meets the leader of an ISIS brigade on Facebook. In 48 hours he has ‘fallen in love’ with her, calls her every hour, urges her to marry him, join him in Syria in a life of paradise – and join his jihad.
Anna Erelle is the undercover journalist behind “Melodie”. Created to investigate the powerful propaganda weapons of Islamic State, “Melodie” is soon sucked in by Bilel, right-hand man of the infamous Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An Iraqi for whose capture the US government has promised $10 million, al-Baghdadi is described by Time Magazine as the most dangerous man in the world and by himself as the caliph of Islamic State. Bilel shows off his jeep, his guns, his expensive watch. He boasts about the people he has just killed.
With Bilel impatient for his future wife, “Melodie” embarks on her highly dangerous mission, which – at its ultimate stage – will go very wrong … Enticed into this lethal online world like hundreds of other young people, including many young British girls and boys, Erelle’s harrowing and gripping investigation helps us to understand the true face of terrorism.
Listen to me! I love you more than I’ve loved anyone. You should be here with me. I can’t stand to think of you in that corrupt country. I’ll protect you. I’ll shelter you from the world’s evils. When you come to live with me, you’ll see what a paradise me and my men are building. You’ll be amazed. Here, people care about each other. They respect each other. We’re one big family, and we’ve already made a place for you—everyone is waiting for you! You should see how happy the women are here. They used to be like you—lost. One of my friends’ wives has arranged a program for your arrival. After your shooting lessons, she’ll take you to a very beautiful store, the only one in the country that sells fine cloth. I’ll pay for everything. You’ll establish your own little world here with your new friends. I’m so excited for you to be here. Mélodie, my wife! Hurry up; I can’t wait.”
Mélodie stares into her computer screen, admiring the strong man eighteen years her senior. She loves him, even if she’s only ever seen him on Skype.
“Do you really love me?” Mélodie murmurs, her voice childish and frail.
“I love you for the sake of Allah. You are my treasure, and the Islamic State is your home. Brick by brick, we’ll build a better world, a place where kafirs* won’t be allowed, and we’ll carve a name for ourselves in history. I’ve found a huge apartment for you! If you bring friends, I’ll find an even bigger one. You’ll take care of orphans and the wounded during the day, while I’m fighting. We’ll spend our evenings together . . . insha’Allah*.”
Mélodie feels loved. She feels useful. She’s been looking for purpose in her life: now she’s found it.
I was frustrated that Friday night as I left the editorial offices of a magazine where I do freelance work. The paper had received a letter from a lawyer forbidding me from publishing an article I’d written about a young female jihadist. I had just spent two days in Belgium with Samira, the girl’s mother. Her daughter ran away to Syria a year before to join Tarik, the man of her life and a fanatic devoted to the Islamic State’s cause. Naïve and blind with emotion, Leila* wanted to live with her great love. A bullet to the heart ended his twenty years and one spring. Samira was hopeful when she learned of the death of the man she’d been forced to consider her son-in-law. With Tarik dead, Samira saw no reason for her daughter to stay in the tragically war-torn country, but Leila was clear: she now belonged to that sacred land and wanted to do her part in the fight to create a religious state in the Middle East. With or without her husband. Tarik had been an emir,* which meant his widow was well taken care of. People respected her, and Leila asked her mother, “Why should I go back?”
Local news sources had picked up the story and begun comparing the eighteen-year-old jihadist to the black widow, a prominent figure in the world of international terrorism and the wife of the man who assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud.* Samira’s love for her daughter was great, and her response to the situation swift, but she was coming up against an immense challenge. Not only did she have to find a way to repatriate Leila to Belgium; she also had to prove to the authorities that her daughter was living in one of the most dangerous countries on earth for humanitarian reasons. Otherwise, Leila would be considered a threat to domestic security and sent to prison, before potentially being banned from setting foot in her own country.
That was when Samira’s and my paths crossed. Journalism can lead a person to many things, sometimes to the aid of a distressed mother. Samira was beside herself, and she’d turned to Dimitri Bontinck, a former member of the Belgian Special Forces who famously managed to repatriate his own son from Syria. Dimitri is a source of hope for all these European families who wake up one morning to the harsh realization that even those they’d least suspect, even their own teenagers, could be jihadists. After his personal experience, Dimitri became a tireless crusader, volunteering for virtual suicide missions to save other youths—or at least dig up concrete information to help their families. Aware of the risks that Leila faced for being branded the “new black widow,” he’d asked me to meet her mother. I’m a journalist, and though I’m keenly interested in geopolitics, I’m not an expert. However, I’ve always been drawn to erratic behavior, whatever the cause—religion, nationality, social milieu. I’m fascinated by what motivates people to make fatal decisions. Sometimes it’s drugs. Sometimes it’s crime or marginality. I’ve also done a lot of work on radical Islam. Back then, I’d been studying European jihadists in the Islamic State for about a year. There were many similarities between the successive cases, but I was interested in understanding what it was that made each individual decide to give up everything and brave death for this cause.
At the time, Dimitri and I were writing a book about the nine horrifying months he spent looking for his son. We spoke with many European families facing the same ordeal. I tried to interview as many people as I could. I saw the impact of digital propaganda on God’s newly minted soldiers, but I still didn’t understand what drove them. Why did they leave everything—their past, their families? Over the course of a few weeks, they threw away their lives, convinced they’d never look back. Ever. Walking through their bedrooms, often preserved by their parents, always gave me chills. I was peering into other people’s intimate spaces, which had become shrines to forgotten lives, as if their teenage relics were the last proof of their existences. Leila’s existence seemed frozen in time. Pictures of her “normal” life abounded. There she was in a tank top, wearing makeup, at friends’ houses, or in a café. These idealized images were a far cry from the new Leila with her burqa and her Kalashnikov.
After listening to Samira’s story, I continued my investigation, which confirmed some of what she’d told me, and I wrote the article. Yet another piece on a subject that had become increasingly ubiquitous over the past several months. But it wouldn’t be published. Leila was furious when her mother mentioned our interview, and threatened to burn all bridges. “If you talk about me to the press,” her panicked mother tearfully reported her words, “not only will I never come back, you’ll never hear from me again. You won’t know if I’m dead or alive.” After that, I couldn’t convince the mother to let me publish. In absolute terms, I didn’t need her permission to do it—the story was already public knowledge in Belgium. But what good would it do? Sadly, each week brimmed with new stories like this one. I was all-too familiar with the determination of these young people who believed they’d found faith. All day, they were bombarded with messages to forget their “depraved” families and open their arms to their new brothers. “Infidels,” even if called “mom” or “dad,” were seen as obstacles in their spiritual journey.
It wasn’t Leila’s fault. She honestly believed she was protecting her mother by telling her how to behave. Alone at home, I got worked up over the methods of propaganda used by Islamists. Searching for videos of Tarik alive, I came across an incalculable number of propaganda films on YouTube. I muted the sound whenever the language wasn’t French or English. The monotonous chants went to my head, deadening my mind. I couldn’t listen to them anymore. Still, the sounds were more tolerable than the images of torture and charred bodies laid out in the sun. Wandering through jihadist Francophone networks online, I was continually shocked by the contrast between sound and image. The juvenile laughter accompanying these horrific scenes made the videos all the more unbearable. I’d noticed an uptick in activity over the past year. Many teenage jihadists have a second Facebook account, registered under a fake identity. They act normal around their families, but once alone in their bedrooms, they travel to their virtual world, which they take for reality. Some call for murder, though without really understanding the impact or significance of their messages. Others encourage jihad. Girls share links about Gazan children, underscoring the suffering of the very young. The girls’ pseudonyms all begin with Umm, “mom” in Arabic.
Social networks contain precious information for those who know how to look. That is why, like many other journalists, I had a fictional account I’d created several years before. I used it to keep an eye on current events. I rarely posted on the account, and when I did it was very brief, and only directed at my list of approximately one hundred “friends” from around the world. My name on this account was Mélodie. My followers weren’t using their real identities, either. Avatars ensure anonymity, which allows users to express themselves more freely and accounts for the growing number of young people attracted to Islamist propaganda. New technologies have of course bred new forms of proselytism. I spent hours scanning users’ public descriptions of gruesome or simply outrageous plans. Happily, not all of the teenagers writing about criminal activity become murderers. For some, Jihadism 2.0 is a fad. For others, it represents the first step on their path to radicalism.
I spent that Friday night in April on my couch, stewing over the gag order on my article and flicking from account to account. Suddenly I came across a video of a French jihadist who looked to be about thirty-five. The video showed him taking inventory of the items inside his SUV. It was like a bad parody of the farcical news show Les Guignols de l’info. I smiled wryly at the deplorable images. I wasn’t proud of myself, but I couldn’t help watching; it was absurd. The man in the video wore military fatigues and called himself Abu Bilel. He claimed to be in Syria. The scene around him, a true no-man’s-land, didn’t contradict him. He proudly brandished his CB radio, which looked like it came straight out of the 1970s. He used it to communicate with other militants when he couldn’t reach them through telephone networks. In reality, it crackled more than it communicated. In the back of his car, his bulletproof vest sat beside one of his machine guns, an Uzi—a historic gun originally manufactured for the Israeli military. He presented a series of weapons, including “an M16 stolen from a marine in Iraq”—I burst out laughing. The factoid, I would later learn, was entirely plausible. I would also discover that Abu Bilel was not as stupid as he seemed. In fact, he had spent the past fifteen years waging jihad all over the world. But for the moment I knew nothing of the bellicose man on my screen proudly unveiling the contents of his glove box—a thick stack of Syrian pounds, candy, a knife. He removed his reflective Ray-Bans, revealing darkly lined black eyes.
I knew that Afghani soldiers used eyeliner to keep their eyes from tearing up when exposed to smoke. Still, seeing a terrorist with eyes made up like my own was surprising, to say the least. Abu Bilel spoke perfect French, with what sounded to me like a very slight Algerian accent. He smiled broadly in an expression of self-satisfaction as he beckoned viewers and called for hijrah.*
I shared his video. I usually kept a low profile on my account, but I occasionally imitated my digital peers in order to carve a place for myself in their world. I didn’t preach or encourage the cause. I simply posted links to articles relating strikes by Bashar al-Assad’s army or videos like this one. My profile picture was a cartoon image of Princess Jasmine from the Disney movie Aladdin. For my cover photo, I uploaded a popular slogan I’d seen online: “We’ll do to you as you do unto us.” I tended to change my profile location depending on whatever story I was presently researching. Now I claimed to be in Toulouse, a city in southwestern France. Over the past five years, many stories had led me there, notably, the shooting carried out by Mohammed Merah in 2012. The housing project where he’d lived in the northeastern outskirts of Toulouse was an endless mine of information. It was also an important hub for the traffic of hashish.
I was actually in Paris, casting around for a fresh angle on the departures to Syria. Many of these tragic cases resembled one another, and I suspected that readers were saturated with information. In addition, the nightmarish situation in Syria made it difficult to analyze. Each week, I worked with editors, trying to find new angles. Each week, we arrived at the same conclusion: would-be jihadists came from all sorts of social backgrounds and religions; they turned to radical Islam after a single failure or a lifetime of not fitting in; then they left for Syria to join one of the many Islamist gangs that have been proliferating there. Yes, but despite the similarities, after having spent so much time working on these issues, I had grown attached to individual families. I cared about their children and their stories, even if I wasn’t likely to meet them. And I had actually met some “teens” drawn to jihadism while I was working on stories. Today, when I see them again, they tell me they want to go there. There? “What’s there for you?” I ask them, exasperated, “Except death and the opportunity to become cannon fodder?” The response is almost always the same: “You don’t understand, Anna. You’re thinking with your head, not with your heart.” I exhaust myself coming up with dubious comparisons to historic events. Germany, a country rich in culture, fell into Hitler’s hands during the last century. Or the black-and-white view of the world according to communism. Or the generation of 1970s intellectuals who extolled the virtues of Maoist thought, insisting that truth resided in the Little Red Book. But my cyber interlocutors poke fun at my historical references, pointing out that red and green are very different colors. However, I’m not talking about the Koran, which has nothing to do with fanatic ideology.
In 2014, journalism was no longer a respected profession. And when one worked on “societal” issues, it was out of passion. If only I could write about this topic in a new way, one that avoided treating individuals as part of a succession of similar cases. I wanted to investigate the roots of “digital jihadism” and get to the bottom of an evil phenomenon affecting more and more families—of all religious backgrounds. To dissect how kids here fell into the trap of propaganda, and to grasp the paradox of soldiers there who spent their days torturing, stealing, raping, killing, and being killed, and their nights staring into their computers and bragging about their “exploits” with the maturity of video-game-obsessed preteens.
Deep in reflection, I was feeling discouraged but unwilling to give up, when my computer alerted me to three messages sent to “Mélodie’s” private inbox from . . . Abu Bilel. It was surreal. There I was, at ten o’clock on a Friday night in spring, sitting on my sofa in my one-bedroom Parisian apartment, wondering how to continue my investigation on European teenagers tempted by Islamic extremism, when a French terrorist based in Syria all of a sudden started writing me. I was speechless. At that moment, the only thing of which I was certain was that I hadn’t imagined starting my weekend like this.