Muslim journalist probes terrorists’ minds

For the Monitor
Monday, May 28, 2018

‘Why (do) so many Muslims deeply resent the West?” That was the question Bernard Lewis asked in his article, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” in The Atlantic (September 1999).

Souad Mekhennet asks the same question many times in her memoir, I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad. She traces her experiences from 1989, when she studied in a Frankfurt gymnasium, through 2016, when at the age of 38, she had established a highly respected reputation for her investigative reporting.

Inspired by Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate, she turned to investigative reporting as her life’s work. The results to date include a significant body of journalism published in the Washington Post and the New York Times and three previous books.

The 9/11 terrorist attack brought home for her the question: Why have young men (and some women) dedicated themselves to terrorism? She had many personal resources for answering that question.

One was her experience growing up. Her parents were guest workers in a Germany that needed young immigrants to do hard labor and unpleasant jobs. Her Turkish Shia mother took what work she could find. Her Moroccan Sunni father, who spent long hours as a cook, came from an impoverished dynasty of sharifs. Her lineage from Mohammed’s grandson, Hasan, gave her a protective cover when interviewing “behind the lines of Jihad.”

Mekhennet grew up in a non-traditional Muslim home where she spoke German as well as Classical and Moroccan Arabic. Later she learned French and English. She took unglamorous jobs to finance her university education. She also experienced the sting of discrimination against anyone who was an “outsider,” not “German German.” She muses that she might have become radicalized if she had seen herself as a victim.

Her memoir shows that, in addition to her language skills, she has wit, mental alertness, an innate curiosity, determination to get the heart of a matter, and courage to confront her interlocutors with hard questions. Those personal strengths are needed in her demanding, dangerous profession.

Mekhennet’s career blossomed in 2001 when she reported on the “Hamburg cell” – one of the radical Islamist groups behind the 9/11 attack. She began by asking questions, discovering networks, finding dots and connecting them. Contacts within the Hamburg Muslim community gave her phone numbers and names. Over cups of tea she established rapport with a person who told her what the cell members were thinking. Her Muslim identity and her language skills undoubtedly helped, as did her commitment to hearing their story and reporting it accurately. Her approach repeatedly elicited previously undisclosed sentiments. Terrorists craved recognition and were willingly forthcoming.

Revenge drove the jihadists, as Mekhennet found in the Frankfurt cell and later interviews elsewhere. A litany of grievances fueled Muslim anger. The treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib was a specific high on the list, as was, more generally, what the jihadists judged to be the West’s hypocrisy in preaching the rule of law and human rights when kidnapping and torturing innocent people. French Muslims wanted revenge for the humiliations and treatment as inferiors they experienced in French suburban high-rises. Idealistic, religious late teens and young adults proved susceptible to propaganda trumpeting those grievances and calls for revenge. ISIS was a “party of youth,” as National Socialism had been in Germany in the 1930s.

Mekhennet’s story is also a thriller, related in fast-moving, accessible prose in chapters devoted to specific years and places. The sense of drama is heightened by her security measures: old, untraceable Nokia cell phones; disposable SIM cards; receiving calls when walking in a park; coded and encrypted email; evasive measures to shake terrorists following her cars; and wearing the ultraconservative abaya and niqab when behind Jihad lines.

She put her life at risk to get her story. The instruction to leave her phone at home and to come alone for an interview opened her to multiple dangers, including kidnapping to be a second wife for a jihad militant. An especially perilous moment took place in Cairo in 2011, on assignment to cover the protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak. The army threw her, her driver, and an American reporter for the New York Times into a notorious prison. Hearing the screams of prisoners being tortured, she feared the worse. Rape and death seemed imminent. Her escape, unscathed, save for stress and trauma, is part of her exciting story.

A later chapter records her greatest success. In 2014, a masked ISIS executioner, known as “Jihadi John,” had shocked the western world with recordings of his beheading of prisoners. Mekhennet set out to discover his name. Through rigorous research and tenacious sleuthing, she tracked him down and unmasked him.

“I wanted,” she explains, “to send a message to Jihadi John and others like him: we will tell the world who you are and stop you from spreading fear – and a Muslim journalist, a woman, has the power to do that.”

Mekhennet’s memoir is a compelling read. It narrates her assignments and highlights the power of investigative reporting. It also gives insights that help answer the perennial question: Why do the Muslims hate us?

What she learned is important going forward. The defeat of the ISIS Caliphate in norther Iraq did not end the Jihad movement. The anger that Mekhennet found remains, festering below the surface.

(Kent Hackmann, 80, of Andover was a veteran and professor of history at the University of Idaho.)