Day 6

Searching for mercy in ISIS territory

Jurgen Todenhofer spent 10 days embedded with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and believes the West underestimates the threat they pose. He describes the danger he and his son Frederic faced in their mission to understand the Islamic State from the inside.

'My son thought several times that it was over.'

As the U.S. and its allies continue their aerial attack against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, Jurgen Todenhofer says their approach is all wrong. 

To say he has a unique perspective on the issue is an understatement. In December, Todenhofer — a former judge, German politician and a veteran of war zone journalism — spent 10 days embedded with Islamic State militants. He slept beside the fighters, ate with them, and engaged them in heated discussions. 

Todenhofer has met with terrorists in the past and reported on wars for books he has written, but he says he has never come across a threat like this one. He spoke to Brent from Munich, Germany.

BB: In the months before you left for Iraq and Syria, a number of Western hostages held by the Islamic State were beheaded. Why did you think you would be safe?
TJ: I thought I would be safe. I was not 100 per cent sure, but let's say 90 per cent, because after negotiations of six months, I got a guarantee from the office of the caliph. I have prepared for this trip like I have never prepared for a trip in my life because I knew the danger and I knew one of the hostages. I knew James Foley personally. He was in Benghazi with me in the same hotel, so I suffered like everybody when I saw the brutalities against these journalists. 

When you see those kinds of brutalities, how do you know that the document that you received, the assurance that you received, would be honoured?
I think that the Islamic State (IS), or the so-called Islamic State, has an interest in being considered as a state. And therefore, as they gave this security as a state I thought they would hurt themselves if they broke their promises. 

So with that guarantee in December, you made your way, and in spite of the danger, your son Frederick went with you. How was that decision made? 
This was not my decision, this was my son's decision. When you say son, you think about a five-year-old boy, but he's 31. He helped me to contact these jihadists and he said, 'I'm completely against this trip.' He didn't believe the IS but he said, 'If you go, I go with you. I will not allow you to do it yourself.' 

You could have not gone, you could have done what he wanted you to do, which was stay home, but you decided to go anyway. So why was it so important for you? 
Because I love Syria. I love Iraq. I've been in these countries dozens of times during the last 15 years. Before the war against Saddam and before the revolution. As a former judge I have learned to speak with all sides, so I met all the players but I didn't know exactly what IS was and I thought, 'if you want to defeat your enemies, you have to know them.'

Your mission was to live among the terrorists to try to understand them. Tell us about a conversation you had where you did not see eye-to-eye. 
You said we lived with them, that's correct. We had a lot of opportunities to have many discussions. One of my main questions was, '113 of the 114 Surah verses of the Koran start with the line, 'In the name of Allah, the merciful, the most merciful...' And I said 'Where is your mercy? Tell me where? You're killing, you're introducing slavery, and where is your mercy?' We had this discussion again and again and again. I wanted to see if they were really persuaded, if they had really thought through what they were doing. I had the same discussions every night, which resulted in them refusing to talk with me. 

But you were challenging them on a theological level, you were challenging them as an infidel on that level. Weren't you afraid of the consequences of getting into that kind of discussion? 
Yeah, but I cannot go into such a country and listen to terrorists who say that they will kill all the Shias and sit there and be quiet. That's not possible. I had to be careful. For example, I said several times, 'I have read the Koran three times but the god I found in the Koran is much bigger than the god you show me. The god who says if somebody steals something which is more expensive than $40 then his hands will be cut. The god that I know from the Koran is much bigger." So they got completely crazy, they got angry, but it was difficult for them to say to me that I was insulting god by saying that he's bigger than that. It was always near the limit, and my son thought several times that it was over.

You also went to a reception camp where new recruits arrived. Tell me what you saw, how many people were there? 
Every time, every day, more than 50 young people from all over the world arrived from Western countries. From the United States, from the Caucuses, also from Canada, from everywhere and most of them were enthusiastic. That's the horrible thing. 

What does it tell you about the way the West underestimates the threat posed by ISIS? 
The ISIS is militarily very strong because there is a combination of horrible enthusiasm and fanaticism with very good training by ex-Saddam Hussein officers. That's a very dangerous combination. I tried to find out where this enthusiasm came from. They feel discriminated in their countries and they feel that we, the Western countries, have attacked the Middle East and the Muslim countries during the last two centuries by colonizing them and then by making oil wars, killing more than a million people. They also have the feeling to want to be a part of the big historical story, the fight of good against bad. They think they will conquer the whole world. 

Canada has joined coalition attempts to halt ISIS by using airstrikes. Why do you think that's the wrong approach? 
Because the history of the last 14 years has shown us that. After 9/11, we had less than a thousand international terrorists. Now we have more than 100,000 terrorists, so there must be something wrong with our strategy to bombard all these countries. Because for every child we kill, 100 new terrorists start to become a terrorist. 

But ISIS cannot be contained by diplomacy alone - that's not what you're saying, is it? 
No, but I say what President Obama has said some weeks ago, he said that ISIS is the result of our war against Iraq. ISIS supported by the 35 per cent of the Sunnis in Iraq. The Sunnis have been discriminated after the invasion of the Americans. So the solution, in simple words, is that you have to integrate all the Sunnis into the political process of Iraq otherwise this horrible terror army, IS, will continue to expand not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in Yemen, and in Egypt, and so on. And we have to find a way to prove that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not a true Muslim. What he is saying about Islam is ridiculous.