The Current

From the Taliban to ISIS, journalist faces jihadist leaders to understand their cause

Souad Mekhennet spent 15 years getting access to extremist leaders few in the West have spoken to — facing many dangers along the way.
Souad Mekhennet shares her experience investigating Islamic extremism in the new book 'I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad.' (Henry Holt/Ben Kilb)

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Journalist Souad Mekhennet has taken many risks in her career.

She's gotten into strangers' cars to go to unknown locations, leaving behind her cell phone or even, at times, any personal identification — all to interview commanders of extremist groups, from the Taliban to Al Qaeda to ISIS.

She takes these risks to answer a question she was asked by a widow of a firefighter who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Souad Mekhennet in a tribal area of Pakistan. (Souad Mekhennet)

After a dinner with journalists, the widow said that she held them partly responsible for the attack, because they had not made people like her aware of how other parts of the world felt about them.

"She looked at me in a certain way because I was also the only person in that group who was of Muslim descent," Mekhennet tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

"She asked, 'Why do they hate us so much?', and I had no answer back then. And as a journalist, but also as somebody of Muslim descent, I felt a responsibility of trying to explain."

Souad Mekhennet conducts interviews in Pakistan. ( Zeljko Pehar)

Mekhennet has spent 15 years investigating the answer to that question. Growing up in Germany with a Turkish mother and a Moroccan father, she has met many people whose lives started off on a similar path to her own — but who took a turn to extremism.

The fight against ISIS is portrayed by some as a clash of civilizations between Islam and the rest of the world, but Mekhennet sees it differently.

Research in Balochistan province, Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border. (Souad Mekhennet)

"This is a clash between people who want to build bridges and those who want to divide us as societies," says Mekhennet.

"We have those, unfortunately, in all kinds of religions and different fields of society. It's not Islam that is radicalizing people. Those people are radicalizing Islam."

Listen to the full story at the top of this post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.