Sunday 17 December 2017

Meet the fearless journalist who risked death to go behind Isis lines and unmask Jihadi John

Journalist Souad Mekhennet, who risked death to go behind Isil lines to talk to its leaders, tells Joe Shute of the dangers of radicalism closer to home

Brave voice: Souad Mekhennet. Photo: Clara Molden.
Brave voice: Souad Mekhennet. Photo: Clara Molden.

Joe Shute

Almost three years to the day, the secretive leader of what was then a relatively unknown jihadist group stood on the ornate balcony of Mosul's Grand al-Nuri Mosque and declared the new caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - Isil.

Dressed in a black turban and robe, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urged young Muslims across the world to "make jihad". Under his direction, he proclaimed, the Islamic world would be restored to "dignity, might, rights and leadership".

Jihadi John. Photo: Getty Images
Jihadi John. Photo: Getty Images

Last Thursday, Iraqi government forces stormed the ruins of the same now bomb-shattered 12th-century mosque, their long siege of the city almost complete. Should Mosul soon fall, Raqqa will be next; the last Isil stronghold in Syria is encircled by US-backed coalition forces.

Territories held by the terrorist group have now been reduced by 60pc from their peak. Revenues have plummeted by 80pc as it has lost its grip on regions vital for bringing in money from oil and taxes - although they still stand at around €14m a month. Perhaps we should have dared to believe the Iraqi prime minister last week, when he hailed "the end of the Isil state".

Souad Mekhennet (39) is one of only a handful of Western journalists to have made it into the self-declared caliphate and out again alive.

The German-born Washington Post reporter has travelled deep into Isil zones to interview some of its most senior commanders. And in 2015, she used those contacts to reveal to the world the identity of the executioner known only then as Jihadi John: the London-born Mohammed Emwazi, who even among the butchers of Isil came to symbolise the group's barbarity.

Sitting in a London hotel room, in a city and country still coming to terms with its own latest wave of atrocities, Mekhennet warns that the rumours of the end of Isil are being greatly exaggerated.

"If people focus too much on what is going on in Syria and Iraq, they might miss that the caliphate has spread into so many countries now," she says. "I would not put my money on saying it has become less dangerous."

Mekhennet is a surprising figure to have the ear of the jihadis (as well as Isil commanders, she has interviewed senior figures in the Taliban and al-Qaeda). She is a Muslim but does not conform to the strict dress codes Isil imposes on women, and is not afraid to argue against their twisted ideologies. She has received numerous threats - including warning of a plot to kidnap her in Syria and force her either to marry a jihadist or be beheaded - but refuses to be cowed.

When we meet to discuss her newly published memoir, she tells me her success is down to a desire to listen to both sides of every story and question everything.

"Whoever you are, you will be challenged," she says.

Mekhennet's contacts make her an invaluable mine of information on the motivation and tactics of those wishing to spread terror. Within hours of Salman Abedi detonating a bomb in the Manchester Arena in May, killing 22 and injuring more than 200 others, she was on the streets of the city investigating his links to Libya.

While she insists it is still too early to say for certain the extent of his network, one possibility suggested by intelligence sources is that a professional bomb maker could have been touring Europe, instructing would-be terrorists on how to piece together explosives.

The concept of localised terror cells, such as that of the 7/7 bombers in London has, she says, been turned on its head by Isil - with the group now linking up sympathisers across Europe, who have possibly never even met. The arrest last Thursday of Tarik Chadlioui, a Birmingham cleric accused of using YouTube to recruit and lead an Isil cell in Spain, illustrates the ease with which poisonous ideologies can flow across borders.

"Isil is changing the landscape of how a jihadist group used to be organised in the past," she says. "This is why it's becoming very difficult. They've realised the longer it takes to plot as a group, the easier it becomes for security services."

But the shockingly crude nature of incidents like the London Bridge attack should not, she says, fool us into believing that the group has now abandoned plotting atrocities on a far larger scale. "They have planned ahead", she says. "It might be part of their calculation to use lone wolves here and there but at the same time be preparing for something bigger."

One key reason why Mekhennet has so successfully managed to infiltrate terrorist networks is her ability to understand the sense of alienation that drives angry young Muslims to jihad.

Born in Frankfurt to a Moroccan father and Turkish mother, she speaks - and writes - eloquently about the discrimination she faced growing up in Germany. Aged 16, she recalls being chased by a car full of neo-Nazis shouting at her and her brother to "get out of our country".

As a girl, she was told journalism was only a job for "German Germans". At times, she says, the vulnerability and alienation she felt would have made her ripe for any Isil recruiter. "They are very good at playing on the fear of people. That's why we need to look more into what is happening inside our societies."

She has also experienced the agony of victims. In 2016, her cousin's 14-year-old son, Can Leyla, was one of nine people shot dead by a German Iranian teenager who went on a rampage through a Munich mall. It was discovered he had no links to Islamist terrorism but instead had a history of psychiatric problems and was obsessed with mass shootings.

Mekhennet's unmasking of Jihadi John - who was later killed in a drone strike - came about in early 2015, after Isil had shocked the world with a wave of brutal videos beheading hostages.

She spoke to a number of UK-based Isil and al-Qaeda recruiters and sympathisers - including one previously linked to Abu Hamza, the radical former preacher at the Finsbury Park mosque. Eventually she confirmed Emwazi's identity through a "senior Isil official".

When the Washington Post contacted the British security services saying it was planning to run with Mekhennet's story, it was asked to delay publication for 48 hours so they could warn the families of hostages being held by Isil. The paper agreed but, 24 hours later, it was discovered that someone had leaked the name to the BBC. "We were a little surprised," she says with an arched eyebrow.

Mekhennet is unmarried and says she has had more proposals from jihadists wanting to make her their second wife than from Western men.

"People say in Western societies that men like strong women but I have not seen that yet. People seem to have a weird idea of how women who cover security issues or war zones must be," she said.

Addressing the sense of alienation felt by some European Muslims is, she says, the only way in which the poisonous ideologies spread by Isil can ever be beaten.

She has spoken to imams in Europe who admit when angry young men come and talk to them about politics they have to turn them away, for fear they could be misconstrued as promoting extremism.

"We are leaving a gap open which is being filled by radical recruiters," she warns. "Sometimes I have the impression this whole terrorism topic is handled as something from the outside. But a lot of those people were born and grew up in our societies. We can't always blame other countries for that."

Mekhennet insists that listening to their concerns and providing them with another path is the only way to stamp out this poisonous creed. Otherwise, the terrorists will keep rising up. "This ideology is not going to die with any person," she says. "It will go on."

'I Was Told to Come Alone' by Souad Mekhennet (Virago)

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