A french journalist risked her life by posing online as a young woman interested in joining ISIS. She was soon contacted by a fighter in Syria and he proposed marriage. Her story is chilling. She shared her experience in a book to be released next week. The Guardiantook an extract. Read below…
It was 10 o’clock on a Friday night in spring 2014 and I was sitting on the sofa in my one-bed Paris apartment when I received a message from a French terrorist based in Syria: “Salaam alaikum, sister. I see you watched my video. It’s gone viral – crazy! Are you Muslim? What do you think about mujahideen?”
A journalist, I had been writing about European jihadis in Islamic State for about a year. I created a social media account, using the name Mélodie, to investigate why European teenagers were attracted to Islamic extremism.
I spent hours scanning feeds filled with descriptions of gruesome plans. I had spent that night on my couch, flicking from account to account, when I came across a video of a French jihadi who looked about 35. He wore military fatigues and called himself Abu Bilel. He claimed to be in Syria.
I would later learn that he had spent the past 15 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 SUV 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 Afghan soldiers wore kohl around their eyes. Still, seeing a terrorist with eyes made up like my own was surprising. He was good-looking. He spoke perfect French, with what to me sounded like a very slight Algerian accent. He smiled broadly as he beckoned viewers and called forhijrah: leaving a land of unbelievers to join an Islamist country.
I usually kept a low profile on my account. I didn’t preach; I simply posted links to articles or videos such as this one. My profile picture was a cartoon image of Princess Jasmine from the Disney movie Aladdin. I tended to change my profile location depending on what story I was working on. Now I claimed to be in Toulouse. I shared the video. Soon afterwards, my computer alerted me to three messages sent to Mélodie’s private inbox from Abu Bilel. “Last question,” he wrote, “are you thinking about coming to Syria?”
“Walaikum salaam,” I wrote. “I didn’t think a jihadi would talk to me. Don’t you have better things to do? LOL.” In reply to his question about mujahideen, I wrote: “I’m not prejudiced against fighters. Anyway, it depends on the person.”
I also told him I had converted to Islam, but didn’t offer any details. I deliberately included spelling mistakes, and tried to use teen vocabulary. I waited for his reply with a knot in my stomach. This seemed too big to be true. I had interviewed mujahideen before, but never anyone over 20, and never anyone who expressed anything beyond the official propaganda.
“Of course I have a lot of things to do! But here it’s 11 o’clock at night and the fighters are finished for the day. Do you have any questions about the video you shared? I can tell you about everything going on in Syria – the only real truth: Allah’s truth. We should talk over Skype. I’ll give you my username.”
Skype was out of the question. I suggested we talk another time. Bilel understood; he’d make himself available for Mélodie tomorrow. “You converted, so… you should get ready for your hijrah. I’ll take care of you, Mélodie.”
Bilel knew nothing about this girl and already he was asking her to join him. I was disgusted. Going after a girl like Mélodie was so easy: I’d met a thousand girls like her, with limited education and guidance. They were vulnerable.
I wanted to understand how European children were falling for this propaganda, and to grasp the mindset of soldiers who spent their days torturing, stealing, raping, killing, and their nights staring into their computers and bragging. Perhaps this man would give me an insight. For now, however, it was getting late, and my boyfriend, Milan, was due to come round. I called to tell him I wanted to spend the night at his apartment instead. I didn’t tell him how I’d spent the evening, only that I wanted to sleep next to him.
That Monday, I rushed to the magazine where I often do freelance work, eager to discuss my lead with one of the editors. I had forwarded him the video of Bilel showing off the contents of his car. He was stunned by how easily contact had been established. He agreed that this was an opportunity, but reminded me that pursuing this could be dangerous. He assigned me a photographer, André. We’d worked together for years and we made a good team. I would agree to Bilel’s request to meet over Skype, and André would take pictures.