Journalist recounts encounters with terrorist leaders

Souad Mekhennet recalls nail-biting interviews with Taliban, Al Qaida and Daesh leaders during her career

Dubai: When it was time to meet high-level Taliban and Daesh leaders, investigative journalist Souad Mekhennet was always told to come alone.

Discussing her memoir ‘I Was Told to Come Alone: The Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad’ at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Friday, Mekhennet recalled the most exhilarating and life-changing interviews and encounters of her 15-year journalism career.

Reflecting on a trip to Egypt where she was detained with a colleague by the Egyptian authorities, the German-born author of Turkish-Moroccan descent recalled moments where she was blindfolded and threatened.

“I had two guns pointed at my head when I was being questioned and I kept telling myself this is not the time to break down, I could not show them I was weak or afraid. I kept hearing people next door being tortured, but I had to keep it together,” Mekhennet told ticket holders gathered for the literature festival.

She described the few weeks after her ordeal in Egypt as a time of trauma. The experience had stirred up previous similar situations where she had felt powerless in Iraq and Lebanon as she continued to deal with the distress of her kidnapping.

“In Iraq, I had three close calls, I saw people blow themselves up in front of me. It is a part of the job to learn to deal with it,” said Mekhennet.

She eventually returned to Egypt to finish her book, a time she described as “a part of the healing process”.

When conducting her interviews with terrorist leaders, Mekhennet said she ensured there were no restrictions on the questions she was allowed to ask, which was her way of ensuring she did not fall for their propaganda.

“I would have a conversation with the person connecting me to the commander I was going to interview, and they would ask me to sometimes cover or travel without my phone. But I always was very clear that I would ask whatever questions I wanted and was not going to be censored or asked to show the quotes or the story before publishing,” she said.

Mekhennet further recalled her interview with a media staffer who worked for Al Qaida leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, where she travelled with colleague Michael Moss — for security reasons — during her time with the New York Times.

“After I was asked to wear the niqab and fully cover up, I met the man I was going to interview along with another man who seemed to be his boss … while smiling, he asked his colleague if I was a Muslim-Arab journalist and then asked if they should kidnap my American colleague,” she said.

In another encounter, Mekhennet found herself in the same room as Al Qaida leader Al Zarqawi himself who was hesitant to give her an interview before his mother intervened asking him to help the journalist.

Mekhennet described her investigation and interview with a wrongly detained German citizen of Lebanese decent, Khalid Al Masri, in her book.

Juggling both her studies in Frankfurt and her job as a journalist, Mekhennet said she worked hard to eventually prove Al Masri’s arrest was a case of mistaken identity.

Addressing radicalisation in the West, Mekhennet pointed out the numerous interviews she had carried out with young extremists and jihadists across Europe with the aim of understanding what leads them to violence.

“They each have their own stories. They all felt they wanted to be British, or German or French depending on where they were from, but the societies always treated them as ‘another Muslim person’,” she said.

Even the Arab societies in the West did not accept them, making them feel like they didn’t belong to either side, she said.

“Even though they were born in the West, there was always some type of rejection. So when someone (a recruiter) approaches them with a new ID card, they stop to listen,” said Mekhennet.

She described the recruiting process as one that consisted of a “ready-made narrative” that was very compelling. “The youngsters are shown videos of Muslims being mistreated, told they would never be accepted in the West, and that their religion was under attack and it was their job to help their brothers and sisters fight,” she said.

The ongoing radicalisation issue depends on how societies are dealing with it and “the message they are sending young people who feel marginalised”, she said.

Following her journey from her home country across the Middle East and North Africa in search for extremists, when she returned to Europe, Mekhennet uncovered the identity of ‘Jihadi John’, the Daesh executor who was a symbol of radicalisation among young Westerners.

She was the recipient of the 2017 Chicago Journalists Association Daniel Pearl Award, one of the most important investigative journalism awards today.

Her memoir is soon to be adapted as a TV series.

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