In the Skin of a Jihadist: Investigative journalism gone wrong

Published: September 14, 2016
Email

In the Skin of a Jihadist is a book about a young French journalist’s fascinating look at how contemporary terrorists use social media and technology to reach disillusioned youth. PHOTO: PBS

In the Skin of a Jihadist is a book about a young French journalist’s fascinating look at how contemporary terrorists use social media and technology to reach disillusioned youth. This is witnessed through the undercover investigation that led to the journalist’s deep involvement with a key member of ISIS.

On Facebook, Melodie – a 20-year-old convert to Islam, living with her mother and sister in Toulouse – meets Bilel, a French-born, high-ranking militant for the Islamic State in Syria. Within days, Bilel falls in love with Melodie, they Skype repeatedly, and he adamantly urges her to come to Syria, marry him, and take part in jihad. He also promises the innocent, fatherless young girl a life of material comfort and spiritual purpose.

Melodie is actually Anna Erelle, a Parisian based journalist investigating the recruitment channels of the Islamic State, whose digital propaganda – Jihad 2.0 – is one of its most formidable and frightening weapons. The organisation’s use of technology has successfully mobilised a large number of young Europeans. In this book, Erelle chronicles her intense, month-long relationship with Bilel– who turns out to be none other than the right hand man of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS. As she embarks on the final, most dangerous stage of her investigation, Melodie leaves for Amsterdam to begin her journey to the Middle East.

But things go terribly wrong and Erelle is forced to go underground, hiding from the very organisation she had sought to expose after they issued a fatwa calling for her execution. What started as simple journalistic curiosity swiftly turns into one of the most psychologically taxing chapters of her life. In the process, however, she gains valuable insight into the recruiting tactics of ISIS fighters, and especially the methods they use to groom vulnerable young women to join their cause.

Some may argue that this book reads something like a teenage diary, rather than a work of professional journalism. Erelle herself admits later in the book,

“This story went beyond professional interest; it was personal.”

Another wrong assertion by the author is when she mentions Pakistan, as

“A country overrun by al-Qaeda.”

This book was published in 2015 and Operation Zarb-e-Azb was already in motion since 2014. Hence, the author had no concrete foundations for laying such a claim or painting such a picture.

All in all, it’s not a great piece of investigative journalism and may come across more as an exercise in publicity and self-promotion. The cumulative result of extended passages of personal reflection and fictional deliberations raises several doubts in the reader’s minds that Erelle has very little to say about ISIS itself.

In the Skin of a Jihadist may be worth reading for an interesting, exercise in introspection and character construction. It is a gripping and often disturbing inquiry into the factors that motivate young people to join extremist causes, and a shocking exploration of how technology and social media are used for spreading radicalism. It helps better understand the appeal of extremism – and how an Islamic militant attempts to brainwash, seduce, and manipulate a vulnerable young woman.

This book’s publication also coincided with rising public concern about the number of young western women willing to risk their lives to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State which adds the more to its appeal. But for readers who want a true insight into the inner workings of the Islamic State itself, it’s best to consult other books

Arhama Siddiqa

Arhama Siddiqa

The author is a LUMS and University of Warwick Alumnus and is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). She calls herself a bibliophile,a dreamer and an avid foodie. She also has a Instagram food blog: @chakhoous (www.instagram.com/chakhoous/) . She tweets @arhama_siddiqa (twitter.com/arhama_siddiqa)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.