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Syria : Journalist who returned from Islamic State HQ tells RT how jihadists can be defeated

RT spoke to Jurgen Todenhofer, the first Western journalist who was allowed to enter territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State. A year ago, he spent 10 days among the terrorists, also visiting Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate. To arrange the journey, Todenhofer held Skype discussions with Islamic State (formerly ISIS/ISIL) for six months before they agreed to his visit. Finally, the jihadists gave him official guarantee safety. “It was in their interest to fulfill their promises that I would come back alive –and I came back alive”, he said.


After spending several days with ISIS militants, having long discussions with them and observing their daily life, the German journalist said : “They don’t care if we call them terrorists”. The streets of Raqqa are full of people, cars and functioning businesses, life seemed to be completely normal, Todenhofer said, but one should keep in mind that the Islamists had killed or driven off all the Shias and Christians, so the only people there were Sunnis. The jihadists are not interested in picking on ordinary people as long as they abide by the Sharia law, they are after important people, the journalist said. Yet the fear is out there. “If you make a mistake, you can be killed”, Todenhofer said, recalling people being punished with jail terms for offenses such as paying a visit to a girlfriend or using sleeping pills, which are prohibited. “People know it is dangerous”, Todenhofer said, but an ordinary person there does not care, because “his life was not [much fun] before, under the control of the Shia government, which they did not like either”. There are not too many women on the streets of Raqqa, and those few are completely covered with a veil. Only very old women do not have to wear a veil, Todenhofer recalled. “Because if they are not nice and pretty anymore they are allowed to show their face”.

Todenhofer told RT’s Neil Harvey that on ISIS’s territory, he met people from Russia’s Caucasus, but also from Germany, France, Britain and of course he asked all of them why they had come. He said he had the impression that all the Muslims who joined ISIS used to be completely unimportant in their countries, were not accepted there and were considered second-class citizens. “They are told that in Islamic State they will fight a historic fight, a final fight between good and evil”, he said. “Those young people who were completely unimportant in their countries will be very important [here]. And for the first time in their life, somebody is telling them that they are important”, the journalist said. Those young men are told they are going to be real stars and heroes, they will have a Kalashnikov and fight against the Americans and so on. “They played all those video games where killers are the stars. And they believe they are going to be stars now”. “They are brainwashed, of course. It’s a very successful combination of fanaticism and a very clever military drill they get from Saddam Hussein’s former officers”, Todenhofer said, adding : “They think that they are in a big story now and they are playing a very important role”. For those European youth who come to Islamic State, the way back is effectively closed, because those who want to return home are considered traitors who have to be killed.

Also, those who believed they were going to fight American and British troops have realized that in reality they are killing innocent Muslims. “They are realizing that the story they were told is completely wrong. They don’t live in luxury like they were told in Germany, [instead] they live a very simple life, they don’t have food every day, not even water, it is cold in cheap apartments where they live, so life is completely different –and they have to kill Muslims. This is not what they were promised”, Todenhofer said.

The journalist believes the Islamists are killing hostages such as innocent American journalists to sow fear and to provoke Washington to send ground troops to the Syrian battlefield -because they want to fight against the Americans. “I think now they would like to fight also against the Russian ground troops, because they have this story that they have to be a hero and fight against the champions, while the Muslims they have killed up until now were not champions and [the ISIS fighters] want to fight powerful people”, he said.

Naturally, the militants did not tell him everything, yet Todenhofer had the impression that Islamic State is still getting money and weapons from Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia. The weapons are also bought on the black market, where European-made guns are available as well, sometimes those supplied to the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Free Syrian Army (FSA). “They told me, "Even if we don’t conquer these weapons, we can buy them, because everything has a price. Most of our ammunition we get from the Free Syrian Army”. This is the ammunition that Americans supplied to the FSA, which is now not important, or those groups which said they belong to the FSA, Todenhofer said.

ISIS is using guerilla warfare tactics, so bombing them is a hard task, because they disperse when the danger is close. “I cannot judge the Russian army but I can judge the Western armies. The American Marines and special forces have no chance in a fight against guerilla fighters, because these fighters are ready to die, and Americans Marines do not want to die”, Todenhofer said.

To create real problems for ISIS, the West should do several things : stop the delivery of weapons, ammunition and money from the Gulf monarchies and close the Turkish border used to transit new fighters to ISIS, Todenhofer said, recalling how easy it was to cross the Syrian-Turkish border. The third important thing is promoting reconciliation between Shia and Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, because ISIS finds support among those dissatisfied with the governments and existing state of things. Fighting ISIS needs an intelligent strategy, Todenhofer said.

Jurgen Todenhofer

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éditeur : Frank Brunner | ouverture : 11 novembre 2000 | reproduction autorisée en citant la source