Books

Jürgen Todenhöfer
My Journey into the Heart of Terror

Jürgen Todenhöfer is a household name in Germany where he’s been a judge, a member of federal parliament, a journalist making risky journeys into some of the nastiest recent wars, a publishing executive and a philanthropist − mostly at the same time.

He is also a paradox. In the Bundestag, he represented the conservative Christian Democratic Union and was associated with its hawkish wing known as the Stahlhelm-Fraktion (Steel Helmet-Faction), yet he was also a powerful early advocate of nuclear arms reduction. His right-wing links no doubt helped him persuade Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to release 4500 political prisoners in 1975. From 1979 he began reporting trips behind the lines in Afghanistan and the Middle East, becoming an excoriating critic of George W. Bush about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for which Todenhöfer thinks Bush should be indicted as a war criminal. He is also a Christian by conviction, who prays in a mosque when needs must.

This record allowed him to win the guarded trust of Daesh in the months following its astonishing capture of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in June 2014, and its subsequent proclamation of an Islamic State caliphate with no boundaries.

Todenhöfer looked for German jihadists on the internet. Out of 80 he found, 15 replied through Facebook and Skype. With the help of one of them, a strapping ginger-bearded young man who had converted from Protestantism to Islamic fundamentalism and adopted the name Abu Qatadah, he wangled a written invitation and guarantee of safety from the self-proclaimed Daesh emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In December 2014, with two journalistic companions, including his son, Frederic, Todenhöfer slipped through the wire of a lightly guarded section of the Turkish border to meet with Qatadah.

His 10 days inside the Islamic State reads like many other journeys into a totalitarian regime, such as North Korea. Communications devices were confiscated for the duration and baggage searched for GPS locators. The supreme leader was everywhere but out of sight (Todenhöfer never got to see or meet al-Baghdadi). Everyone was overjoyed to find themselves living in the perfect society. The best food was available. Visitors were guided to the Daesh publishing house, to browse titles such as How to Handle Your Slaves, How to Swear Allegiance to the Caliph and How Women Should Behave and Dress. There was the edginess of knowing extreme violence could be applied any time for overstepping nonetheless ill-defined limits of criticism.

As days passed, Todenhöfer’s relentless dialogue with his hosts wore down even Qatadah’s affability. Most alarmingly, his group came to suspect that their driver, a masked young man of English background, was none other than “Jihadi John” (Mohammed Emwazi), notorious for beheading captives in Daesh videos, including US journalist James Foley (a friend of Todenhöfer’s). Whoever he was, the driver was clearly itching to do the same with his German charges. They became anxious to get out before their welcome disappeared. (A US drone killed Emwazi in November).

Todenhöfer later wrote an open letter to al-Baghdadi in which with judicial exactitude mixed with disgust, quoting chapter and verse from the Koran, he condemned Daesh and its actions as a disgrace to Islam. “What you say and do is not only a program that opposes Islam but also the ministry of the Prophet,” he wrote. “Muhammad was a forward-looking revolutionary. You are a backward-looking reactionary. It is absurd to advance the idea that Muhammad, one of the most dynamic reformers in history, would continue to live by ancient customs and practices 1400 years after his death.”

His Daesh interlocutors illustrated the point. Divine law as revealed to Muhammad was all that society needed. Mixing Sharia with modern democracy and state law was apostasy. Those who did not agree faced two choices: submission or death. This would cover most of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, as well as the rest of us. Daesh has a particular thing about Shiites, for their admixture of religious authority by descent and worship at the tombs of great holy men and warriors. If they didn’t convert, Qatadah insisted, “They will all be executed.” All 200 million of them.

When Todenhöfer visited 16 months ago, Daesh was flushed with victory. A few hundred fighters had routed the United States-trained Iraqi army in Mosul, leaving scores of tanks and other heavy weapons. Busloads of new recruits were coming in from Turkey, even a young barrister from Trinidad. Since then, the Russians have intervened behind Assad’s forces, the US coalition has intensified air strikes, its special forces are guiding the Kurdish Peshmerga, and retrained Iraqi forces are closing in on Mosul.

It remains to be seen whether battlefield reverses and shrinking territory puncture the Daesh mystique, and al-Baghdadi vanishes like previous desert Mahdis (Guided Ones). There are reports now of hundreds of disillusioned recruits executed for attempted desertion, but that may be disinformation. More certainly, Daesh will try to exact revenge through terror attacks long after the Islamic State’s geographic territory has gone.

Todenhöfer explores Daesh through its German connections, but there are many similarities with Australia’s experience: the grooming and recruitment of troubled young people, the religious sanction of violence, the blowback in terrorism from military intervention. In a welter of books about Daesh, this one stands out for its face-to-face encounters, the direct dialogue with the group’s members in many pages of transcript, and a good history of its origins and hostile relations with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. That’s aside from its gripping story of making contact, crossing the lines, and dicing with danger among psychopathic fanaticism.

Even those who disagree with Todenhöfer about the legal culpability of Bush and his 2003 invasion backers might concur with his closing judgement: “What it boils down to is that only Arabs can fight Arab terrorists without giving rise to new terrorism.”  JF

Scribe, 272pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 16, 2016 as "Jürgen Todenhöfer, My Journey into the Heart of Terror". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JF