Q&A: German journalist on surviving ISIL

Al Jazeera spoke to Jurgen Todenhofer who embedded with ISIL fighters – and lived to tell about it.

German journalist Jurgen Todenhofer risked his life to embed with ISIL fighters in Iraq [Jurgen Todenhofer/Al Jazeera]

German journalist Jurgen Todenhofer, 74, embedded with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and spent 10 days in Mosul in northern Iraq with its fighters.

Todenhofer is the first western reporter to do so and live to tell about it.

ISIL has vowed to kill anyone who does not convert to Islam and has not welcomed foreign journalists. So how did Todenhofer survive travelling through ISIL-controlled areas?

Jurgen Todenhofer, German journalist

Al Jazeera: How did you find the right person to make contact with ISIL?

Jurgen Todenhofer: We wrote to all the German jihadists we could find on Facebook, there were more than 80 of them. I asked them if I could interview them about the reasons why they left Germany and so on. We got 15 answers … and one of them told me that he is not allowed to speak for ISIL but that he can put me in touch with someone from the media department. 

For seven months I was in discussion with this person, at least 20 hours of discussion. During these discussions we spoke about ideological problems, war situations and the assassination of James Foley. We also spoke about the guarantee. I said I’ll go to the country only if I get a realistic guarantee of safety for my stay. 

Maybe this was their way to open a door to the West, or to show that they took the first step, because killing journalists is not a very intelligent strategy.

I could not know if this stamp [from the office of the caliphate] on the agreement was a real one and it is difficult to find out. It could have been fake. In the end, after several discussions, I trusted him and I didn’t see any reason why they would spend so many months in discussion with me just to get me and then to cut my head. That was not logical to me.

Maybe this was their way to open a door to the West, or to show that they took the first step, because killing journalists is not a very intelligent strategy.

They knew that I had made very negative comments on them before. They knew I had met Assad. I told them clearly that ‘I am not on your side,’ and they said, ‘Yes, that is not our problem, we don’t care about your opinion, we want you to tell what you have seen here, not the opinion that you had beforehand.’

Al Jazeera: How did they impose censorship?

Todenhofer: In a sense there was censorship. Sometimes we weren’t allowed to film. For example, in the car, they did not want us to film because they didn’t want attention drawn to us. At the end they controlled all the photos. They took all 800 photos we took and deleted 9 for very valid reasons. One, for example, is that they say the families of the ISIL fighters in the photos could be in danger if the photo gets out and gets published.

Al Jazeera: What was the most difficult discussion or uncomfortable issues?

Todenhofer: Everything was uncomfortable. Sometimes there was no food or water, like on the last day when we had nothing to eat. It was very simple because they chose houses where nobody thinks they are or may be. They have to hide because there are American bombs out there.

One of the most difficult situations was in Mosul when a drone identified some who were with us, and the bomb came down. 

It was also very unpleasant when we returned to Raqqa after some days in Mosul. We were three days late and two days before that, when we were supposed to be there, our apartment where we lived was destroyed by Syrian bombers. No more windows, no more doors. There was glass everywhere. We knew that if we were back in time, we would have been dead.

Crossing the border at the end was also unpleasant. A few days before we were to cross, there was some shooting and at the end, close to the border, you have to run about 1,000m to cross the border with all your bags and equipment in order to get to safety. Running 1,000m is very far when you’re running for your life and there are gun towers with armed men inside.

As far as our meetings with the ISIL fighters were concerned, the discussions were very hard. I have read the Quran many times in German translation, and I always asked them about the value of mercy in Islam. I didn’t see any mercy in their behaviour. Something that I don’t understand at all is the enthusiasm in their plan of religious cleansing, planning to kill the non-believers… They also will kill Muslim democrats because they believe that non-ISIL-Muslims put the laws of human beings above the commandments of God.

These were very difficult discussions, especially when they were talking about the number of people who they are willing to kill. They were talking about hundreds of millions. They were enthusiastic about it, and I just cannot understand that.

Al Jazeera: What did you come back with that you can pass on?

Todenhofer: I had three strong impressions of ISIL. The first one was that ISIL is much stronger than we think. They have conquered an area which is bigger than Great Britain. Every day, hundreds of new enthusiastic fighters are arriving. There is an incredible enthusiasm that I have never seen in any other war zones that I have been to.

Secondly, the brutality of their intended religious cleansing is on another level. And thirdly, I think the strategy of the western countries regarding the Muslim world is completely wrong. With our bombardment, we have never been successful. We have not been successful in Afghanistan; we have not been successful in Iraq. The bombardments are a terror-breeding programme. We had much fewer terrorists before 2001 and these bombardments, which killed hundreds of thousands of people have created terrorists and increased terrorism.

Al Jazeera: How would you suggest to best counter them?

Todenhofer: We have to treat them [the Muslim world] a fair way, to see them as equal; inside Western countries and societies, Muslims have to be considered as compatriots. Secondly, we should stop our bombardments, we have nothing to gain from bombarding in the Arab world; it is not ours. Thirdly, I think only Sunni Iraqis can defeat the ISIL. They have done this once before. In 2007, they fought them down, but then ISIL was much weaker. But this is the only possibility and way forward.

But the Sunnis in Iraq are discriminated against and excluded from society and that is a big mistake made by the old and the new Iraqi government. As long as these Sunnis are not integrated, they will not fight against ISIL, but if the Iraqi government and if the American government would arrange the integration of the Sunni Iraqis in the Iraqi society … then they would be ready to fight ISIL.

So I say western countries will not defeat ISIL. Only Arabs, only Sunni Iraqis, can defeat them. But this is a long way away.

Source: Al Jazeera