Catfishing ISIS

Book review: In the Skin of a Jihadist, by Anna Erelle

When one worked on “societal” issues, it was out of passion. If only I could write about this topic in a new way, one that avoided treating individuals as part of a succession of similar cases. I wanted to investigate the roots of “digital jihadism” and get to the bottom of an evil phenomenon affecting more and more families—of all religious backgrounds. 

Anna Erelle is the pseudonym of a French journalist who found that her fake Facebook for a France-based ISIS-sympathizer, “Melodie”, had hooked a pretty big fish: Bilel, an emir in ISIS and close confidant of Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi, then-ISIS leader (now maybe-dead?) Posing as a teenager who converted to Islam, she chats with him over Facebook and Skype and he quickly raises topics about jihad and her traveling to Syria, where she’ll marry him and reign over IS-occupied Raqqa like a princess. According to him. 

The idea of starting a conversation with a person who didn’t know who I was introduced an ethical problem. I took five minutes to think. Long enough to consider his code of ethics…

This book/journalist has caught a lot of flack for dishonest methods, and I see the argument, but… He’s a murdering terrorist, who doesn’t care that she wants to bring a 15-year-old friend along, who spends his days killing people and his evenings whispering sweet terroristic nothings to teenagers online to convince them that IS and jihad are the answers to typical teenage problems and frustrations. It’s not entirely ethical journalism, but neither did I feel strong moral quandaries about it either.

Erelle had already become close to several families across Europe, mainly in France and Belgium, who had lost children after they fled to Syria to join the fighting. She’s fascinated by the motivations: What would make teenagers living comfortable, middle class lives in stable western Europe abandon their friends, families, and futures to plunge into war in support of vicious terrorists? 

I was also fascinated by this question at some point a few years ago, until I wasn’t. These stories became the same. Teenagers do very stupid, ill-thought-through things, they love rebelling against social or parental confines or embracing the forbidden against all logic. It’s always been that way. Throw in the promise of infamy, attention, and glory for an extreme religious cause that the mainstream just doesn’t understand, plus the persuasions of brave older guys fighting for their beliefs who really get you, who want to take care of you forever, give you the life you deserve in the glory of your religion, and it doesn’t surprise me anymore.

And then there’s this, the one paragraph from the book that really sums up the whole motivation issue:

Promises bind only those who listen to them, it is said. Sadly, that truism especially applies to these young jihadists. Desperate for attention, the majority leave for the front with the ultimate ambition of posting pictures online of themselves dressed as soldiers. There they are sure to be noticed and feel important, and they can also express their exploits over Facebook and Twitter. Andy Warhol’s 1968 pronouncement, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” has never been so apt. 

There’s the crux of it, really. Yes, this is a very sad aspect of the story, but unfortunately, I think the answer isn’t much more complicated than that.

Then there’s Bilel himself, and Erelle makes a half-baked attempt to include his psychology in her investigative sweep.

What had drawn him to radicalism? What had made him so blindly committed—and therefore particularly dangerous? Some parents of jihadists compare the indoctrination of their children to methods used by cults. There was something of that here. Bilel acted as a kind of guru, who presented war as a divine mission. Mélodie was to accomplish her mission for the sake of a prophecy she didn’t understand.

I would also be interested in his background, but it gets very little treatment. He’s also originally from France, and there’s some mention of petty criminality but not much beyond that.

The premise was interesting. It starts off strong and better written, but it falls apart along the way, both content and writing-wise. Erelle makes it all about herself. As the book progresses, it seemed like every chapter opened describing how stressed and anxious she was. She had to smoke so many cigarettes.

Most disappointing was that for all of the revealing information Bilel gives her, we sure don’t see much of it. What I took from the book was how stressful it was for her and how grossed out her photographer was by Bilel’s misogynistic behavior, especially as they prepare for a confrontational meeting that – spoiler alert – falls through.

From the bed of my shabby hotel room, I looked at Mélodie’s djellaba and hijab for the last time. I felt a twinge of regret. Not because I was relinquishing my costume, but because I was about to abandon her, Mélodie. And I wondered, as I always do when coming out of periods of extreme adrenaline: What now? I wouldn’t miss Bilel; that was for sure. Nor would I miss the shy and flirty way I’d had to behave with him. But daily contact with Syria would disappear from my life. I’d had to fact-check his claims, but Bilel had been my biggest source of information. Admittedly, I was addicted to this story.

Addicted, really? Because all she does is complain about stress, that her friends and colleagues don’t understand and are worried about her, and describe her stress-smoking. Those are her addictions. Complaining and smoking.

And referring to “Melodie” as her own person is annoying. I get that she has to give her pseudonym a backstory and stay straight on the details or else he could catch her in a lie. But she also says that he has selective hearing and barely listens to anything personal about her. Only when he’s asking sexual things – if she’s a virgin or owns sexy lingerie.

The translation is rough in general and might be partly to blame for the bad writing, but the quoted dialogue is pretty dreadful: “I’m thirty-eight, you brat, and you and your friend can’t bring me down.”

 Was this lost in translation, made up, or did he really say this dumb thing?

The worst is saved for the end, when reports surface that Bilel was possibly killed. Anna becomes hysterical, sure that she’s somehow responsible because of her intrepid reporting. 1. She’s not. 2. Don’t care if he’s dead, he’s a terrorist, chose to be one, and recruited others for terrorism and rape. 3. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU.

I hadn’t read the articles she’d previously published, apparently much of which makes up the content here. I avoided them because I was so sure I wanted to read the whole book. What a disappointment. Nothing much revealing or insightful beyond seeing a little of the manipulative behavior of a terrorist while recruiting, which was interesting in its way. Ultimately she didn’t know how to tell this story and chose to make her own experience a focal point, and it was dull, anticlimactic, and poorly narrated.

On the positive side, I can see this being a good starting point to get some information about how ISIS influences, a surface skimming of why someone might be drawn to their network, and a little about Sharia law. And as I said, occasionally his quotes manage to be insightful about some psychology behind this organization. An infinitely better read on teens who fled to Syria is Asne Seierstad’s Two Sisters.
Verdict: 2/5

 In the Skin of a Jihadist:
A Young Journalist Enters the ISIS Recruitment Network 
by Anna Erelle, translated from the French by Erin Potter
published May 26, 2015 by Harper

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11 thoughts on “Catfishing ISIS

  1. although the topic is really serious but your review was really funny and how the author makes continues to complain all through the book really frustrated me also.
    this book also shines a light on how Radicalism an be spread by Social media and how now days thanks to mobiles someone next to you can connect and contact with someone from Iraq is really scary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad it could make you laugh, that’s necessary even with such serious topics! I agree, it’s terrifying that it’s so easy to connect over social media with people who are waging war like this and they definitely used that to their advantage. I just wished she’d used her connection with him for something greater and more informative than complaining, she had an excellent opportunity and it felt squandered to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. At first I was excited to see that this is translated non-fiction (so rare!) but eep, I see why it didn’t work for you. One would hope that a reporter would be able to keep a sense of perspective but it looks like she drew within herself. Great review, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I agree, and well translated nonfiction even rarer! I was disappointed that it went the way it did, it had potential but she couldn’t resist making it about her. Or else she played up that he told her more than he did and there wasn’t going to be much of a story unless she actually went there. It was hard to tell. The book I linked to, Two Sisters, is also translated and was a much better, more detailed and revealing story. I thought the translation was quite good too. An incredible nonfiction read in translation is 1947: Where Now Begins, it had some unbelievably beautiful writing even translated from Swedish!

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  3. A lot of reporters these days seem to think that they are the story, its a shame as this topic amongst many others deserve an investigation of depth and substance. I find it interesting that she didn’t seem to think of any consequences that could arise from her investigation. How would she have reacted had she actually beeni n a position that could him harmed him is an nteresting question.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree about reporters being big parts of the stories. I wondered if she did worry that sharing certain information would lead to his being identified and that’s why she withheld (what felt like) so much, but it was hard to tell because the story itself was so poorly told. When she gets news that he’s possibly killed and has a meltdown thinking she’s responsible, it seemed so odd because I couldn’t see the connection of how she might have had anything to do with it. The whole thing seemed badly executed and not particularly well planned.

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      1. when the reporter thinks they are the story, you know its time to move on. It’s a shame but perhaps the hope of movie rights played a part…

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