German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer has some bad news about ISIS, and he's voicing it after spending an unprecedented stretch of time covering the so-called Islamic State from the inside. Basically, for the first time in its relatively brief, shocking history, ISIS gave access to a Western journalist. And the takeaways that the 74-year-old Todenhöfer has from his time in ISIS-controlled Iraq and Syria are worrying, to say the least.
As detailed in The Independent, Todenhöfer hasn't yet churned out his definitive account of his experiences in ISIS territory — that's expected to come first in the form of an overview he's planning to publish Monday, titled "10 days in the Islamic State." But he revealed some of his story in interviews with some local German publications, describing how his family couldn't get behind his dangerous idea — report back from ISIS-controlled lands, with the full knowledge of the violent Islamic militant movement.
This was by no means a safe or easy choice. After all, two American journalists — James Foley and Steven Sotloff — have already been slain by ISIS in the most grisly and public of ways, with their deaths used both as gruesome threats, international propaganda tools. According to German-language website Der tz, Todenhöfer was met with understandable opposition from his family, including his son Frederic, who nonetheless felt the responsibility to help his father film the experience. Presented here by benefit of Google translation, he even stayed in the same Benghazi, Libya hotel that Foley did, which surely didn't help the nerves.
I was in Benghazi in the same hotel. Of course, I've seen the terrible, brutal video and of course ... one of my main concerns in the negotiations as I can avoid it. I had made my will, anyway.
While we'll have to wait for Todenhöfer's full accounting of events to really get the sense what he went through, and what he saw, he's already spoken to one concerning phenomenon that's made shockwaves in the United Kingdom lately — the willingness of foreign fighters to join ISIS' cause, and the intense loyalty and zealotry the group inspires in it's adherents. Speaking to CNN, he detailed the "glow in [the] eyes" of fledgling ISIS militants he met while staying at a recruitment outpost.
When we stayed at their recruitment house, there were 50 new fighters who came every day. And I just could not believe the glow in their eyes. They felt like they were coming to a promised land, like they were fighting for the right thing. These are not stupid people. One of the people we met had just finished his law degree, he had great job offers, but he turned them down to go and fight ... We met fighters from Europe and the United States. One of them was from New Jersey. Can you imagine a man from New Jersey traveling to fight for the Islamic State?
It's worth noting that while Todenhöfer is being hailed as the first Western journalist to receive access from ISIS itself, he's far from the first to do admirable reporting from that intensely dangerous environment — Medyan Dairieh, for example, who produced an engrossing five-part documentary on ISIS for VICE News. It's about as illuminating and vividly presented a film as there is on the subject, and it was made, obviously, to the peril of Dairieh's life.
But so too is Todenhöfer's achievement a cause for recognition, and major thanks. It'll be positively must-read content when his full reporting of events comes out, but suffice to say, he's already opened up to CNN about scenes that sound equal parts heart-wrenching and harrowing — he even detailed ISIS' use of child soldiers (he says he met one who claimed to be 13, though Todenhöfer thought he looked younger). A campaign against the use of children as military combatants was one of the UN's major initiatives launched in 2014.