Souad Mekhennet: the journalist who speaks to jihadis

German-born Mekhennet has focused her investigative career on diving into militant Islamist networks. She spoke with DW at the Frankfurt Book Fair about her job's dangers and why it is important to speak with jihadis.

Souad Mekhennet was born in Frankfurt, Germany as the daughter of Turkish-Moroccan guest workers. All throughout her childhood and youth, the author found herself in situations where she felt she didn't belong or was not accepted as German. After finishing high school, she attended the renowned Hamburg school of the journalism, the Henri-Nannen-Schule. Since then she has worked as a reporter and editor in the United States for top national newspaper The Washington Post. Her book about what motivates fighters of the so-called Islamic State has just been published in German. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, Mekhennet sat down with with DW reporter Sabine Kieselbach to discuss the dangerous research in the world of jihadis that went into "I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad."

DW: Ms. Mekhennet, the film "All the President’s Men" about the Watergate scandal in the 1970's inspired your career choice. Now here you are, working at the paper where the two investigative journalists who broke Watergate worked. How does that feel?

Souad Mekhennet: It feels almost surreal. I watched this film about the Watergate affair as a teenager. I found it unbelievable to see that two Washington Post journalists could, through their research, cause the downfall of a US president. I thought that was incredible. These men, who did not come from influential or wealthy families, were able to wield such influence through their jobs and make such a difference. But, of course, it was a very long road for the daughter of guest workers in Germany to make it all the way the Washington Post.

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In your reports, you examine the abysses of political situations, but also the abysses of the human soul.

The German version of Mekhennet's memoir was published in September 2017

I have encountered evil frequently throughout my life. Already as a teenager, I was chased by skinheads through the streets of Frankfurt with threats of being killed or gassed.

I believe that there are many people on many different levels in this world who deal in what we call evil. I once met a firefighter's wife whose husband had been killed during the September 11 attacks. She told us journalists, ”I believe that their media and the politicians also share the blame for what happened on September 11, because no one out there told us why these people hate us so much!”

She was right: We only report on the attacks once they are over, but we do not deal with the people or their ideologies before they become mass murderers. I made it my task to explore this and subsequently began my journey into the so-called world of jihad. I sometimes found myself sitting down with people who have told me that if I were from America or from this or that country, then they would immediately kidnap and kill me. In such a situation, you don't know whether you will leave the interview alive. We have to learn how to live with this. But I believe it is important that we take on this assignment.

You say that you want to mediate, to build bridges. Your book is now being translated into Arabic. How does "the other side" react to your work?

Before I go into any interviews, I tell people from the beginning that I am a journalist. Everyone knows I work for the Washington Post, I don't hide that. We don’t do undercover stories. I say, “I’m going to come and listen to your side of the story. I will also ask you critical questions, but I will reflect your answers to these questions fairly in my article.” This has worked very well so far, knock on wood.

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Have you ever reached your limits when it comes to your work?

There was a situation where I saw the son of a fighter in Lebanon playing a game with his friends called "kill the unbelievers."  He was a little boy, just five years old. That hit me hard. And sometimes there are situations where you really think that you won’t make it out. I was in prison in Egypt. I was threatened with all sorts of things, tied up, blindfolded, and led into a room where a woman was screaming. Then I thought I was going to be raped. As a woman and a journalist, you reach certain limits, and you have to find a method to overcome the fear and continue.

Souad Mekhennet (L) sat down with DW's Sabine Kieselbach (R) at the Frankfurt Book Fair

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You have often found yourself exposed in risky situations where you didn't know how the situation would end. Do you purposefully seek out risk?

I sought out these meetings because I believe they are the only possibility to speak to these people, to understand their motivations, and then to deliver counterarguments. In my book, you can read about a discussion I had with an IS commander in a car that only went up to a certain point. Up to moment when he placed his hand on his right pants pocket. I knew he had his weapon there, so I had to dial back my critical questions. But, naturally, it's about how I tried to argue with these people and to understand how they have become the way they are. Only then can we think about the possible counteractions we can take as a society.

You are trying to understand the men and women of the so-called Islamic State. Have you found anything out that we do not already know?

Although we see IS as a homogeneous group, it is very heterogeneous in and of itself. I know that there are conflicts between individual nationalities. It would be very problematic if we were to see it as relating to Islam and say that these people hate the West because they are Muslims. This is exactly what they want. They want a religious conflict to arise. We should not do them this favor.

Along with the Washington Post, Souad Mekhennet has worked for The New York Times, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Daily Beast and German broadcaster ZDF. She has written two books in German. She was back in her hometown of Frankfurt to present the German version of her latest book, the memoir "I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad," at the city's book fair.