Chronicling the collapse of Syria and the rise of the Islamic State.
By KIP EIDEBERG
The Weekly Standard
APR 11, 2016
It is an ordinary summer day in northern Syria, in 2013. No barrel bombs filled with shrapnel that indiscriminately kill all living things; just a few artillery shells that no one pays much attention to.
Suddenly a bomb hits close to a house where members of the Free Syrian Army are drinking tea. The men are thrown violently to the ground. Then they begin to laugh.n“They never stopped laughing, these men,” writes Samar Yazbek in The Crossing. “It was as though they inhaled laughter like an antidote to death.”
Yazbek, an outspoken critic of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, was forced into exile from her homeland in 2011, only to make several clandestine trips back to war-torn northern Syria in 2012 and 2013. Her language is personal and powerful. She describes acts of horror that are almost too unbearable to process: corpses, crippled children, survivors clustered in shacks and hovels, constant airstrikes from the sky.
“The only victor in Syria is death: no one talks of anything else,” she writes. “Everything is relative and open to doubt; the only certainty is that death will triumph.”
This is a powerful, moving, and often poetic account of a peaceful uprising that began with much promise only to descend into bloodshed. She conducts long interviews with warlords, men from the Free Syrian Army as well as representatives of the Islamic State.
The armed people’s resistance brigades, as she calls them, trying to defend their communities, were not strong enough and, ultimately, lacked antiaircraft missiles to protect the civilian population against Assad’s relentless bombing campaign. When better-armed and better-funded Islamic extremists moved in, their influence over villages and towns grew, and northern Syria gradually fragmented into independent areas controlled by different rebel groups.
By the time ordinary Syrians realized what was happening, it was too late. By 2012, a power vacuum had spread across the northern part of that country. It was quickly filled by the Islamic State and groups such as the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, which set up a network of local informants and sharia courts to control the population.
On December 6, 2014, a year and a half after Yazbek’s last trip to Syria, the 74-year-old German journalist, publisher, and former Bundestag member Jürgen Todenhöfer traveled from Turkey to territory claimed by the Islamic State. He was the first Western journalist allowed into areas controlled by the Islamic State, and his journey is meticulously described in My Journey into the Heart of Terror.
Todenhöfer’s book, like many other first hand accounts from inside authoritarian regimes, has its limitations: It is not always clear if the story unfolds through the eyes of the author or the jihadists that are all too eager to serve as his guides.
He travels with a guarantee of safe passage from the office of the caliph, which is dominated by ex-officers from Saddam Hussein’s army and security services. At every checkpoint, before every interview, he flashes the letter and animosity quickly turns to camaraderie. It is all a bit too convenient.
In fact, it is hard not to suspect that Todenhöfer is (or allows himself to be) taken in by his jihadist hosts, who pose with their M16s, sport Bayern Munich jerseys, play video games, and drink Pepsi. But thanks to the courage and commitment with which he reports from deep inside Islamic State territory, the reader is treated to some rare and intimate encounters with Islamists.
A car trip through IS-controlled territory with Jihadi John as driver and Abu Qatadah—also known as Christian E., a sandy-haired former IT specialist from the Ruhr—as tourist guide is a surreal experience.
Todenhöfer asks Abu Qatadah if IS has anything to do with religion, and quotes the verse from the Koran saying that whoever kills a person unjustly has killed all mankind.
Abu Qatadah calmly explains that all infidels must die, and Shiite Muslims, as apostates, are no exception. “If they do not convert,” he says, “then they must die. It sounds crass, but we do not care about numbers. We have no borders, only front lines. The goal is world domination.”
At the Syria-Turkey border, Todenhöfer watches as trucks filled with new recruits arrive every 20 minutes. “I just could not believe the glow in their eyes,” he writes. “They felt like they were coming to a promised land, like they were fighting for the right thing.” The would-be jihadists are carefully documented and screened:
What are their weaknesses? Who can be blackmailed into remaining with the group? Which addictions can be exploited? The Islamic State operates like any other well-organized intelligence agency during wartime, with informants placed in strategic locations.
In Mosul, the largest city occupied by IS, Todenhöfer meets many Europeans. These are young men and women who, frustrated with life in the West, have been lured to the Middle East by promises of adventure and the good life. (Recent research shows that the vast majority of people who join IS and other jihadist groups are recruited by family and friends; radicalization hardly ever occurs in mosques.)
Todenhöfer paints a picture of a vibrant city full of life, where a curious sense of normality reigns. The stores are open; the streets are full of people; father and sons enjoy raisins, ice cream, and coffee as they stroll around the ancient streets. It is like any Western city—except that 1.5 million people are brutally controlled by no more than 15,000 jihadists.
At the end of his journey the façade starts to crumble. Todenhöfer tries on a suicide vest; but when he examines the trigger, the young fighters standing around him quickly put an end to the demonstration. Fear overcomes bravado.
These are two very different firsthand accounts from behind the borders of the Islamic State. Above all, Samar Yazbek bears witness: The Crossing is a personal account of her devastated homeland, a chronicle of how Syria has systematically been “hanged, drawn and quartered.”
Jürgen Todenhöfer’s reportage is, at times, tediously admonitory but provides a fascinating account of people little understood in the West. He sets out to understand life among the jihadists and returns with a stark warning:
The Islamic State is “much stronger and much more dangerous” than the West realizes. And regardless of who is dropping the bombs, the civilian population is suffering unimaginable horrors.
Kip Eideberg is a writer and consultant in Washington.
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