In The Skin Of A Jihadist: Undercover with ISIS


  • Books
  • Sunday, 01 Nov 2015

French journalist Anna Erelle (not her real name) pretended to be someone like Samira Yerou to write 'In The Skin Of A Jihadist'. Yerou, a Moroccan woman, pictured here being arrested at Barcelona’s airport, had been recruited online and had been attempting to join ISIS in Syria when she was stopped by the Spanish authorities. Photo: Reuters

In The Skin Of A Jihadist

Author: Anna Erelle

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

In The Skin Of A Jihadist is French journalist Anna Erelle’s attempt to explore the world of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis or IS), and the mentality of the people behind the organisation.

The book opens with a declaration of love from a young 20-year-old French girl named Mélodie. The man who is the subject of Mélodie’s affection is Abu Bilel, a 40-something Syrian man who, after seeing Mélodie’s Facebook profile, starts Skyping with her, and within 48 short hours, declares he loves her as well.

And Bilel’s declaration of love comes with an offer of marriage and excitement: as it transpires, he is the right-hand man of the most dangerous militant in the world, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of IS.

It also transpires that Mélodie is an invention: Mélodie was invented by Erelle when she began investigating the disappearance of Samira, a Belgian girl who decided to go to Syria to fight in the IS war against the West.

Erelle was trying to discover why French teenagers were being tempted and seduced by Islamic extremists but was not getting the information she needed from the safety of her Parisian office.

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When Bilel’s marriage proposal came in, Erelle took it as her ticket to Syria, into the world of IS and the jihadists that make up the organisation, and the possibility of gaining first-hand information on the seductive powers of Islamic extremism. (Readers are told early on that Erelle is the author’s nom de plumme, as she is facing a death threat for attempting to uncover the world of the jihadists.)

Through Mélodie’s Facebook chats and the occasional Skype conversation with Bilel (Erelle decided that she could not pull off being a 20-year-old innocent French girl without wearing the full hijab as a disguise), Erelle offers a very fleeting glimpse of how impressionable teens could be seduced into joining the fight for Islam.

With a backstory of not being able to practice Islam openly in front of her family, Mélodie asks about family, Islam, children and the recruitment of fellow jihadists, and Bilel answers all of her queries, each time intertwining religious (or propaganda slogans disguised as religion) beliefs with silver tongued romantic declarations: “Listen Mélodie. Among other things, it’s my job to recruit people, and I’m really good at my job. You can trust me. You’ll be really well taken care of here. You’ll be important. And if you agree to marry me, I’ll treat you like a queen.”

Interspersed between Mélodie’s chats with Bilel – which remain fascinating if only to comprehend how jihadists are recruited – and Erelle’s investigation into an extremist world are Erelle’s lengthy monologues about her feelings, personal circumstances, her need for nicotine and her constant justification of her actions. All of which paints a woman in conflict with herself and her surroundings, and which hinders the flow of her tale.

While she opened her book with Mélodie’s chats with Bilel, Erelle suddenly had Mélodie stop communicating with Bilel, which leaves readers wondering what else goes on in the recruitment process.

Erelle does not make any mention if she ever knew if Bilel was “courting” other European girls at the same time he was chatting with Mélodie.

Likewise, in the midst of informing readers about her IS investigation, Erelle veers off towards her personal life and self-justification, such as having to explain why she spent a whole night getting drunk with fellow journalists in an international hotel.

It is this need to explain herself that In The Skin Of A Jihadist moves dangerously close to whinge territory.

Her topic is fascinating, but unfortunately, Erelle’s execution of an extremist world and the people within fails to live up to its premise.

The book would have worked better if Erelle had edited out her personal feelings and justifications of her actions, and focused more on the rationale behind IS and the recruitment process.

Despite the negatives, In The Skin Of A Jihadist is an easy read, and it does offer a look into IS, if only fleetingly.

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