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‘They want to win and they are ready to die’: Lessons from 10 days with the Islamic State

December 24, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
German author Jürgen Todenhöfer spent 10 days with Islamic State group fighters inside Syria and Iraq after securing a safety guarantee from its leadership. He tells Gwen Ifill what he saw and what he thinks about the militant group’s capability.

GWEN IFILL: The American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group suffered a blow earlier today.

U.S. Central Command issued a statement saying that a Jordanian F-16 warplane crashed in Northern Syria. The jet’s pilot was apprehended by Islamic State fighters. It’s the first time a coalition service member has fallen into the jihadist group’s hands.

Apart from its high-profile slayings of American journalists and foreign aid workers, brutality, and rapid land grabs in Iraq and Syria, very little is known about the organization also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Tonight, we hear from one Westerner who just spent 10 days inside Islamic State territory and lived to tell about it.

German author, activist, and former politician Jurgen Todenhofer did the seemingly impossible. After months of negotiating over Skype, he won a written security guarantee from Islamic State forces, granting safe passage through their territory, so he could research an upcoming book.

Todenhofer and his son entered through a border crossing in Turkey and were taken to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s seat of power, and then to the Iraqi city of Mosul. They were tightly supervised, but allowed to shoot interviews with Islamic State fighters and even prisoners.

MAN: What did they tell you?  What will happen to you?  Will you be free one day?

MAN (through interpreter): They said, your government and you are prisoners of the Islamic State. And that’s what they said. They didn’t say we will kill you or slaughter you.

GWEN IFILL: The writer also reported seeing low-flying U.S. aircraft. He left Islamic State territory a few days ago and is now back in Germany.

I spoke to Jurgen Todenhofer earlier today.

Mr. Todenhofer, thank you for joining us.

I want to start by asking you why you decided to go behind the lines with Islamic State forces.

JURGEN TODENHOFER, Author: Because I started to write a book about ISIS at the beginning of the year.

And after some months, I realized that there was no real authentic information. And, usually, when I write a book about Afghanistan, I go to Karzai, the president, Karzai, and I went to the Taliban, the leaders of the Taliban.

And I went to Iraq. I met the government. And I met the Iraqi resistance. I spent seven days with them. So it’s my normal strategy when I write something that I speak to both sides.

GWEN IFILL: You didn’t go by yourself. You went with your son. And what I’m curious about was how you got in. Who do you call to get behind the force — the lines with ISIS forces?

JURGEN TODENHOFER: I called — I wrote to around about 80 German jihadists which were on Facebook.

I got about 15 answers. And with these 15 people, I started Skype conversations seven months ago. And, at the end, two were interesting. And with these two people, I Skyped maybe 20 hours altogether. And we had long discussions about their brutality, about their religion, and we had also long discussions about a guarantee, because I said I would only come to the country if I would get a clear guarantee.

And I got a guarantee from the office of the caliph. The problem was only that it wasn’t completely sure if the guarantee was really given by the office of the caliph. I couldn’t prove it. So the discussions continued. And at the end, I had the impression that the guarantee was correct. And I started.

GWEN IFILL: So you kind of took a risk that this was genuine.

Did you have to make any pledges of allegiance to the caliphate in order to gain access?

JURGEN TODENHOFER: No, not one word, one positive word.

They knew that I had written several times very hard and critical articles against I.S. They knew that I had met several times President Assad. They knew all that. And I told them. I said, you know, you have read what I have said about you.

And they said, we don’t care about your personal opinion.

GWEN IFILL: So, what were your impressions about how strong ISIS is?  There is some debate here and around the world about the scope of the Islamic State forces, whether it functions as a government, whether it has a justice system and what its ultimate goal is. What impressions did you take away?

JURGEN TODENHOFER: I got the impression that I.S. is much stronger than our Western politicians think.

I have met the Taliban several times, their leaders. I was in the Algerian war. I met the Front Liberal — National Liberation, which knocked down the French. I have seen very, very strong guerrilla troops.

But I think I.S. is the strongest I met, because they have an which is incredible. And they think, they believe that they have a historical mission. And this mission is to destroy all the religions besides the three  religions, besides the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims, the Muslims in I.S. style, which means to destroy all the Muslims which are not — who are not democratic.

A Muslim who is democratic has, as they told me, to be killed because he puts laws made by man above laws made by God. And if they make these beheadings, they don’t have the feeling that they do something bad. They think, yes, we do it. It is necessary.

GWEN IFILL: There is much conversation as well about the influx of foreign fighters from the United States and other places. Did you see evidence of that?

JURGEN TODENHOFER: I think the foreign fighters play, especially in Syria, a very important role in Syria; 70 percent of the fighters are foreigners.

And, in Iraq, 30 percent are foreign fighters. And these foreign fighters are enthusiastic too. I was — I spent the two last days of my stay in a kind of recruitment house. It’s the first house where the people from Europe or from the United States arrive. And I met French people.

I met U.K. people. But I met also Americans. I met Americans from New Jersey. I met people from the Caribbean who had just passed their law exam and who prefer to fight in the Islamic State, instead of being a successful lawyer.

And every day, more than 50 people arrived only in this recruitment center. And they have several. So they can lose a hundred men in one day. It doesn’t matter.

GWEN IFILL: You spent time in Iraq and in Syria, in Raqqa and in Mosul. Was there a difference in what you saw in those two places?

JURGEN TODENHOFER: Here, I only can give an impression.

I had the impression that, in Mosul, their support is stronger, because in Mosul now, you have only Sunnis, because the Shias, the Yazidis and the Christians have been killed or forced to flee, and that in Raqqa, Bashar al-Assad is still at least as strong as I.S.

That is what I.S. fighters told me. And Assad is working also with a trick. He is still playing — paying salaries to his people in Raqqa and it seems to work. So Raqqa — the situation in Raqqa is not very clear.

GWEN IFILL: How does I.S. compare, in your impression, to al-Qaida?

JURGEN TODENHOFER: Al-Qaida is a non — an empty shell beside I.S. I.S. is much stronger. There is no comparison.

Al-Qaida has never been as strong, even in the times of Osama bin Laden, has never been as strong as al-Baghdadi. And even if this al-Baghdadi, this so caliph will die, the next one will come, because they have — they think that they have this historical mission. And they see that the West doesn’t have a successful strategy. There is no strategy.

You cannot bomb, you cannot knock down these 5,000 fighters, I.S. fighters in Mosul in a city of three million inhabitants, residents, because they don’t live in one apartment or in one house or in two houses or five houses. They live in different apartments, in every apartment, one or two. They don’t stick together.

So you cannot bombard the whole city of Mosul just to fight down 5,000 fighters. And if you send your troops, even your best troops, I think they would have very little chances to fight in the guerrilla war in a big city, because an American soldier, even your best soldier, the Marines or special forces, they want to come home. They want to survive. But these people want to die. They want to win and they are ready to die.

GWEN IFILL: For many Americans, their only exposure to ISIS is what they do to Western hostages. How did you get out?  How were you not taken hostage and killed?

JURGEN TODENHOFER: I had this guarantee.

And the guarantee of the caliph is the most important document that you can have in this country. I had to fear, I think, much more the bombardments by the Syrians and also by Americans. Some Americans’ airplanes sometimes have been very, very low.

And when our driver, who was a Secret Service guy, was driving between Raqqa and Mosul, he was always watching through the window to see if American drones were following us. So, I think my risk to be beheaded wasn’t too high. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone.

GWEN IFILL: Jurgen Todenhofer, thank you so much for joining us and telling us your story.

JURGEN TODENHOFER: Thank you very much.