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Author poses as Islamic State recruit to understand the world of jihad

In the new book “In the Skin of a Jihadist,” a journalist goes undercover to understand the mind of a terrorist and his recruitment techniques. The author, whose identity has been hidden to protect her safety, speaks with Hari Sreenivasan in New York.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight, we bring you the latest edition to our NewsHour Bookshelf.

    We have lately heard a lot about Islamic State's ability to lure young people to their cause, leading young men to take up arms against infidels and young women to become brides to the fighters.

    A French reporter created a fake identity to better understand how the recruiting happened, but she got more than she bargained for. She writes about it in a new book called "In the Skin of a Jihadist."

    The name of the author on the book jacket is Anna Erelle, but that is a pseudonym to protect her identity and her safety.

    We conducted the interview without revealing her face.

    Hari Sreenivasan explains from New York.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It started with a share on Facebook of this video. A fake profile named Melodie had friended Abu Bilel. And he had just sent around the latest video about his guns, his SUV, the money and the glamorous life he had as a jihadist.

    Bilel was born in France, went to fight in jihads in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Chechnya, and now was a trusted lieutenant of the leader of the Islamic State. He had two jobs, to fight and to recruit.

    Within minutes, Abu Bilel saw that Melodie had shared his video and began private-messaging her on Facebook.

    ANNA ERELLE, Author, "In the Skin of a Jihadist": And he asked me if I was a Muslim and if I want to go to Syria, and what is my point of view about mujahideen.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Within three days, he was asking Melodie to marry him, before even seeing her face, knowing only that she was a convert to Islam.

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    He told me, no, it's not important. The only thing, it's like, you are a Muslim. I am too.

    And if we are a — if you want to be — to become a good Muslim, you cannot stay in your country. You have to come in Syria. Today, it's the only country when you can be a good Muslim. If not, if you stay in your Western country, you will burn in hell because you are not a good person, you are not a good Muslim. You have to come and help your brother here.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Thus began a month of catalogued conversations, a false courtship over Facebook and Skype.

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    Actually, he tried to teach me the religion, the Muslim religion. But I can tell he don't know very well the religion.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Bilel would denounce the Western world and capitalism with one breath, yet display vanity and material desires.

    And this is a guy who cared about his looks.

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    A lot. A lot. Like, he asked me to bring like perfume, like cologne, like expensive one with — a brand one.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, on the one hand, he rails against capitalism in the West. On the other hand, he wants you to buy him expensive cologne.

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    Yes. Exactly. That's exactly the point, because, for me, it's really hypocritical. There is a — it's full of hypocrisy, because Bilel is capitalist.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The daily interactions becomes what the author called a controlled schizophrenia.

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    At the beginning, I told myself, OK, there is two persons. There is me and my character, Melodie, but how many real Melodie exists and will maybe go to Syria?

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The cases of the real Melodies, girls who flee the West to join ISIS and other jihadis, have been documented in Europe and even in the United States.

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    I think a lot about that. And I think when it will be finished, when they will — the teenager, they will understand that it's not a game, it's not a cool stuff to do, it's a hell, and once you enter, you cannot go out.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Unlike some of those girls, the reporter and her team got out before going to Syria.

    But the publication of the story in a major French magazine last year has meant death threats to colleagues at the magazine and a fatwa, a religious edict, issued against the author, requesting her death be slow and painful.

    Do you fear for your safety?

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    Not today, but I'm very concerned for the future, because, for the moment, there is bodyguard with me. And I have a lot of angels, like really good people who are watching me.

    But maybe, in one month, in six months or later, I will be an easy target. So I'm really afraid about that, yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is this all worth it?

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    For me, yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Why?

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    Because that's my job, to know what people don't know and to understand.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This all started with a guy showing off guns and his car?

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    Exactly. And now this man is dead, and now some — a lot of fighters want me dead, too. And, yes, like you said, it just started about one video.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Well, thank you very much for sitting down with us.

  • ANNA ERELLE:

    Thank you very much.

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