Inside IS: The Day I Looked Jihadi John In The Eye

"The way he’s looking at us, there’s nothing he’d like better than to cut off our heads."
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"The way he’s looking at us, there’s nothing he’d like better than to cut off our heads."
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Jürgen Todenhöfer is a German author, politician and former judge. His latest book “Ten Days in the Islamic State: My Journey in the Heart of Terror” is an enthralling and thought-provoking account of his trip to meet Islamic State (IS) on their own turf. As their IS “driver” chillingly points out, Todenhöfer and his two companions are the first non-Muslim journalists to do so “without having their heads cut off”. In this extract from the IS “capital” Raqqa, they realise that this “driver” is almost certainly the notorious IS assassin “Jihadi John”:

Abu Qatadah and the “driver” return. Both look extremely sullen. Have their proposals been rejected? The “driver” sits down again on the armchair across from me. “Mosul or Turkey. That’s it!” he snaps at me disagreeably. And he sticks by his original proposal in the matter of John Cantlie. I am completely mystified by his message and his sharp tone. Is he serious? He can’t talk to me like that. I stand up and tell him that very clearly. He needs to treat us with more respect. What’s gotten into him?

But the masked driver just repeats even more forcefully that he will not discuss the matter further. Either we travel to Mosul tomorrow or we go back to Turkey right now. He is very worked up. Abu Qatadah is too. The two of them must have received a severe telling off from their superiors. Until now, they cut the heads off journalists in the “Islamic State.” Now they let one in and he has the gall to lay down conditions. The masked man ups the stakes. There will be restrictions in Mosul as well. His tone is once again very surly and aggressive.

I’ve had enough. I tell him calmly but very firmly that the ban on leaving the apartment is completely unacceptable. Such a thing has never happened to me, not even when I visited the Taliban. “We aren’t the Taliban,” the masked man snarls back. The only part of his face that is visible is that one eye with the half-closed lid. Meanwhile, Frederic is staring at the Englishman with a horrified look on his face.

I take the invitation from the caliph out of my pocket and say: “You gave us a formal invitation filled with grand words. Instead, you’re treating us like prisoners. If we’re not allowed to leave this room, then we are your prisoners.”

“You are not prisoners,” the masked man yells at me in his rhythmical accent. “Prisoners don’t get to choose what they want for breakfast.”

That’s it. I am not going to put up with this any longer. “Change your tone right now,” I yell at him so loudly he jumps.

But there’s no point continuing a discussion with someone who is so furious all of a sudden. The way he’s looking at us, there’s nothing he’d like better than to cut off our heads. Where has this sudden aggression come from? Does the caliph’s guarantee of safety still mean anything at all?

We must try to extricate ourselves from this conflict without losing too much face and most importantly to return to a position where we can negotiate. So I tell the Englishman as calmly as I can that we are now going to return to our room to decide whether we wish to drive on to Mosul or turn back. We will let them know of our decision at the appointed time. Frederic is still staring at the masked man with a stunned expression. He has noticed something. Then we leave.

Malcolm is of the opinion that if we end the journey now, there’s a good chance IS will change their minds and see a greater advantage in kidnapping or beheading us. That would be no worse loss of face for them than if, on our return, we describe how IS’s word isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. It’s all too complicated for me. I don’t want to break off the journey because of a breach of etiquette. Apart from that, film and photos are also censored by Western states in war zones for security reasons. Therefore, we decide to continue with the journey but to insist on changing the tone of our exchanges.

After a while, Abu Qatadah comes into our room and asks if he can bring us anything. He obviously wants to smooth things over. Thank goodness. He’s going on a quick shopping trip and he could bring us back something to eat. Unfortunately, we can’t go with him. He doesn’t always understand some of his superiors’ decisions, he says, “but that’s just the way it is.”

When he leaves the room with Malcolm, Frederic sits down next to me, white as a sheet. He whispers almost inaudibly: “I’m not absolutely sure because I can’t check anything here without my computer. But I think the masked Englishman is Jihadi John. The half-closed eyes, the strongly curved hooked nose, the rhythmical, guttural British dialect. I listened to his voice in Munich half a dozen times. I will never forget it. What should we do now?”

My heart almost stops. The executioner who beheaded James Foley and others, too. He’s our chaperone? 

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Extract from Within the Heart of Terror by Jürgen Todenhöfer (Greystone Books, £17.99)