It was 10 o’clock on a Friday night in spring 2014 and I was sitting on the sofa in my one-bed Paris apartment when I received a message from a French terrorist based in Syria: “Salaam alaikum, sister. I see you watched my video. It’s gone viral – crazy! Are you Muslim? What do you think about mujahideen?”
A journalist, I had been writing about European jihadis in Islamic State for about a year. I created a social media account, using the name Mélodie, to investigate why European teenagers were attracted to Islamic extremism.
I spent hours scanning feeds filled with descriptions of gruesome plans. I had spent that night on my couch, flicking from account to account, when I came across a video of a French jihadi who looked about 35. He wore military fatigues and called himself Abu Bilel. He claimed to be in Syria.
I would later learn that he had spent the past 15 years waging jihad all over the world. But for the moment, I knew nothing of the bellicose man on my screen, proudly unveiling the contents of his SUV glove box: a thick stack of Syrian pounds, candy, a knife. He removed his reflective Ray-Bans, revealing darkly lined, black eyes. I knew that Afghan soldiers wore kohl around their eyes. Still, seeing a terrorist with eyes made up like my own was surprising. He was good-looking. He spoke perfect French, with what to me sounded like a very slight Algerian accent. He smiled broadly as he beckoned viewers and called for hijrah: leaving a land of unbelievers to join an Islamist country.
I usually kept a low profile on my account. I didn’t preach; I simply posted links to articles or videos such as this one. My profile picture was a cartoon image of Princess Jasmine from the Disney movie Aladdin. I tended to change my profile location depending on what story I was working on. Now I claimed to be in Toulouse. I shared the video. Soon afterwards, my computer alerted me to three messages sent to Mélodie’s private inbox from Abu Bilel. “Last question,” he wrote, “are you thinking about coming to Syria?”
“Walaikum salaam,” I wrote. “I didn’t think a jihadi would talk to me. Don’t you have better things to do? LOL.” In reply to his question about mujahideen, I wrote: “I’m not prejudiced against fighters. Anyway, it depends on the person.”
I also told him I had converted to Islam, but didn’t offer any details. I deliberately included spelling mistakes, and tried to use teen vocabulary. I waited for his reply with a knot in my stomach. This seemed too big to be true. I had interviewed mujahideen before, but never anyone over 20, and never anyone who expressed anything beyond the official propaganda.
“Of course I have a lot of things to do! But here it’s 11 o’clock at night and the fighters are finished for the day. Do you have any questions about the video you shared? I can tell you about everything going on in Syria – the only real truth: Allah’s truth. We should talk over Skype. I’ll give you my username.”
Skype was out of the question. I suggested we talk another time. Bilel understood; he’d make himself available for Mélodie tomorrow. “You converted, so… you should get ready for your hijrah. I’ll take care of you, Mélodie.”
Bilel knew nothing about this girl and already he was asking her to join him. I was disgusted. Going after a girl like Mélodie was so easy: I’d met a thousand girls like her, with limited education and guidance. They were vulnerable.
I wanted to understand how European children were falling for this propaganda, and to grasp the mindset of soldiers who spent their days torturing, stealing, raping, killing, and their nights staring into their computers and bragging. Perhaps this man would give me an insight. For now, however, it was getting late, and my boyfriend, Milan, was due to come round. I called to tell him I wanted to spend the night at his apartment instead. I didn’t tell him how I’d spent the evening, only that I wanted to sleep next to him.
That Monday, I rushed to the magazine where I often do freelance work, eager to discuss my lead with one of the editors. I had forwarded him the video of Bilel showing off the contents of his car. He was stunned by how easily contact had been established. He agreed that this was an opportunity, but reminded me that pursuing this could be dangerous. He assigned me a photographer, André. We’d worked together for years and we made a good team. I would agree to Bilel’s request to meet over Skype, and André would take pictures.
I needed to look 10 years younger, find a veil, and somehow slip into the skin of a 20-year-old woman. Another editor, a former reporter who would also be supervising my investigation, lent me a hijab and a black dress – a kind of djellaba. I was glad to wear the veil. The idea of a terrorist becoming familiar with my face didn’t thrill me, especially not when he might return to France, his home country, at any moment.
André arrived at my apartment around 6pm. It was one hour later in Syria. That gave us time to prepare before Bilel came online. We looked for the best angle from which to take pictures of the computer screen and keep me as indistinct as possible. We had strict orders to prioritise our safety above all else.
I pulled Mélodie’s floor-length djellaba over my jeans and sweater. When I returned to the living room, André burst out laughing. “It’s supposed to cover more of your forehead,” he said, mocking me. He helped me readjust the hijab so it covered every strand of hair and showed only the oval of the face. I removed my rings and covered the tattoo on my wrist with foundation. Bilel was already logged on to Facebook and waiting for Mélodie.
“Are you there?” he asked impatiently.
“Are we meeting on Skype?”
“Sorry: salaam alaikum… 🙂 You there???”
It was time. I sat cross-legged on my sofa. It had a high back, which hid most of my apartment and any distinctive features from the camera. André had also removed a photograph from the wall. He positioned himself in a blind spot behind the sofa. My smartphone was already recording, and I had another prepaid phone, which would be Mélodie’s. I’d also created a new Skype account in her name. From a YouTube video, I’d worked out how to scramble the IP address.
The Skype ringtone sounded like a church bell. I took a moment to breathe, then I clicked the button, and there he was. Bilel stared at Mélodie. His eyes were still accentuated with dark liner. He appeared to be Skyping from his car, using a smartphone. He looked clean, even well-groomed. He was a proud man, his shoulders pulled back and his chin thrust forward, but I sensed he was nervous. After what felt like an eternity, he finally broke the silence: “Salaam alaikum, my sister.”
I made my voice as tiny, sweet and bright as I could, considering I’d smoked like a chimney for 15 years. And I smiled. “It’s crazy to be talking to a mujahid in Syria,” Mélodie said, impressed. “It’s like you have easier access to the internet than I do in Toulouse! I share the computer with my sister, and my mum takes it away from us a lot. Even your phone is newer than mine.” I was giving Mélodie a plausible excuse for future unavailability. She lived with her family, she couldn’t always honour her engagements.
“Syria is amazing,” Bilel said. “We have everything here. Masha’Allah, you have to believe me: it’s paradise! A lot of women fantasise about us; we’re Allah’s warriors,” he said.
“But every day people die in your paradise…”
“That’s true, and every day I fight to stop the killing. Here the enemy is the devil. You have no idea. The enemy steals from and kills poor Syrians. He rapes women, too. He’s attacking us, and we’re defending peace.”
“Is the enemy the president of Syria?”
“Among others. We have many adversaries.”
In addition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he mentioned the al-Nusra Front (an armed branch of al-Qaida), Syrians and all those he considered infidels. “Tell me,” Bilel said, “do you wear your hijab every day?”
Mélodie recited what I’d heard from the girls I’d met during my research who had secretly converted to Islam. “I dress normally in the morning. I say goodbye to my mum, and when I’m outside the house, I put on my djellaba and my veil.”
“Good. I’m proud of you. What you’re doing is really brave. You have a beautiful soul. And you’re very pretty on the outside, too.”
Bilel peered lecherously at Mélodie. She asked him to show her his surroundings. He claimed to be near Aleppo. In reality, he was probably several miles from the Isis stronghold of Raqqa.
He got out of his car and his smartphone showed images of a devastated Syria. Not a person in sight. It was about 9pm there, and it was absolutely silent. Suddenly, men’s thick voices broke the silence.
“Don’t say anything!” Bilel ordered. “I don’t want anyone to see or hear you! You’re my jewel; you’re pure. OK? Do you understand?”
Mélodie said she understood. I listened to the conversation. I was able to distinguish the voices of two other men. They greeted each other in Arabic, then French, which sounded like their mother tongue. They laughed, congratulating themselves for having “slaughtered them”.
“Salaam alaikum. What’s up?” one man asked. “Are you putting in overtime or something?”
“I’m on the lookout, brother, lookout duty … nothing special. Nothing happening here. This area is all cleared out. You know that.”
The dried blood I could see on the concrete was evidence of a recent attack. Isis’s black flags with white insignia floated in the distance. I listened to Bilel talk about a variety of issues, including his impatience for the arrival of his “American cargo” and “chocolate bars”.
The other men were quick to congratulate Bilel. The exchange was short, but their way of addressing him suggested he was higher in the ranks than they were. A minute later, he said goodbye to his fellow fighters and spoke into the phone, worried Mélodie might have hung up: “Oh, you’re still there! And just as beautiful.”
I quizzed him about where he was and what he had done. “You ask too many questions,” he said. “Tell me about you! What guided you to Allah’s path?”
I was dying for a cigarette. I hadn’t had time to invent a history for Mélodie. I stammered, “One of my cousins was Muslim, and I was fascinated by the inner peace that his religion gave him.”
“Does he know you want to come to al-Sham?”
Bilel assumed that everything had been decided. For him, Mélodie would soon arrive in Syria. “I’m not sure that I want to go,” I said.
“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.”
I logged off Skype as a kind of survival reflex. Pulling the hijab down to my neck, I turned towards André, who looked dumbfounded. We stared at each other. How was I to respond? André suggested explaining that Mélodie didn’t want to arrive in Syria alone – if she decided to go at all. André held out a cigarette and I took a drag. Bilel was calling again. I disabled the video connection. Bilel could continue his conversation with Mélodie, but he wouldn’t be able to see her. It felt as if his face had invaded every corner of the room, and I didn’t want to see it any more.
“My friend Yasmine is Muslim,” I said, changing the subject, “and she complains about not being able to practise her religion in Toulouse. I could invite her to come with me, but I’m not sure if she’s allowed, since she’s a minor.”
“Of course she can come!”
“She’s only 15.”
“I fight for sharia law every day. Here, women are supposed to get married when they turn 14. If Yasmine comes, I’ll find her a good man.”
Yasmine didn’t exist, but I wondered how many real Yasmines were being lured at that very moment by men like Bilel. “Bilel, I have to hang up. My mum is getting home.”
“I’ll be here tomorrow, after the fighting, at seven. Inshallah … Good night, my baby.”
I logged off. André and I were both surprised at how rapidly everything had unfolded.
Every morning that week, I awoke to find several affectionate messages from Bilel, all beginning with “my baby”. I received more from him than from my boyfriend. Over the next few weeks, Abu Bilel became a full-time job. During the day, I fact-checked his claims at the office. At night, my avatar took over, conversing with him over Skype and coaxing out new information, verifying it by tracking the latest battles online.
I wasted a lot of time playing along with Bilel’s game of seduction in order to gain his trust. By now, I had a good sense of the ways he recruited young Muslims, but wanted to know more about how Isis worked. My cover prevented me from asking direct questions, but I used Mélodie’s “fascination” with the cause to probe him for details. Sometimes, I was so shocked by Bilel’s words that I had to disconnect, but as I grew accustomed to these exchanges, that became less necessary. As we spoke more and more, I felt as if Mélodie became closer to Bilel, who spoke of their “marriage”. No one could understand the level of stress that this double life demanded.
I carried Melodie’s outfit and phone with me at all times, in case a message came through and I needed to speak to Bilel. I even found myself in a bikini by a swimming pool, talking to Bilel on the phone as Mélodie, and reassuring him I was surrounded by women and was covered up. He badgered Mélodie every day on Skype and Facebook. At one point he was without internet access, and instead sent a tender text message at 6am every morning: “Have a good day, baby. Think of me. I miss you.” My friends and co-workers started asking if I was getting too involved. My boyfriend didn’t want to know too much, but when he came home and found me in Mélodie’s garb, on Skype to Bilel, I began to feel as if I was having an affair. Milan wanted me to be safe, but he didn’t want to know any more details, unless I had to travel. And that suited me.
Meanwhile, Mélodie’s list of virtual friends grew. Her recent posts on Facebook calling for “humanitarian” jihad elicited new friend requests and private messages. Girls began asking Mélodie for advice on the safest route to al-Sham. There were strange questions: “Should I bring a lot of sanitary pads, or can I find them there?” “Will I be able to find thong underwear there?” I didn’t want to reply, but where I felt girls were planning imminent departure, I discouraged them.
It had been nearly a month. André feared that the longer we let Mélodie exist, the more I was at risk. “Until we put an end to this,” he said, “you’re always going to want more information.” I agreed with him. Of course, I hated Bilel and everything he stood for. I wanted him out of my life; but it was hard to stop, because I felt the story was so strong. I’d put so much of myself into it that I knew my curiosity had become unhealthy.
Together with my editors, I planned the investigation’s denouement. I had told Bilel that Yasmine and I would meet him in Syria. He gave me instructions: we should go to Amsterdam and then on to Istanbul, where we would pick up a prepaid phone. Once Mélodie had made contact with Bilel there, he would send details.
I really was going, but a photographer – not Yasmine – would accompany me. Bilel had told me an older woman was to meet us there. Our photographer would capture her on film. We would continue on to Kilis, a Turkish city near the Syrian border. The story would end there, with a photograph of Mélodie, from behind, looking out at the border. We were finally wrapping this up. At least, that’s what I thought.
A few days later, I was in a stuffy hotel room in Amsterdam with Charly, another photographer. A video call from Bilel came in. “Salaam alaikum, my darling, are you really in Amsterdam? I can’t believe it. You’ll be here soon. I’m the happiest man on Earth. I love you, my wife.”
I’d never seen him look so happy. Bilel was alone in an internet cafe.
“Yes, sweetheart, I’m here with Yasmine. We’re flying to Istanbul tomorrow. But we have to be careful; it’s not safe here. Tell me what to do.”
As usual, Bilel was only half listening. “You’re so pretty!” he said. “Tell me about your trip. How did you pay for your tickets?”
“I stole my mum’s debit card and bought two tickets online. We brought our passports, and here we are … Can we talk about tomorrow? Yasmine is a little stressed out and she’d feel a lot better if she knew what was going to happen next.”
“Oh, OK. Let me explain. When you arrive in Istanbul, you need to buy another phone. Throw away the one you got in Amsterdam. And be sure to pay in cash, not with your mum’s card. Otherwise, the cops will be able to trace you.”
“OK. Where will the contact be waiting?”
“Actually, nobody will be there to meet you. You’ll need to buy two tickets for a flight across the country; driving would take too long.”
“What do you mean, nobody will be there when we arrive? You promised!”
This wasn’t the plan.
“I know, but it’ll be OK. You’re a big girl, aren’t you, my wife? Dozens of Europeans make this trip every week. You can do this, my lioness.”
“But that wasn’t the plan, Bilel,” I said, my voice frayed with genuine anxiety. “We’ve gone over this many times. You were adamant – as was I – that a woman would come to meet us. You told me we would be safe. How many times have you told me nothing is more important than my safety?”
“Listen to me,” he said, his tone hardening. “You’re going to shut up for a minute and let me speak. It’ll be a snap. When you arrive at the airport in Istanbul, buy two one-way tickets for Urfa.”
Urfa? Going there was suicide. Isis was active there.
“I think you’re being unreasonably hard on me,” Mélodie said. “All I ask is that you respect what you’ve been promising me … At the first sign of difficulty, you abandon me. That’s just great.”
Bilel’s tone changed. I’d never seen him like this before. “Do you think I’m an idiot? From now on, you’re going to shut up. I’m part of a terrorist organisation. You can’t talk to me like that. Don’t you know who I am? I command 100 soldiers every day. I haven’t even told you a quarter of the truth. I’m wanted internationally; that’s why I can’t even go to our cities in Turkey. I can only travel to Iraq. I’m 38, and you and your friend can’t bring me down. You’d better tread lightly.”
The conversation came to an abrupt end. I tore off the hijab and rose to my feet. I called my editor-in-chief and explained. She told me that the story had to end here. Urfa was too big a risk. Two French journalists sent to the region by a radio station had just been freed after 10 months of captivity at the hands of Isis. The next morning, we flew home.
Mélodie sent Bilel a Skype message from the airport, informing him that a “strange” man had questioned the girls. Yasmine and Mélodie felt they were being watched, and had decided to return to France. Mélodie would make the trip alone, but for now she didn’t want to endanger her man or his brigade. She would lie low for a while in Toulouse. Given the situation, that was the best solution for everyone.
Back at home, my editors were realising just how much information I had: Bilel had revealed many details about the structure of Isis, and the way new recruits were treated. I began writing. They delayed publication while we got legal advice.
I hadn’t checked Mélodie’s accounts for 24 hours. I plugged in all my devices. The Dutch phone had been bombarded with messages. One line stood out: “Where are you, you little bitch? I swear to Allah, you’re going to pay!”
Enough. I deactivated my avatar’s virtual existence, keeping only her Skype profile. Mélodie sent a final message, apologising, so that her sudden disappearance wouldn’t arouse suspicion.
I had no intention of getting back in touch with him, but I hoped to curb his anger. The more Mélodie showed remorse, the easier it would be for Bilel to move on. After all, he had more important things to do. Isis was preparing its assault on Iraq. Almost two months to the day, it would seize Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city.
A week later, the magazine sent my article to press, under a pseudonym. For me, though, that was only the beginning. The authorities, fearing the terrorists could trace my address and my identity, have twice asked me to change my phone number. I don’t live in my apartment any more. For my safety, I can no longer report on Isis and its networks. Drastic safety measures have been implemented at my workplaces.
The authorities asked me to keep Mélodie’s Skype account open for ongoing investigations, and to keep an eye on threats toward me. I don’t check it very often. Sometimes, when I do, I’m greeted by terrifying messages. They started when someone claiming to be Bilel’s wife began sending intimidating monologues filled with insults.
I stopped counting the number of statements I’ve given to various branches of the police when it reached 254. An anti-terrorist judge asked to hear my testimony after my real identity started appearing in a number of their files. At one point, news came that Bilel had been killed, but today, multiple branches of the police have classified him as alive. They have a thick file on him. He’d committed a number of crimes in France before leaving for Syria, from theft to armed robbery. In 2003, he became an active jihadi, in the battle against the US invasion of Iraq. That’s when he met Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to whom he remained close. Between 2009 and 2013, after long trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya (at the moment of Gaddafi’s fall), he returned home to Roubaix in France without anybody’s knowledge. He reappeared on the radar in late 2013, when he was spotted in Turkey. He has three wives, aged 20, 28 and 39. They’re all with him in Syria. He is the father of at least three boys under the age of 13. The two eldest are already fighting on the front in Syria.
Recently, a journalist friend called to tell me he’d learned from a reliable source that there was a fatwa against me. I spent hours searching the web. After a while, I found a video about me. It shows me wearing Mélodie’s veil on my couch. There’s no audio, but it does include cartoon characters of a devil and French and Arabic subtitles. I’ve seen the video only once, but I remember every word. I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again.
- Some names have been changed. Anna Erelle is a pseudonym.
This is an edited extract from In The Skin Of A Jihadist, by Anna Erelle, published by Harper Collins next week in ebook and on 4 June at £12.99 in paperback. Buy it for £9.99 from bookshop.theguardian.com.