For most people, the attraction of Islamic State is difficult to understand but clearly their violent message is getting across to their followers. Nicolas Hénin is a French journalist who was taken hostage by the group for almost one year. He is trying to piece together the puzzle in his book ‘Jihad Academy’. Euronews reporter Isabelle Kumar met him in Paris.
Henin was held captive by ISIL militants from June 2013 and was released in April 2014. He was held with other Western hostages James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Alan Henning, David Haines who were all killed by the extremist group.
Death in Syria
Once handcuffed together for a week, Henin described American journalist James Foley as his “best cell mate”. He found the reaction to the gruesome beheading of Foley outrageous. “It’s not to take away from the tragedy of his death. I just don’t want it to be used to their (ISIL’s) advantage,” he told euronews. “I also find it outrageous that when James Foley was killed, that the world re-discovered Syria, and re-discovered the problem of jihad, and the challenges posed by Islamic State. Of course, James Foley was murdered but before he was killed, at that point in time, 200,000 people had been killed in the conflict in Syria, more than 150,000 in Iraq. We need to put it in perspective. Our lives don’t count more than theirs.”
Henin described life as a hostage as a span of experiences from trauma to boredom. Although by writing his book, he is trying to shed the label of being a former hostage.
“That’s the difficulty when you have such a traumatic experience, that nasty label is stuck on you, and that’s also the aim of my book, to get rid of this ex-hostage label. I find an authority as an observer, as a journalist, I am not an ex-hostage.”
Henin describes writing ‘Jihad Academy’, as a sort of release. In a professional capacity, coming away from captivity with nothing to report could have been a waste of ten months of his life. So he spent his time analysing what entices people to join ISIL, explaining that in order to fight the jihadist group one must first understand what motivates them.
“We have a lot of people who are lost souls, people who live in a sort of cultural desert and who replace this void with the idea of having a destiny, that they can achieve something, to take their lives in their hands and truly help.
“Many jihadists who go to Syria believe that they are going there to help. Afterwards, there is a moment which is a bit like when a fisherman tries to catch a fish, when he forces the hook into its mouth, because I think that quite quickly after they’ve arrived, they are hit by the reality of the situation, the reality of war and I think that they become brainwashed.”
He explains that it doesn’t take much to make someone into a jihadist. It’s a case of filling their heads with ‘a dozen Arabic words and some basic notions of Islam” which in fact have little to do with Islam. He also compares the motivations of jihadists to those who came from abroad to join the Spanish Civil War.
“I say the civil war in Spain because there’s this reaction to the horror of what is happening in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iraq, and a willingness to go there to defend the widow, or the orphan who are going to be massacred.”
The cinema of jihad and the Facebook generation
During his time in captivity, Henin came into contact with Mehdi Nemmouche. The suspected gunman in the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels was one of his kidnappers. Whilst talking with him, he realised that Nemmouche’s reasons for joining ISIL were more narcissistic than idealistic, describing his ideology as based more on French TV than the Quran. “He went to Syria to be famous, to be on TV. All of his references were from reality TV, entertainment, court room programmes about crime,” he explained.
ISIL is known for its sophisticated use of media from their production team to their social media offerings, they are well-versed in how to communicate their message. Henin explains that they speak the same ‘cultural language’.
“These are people who have seen the same films as us, who played the same video games as our kids, who have read the same books, they have been steeped in the same culture. These are the Twitter and Facebook generation, sharing the same culture, the same frames of reference. It’s not surprising that one of the main production companies who produce ISIL videos was created by a small group of German jihadists.”
Putting out the fire
More than 400 French citizens are believed to be fighting in Iraq and Syria. In the wake of the Paris attacks, the country has announced various measures to counter online recruitment. In November a new counter-terrorism law was adopted, allowing police to have more powers to act in cases of suspected jihadists. The new measures are some of the toughest in Europe, including the right to confiscate passports for up to six months if a person is suspected of wanting to travel to join jihadist groups. The UK is also considering tougher measures.
As each country attempts to cut off the supply of jihadists going to Syria and Iraq, questions are being raised about how to counter ISIL propaganda. Henin offers a stark warning to young people who are considering the journey.
“If you travel to Syria, you will be killing Muslims.”
For those who think they are going to battle Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he explained that many of the deaths of Islamic State militants came at the hands of another jihadist group, al-Nusra.
In his book he says that the West “won’t be able to counter the Islamist threat without extinguishing the fire that feeds it.” This, he says, is the responsibility of the international community. It must protect the civilians in Syria in any way it can, “using diplomatic means, and if necessary military means to protect civilians,” he added.
Asked about whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or the leader of ISIL is the bigger enemy, he said that – considering the numbers -Assad has killed far more people but that this doesn’t make one better or worse than the other, but he qualifies this by saying, “in any case the biggest criminal is clearly the (Syrian) regime.”