The type of writing that exists about jihadism in the West generally ranges from nauseating action-movie style jingoism to purely utilitarian analyses written for intelligence officials and policymakers. The reported pieces that exist tend to focus on one or two specific episodes, often in a purely correspondent manner, and if there is any meaningful big picture view of the conflict at all it is just tacked on in a few pages at the end. Most irritatingly these books almost invariably fail at the basic task of portraying all sides in the conflict as human beings; instead reducing the world to a battle between some well-developed "good guys" and a group of swarthy, sinister terrorists whose lives are ultimately a mystery.
This book is very different. Mostly, I suspect, because its author is not one of the usual white Westerners writing about the War on Terror. Souad Mekhennet had a working-class upbringing as the daughter of Muslim immigrants in Germany, before growing up to become one of the few Muslim journalists in the West writing about jihadism. This book is her memoir and traces back over much of the reporting she has done in her life, as well as her own background growing up as a traditional, culturally-rooted Muslim in Europe, a continent where many people consider people of her religion to be either irritants or threats. I found her personal story moving in part because I'm a journalist who writes about many of the same themes, but also because I know she is speaking for the experience of many people whose voices are never heard in the media.
The book starts with Mekhennet's early life in Germany and Morocco, tracing her experiences being raised in Europe and how she came to be involved in journalism as a young woman. It then moves to cover her reporting on the Iraq War, global jihadism and the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Her work really makes her a witness to history, placing her at the center of some of the biggest national security stories of the past few decades. Unlike many other reporters (and largely because of her background) she is deeply sourced among Islamists both in Europe and the Arab World, and even in Pakistan. Her sourcing allows her to get close to these people and give a holistic picture of who they are. In both good and bad ways she is able to humanize them and to provide a genuine picture of how they see the world and what motivates them. Many of the jihadists she knows show her a level of warmth that they undoubtedly would never show to a white Western man who had come to report on their movements; interlocutors that they would be far more likely to consider as either hostile or dishonest. Some of the jihadists Mekhennet interviews are driven by ideological fanaticism, while others are driven by moral anguish over instances of torture, oppression and general mistreatment. Oftentimes it is a mixture of both. But everyone is complicated, including the Iraqis whose children are killed by U.S. soldiers during the war and the 9/11 victims she meets who complain that the media had never informed them that so much anger had been building against their country in the Middle East.
There are no polemics in this book. To the contrary, there is a remarkable amount of humanity and a rare level of fairmindedness afforded to the experiences of both Easterners and Westerners. Given Mekhennet's experience of life straddling two worlds, she is able to depict both sides in the War on Terror as something beyond the one-dimensional caricatures that usually prevail. She is brave and honest in speaking about the reasons for radicalization, openly wondering whether the anger she felt as a teenager suffering racism in Germany would have made her vulnerable to the terrorist recruiters that exist today, a haunting thought that I believe many Western Muslims in their 30s and 40s share. In one very poignant passage, Mekhennet meets with a Belgium-raised Islamic State commander on the Turkish border, telling him that he "took the easy path out" in response to the fear and alienation that she also grew up with in Europe. He seems to get what she means, like a lot of people do.
The reporting in the book is thrilling, but what truly makes it great is the writer herself, who you come to respect for her intelligence and bravery but also for the aspects of her own story that she shares. Throughout all of the reporting, Mekhennet interweaves her personal life: her fears, anxieties and hopes for her future, amid the challenges of being a woman and a minority doing this type of work. Even as a successful journalist in the West she still hasn't escaped the suspicion of colleagues or intelligence agencies and the frustration and fear that this causes. You really get an understanding of where she is coming from, and I would argue that her personal story is an important part of the broader geopolitical phenomenon that she reports on.
This was a tour de force of a memoir, and certainly one of my favorite books on jihadism in recent years. It's one that I wish that all Westerners, and Americans in particular, would take the time to read.