It was ten o’clock on a Friday night in April 2014.
I was sitting on my sofa in my one-bedroom Parisian apartment when a terrorist based in Syria contacted me on Facebook. I’d been studying European jihadists in the Islamic State and was interested in understanding what it was that made someone give up everything and brave death for this cause.
Like many journalists, I had a fictional Facebook account I’d created to keep an eye on current events. My profile picture was a cartoon image of Princess Jasmine from the Disney movieAladdin. I claimed to be in Toulouse, a city in southwestern France. My name on this account was Mélodie. Mélodie’s age: 20.
During my research, I came across many propaganda films on YouTube filled with images of torture and charred bodies laid out in the sun. The juvenile laughter accompanying these horrific scenes made the videos all the more unbearable.
That Friday night, I came across a video of a French jihadist who looked to be about 35. The video showed him taking inventory of the items inside his SUV. The man in the video wore military fatigues and Ray-Bans and called himself Abu Bilel. He claimed to be in Syria. The scene around him, a true no-man’s-land, didn’t contradict him. In the back of his car, his bulletproof vest sat beside a machine gun. I would later discover that Abu Bilel had spent the past 15 years waging jihad all over the world as a confidant of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.
Soon after I shared this video, my computer alerted me to three messages sent to “Mélodie’s” private inbox … all from Abu Bilel. “Are you thinking about coming to Syria?” he asked in one of them.
“Walaikum salaam. I didn’t think a jihadist would talk to me,” I replied. “Don’t you have better things to do? LOL.”
In my message, I told him I’d converted to Islam but didn’t offer any details. I deliberately included spelling mistakes and used a teen’s vocabulary. I waited for his reply, a knot in my stomach: I couldn’t believe this was happening.
“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. We should talk over Skype.”
I waited for his reply, a knot in my stomach: I couldn’t believe this was happening.
Skype was out of the question! I ignored his proposal and suggested we talk another time. Abu Bilel understood; he’d make himself available for Mélodie tomorrow whenever she wanted.
“You converted, so you should get ready for your hijrah [emigration]. I’ll take care of you, Mélodie.” He didn’t know anything about this girl, and he was already asking her to join him in the bloodiest country on earth.
The next time we spoke, Bilel asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?” “No, I don’t,” I said, speaking as Mélodie. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this with a man. It’sharam [forbidden]. My mother will be home from work soon. I have to hide my Koran and go to bed.”
“Soon you won’t have to hide anything, Insha’Allah [God willing]! I want to help you lead the life awaiting you here. Before you go to sleep, answer me something: Can I be your boyfriend?”
I logged off Facebook. We’d exchanged 120 messages in the space of two hours. That Monday, I rushed to the magazine where I freelance. My editor agreed that this was a unique opportunity, but he reminded me of the dangers. Urging caution, he assigned me a photographer, André. I would agree to Bilel’s request to meet over Skype, and André would take pictures.
To become Mélodie, I needed to look ten years younger and find a veil. Another editor lent me a hijab [veil] and a djellaba [long black dress]. I was glad to wear them. The idea of a terrorist becoming familiar with my face didn’t thrill me, especially not when the man in question could return to France, his home country, at any moment.
André arrived at my apartment that night around six o’clock. We had an hour to prepare before Bilel “got home from fighting” and contacted Mélodie. I pulled on Mélodie’s floor-length black djellaba over my jeans and sweater. I removed my rings and covered the small tattoo on my wrist with foundation, assuming Bilel wouldn’t appreciate such frivolousness.
It was time. I sat cross-legged on my sofa. André positioned himself in a blind spot behind the sofa. The Islamic State is brimming with counterespionage experts and hackers. It was safer if Bilel didn’t know my phone number, so Mélodie had her own. I’d also created a Skype account in her name.
The Skype ringtone sounded like a church bell. I took a moment to breathe, then clicked the button, and there he was. Bilel’s eyes smoldered as he gazed at the young Mélodie, as if trying to cast a spell. Bilel was Skyping from his car. He looked clean and well-groomed after his day on the front.
“Salaam alaikum, my sister,” he said.
I smiled. “It’s crazy to be talking to a mujahid in Syria. It’s like you have easier access to the Internet than I do in Toulouse!”
“Syria is amazing. We have everything here. Masha’Allah [God has willed it], you have to believe me: It’s paradise! A lot of women fantasize about us; we’re Allah’s warriors.”
“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. Tell me, do you wear your hijab every day?”
Mélodie recited what I’d heard from girls I’d met during my career who had secretly converted to Islam. “I dress normally in the morning. I say goodbye to my mom, and when I’m outside the house, I put on my djellaba and my veil.”
“I’m proud of you. You have a beautiful soul. And you’re very pretty on the outside too.” Bilel peered lecherously at Mélodie. Suddenly, men’s thick voices broke the mournful silence.
I dress normally in the morning. I say goodbye to my mom, and when I’m outside the house, I put on my djellaba and my veil.
“Don’t say anything!” Bilel ordered. “I don’t want anyone to see or hear you! You’re my jewel.” I listened to the conversation and could distinguish the voices of two other men. They greeted Bilel in Arabic, then switched to French. They laughed a lot, congratulating themselves for having “slaughtered them.”
The dried blood I saw on the concrete was evidence of the attack. ISIS’s black flags with white insignia floated in the distance. The other men seemed to treat Bilel with respect. Their way of politely addressing him suggested my contact was higher in the ranks than they were. A minute later, he said goodbye to his fellow fighters and spoke into the phone.
“Oh, you’re still there! And just as beautiful—”
“Who were they?”
“Fighters who came to say hello. Anyway, you’re not interested in all that. Tell me about you! What guided you to Allah’s path?”
I began to stammer—I hadn’t had time to invent a “real” life for Mélodie. “One of my cousins was Muslim, and I was fascinated by the inner peace that his religion gave him. He guided me to Islam,” I said.
“Does he know that you want to come to al-Sham?”
Bilel assumed that everything had been decided—Mélodie would soon arrive in Syria.
“I’m not sure that I want to go—”
“Listen, Mélodie. You’ll be well taken care of here. You’ll be important. And if you agree to marry me, I’ll treat you like a queen.”
Marry him?! I logged off Skype as a kind of survival reflex. Pulling the hijab down to my neck, I turned toward André, who looked as dumbfounded as I was.
How was I to respond to Bilel’s proposal? André suggested explaining that since Mélodie wasn’t married, she didn’t want to arrive in Syria alone. If she decided to go at all.
Bilel called back.
“My friend Yasmine is Muslim,” I said, changing the subject. “I could invite her to come with me, but she’s only 15.”
“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 mom is getting home.”
“I’ll be here tomorrow after the fighting, as usual, at seven.Insha’Allah… Good night, my baby.”
My baby? As soon as Abu Bilel announced his plan to marry Mélodie, her list of virtual friends grew. Girls began asking Mélodie for advice on the safest route to Syria. Some of the questions were both technical and strange: “Should I bring a lot of sanitary pads or can I find them there?”; “If I arrive in Syria without a husband, it’s probably not a good idea to draw attention to myself by bringing thong underwear; my future husband might think I’m immodest. But will I be able to find them there?”
I was bewildered by the mundane fixations of these girls who were signing up for death. How was I supposed to answer their questions? I wasted a lot of time playing along with Bilel’s game of seduction in order to gain his trust. No one, not even André, could comprehend the level of controlled schizophrenia that this exercise demanded. No matter what he said, Bilel was terrifying.
I was bewildered by the mundane fixations of these girls who were signing up for death.
“Oh, there are you are, my wife!” he said one night. “Good news. I spoke with the qadi [judge] in Raqqa [ISIS’s stronghold in Syria]. He’s looking forward to marrying us.”
Stunned, I didn’t know what to say. “What are weddings like there?”
“Actually, we’re already married.”
“I thought I’d already spoken enough about the idea of marriage with you. I asked you to marry me a while ago, and I talked about it with the judge, who drew up the papers. We’re officially married, my wife! Masha’Allah. You’re really mine now.”
It had been nearly a month. André feared that the longer we let Mélodie exist, the more I was at risk. I agreed with him. Together with my editors, I planned the investigation’s end. I had told Bilel that Yasmine and I would meet him in Syria. He instructed me to go to Amsterdam and then on to Istanbul. Once I was there, he would send further instructions. “You’re my jewel, and Raqqa is your palace. You’ll be treated like a princess,” he assured me.
It was true. I was really going to Istanbul, but André—not Yasmine—would accompany me. The plan was simple: Bilel had told me an older woman known as Mother would meet us there. André would surreptitiously capture Mother on film for the article. While she looked for Yasmine and Mélodie, André and I would continue on to Kilis, a city near the Syrian border. Turkey controlled it, and it would be safer than other places.
The story would end there, with a photograph of Mélodie looking out at the Syrian border from behind. The journalist would stop at the doors to hell, and Mélodie would step through them. We were finally wrapping this up. At least that’s what I thought. A few days later, I was in a tiny hotel room in Amsterdam when Bilel Skyped.
“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 café. He’d just finished “work.”
“Tell me about your trip. How did you pay for the tickets?”
“I stole my mom’s debit card.”
“You’re so strong, my wife! If you still have the debit card, feel free to buy me some stuff.”
What do you get for a man who talks about beheading people in one breath and how much he loves you in the next?
“What do you want?”
“Well, cologne! I love Égoïste by Chanel or something nice from Dior.”
“OK, baby. Can we talk about tomorrow? What is going to happen after we meet Mother?”
“Actually, nobody will be there to meet you.”
“But that wasn’t the plan, Bilel,” I said, my voice genuinely frayed with anxiety. “You were adamant—as was I—that a woman come to meet us. You told me we would be safe.”
“Listen to me,” he said, his tone hardening. “You’re going to shut up for a minute and let me speak. When you arrive at the airport in Istanbul, buy two one-way tickets for Urfa.”
Urfa? Urfa was infiltrated by the Islamic State. Going there was suicide.
“All I ask is that you respect what you’ve promised me.”
“You can’t talk to me like that! I’m the one who gives orders around here, not you. From now on, you’re going to shut up. Don’t you know who I am? I command a hundred soldiers every day. I haven’t even told you a quarter of the truth!”
When the conversation ended, I tore off the hijab. Everything was falling apart. I phoned my editor in chief, who gave me orders to wrap up this story. To put things in perspective, she reminded me that two French journalists sent to the Urfa region had just been freed after ten 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 they decided to return to France until better circumstances presented themselves.
Back home, my editors were realizing 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. A week later, the magazine published my article under a pseudonym. Out of fear that the terrorists could trace me, I moved out of my apartment and twice changed my phone number.
I stopped counting the number of statements I’ve given to various branches of the police when it reached 254. An antiterrorist judge also asked to hear my testimony after my real identity started appearing in a number of their files. According to those files, Bilel has three wives, ages 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.
I never had direct contact with Bilel again. But recently, a journalist friend called to tell me he’d learned there was a fatwa against me.
I found a video on the Web that showed me wearing Mélodie’s veil on my couch. It was taken, I imagine, by Bilel. There’s no audio, but it does include cartoon characters of a devil and bilingual, French and Arabic, subtitles. I’ve seen the video only once, but I remember every word:
“My brothers from around the world, I issue a fatwa against this impure person who has scorned the Almighty. If you see her anywhere on earth, follow Islamic law and kill her. Make sure she suffers a long and painful death. Whoever mocks Islam will pay for it in blood. She’s more impure than a dog. Rape, stone, and finish her. Insha’Allah.”
I don’t think I’ll watch it again.
From the book In The Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Erelle. Copyright © 2015 by Anna Erelle.