In the Skin of a Jihadist
By Anna Erelle
Harper Collins
Pages: 230
Price: Rs 828

In the Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Erelle (not the author’s real name) is a book about a young French journalist’s dangerous flirtations with the radical world of ISIS jihadis. In the book, she chronicles her experiences of pretending to be Mélodie — who is a fan of the Islamic State terrorist group — in order to understand how ISIS commanders entice youngsters into joining the terror outfit. She comes across a French-speaking ISIS commander via Skype. He claims to be close to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of ISIS. “Do you really love me, Mélodie murmurs, her voice childish and frail.” This one sentence at the beginning, and the cover, is enough to glue you in. The incident on which the book is based took place when the Islamic State had not exploded onto the global stage with the capture of Mosul. This story shocks you with how  someone rational can, in the pursuit of knowledge as to why and how young Europeans keep leaving to join ISIS, stumble onto a story too good to resist, and end up bringing down upon her own head the fury and (so far just) threats of a high ranking terrorist and by extension his organization.

It was a crazy experience for Anna, being both herself and Mélodie, akin to being in, deep undercover, but without the prior training and concurrent support that such fields often demand. The story keeps you engrossed. The (translated) writing is not genius but it is effective. It conveys Anna’s feelings of growing danger and terror of her situation.

“Bilel stared at Mélodie. His eyes were still accentuated with dark liner. They smoldered as he gazed at the young Mélodie, as if trying to cast a spell. Abu Bilel was diabolical. I examined his profile picture. He was rather good-looking. The sunning grammatical errors barely distracted from the force of his conviction. What had drawn him to radicalism?” Sprinkled throughout the book’s pages are passages that read like a romance novel meeting a adventure book.

The prose turns more abstemious and reasoned in the parts that are narrated by the author, unlike the ones by her alter ego. Contrasting to what the title suggests, the book does not offer much insight into what motivates today’s youth to join ISIS’ band of lunatics. What it does offer is an in-depth look at the determination of a journalist who is intent on literally flirting with death , away from the safety of her home in Paris. She then polishes it to sell to the masses of people interested in knowing about how the terror outfit operates.

In some places the prose is less than coherent. She incites curiosity about Abu Bilel’s motivations, and you hope for some solid content, but the author does not offer you much. She writes very little beyond a vague character description. The perplexity mirrors in oscillating mentions between Abu Bilel and Bilel, as though they were interchangeable. She admits early on in the book: “I’m a journalist, and though I’m keenly interested in geopolitics, I’m not an expert.” She writes in detail her experience being Mélodie, trying to mimick ISIS-struck teenagers and failed attempts to “use teen vocabulary”. When she is not Mélodie, the author reacts to her experiences chatting with Abu Bilel with bland commentary, a dab of genuinely solicitous manifestations, and outbursts that show she did not really have to pretend very hard to play a teenager.

The author creates a fictional Twitter account to “keep an eye on current events”. As her profile picture, she chooses a “cartoon image of Princess Jasmine from the Disney movie Aladdin”.   Is it the journalist or the ISIS fan that is playing with this Orientalist fantasy? For the most parts, you’ll have to weather through passages for the few bits of lucid commentary.

The book is a complicated cyber-espionage-pseudo romantic-investigation went horribly wrong. In parts, however, it is an easy  enough read. The translation happens to be rather drab. It plays on the strange and heady feelings of power that the author claims were “bestowed on her in the form of social media.

In the prevailing hacktivist culture, we can easily overlook the dark side, something which has been handled with such dexterity by Daesh or the ISIS. Swamping the internet with gruesome images of beheading, mass murders, stoning that is all part of a psychotic PR campaign run by this crazed group. Though the book offers some new knowledge into how jihadis like Abu Bilel lure in impressionable teenagers. ISIS has, she explains, commanders like Abu Bilel who are suave, well-dressed and mostly male representatives of the group; polyglots able to proselytize in many languages. They are nothing but predators who roam the web promising disaffected youth a “chance to be local heroes, to bring an end to their solitude and giving a meaning to their consumerist lives. And that the success of their campaign is proved by the number of westerners in Syria fighting on the side of the
Islamic State.

Anyone with access to media and the internet can figure out how serious a problem ISIS is. How their tactics have crossed boundaries of the horrifying into the satanic. Outsiders are drawn into their cause every day. What you don’t know much about is their terrifyingly effective recruitment network. The author narrates how like any other cult, they twist and turn religious texts to suit their purposes, how she was (to a large extent) manipulated like other vulnerable youths, male or female into joining their cause. “Because of the power which ISIS holds over the areas where it rules, quite often once their recruits are inside, they cannot get back out». The actual readable journalistic material in the book could’ve have been accommodated into half the book, or less. But, Erelle’s formula is selling well, based on readers who are seemingly thrilled to be reading something so current, elated by the idea that they too can slip “into the skin of a jihadist” from the comfort of

their home.

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