Over the past few days, the remarkable story of Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German author who traveled to areas of Iraq and Syria held by the Islamic State, has captivated international media. Todenhöfer has received coverage from outlets such as CNN and the BBC, and he has been dubbed the "first western journalist to be given access to [Islamic State] areas in Syria in Iraq."
Todenhöfer's journey has certainly produced some fascinating insight into how the Islamic State operates. Notably, he says that, based on what he has seen, the Islamic State is stronger than the West believes and will be far harder to stop than it anticipates. But Todenhöfer has a complicated reputation in Germany, and the responses to his latest work haven't all been positive.
By Todenhöfer account, he traveled to the Islamic State's proclaimed "caliphate" because he hoped to write a book about the extremist group. "It’s difficult to uncover the truth without taking a risk," he explains on his Eeb site, noting that he had reached out to the Islamic State through a German jihadist to ask permission to film.
When the group responded and offered him "security" for the trip, he was not sure if he could trust the offer. In an interview with German website Tz.de, he said that he argued with his family about the trip for seven months. When he decided to go, his son came too to film and offer some protection.
The Islamic State has shown no fondness for journalists over the past year. A significant number of Western journalists have been held hostage by the group, and a number – including two Americans – have been killed by them. Few Western outlets have gained access to the area, and those that have have faced significant obstacles.
The New York Times, for example, reported from inside the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa, Syria, but withheld the reporter's name, apparently out of fear for that reporter's safety. Vice News' reporter Medyan Dairieh also reported from Raqqa for an impressive video series. As was the case with Todenhöfer's trip, Vice had permission from the Islamic State. “These are managed trips, so you are there with their permission,” Kevin Sutcliffe, Vice’s head of news programming in Europe, explained to the Huffington Post. “While they are, to some extent, keeping you safe ... you are also an interloper.”
Todenhöfer's visit appears to be remarkably broad (he traveled to both Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq). More remarkable still, he does not appear to have the back-up of a large news organization on his journey.
The German author certainly makes an unlikely war correspondent. For one thing, he's 74 years old, and he's had a long and varied career that has includes stints as a judge and a long period as a member of parliament for the center right Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). His official biography mentions a number of high profile international trips during this time, including a 1975 trip to Chile to meet with Augosto Pinochet, a meeting he says led to the release of more than 4,500 prisoners. He also traveled to Afghanistan several times during the Soviet war in the country, often embedding with the U.S.-supported Afghan mujahideen.
After retiring from parliament to take up an executive position at a media group, Todenhöfer returned to public politics after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. His Web site says he is now focused on the "relationship between the Western and the Muslim world," and he has published a number of books on the subject, and became a high-profile critic of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Todenhöfer has focused on the Syrian conflict for the past few years, and his previous endeavors there have proven controversial. In 2012, a televised interview with President Bashar al-Assad led to criticism among German media circles. Todenhöfer, who took an antiwar approach, said that the West was being unfair to Assad. “They said, ‘You speak to dictators,’ ” he told the New York Times. “I thought it was important that we listen to this guy, whether we hate him or not.”
The author's latest trip has also born criticism. "It is irresponsible to quote his work without mentioning that he was subject to the very strict list of ISIS 'rules for journalists' which *start* with swearing allegiance to the Islamic Caliphate," Sheera Frankel of Buzzfeed wrote in a Facebook post.
Todenhöfer's account of his trip does make clear that he was subject to a variety of different stipulations. "We were under surveillance by the secret service for most of the time and had to hand over our mobile phones and laptops," he writes. "Also, all of our pictures and photos were inspected at the end of the journey. ISIS deleted 9 out of approximately 800 photos to protect relatives of foreign fighters. That’s what censorship is."
Local journalists too are subject to similar rules when reporting on the Islamic State. And for some following the crisis in Syria and Iraq, the fanfare surrounding Todenhöfer's report seemed a little indulgent as Arab reporters, including Dairieh of Vice, have reported from land controlled by the Islamic State before. The hype led Karl Sharro, a London-based Lebanese blogger, to publish a biting satirical article – "An adoring profile of a Western journalist."