Graeme Wood is a correspondent for the Atlantic.
The question “why do they hate us?” has been asked, usually in headline form, after every major jihadist attack in the past two decades. Fareed Zakaria posed it on the cover of Newsweek after Sept. 11, 2001, and again, about the Islamic State, on a CNN special one year ago. Politico ran it as a headline after the Brussels attack in March 2016. One would think that the genre reached its natural conclusion last July, when the Islamic State’s magazine, Dabiq, published its own entry — “Why We Fight You & Why We Hate You” — answering the question authoritatively, like Columbo in the minutes before the credits roll. But the question persists, and the London attacks keep it current.
The latest attempted answer is “I Was Told to Come Alone,” a memoir by Washington Post national security correspondent Souad Mekhennet. In late 2002, Mekhennet met Maureen Fanning, widow of a firefighter killed on 9/11, who asked a version of the familiar question. Mekhennet “stammered something about Western foreign policy being unpopular in the Arab world.” Her book is an acknowledgment of the poverty of her initial answer and an attempt to give Fanning and others a more satisfying one, after 15 years on the jihadism beat.
One could hardly imagine a more suited writer to examine the possible answers. Mekhennet appears to have been assembled in a Frankenstein-like lab, perhaps in a basement at Columbia’s journalism school. She is, first and foremost, a brave, resourceful, canny and tireless reporter. Additionally, she is Muslim (a fact that endears her to some sources) and a woman (which endears her to some of those same sources and others). By nationality and birth, she is German, with a Moroccan Sunni father and a Turkish Shiite mother, and she speaks English, German, French and Arabic. Jihadism in the past five years has been principally a European and Arab story, and Mekhennet is geographically, linguistically and personally poised to tell it.
Most of her memoir is less about jihad than about the process of reporting it. She spends a great deal of time as reporters do — waiting for sources to call back, puzzling over whom to trust, haggling with editors about when to publish and when to hold out for more confirmation. On several occasions, the calls she gets are anonymous tips about imminent danger to her own life, and whether jihadists or hostile governments intend to kidnap, torture or rape her. (They don’t. But the memory of Daniel Pearl, the murdered South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, is a constant presence in these pages.) Journalists will admire her. Readers unfamiliar with the painstaking and unglamorous process of newsgathering may also admire her, but they will find their alternative career choices validated by this account.
The jihadists, when she finds them, are vividly and humanely portrayed. She wheedles her way into interviews with al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters and sympathizers in Algeria, Jordan and Lebanon, and in Germany she briefly but memorably meets the tattooed rapper Deso Dogg (real name: Denis Cuspert), now famous in Syria as the only Islamic State fighter to have opened for the American rapper DMX. Another jihadist, a pimply 18-year-old female convert, says she divorced her first husband, a fellow convert, to find a “real man” who would take her to live in an Islamic state, out of the “unbearable” country of Germany.
At other times the jihadists appear as phantoms, and the best Mekhennet or anyone else can do is describe the vapors they leave behind. She deduced the identity of Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi, the recreational sadist who executed James Foley and several other Islamic State prisoners on camera before being obliterated by an American drone in November 2015. Emwazi’s friends and acquaintances tell her he turned to violence after harassment by British authorities. But most people who allege abuse by the government do not commit mass murder, so the biography she collects explains very little.
The most alarming portraits are not of jihadists at all. Khaled el-Masri, a hapless German of Lebanese descent who shares a name with an al-Qaeda operative, contacts her and alleges that the CIA kidnapped and tortured him for several months in 2004. His evidence is strong and the official reaction of the U.S. government evasively incriminating. Mekhennet acknowledges that el-Masri went berserk after returning to Germany — he burned down a store after it refused to let him return an iPod, and he later assaulted others in separate incidents — but she makes plain that these might be mild reactions to the trauma of being abducted and sodomized by the most powerful government on earth.
And then there are the guilty. The most menacing figures are Egyptian spies who hint that they will torture and rape Mekhennet for reporting during the Arab Spring. The most scurrilous, perhaps, are parasites who have joined the refugee flow, hidden among real victims of persecution, and have overrun central Europe in the past two years. Rather than sentimentalize the migrants, she walks among them and reports that many are dangerous, lazy, criminal or worse. They are, she says, often frauds — “Syrians” who don’t look Syrian but North African, and who change the subject when asked which neighborhoods of Damascus they have fled — and more often peasants than the educated elites that Angela Merkel’s government has claimed make up a large portion of the recent arrivals. Their intentions range from freeloading, in the case of those who expect to live off welfare, to murder, in the case of a few who have brought sectarian hatreds against fellow Syrians or Iraqis to European soil. Mekhennet’s sympathies elsewhere in the book make her distrust here potent, and worrisome for those who imagine the dangers of the migrant flow to be a fever dream of xenophobes.
These portrayals by themselves make Mekhennet’s memoir a work of significant merit. But what of the original question? The hate remains largely mysterious — and, as Mekhennet points out, it is her own example that confounds most attempts to explain it. The root of hate is not Islam: She is Muslim and feels no compulsion to detonate herself in a German crowd. Nor is it U.S. politics or foreign policy: She too criticizes it, with conventional liberal European annoyance at the decisions of the George W. Bush administration in particular. Nor does it suffice to point to racism or Islamophobia: As an Arab and Turk and Muslim, she has lived in Germany and survived into adulthood without murderous impulses. Her failure to venture a clear positive hypothesis is hardly a fault of her memoir. To note that most other hypotheses are wrong, and to show that even the most ghoulish of the jihadis she profiles is human, is a good start.
But the hypothesis offered in Dabiq still strikes me as requiring a response more sophisticated than she provides. “We hate you because you are disbelievers,” writes the Islamic State author, who I believe is an American convert named John Georgelas. “You reject the oneness of Allah. . . . Your secular, liberal societies permit the very things Allah has prohibited while banning many of the things He has permitted.” He continues, providing accurate quotations from scripture and citations from Islamic history and scholarship, to argue that Muslims must hate and fight.
Mekhennet claims that “religion doesn’t radicalize people; people radicalize religion.” From the evidence she provides, the jihadists appear to have malignant religious beliefs that distinguish them from others who are not violent but have similar backgrounds or are similarly aggrieved. There are bad people and bad ideas — including religious ideas that have been around for a long time — and in Mekhennet’s world of jihadists, their symbiosis is on elegant display.
By Souad Mekhennet
Holt. 354 pp. $30