Souad Mekhennet interview
Souad Mekhennet speaks to us about why she tries to humanize the stories in her longlisted book I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind The Lines of Jihad and the interviews she found most challenging.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
This is an incredible honour. There are an outstanding group of authors recognized on the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction longlist. After considering whether to write this book for years, I took a lot of time and effort to reflect on and relive my personal story and the journey of my reporting. I’m thrilled that these experiences have resonated in a way to be included among the high calibre writers being honoured for their outstanding work.
What inspired you to write this book?
I lived in Hamburg studying journalism shortly before 9/11 and went back after the attacks as much out of journalistic as personal curiosity. How could people, of my faith, in a town where I was living, plan these attacks? Writing on the first anniversary a year later, I met the wife of a firefighter killed at the World Trade Center whose question has motivated me ever since: ‘why do they hate us?’ Her criticism was that no one told her what was going on. I’ve been going ‘behind the lines’ of jihad ever since. What I’ve come to believe from all that I have learned is that no one is born a terrorist, and there is a process of radicalization, and a turning point, in each of these lives. I try to humanize these stories not because of sympathy, but because the reader deserves to hear all sides in order to have the best opportunity to gain understanding.
For anyone who wants to explore the subject further, which book(s) would you recommend they read?
I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some stellar authors and mentors who I would highly recommend. The first would be a book by my Pulitzer-Prize winning colleague at the Washington Post Joby Warrick called Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS for a look at the group’s origins and trajectory. I would also recommend Peter Bergen who has written a collection of excellent books on Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and the manhunt surrounding him, as well as his most recent book United States of Jihad: Who Are America’s Homegrown Terrorists and How Do We Stop Them which brings his global analytical lens home domestically to look at an emerging challenge we should all be watching more closely.
I Was Told to Come Alone blends reportage and memoir. Which interview for your book did you find most challenging?
There were quite a few very challenging interviews...most challenging were two, really, but for very different reasons. One that was the most logistically challenging and a harrowing experience would be my interview with an ISIS commander late at night meandering in the Turkey/Syria border region while always fearing for my life. At the time, I did not know he was the commander overseeing detainees, like Jihadi John who I later unmasked, and was responsible for killing journalists. Perhaps it was better I didn’t know, because I made him at times uncomfortable with my tough questioning and maybe would have been too cautious had I known his role. The second set was about a shopping mall shooting in Munich in 2016 where I had a family member among the victims killed. Interviewing family and fleshing out the story to include in the book as an epilogue were the most taxing interviews, because they were so personal.
What are you working on next?
I wish I could say my issue area – terrorism – is a waning fad, but it is not. I continue writing for The Washington Post on the evolution of these threads. For instance, even while ISIS may lose its physical ‘caliphate’ its radicalizing power will morph in new ways (it already has). At the same time, I am alarmed by the growing populist movements in the West and the divisions they espouse – often anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim. We need to have an honest conversation about radicalization in the west and how those seeking to divide societies play into the aims of groups like ISIS. As a female Muslim reporter who has grown up fluent in different cultures, I am well aware I add a different perspective to those often writing and shaping the news. As a westerner, a German, and journalism professional, it is for me a duty to do my part to add nuance and understanding.