Washington Post reporter Souad Mekhennet's arresting new book I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad, part memoir, part autobiography, part dispatch from the front lines, opens with a scene that perfectly captures the ideological divide it will chart for over 300 pages. She's in Antakya, Turkey in 2014 seeking to get an interview with somebody in authority in the organization called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, known as ISIS. She's working for The Washington Post, and the 20-something man she meets is dressed in a Polo shirt and cargo pants will turn out to be Abu Yusaf, a major architect of kidnapping and torture.
Amazingly, Mekhennet goes right at him during their initial discussion. You say you're against killing innocent people, she challenges him. So why are you and your organization killing innocent people? And in the course of their conversation, as she shifts from classical Arabic to Moroccan Arabic (Mekhennet, born and raised in Germany, is of Moroccan-Turkish descent), she quickly becomes aware of all the disconcerting similarities. Both are well-educated, well-spoken, and familiar with the ways of the West. “In some ways,” Mekhennet writes, “he reminded me of my younger brother, and I felt a sister's responsibility to protect him.”
“But,” she instantly, soberingly adds, “I knew it was too late for that.”
Because Abu Yusaf had long since been radicalized and dedicated himself to a very specific, violent interpretation of jihad. “This guy could have been somebody different,” Mekhennet realizes. “He could have had a different life.”
Throughout "I Was Told To Come Alone," as her reporting takes her from Sunni Pakistan to Shia Iran to some of the most violent regions of North Africa, Mekhennet encounters this same deadly balancing act in dozens and dozens of young Muslim men she meets in all walks of life: Regardless of the country where they live and the specific political or religious grievances of that country, they are the vessels of an anger that transcends everything. “We don't think as Moroccans,” a group of students tell her. “We think as Muslims.” The book recounts Mekhennet's many adventures over the years, asking dangerous questions in dangerous places for the Post or The New York Times. But running through so many of her stories is that central divide: these people could have had different lives, but something, some combination of factors, set them on a different path.
One of the people who set out on that different path was the infamous masked ISIS executioner nicknamed “Jihadi John” after his video of beheading journalist James Foley went viral online and first brought ISIS to the attention of the wider Western audience. Through a combination of intuition, recall, and dogged working of her sources (“What disaster are you working on this time?” one of them asks her, a common allusion to her reputation for going out into the wilds in search of her stories), she uncovers the identity of Jihadi John and his roots – back home in London, where he'd grown increasingly disaffected by what he perceived as Western prejudice and dismissal.
Mekhennet herself often feels the sting of that same dismissal. After some jolting realizations while investigating Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) in Algeria, for example, she wonders: “Could this kind of impartial journalism about jihad only be safely practiced in the West by someone whose parents had been born and raised there, rather than someone whose Muslim descent made her an object of special interest and suspicion?”
But her doubts don't stop her. The book is a testament not only to one professional's dedication to her craft but also to a kind of questioning compassion that Mekhennet herself seems scarcely able to root out. “What had been tolerable to me before was now unbearable,” she writes. “Once you've wept with someone who's lost a family member because of another country's political decisions, it's hard to view international relations with detachment.” She is almost never detached in these pages, and yet we trust her professionalism more for it, not less.
As the book is drawing to a close, most readers will be hoping for a slackening in the pace of terror that keeps our author living out of suitcases for so many years. She's surrounded by family and friends, she seems happy and professionally satisfied – and then tragedy strikes: The shootings in the Olympia shopping center in Munich in July 2016 claim the life of a young cousin, and Mekhennet has the thorny responsibility of simultaneously grieving and also informing doctors and emergency personnel that she's both a family member and a press corps member. It fills her with a combination of anger and guilt, seeing that her job is to give people (like the Olympia gunman) clear information to “dispel racism and fight violence” and feeling that she's failed. But "I Was Told To Come Alone" is no failure – it's a much-needed cry of tough, informed humanism, needed now more than ever.