When President George W. Bush declared his “War on Terror,” the face of the enemy was a grainy two-inch picture of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the corner of every newscast. After their deaths the faces of jihad changed, but the picture remained low-resolution. In her breathtaking memoir I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad, journalist Souad Mekhennet abandons pixalized characterizations and instead paints a detailed picture that both challenges and humanizes the myriad of jihadists she encounters.
A German-born Muslim woman of Turkish and Moroccan heritage, Mekhennet’s tenacity earned her unrivaled access to extremist circles. Over the course of the book, Mekhennet interviews al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and ISIS members and sympathizers around the globe, often in their living rooms. She waves off as many marriage proposals as kidnapping threats, narrowly escapes terrorist attacks, and is even captured by the Mukhabarat, the notorious Egyptian intelligence wing. Mekhennet’s story takes readers to the front lines of the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, the formation of ISIS, and the refugee crisis—in other words, almost every watershed date of twenty-first century Middle East/North African affairs.
I Was Told To Come Alone follows two subjects: Souad Mekhennet and the Islamic extremists she engages. Mekhennet quickly learns the world of journalism is not always like the heroic exploits of her inspirations, Watergate scandal reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Confronted with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hostility from a young age, Mekhennet admits to struggling with the same fear and anger she saw propel so many like her into extremist circles. Instead of succumbing, Mekhennet takes the “harder road” to work against the forces of alienation.
With her narrative voice and probing questions, the Muslim journalist testifies against both the warped worldview of jihadists and the oversimplification of Western observers. During her investigation of “Jihadi John,” the notorious ISIS spokesperson who beheaded multiple captives, Mekhennet admits a dual vendetta: sending a message to Jihadi John and others like him—that a Muslim journalist, a woman, had the power to undo him—and to “those in the West who blame every Muslim and Islam.”
A product of first-class journalism, I Was Told To Come Alone puts the Western modus operandi on trial. From helicopter journalism to CIA black sites and drone strikes to the simplification of complex situations for sound-bite policies—Mekhennet suggest all contribute to the rise of terror.
Her complex perspective allows her to write about terrorist sympathizers as complex individuals suffering alienation and disillusionment, the product of failed community as much as an individual decision. Far from empty theory, every insinuation is corroborated by allegory and two decades of experience behind the lines of jihad.
Souad Mekhennet imbues every chapter with passion and perspective while still maintaining appropriate journalistic objectivity. The result is a surreal, heart-pounding story that reads more thriller than memoir. I Was Told To Come Alone is a modern-day odyssey that every reader interested in the rise of international terrorism, or in global affairs generally, should take the time to experience.
Joshua Cayetano is an intern for Providence. Originally from the Bay Area, California, he is a member of the inaugural class of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University, where he also studies political science and history. In the spring of 2017, Joshua received the State Department’s Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship to study in Amman, Jordan. His interests include Middle Eastern affairs, the application of faith in the public square, and advocacy for “the least of these.”