What could possibly have motivated a 74-year-old German author, researcher and former politician to knock on the door of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and confer and negotiate with the group for months so he could visit them in their strongholds to report to the world on their activities—and return alive to tell the tale?
It is not surprising his family broke down in tears on his return from his 10-day assignment, which he spent with the group in the territories currently under its control in Iraq and Syria. What he had to say upon his return confirmed what we already know about the group’s evils; but it is also much more: it is an account detailing what he saw from the inside.
Was it his advanced age and the satisfaction with a life already lived to the full that allowed him to take the grave risk to bring us back this information—as important as it is? Or was it simply that irrepressible human drive which some of us are unable to ignore no matter how far we are in our years or what we have already achieved in life?
Yes, Jürgen Todenhöfer truly surprised us.
Despite the great temptation the group must have felt to abduct and kill another Western journalist, in the end, Jürgen Todenhöfer came back alive. Some of what he has to tell he has so far released over his Facebook account and in comments to journalists—as for the rest, he is preparing a new book.
It took him months of work and Skype meetings with members of ISIS to prepare for the trip. His entire family was, naturally, against his decision. But Todenhöfer had the courage of his convictions and listened only to his inner voice. For this former politician and legal researcher is already a veteran when it comes to the subject of the relationship between the Muslim world and the West, with a number of books to his name on this issue that has obviously obsessed him for years.
He had previously been away from public life; but it was the events of 9/11 that stirred him to action once again, and he has made countless trips to the Middle East since then, and opposed US foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Todenhöfer says he was fully aware of the dangers his trip posed him, that his criticism of the US and its actions in the region were no guarantee he would keep his head. After all, the Western journalists who have been killed by ISIS also cared about the Middle East, and had done much to help the Syrian and Iraqi people; but that did not save them in the end.
Since his return, Todenhöfer has not shied away from warning us that the danger posed by ISIS is even greater than the West believes, and that the group’s abilities and strategic nous cannot be dismissed.
We may understand, then, why someone with Todenhöfer’s background may want to travel to report on ISIS, but what is the group’s own motivation here? Todenhöfer has said the group is as good as anyone when it comes to publicity, so perhaps this is the very answer we are looking for.
But a question remains: what is it exactly that ISIS wants to say to the world? Does it wish us to recognize and accept its authority over the areas it controls? Does it want legitimacy? Of course, we cannot give it that.
We must now wait and see how the group’s latest high-profile prisoner—the Jordanian fighter pilot it captured—will fare as negotiations for his release begin. Will he be able to return to his family with similar stories to tell as Todenhöfer’s? If he comes back alive, his account, and Todenhöfer’s, must be broadcast to help us better investigate and understand this group.