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[Book Review] Anna Erelle's In the Skin of a Jihadist

Night Owl Score - 4.5/5 Hoots

A work of non-fiction written by a French journalist under the pseudonym ‘Anna Erelle’, In the Skin of a Jihadist (translated to English by Erin Potter) is an extraordinary work of investigative journalism into the question of digital Jihad. The book relays an account of Erelle who, while investigating the ISIS recruitment networks, gets acquainted with an ISIS fighter, Abu Bilel Al Firanzi. Erelle uses a Facebook account under the pseudonym Melodie for the purpose of intra-network research of digital Jihad. She shares the picture of a fighter on the platform and is immediately contacted by him. The journalist’s curiosity is piqued and she finds herself drawn towards the prospect of getting a first-hand account of how the State’s recruitment networks function. Thinking she had struck a gold mine, Erelle establishes contact with the terrorist as Melodie. Within a matter of two days, she is promised marriage and a golden life in Syria; what Erelle assumes must be the bait that was fed to the numerous disaffected women who fell prey to ISIS’s tyrannical ideology. Bilel, thinking Melodie was a young girl neglected by her family, works his charm on her - promising her his true love, a queen’s life, the luxury of Raqqa. It isn’t until later that Erelle discovers the extent of Bilel’s power; he is the right-hand man of Al-Baghdadi, the then-leader of ISIS.

Drawn deeper and deeper into the investigation over a month, Erelle finds herself becoming schizophrenic; playing the role of a Hijabi girl 10 years younger than her who was enchanted by a terrorist and wanted to be with him in Syria versus that of herself, a 30-odd-year-old journalist investigating a case that had affected thousands of lives adversely and who had nothing but loathing for the bearded man in Ray-Bans who would skype her every chance he got. In her words, “The deeper I got into the investigation, the more difficult it became to keep my professional distance.” Towards the end of their one-month-long correspondence, Erelle sets out on a perilous journey to the Middle East, right at the storm’s eye, hoping to close the case. Things go awry when her contact there turns a cold shoulder and she is forced to return to France, bidding an abrupt farewell to Melodie and to Bilel. However, Bilel doesn’t let things go by easily and declares a fatwa against her. He releases a video with a screenshot of her face that must’ve been taken during him and Melodie’s Skype conversation, and calls for his “Brothers from around the world” to “...rape, stone, and finish her. Insha’Allah.”

In fear of her life, Erelle has gone undercover and shall have to live so for having struck a fatal enmity with the Islamic State. A well-written, easy read, the book offers the readers perspective into not just digital Jihad but the personal lives of people living in Syria, that of Erelle and her dilemmas, of Melodie and thousands of girls like her, and of the Jihadists themselves. The book is rife with instances of Bilel contradicting himself in choosing to believe a version of the religious texts that suited his means most - this is an important detail that one must acknowledge in examining the philosophy that radical Islamists follow. There are numerous instances also of Erelle being closer to Melodie than to herself; the readers’ attention being drawn over and again towards the dilemma of the narrator and also that which thousands of young girls face. A gripping read, the text has but one limitation of being poorly translated from French. This makes the text seem mechanically abrupt in some places and absolutely ineffective in others. The overall tone of the book seems to be distant, more a reading-out of a report than a personal account of the author’s life. However, the integrity of the story and Erelle’s accounts is not lost. It is, in effect, a book that one with any degree of interest in ISIS’s use of the internet to spread its propaganda and to radicalise youth from the world over, must read.

A Night Owl original, this piece has been authored by Pallavi Singh.

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