Passport

Meet the America-Hating, Assad-Loving Journalist Who Just Came Back From the Islamic State

When Jurgen Todenhofer crossed out of Islamic State-controlled territory on Dec. 16, he accomplished something that no Western journalist had done before him – he had visited the self-declared caliphate, and survived. The jihadist group, he warned upon his return, is “much stronger and much more dangerous” than the West realizes. But this wasn’t Todenhofer’s ...

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When Jurgen Todenhofer crossed out of Islamic State-controlled territory on Dec. 16, he accomplished something that no Western journalist had done before him – he had visited the self-declared caliphate, and survived. The jihadist group, he warned upon his return, is “much stronger and much more dangerous” than the West realizes.

But this wasn’t Todenhofer’s first journalistic coup in Syria. In July 2012, he secured an interview with the ruler that the Islamic State is trying to topple – Bashar al-Assad. At the time, he was seen as sympathetic to the regime: He had recently published an article suggesting that Syrian rebels had been responsible for the mass killing of civilians in the village of Houla, and referred derisively to the rebels’ claims that Assad’s men perpetrated the attack as “massacre marketing.”

Todenhofer, a former judge and German parliamentarian, has seen his share of war zones. He traveled to Algiers during the Algerian civil war, to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, to Iraq during the U.S. occupation, and to Libya during the revolt that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi. He does not pretend to be a neutral observer of events: The New York Times referred to him as an “outspoken antiwar advocate” and a critic of Western coverage of Syria, which he viewed as unfairly hostile to Assad.

Todenhofer’s critics charge that he is little more than an apologist for dictators. He “is a strange political bird, but his business model is quite successful,” wrote Die Zeit editor-at-large Josef Joffe in an email. His recent books have sold well, and he is a regular on German television shows, “where he is cast as a pacifist bien pensant who likes to cavort with the world’s worst despots, notably Saddam [Hussein] and Assad, while flacking for the Iranian regime.”

Joffe also accuses him of “reliable anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism.” There’s no doubt that the perfidy of U.S. policy in the Middle East is a recurring theme in Todenhofer’s work: He penned an open letter to President Barack Obama in 2012, listing 10 points that he argued should cause the United States to reassess its relationship with the Muslim world. “The West is a lot more violent than the Muslim world,” he wrote, saying that millions of Arabs had been killed since the start of the colonial era. The problem, he said, was the West’s anti-terror programs, which “are a terror-breeding program.”

In 2007, Todenhofer crossed the Syrian border to interview anti-government fighters in Iraq’s restive Anbar province. He detailed his trip in a book titled “Why Do You Kill, Zaid?” – a harrowing account of his journey, and a profile of a young man whose two brothers were killed in the war, and who later joined the anti-American insurgency and set off an improvised explosive device that destroyed two U.S. Humvees. The book even includes an interview with an al Qaeda fighter. “[George W.] Bush is responsible for the deaths of many more people than all the dictators and terrorists in the world put together,” Todenhofer writes, to preempt criticism of him speaking with al Qaeda. “Nonetheless, every Western politician is proud to have a meeting with Bush.”

Statements like this, which seem to equate Western politicians with jihadist leaders, have at times provoked a backlash against Todenhofer in Germany. This summer, he photoshopped the face of German President Joachim Gauck onto the body of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, to protest what he viewed as Gauck’s enthusiasm for war. “Dear friends, what have we done to get such a jihadist as president?” he wrote.

His views aside, there’s no doubting Todenhofer’s grim portrayal of Islamic State-controlled Syria and Iraq. In his latest trip, he does not appear to have avoided asking the jihadists tough questions: He engaged in a tense discussion with one fighter about the Islamic State’s enslavement of Yazidis, and wrote on Facebook that the group was planning a massive “religious cleansing” of non-believers.

He also came away from the trip impressed by the Islamic State’s military and strategic abilities, and sure that in the long run they planned to attack Europe and the United States. “You can say, these are fantasies, this is ridiculous,” he told CNN. “But if someone had said that at the end of this year, 2014, IS would run a country bigger than Great Britain, everybody would’ve said, ‘you’re crazy.’”

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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