The first Western journalist in the world to be allowed extensive access to Isis territories in Syria and Iraq has returned from the region with a warning: the group is “much stronger and much more dangerous” than anyone in the West realises.
Jürgen Todenhöfer, 74, is a renowned German journalist and publicist who travelled through Turkey to Mosul, the largest city occupied by Isis, after months of negotiations with the group’s leaders.
He plans to publish a summary of his “10 days in the Islamic State” on Monday, but in interviews with German-language media outlets has revealed his first impressions of what life is like under Isis.
Speaking to the website Der tz, Todenhöfer revealed that he actually stayed in the same hotel in Benghazi as James Foley, the US journalist who was beheaded on camera by Isis in August.
“Of course, I’ve seen the terrible, brutal video and it was one of my main concerns during the negotiations as to how I can avoid [the same fate],” he said.
Once within Isis territory, Todenhöfer said his strongest impression was “that Isis is much stronger than we think here”. He said it now has “dimensions larger than the UK”, and is supported by “an almost ecstatic enthusiasm that I have never encountered in any other warzone”.
“Each day, hundreds of willing fighters arrive from all over the world,” he told tz. “For me it is incomprehensible.”
Todenhöfer claims to have been able to move among Isis fighters, observing their living conditions and equipment. On his Facebook page, he has posted images which he said show German Heckler & Koch MG3 machine guns in the hands of Isis. “Someday this German MG could be directed to us,” he said.
Isis’s fighters themselves sleep, he said, in barracks formed from “the shells of bombed-out houses”. They number around 5,000 in Mosul, and are spread so widely that were the US to bomb them all “they would have to reduce the whole of Mosul to ruins”, he said.
Todenhöfer says that this ultimately means Isis cannot be beaten by Western intervention or air strikes – despite US claims last week that they have proven effective. “With every bomb that is dropped and hits a civilian, the number of terrorists increases,” he said.
Speaking in a TV interview with RTL’s Nachtjournal programme two days after his return to Germany last week, Todenhöfer said Isis has worked hard to establish itself as a functioning state. He said it has “social welfare”, a “school system”, and that he was even surprised to see it has plans to provide education to girls.
Most concerning of all, he said, was Isis fighters’ belief that “all religions who agree with democracy have to die”.
He said the view that kept being repeated was that Isis want to “conquer the world” and all who do not believe in the group’s interpretation of the Koran will be killed. The only other religions to be spared, Todenhöfer said, were the “people of the book” – Jews and Christians.
“This is the largest religious cleansing strategy that has ever been planned in human history”, he told RTL.
Isis-affiliated social media accounts have already started responding to Todenhöfer's reports, hailing his comments about the group's territories being made into functioning societies.
The tweet below quotes “German journalist Jürgen” as saying: “The Caliphate state is working to create life in the style of the Rightly Guided Caliphs who lived after the Prophet (PBUH) and it can move mountains.”
Charlie Winter, a researcher for the anti-extremism thinktank Quilliam, said such comments about Isis being "a group that is formidable militarily and politically" were quoted by pro-Isis accounts because it is "a bitter pill for policymakers to swallow".
"That said, Todenhöfer's comments on the massacre of the Yazidis and displacement of hundreds of thousands in Mosul have been routinely ignored by Isis supporters," Mr Winter said. "The facts are being cherry-picked to give a very narrow view of the situation that Todenhöfer was met with in Syria and Iraq."
Todenhöfer plans to use his first-hand experience of Isis in a book he is writing about the group. He says on Facebook that he has always “spoken to both sides” in his 50 years reporting from war zones, including interviews with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and al-Qaeda, with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and with leaders of the Taliban.
In his view, Isis will soon come to the West to negotiate a level of co-existence. “The only ones who could stop this now are the moderate Iraqi Sunnis,” he said, adding: “If you want to defeat an opponent, you must know him.”