The young woman sitting in a Parisian cafe could be meeting a friend for lunch. Her figure-hugging purple top sets off her dark hair and intelligent eyes, and her hands are heavy with rings.
Every so often she glances out of the window, but she is not checking whether her friend has arrived: She is nervously hoping the police officer assigned to keep her safe is not too far away.
Anna Erelle is living in terror, having crossed ISIS, also known as Islamic State. She has received death threats and abuse online and a video of her is circulating accompanied by Arabic text that reads: “Brothers around the world, if you see her, kill her.”
On her smartphone, Erelle has a CCTV picture of three British girls — Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15 — as they passed through Gatwick airport a fortnight ago in flowing scarves and skinny jeans, en route to join ISIS in Syria.
“Look at them, they’re perfect,” she said, pointing a manicured fingernail at the screen. “They seem happy and relaxed. They look just as if they are off to spend a fortnight on the beach in Turkey. Three girls in black would attract attention. Like this, why would anyone notice them?
“It’s the same instruction I was given when I was travelling to Syria. Ditch the niqab, look like a regular girl. Be nice to your family, they won’t suspect. Leave nothing behind, not a note or a text message, don’t try to explain or they will come after you. Be there one day and the next, disappear.”
It was not actually Erelle who wanted to travel to Syria but “Melodie,” a 20-year-old would-be jihadist bride she created on the Internet. Erelle, 32, is a journalist with a weekly news magazine in Paris who specializes in covering the Middle East.
Two years ago, she carried out a series of interviews with teenagers in the banlieues, the poverty-stricken suburbs of Paris which have become a breeding ground for extremism, and was intrigued by how many young Muslims had been radicalized.
“They knew very little about religion. They had hardly read a book and they learnt jihad before religion,” she said. “They’d tell me, ‘you think with your head, we think with our hearts.’ They had a romantic view of radicalism. I wondered how that happened.”
Even more baffling were the “caliphettes,” young women who had grown up in a free society but were obsessed with jihadist fighters. “To them, jihadists are like Brad Pitt, only better because
Brad Pitt is not religious,” says Erelle.
She decided to join the young Muslim community online and created a fake profile on Facebook and Twitter. Little was known about the growing links between extremists and Muslim teenagers then, and even now the scale of the network is a surprise: Sultana, one of the missing British girls believed to have crossed the border to Syria, was following more than 70 extremists on Twitter and had amassed more than 11,000 followers.
Erelle’s intention was to observe exchanges online and build up a picture of how youngsters were being radicalized in France. Then came something unexpected. Melodie attracted the attention of Abou-Bilel, one of ISIS’s senior commanders in Raqqa (pictured, top). He fell in love with her, proposed marriage and invited her to join him in the caliphate.
My ISIS boyfriend
Erelle picked up the first of Bilel’s messages around 10 o’clock on a warm evening last April as she threw herself down on the sofa after a day at work and clicked in to see what Melodie’s “friends” had been up to: “Salaam alaikum, sister. I see you have watched my video. It has been seen round the world, it’s crazy! Are you a Muslim? What do you think of the mujaheddin? Are you thinking of coming to Syria?”
Erelle was astonished. Bilel was a French-born fighter of Algerian descent who had allied himself in Iraq to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, and moved with him to Syria.
Melodie had been online only a few days but she had already made a wide circle of friends, sharing videos and conversations about jihad. She was supposed to be a girl from a poor area in the south of France whose mother worked long hours and who had no father or brother.
Melodie answered Bilel tentatively, telling him she was a convert and wanted to learn to be a good Muslim. Her messages were accompanied by lots of smiley faces. He was more than encouraging.
Over the next few days, he sent pictures of himself with his 4×4 Jeep and holding a gun. Soon he was telling her that he loved her and she must come to Syria.
“When you get here, you’ll be treated like a princess,” he promised.
“This is why girls go there,” says Erelle. “It’s the dream of a good life. They are persuaded that it’s a paradise and that they don’t have any future in Britain or France and they won’t find good husbands and can never be good Muslims surrounded by infidels. Bilel told Melodie she could have a beautiful life, a big apartment and lots of children.”
Very soon, Bilel wanted to talk to her in person, on Skype.
“I didn’t see the face of a man who would kill or rape — he boasted that he had killed ‘dozens’ of infidels — and those first few seconds were unforgettable,” she said. “He was staring at me and when I looked back into his eyes I saw nothing, no religion, no feeling. He is not a good man.”
She was not sure she could get away with posing as someone 10 years younger, but Erelle is small and slim and once she had put on a hijab and minimized her makeup, it seemed to work.
“It was very strange to act nice with a terrorist, to be cute and to be saying ‘Hey, tell me about your day!’ I thought I would feel uncomfortable in a hijab but the costume helped. When I put it on, I wasn’t me any more.”
Bilel was delighted. “You make me laugh a lot!” he told her. As his trust grew, so he began to talk more about his life as a fighter.
He described the bloody battle for Raqqa in 2013 as Islamists fought the Syrian army for control of the city and how he had taken part in beatings and beheadings and tortured prisoners.
“He’s braggart, he’s very full of himself, but he is also a man capable of real cruelty. At first I wanted to feel something for him because I like to think there is always something good in humans . . . but there is nothing human in him.”
Life of adventure
Bilel’s real name was Rachid and he had grown up in Roubaix in northern France. Erelle has since learned he had a series of convictions for petty crime and jumped bail to go to Iraq when he was radicalized in 2000. As one of Baghdadi’s right-hand men, he had three jobs in Syria: recruitment, the collecting of taxes and commanding troops.
New recruits were arriving every day from Europe, he told her. “They learn Arabic in the morning and shooting in the afternoon.” The recruits shared a dormitory and would be lectured by a “spiritual guide” in the evenings.
“After two weeks they would be assessed and the clever ones picked out for special duties, like counter-espionage.”
Erelle was sharing and checking everything he told her with contacts in Syria and the French security services. “Like all liars, sometimes he forgot what he’d said and then tell a different story so I had to check everything, but the more horrible stories he told me, about battles and killings, they were all true.”
He spoke of his admiration for suicide bombers — “Here we assess strength in two ways, through faith and courage. The suicide bombers are the strongest of us all” — and joked about how he preferred converts like Melodie, because they were “rigorous in religion, but open in life.”
“You can see how a girl like Melodie would be mesmerized,” says Erelle. “She feels like a nobody and all of a sudden here is this man of 38, nearly twice her age, who has had all these incredible adventures, who is kind to her and telling her he loves her and wanting to talk to her 1,000 times a day.”
Once Melodie became known as Bilel’s fiancée, she grew into a minor celebrity among her Islamic friends on the internet.
“This must have played a part in the British girls’ disappearance, too,” she said. “The ones who go to Syria know they will be in the newspapers and on the Internet and people will be talking about them. These girls were following a friend who had already left for Syria. They must have seen the pain that caused her family, but it didn’t stop them.”
At first, Melodie refused when Bilel tried to persuade her to come to Raqqa. She could not leave her mother, she said. She was frightened of travelling such a long way.
“He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He would say ‘when you arrive’ you can help look after orphans until you have your own children, or visit wounded soldiers.
“He took it for granted I would obey. He wanted to know if I had enough money for a plane ticket. He told me he and his organization were rich and that I would be paid the money back.”
Smuggled to Syria
The French police were on alert for girls leaving for Syria last summer so Bilel said she should travel first to Amsterdam, to throw the authorities off the scent. Melodie had finally agreed to come to Syria if she could bring her (fictitious) 15-year-old friend Yasmin.
“He said, ‘Say you are sleeping at Yasmin’s house for the night and vice versa.’ When I got to Amsterdam, I was to throw away my phone and buy a new one and only then ring him, from the new number, to tell him what time we would arrive on a flight from Amsterdam to Istanbul.”
In Istanbul, Melodie and Yasmin would be met by a woman sent by ISIS, a “maman” who would accompany them to Syria. Erelle decided she would keep up the pretense to that point.
“I wanted to meet this ‘maman’,” she said. “I am a woman and I don’t understand how another woman could give very young girls to these men in marriage. So it was personal. I wanted to see her face.”
There was one further instruction: Melodie was to pick up some treats for Bilel at duty free, including after-shave. He told her he liked Egoiste by Chanel.
“Here is something else about these fighters,” says Erelle. “They say they reject the West, that they are anti-capitalist, but they love luxury and designer labels, it’s all Nike trainers and Ray-Ban sunglasses mixed in with their military clothes. It’s another way of luring in kids, of saying, ‘I was once poor like you but look at me now.’”
In Amsterdam, there was a problem. Bilel said she and “Yasmin” would have to proceed alone because it was not safe for the “maman” to travel. Once in Istanbul, they should take an internal flight to Urfa, southeast Turkey, again paying cash, and await instructions. Melodie said she was frightened.
“You are a big girl,” Bilel reassured her. “Dozens of Europeans are making that journey every week in the hope of joining our ranks. Allez, ma lionne!”
But Melodie refused to budge, saying there were police everywhere and she wanted to go home.
“For the first time I started to argue with him. He didn’t like that,” said Erelle. “He began to yell, he was very frightening. He was angry at me for refusing to complete the journey. He said ‘You’ve made a fool of me in front of the hierarchy here.’ That would not easily be forgiven.”
It was time to cut all ties, but that was not easy. Still believing Melodie existed, Bilel called and said: “I know who you are, it would be a matter of minutes to find you and kill you.”
Enemy of ISIS
Erelle returned to Paris and wrote a story about Melodie for her magazine last May. She has now written a book, “In the Skin of a Jihadist.”
The article was written under an assumed name. “Erelle” is her second pseudonym. Once the piece was published and the full extent of Melodie’s betrayal made apparent, Erelle became a target.
She has had to change her phone number several times and has moved house. Alarmingly, shortly after Melodie broke contact, Bilel called her from a French number. She has had numerous death threats to Melodie’s Skype account.
She has written a book she cannot admit to and since the Charlie Hebdo massacre on Jan. 7 she has had police protection.
“They insisted. Someone watches the building where I live. They watch me. I never know whether they are there or not,” she said. “I am very alone because Charlie Hebdo scared everyone and friends are frightened to be with me. The police have even taken my dog. When I felt low I used to cuddle him but he is an unusual breed and the police thought he made me to easily identifiable — or worse, the terrorists might kill someone with the same kind of dog by mistake.”
A few months ago Bilel was reported to have been killed.
“I don’t know if that’s correct, or if he is aware of my true identity.” All she knows is that, despite everything, she would do the same again. “For sure,” she said.
From The Sunday Times of London