NEW YORK -- Weeks after returning from a 10-day reporting trip in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria, two cities under Islamic State control, Jürgen Todenhöfer still isn't completely sure what the extremist group known for beheading journalists had hoped to gain by allowing him inside.
But Todenhöfer, a 74-year-old author and former German parliamentarian, suggested one possibility in an interview with The Huffington Post.
“For them it was important to show that there was a state, not only an occupied territory,” he said. “And maybe the invitation of somebody was a step to show that, like other states, they are inviting journalists and these people are protected.”
Todenhöfer was in Islamic State territory from Dec. 6 to Dec. 16. His ability to get into -- and, vitally, out of -- the region was surprising, given how the terrorist organization, like similar extremist groups, has shown little regard for journalists' lives in recent months.
The Islamic State beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff last summer and circulated the videos online, signaling that international press wasn't welcome inside the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate. On Wednesday, gunmen reportedly linked with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper known for lampooning political leaders and religions, including Islam. The next day, an Islamic State affiliate in Libya claimed to have killed two Tunisian journalists who have been missing since September.
The relationship between journalists and Islamic extremists wasn't always this way, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg recently detailed. Some jihadis of an earlier era would court international journalists in hopes of getting their messages out to the world. But the Islamic State has largely bypassed Western news outlets in favor of pushing propaganda on social media. Vice News was granted access to report in Raqqa last June, but since the beheadings and the start of the U.S.-led bombing campaign, no Western journalist has reported from inside the territory in Iraq or Syria controlled by the militant group.
Todenhöfer, who spoke by phone to HuffPost on Dec. 31, said the Islamic State might be starting to “think propaganda will always be propaganda, not a high degree of credibility, and inviting journalists is probably more intelligent than beheading journalists.”
It remains to be seen whether the Islamic State, in an effort to present itself as an actual state rather than as terrorist occupiers, will change the way it deals with the press -- or if Todenhöfer and his son Frederic, who shot photos and videos on the trip, will be the exception.
Todenhöfer isn’t a typical journalist, and he balked at being described as one in an interview. A former judge, media executive and member of German parliament, Todenhöfer has written books based on his journeys into war zones, from Afghanistan under Soviet control in the early 1980s to the Iraq War. He's publicly expressed anti-war opinions, having spoken out in favor of disarmament in the 1980s and against the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The German writer ignited controversy in 2012 after interviewing Syrian President Bashar Assad and expressing skepticism about some claims made by rebels fighting Assad's regime. Last month, Foreign Policy dismissed Todenhöfer as an “America-hating, Assad-loving journalist."
Todenhöfer told HuffPost that even after he embedded with the mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s, he spoke to the Russians; that he spoke to both former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban; and that he has spoken to Syrian rebels, too.
“What I have learned as a judge is that you should always speak to all sides,” Todenhöfer said. “Otherwise, your life is a long list of false judgments, of mistakes.”
Todenhöfer said he was motivated to make the reporting trip because he wanted to write a book on the Islamic State, but found there was "almost no information from the ground.” Last spring, he contacted 80 German jihadis on Facebook with questions about the group’s ideology. Fifteen responded. Through these conversations, Todenhöfer eventually reached a representative from the Islamic State’s media office. What followed were seven months of Skype discussions with the militant group, some lasting a few hours each.
“I was discussing the ideology. I was discussing what was happening. I was discussing the killings,” Todenhöfer recalled. “I told them I could really not understand. I had read the Quran. I didn’t understand how they could justify these innocent killings with the Quran.”
Despite disagreements, Todenhöfer recalled the media officer saying the group had come to believe the German writer would be objective and not “want to be sensational and invent things.” Todenhöfer received an invitation from the office of the caliphate, though he couldn’t be completely sure it was legitimate until he actually took the trip.
The West, he wrote, “is dramatically underestimating the threat” from the group, which he described as “drenched in almost infectious enthusiasm and confident of victory." He described seeing the influx of new fighters at an Islamic State reception camp, with recruits coming from Western countries like the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France and Germany.
“I firmly believe that ISIS currently is the largest threat to world peace since the Cold War,” he wrote on his website, using another term for the Islamic State. “We are now paying the price for George W. Bush’s act of near-unparalleled folly; the invasion of Iraq. To date, the West remains clueless as to how this threat is to be addressed.”
Todenhöfer described to HuffPost both the access and the restrictions put in place by his Islamic State minders. The writer recalled a dispute the first day after being told he and his son could visit Raqqa, but not Mosul. The Islamic State relented, but upon arriving in Mosul, Todenhöfer said, he was told to spend the day in an apartment.
“I wanted to go down to the streets,” Todenhöfer recalled. “I said, ‘So I’m your prisoner now? You don’t allow me to leave your room?’ We had many hard discussions. It’s a war and certain things had to be decided by them.”
Todenhöfer said he and Frederic went down to Mosul’s streets that evening. Initially, Islamic State minders were nearby, he said, but “after 10 minutes, they lost their interest. And after 15 minutes, we were discussing with people from Mosul. No one was listening."
“My son could take photos. I could speak with everybody,” Todenhöfer said. “There were sometimes strong restrictions. Sometimes there was a surprising freedom to speak to fighters. I had never had the impression the people had to say what they wanted them to say.”
The Islamic State inspected Frederic’s camera at the end of the trip and deleted nine of 800 photos, citing concerns about family members of the fighters. Todenhöfer said the group helped arrange several interviews, including with a captured peshmerga fighter, but declined to make available the man who appears in the beheading videos.
He interviewed several Islamic State fighters, including German jihadis familiar with his books on the Middle East. Todenhöfer said the fighters exhibited an “enthusiasm and belief that they were doing something historic.” He met one new recruit from New Jersey and another, from the Caribbean islands, who'd passed his law exam shortly before signing up.
In August, Kevin Sutcliffe, Vice's head of news programming in Europe, explained to HuffPost that while filmmaker Medyan Dairieh was allowed inside Islamic State-controlled Syria, his access was restricted. “These are managed trips, so you are there with their permission,” Sutcliffe said. “While they are, to some extent, keeping you safe... you are also an interloper.”
Similarly, Todenhöfer wasn’t permitted to roam freely around Syria and Iraq. He lived alongside Islamic State fighters, which allowed for many conversations but also accentuated the fact that he was an outsider.
“We slept in the same houses, on the same floor,” Todenhöfer said. “The discussions have always been hard, because I wanted to find out what was their motivation. I wanted to find out what they thought about the Quran, to behead, to kill all the unbelievers. I have read the Quran several times and I have never read a line that says you can kill all the Shias and kill all the Hindus. How can you say, ‘Yeah, but Muhammad has said this?’”
The distance, he said, was "getting greater, bigger and bigger every day" and eventually Todenhöfer and his son were eating separately from the group. “At the end," he said, "the atmosphere changed."
But provoking Islamic State fighters wasn’t the only danger. There were also the ongoing threats from the U.S.-led air campaign and from Assad’s forces.
At one point in Mosul, Todenhöfer said, an American drone “was coming down, lower and lower” over the area. The group he was with headed to a soccer field where a game was in progress, believing the drone was less likely to strike there.
And one night, the Raqqa apartment Todenhöfer was staying in was struck by the Syrian Air Force while Todenhöfer and his party were out. They returned later and stayed one more night in the bombed-out apartment, he recalled, sleeping on broken glass.