By Michael Ashcraft and Mark Ellis
After visiting Islamic State-occupied territory at great risk, a German journalist called the extremist organization a “movement with the power of a nuclear bomb” after returning home last week.
Jurgen Todenhoefer, 74, was given unprecedented access to the Islamic State and returned to Munich after spending 10 days with the group in areas they control in Iraq and Syria.
They are “the most brutal and most dangerous enemy I have ever seen in my life,” Todenhoefer said, as part of a series of interviews broadcast on the BBC and CNN.
Born out of the Syrian rebel movement, IS catapulted into international attention, seizing major cities in Iraq last June and beheading James Foley and other westerners whose governments refuse to negotiate a ransom. The group consists mostly of Sunni Muslims, many of whom aided Saddam Hussein’s cruel regime, and is growing daily by Muslims drawn to radicalism from all parts of the world.
IS fighters were surprisingly confident, Todenhoefer said.
“We will conquer Europe one day,” one fighter told him. “It is not a question of IF we will conquer Europe, just a matter of when that will happen. But it is certain. For us, there is no such thing as borders. There are only front lines. Our expansion will be perpetual. And the Europeans need to know that when we come, it will not be in a nice way. It will be with our weapons. And those who do not convert to Islam or pay the Islamic tax will be killed.”
“I don’t see anyone who has a real chance to stop them,” Todenhoefer told the BBC. “Only Arabs can stop ISIS. I came back very pessimistic. I thought I would meet a brutal terrorist group, but I met a brutal country. They are so confident, so sure of themselves. At the beginning of this year, few people knew of ISIS. But now they have conquered an area the size of the UK. This is a one per cent movement with the power of a nuclear bomb or a tsunami.”
Todenhoefer and his son, who filmed him, were granted access by the “office of the Caliphate” to visit these regions because IS wants to show the world “the Islamic State is working,” he said. He saw social welfare and school systems functioning.
He also witnessed child soldiers with AK-47s, one who claimed to be 13, as well as captured prisoners and slaves.
“Slavery absolutely signals progress,” a fighter told him. “Only ignorant people believe that there is no slavery among the Christians and the Jews. Of course there are woman who are forced into prostitution under the worst circumstances. I would say that slavery is a great help to us, and we will continue to have slavery and beheadings; it is part of our religion. Many slaves have converted to Islam and have then been freed.”
One Kurdish prisoner told the German journalist he was not being tortured but the look of terror in his eyes was revealing, Todenhoefer said. With IS captors monitoring the interview, what else would the prisoner say?
“This was a broken man,” Todenhoefer said. “It was very sad to see a person in this state. He was just very weak and very afraid of his captors.”
Asked what would happen to him, the captive told Todenhoefer: “I do not know. My family does not even know I am still alive. I hope that maybe there will be some sort of prisoner exchange.”
Fighting in the predominantly Shia sect nation of Iraq, the Sunni hardliners of IS have no qualms about the massacres ahead. Wikipedia estimates there are 200 million Shias worldwide.
“One hundred and fifty million, 200 million or 500 million? It does not matter to us,” the fighter said. “We will kill them all.”
Despite the reign of terror for the strict enforcement of IS’s brand of sharia law, people in the region exude a sense of acceptance almost to the point of embracing the new regime, Todenhoefer said. “There is an awful sense of normalcy in Mosul.”
IS overran Mosul, a major city in Northern Iraq, last June by employing surprise attacks, suicide strikes and adeptly finding and exploiting weak points to open breaches. But their greatest success derives not from their tactics but their fanaticism. “We fight for Allah, they fight for money and other things that they do not really believe in,” one fighter told him.
With about 300 fighters, IS set to flight 20,000 Iraqi troops in Mosul, he said. In the evacuation, valuable weapons, munitions and vehicles were abandoned for the rebels to sieze.
Since its lightning seizure of territory, IS progress has slowed as Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish fighters in the north have learned to face them. The appearance of IS has led to an unusual alliance between the United States and Iran, which always hated the Sunni leadership of Saddam Hussein and is now heavily involved in IS. The U.S. and Iran are coordinating sorties of warplanes to strike targets.
The terror group lays claim to 31,000 soldiers, according to a U.S. estimate. Todenhoefer saw fresh recruits show up at one station to join at 50 per day. A BBC article estimated 12,000 foreigners are part of their forces representing 81 countries. Included are 2,500 from Western nations.
IS controls $2 billion in assets from donations by Arab Gulf states, oil revenue, extortion and kidnapping, the BBC reported.
As his stay in IS territory progressed, Todenhoefer began to fear the jihadists would renege on their guarantee for safety, and he fled to the Turkish border. The last stretch was literally a sprint to the border.
“I had to run 1,000 meters [half a mile] with our bags and all the things we had with us,” he said.
“When we arrived, I had such an incredible feeling of happiness. I realized then that I had had tons on my shoulders. I called my family. And in this moment I realized it was not very easy what I had done.”