Published in The Guardian
Monday 16th November 2015
Copyright, All Rights Reserved
In Syria I learned that Islamic State longs to provoke retaliation. We should not fall into the trap
a proud Frenchman I am as distressed as anyone about the events in
Paris. But I am not shocked or incredulous. I know Islamic State. I spent 10 months as an Isis hostage, and I know for sure that our pain, our grief, our hopes, our lives do not touch them. Theirs is a world apart.
Most people only know them from their propaganda material, but I have
seen behind that. In my time as their captive, I met perhaps a dozen of
them, including Mohammed Emwazi: Jihadi John was one of my jailers. He nicknamed me “Baldy”.
Even now I sometimes chat with them on social media, and can tell you
that much of what you think of them results from their brand of
marketing and public relations. They present themselves to the public as
superheroes, but away from the camera are a bit pathetic in many ways:
street kids drunk on ideology and power. In France
we have a saying – stupid and evil. I found them more stupid than evil.
That is not to understate the murderous potential of stupidity.
All of those beheaded last year were my cellmates, and my jailers
would play childish games with us – mental torture – saying one day that
we would be released and then two weeks later observing blithely,
“Tomorrow we will kill one of you.” The first couple of times we
believed them but after that we came to realise that for the most part
they were bullshitters having fun with us.
They would play mock executions. Once they used chloroform with me.
Another time it was a beheading scene. A bunch of French-speaking
jihadis were shouting, “We’re going to cut your head off and put it on
to your arse and upload it to YouTube.” They had a sword from an antique
They were laughing and I played the game by screaming, but they just
wanted fun. As soon as they left I turned to another of the French
hostages and just laughed. It was so ridiculous.
It struck me forcefully how technologically connected they are; they
follow the news obsessively, but everything they see goes through their
own filter. They are totally indoctrinated, clinging to all manner of
conspiracy theories, never acknowledging the contradictions.
Everything convinces them that they are on the right path and,
specifically, that there is a kind of apocalyptic process under way that
will lead to a confrontation between an army of Muslims from all over
the world and others, the crusaders, the Romans. They see everything as
moving us down that road. Consequently, everything is a blessing from
With their news and social media interest, they will be noting
everything that follows their murderous assault on Paris, and my guess
is that right now the chant among them will be “We are winning”. They
will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear,
of racism, of xenophobia; they will be drawn to any examples of ugliness
on social media.
Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot
live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned
towards finding supporting evidence. The pictures from Germany of people
welcoming migrants will have been particularly troubling to them.
Cohesion, tolerance – it is not what they want to see.
Why France? For many reasons perhaps, but I think they identified my
country as a weak link in Europe – as a place where divisions could be
sown easily. That’s why, when I am asked how we should respond, I say
that we must act responsibly.
And yet more bombs will be our response. I am no apologist for Isis.
How could I be? But everything I know tells me this is a mistake. The
bombardment will be huge, a symbol of righteous anger. Within 48 hours
of the atrocity, fighter planes conducted their most spectacular
munitions raid yet in Syria, dropping more than 20 bombs on Raqqa,
an Isis stronghold. Revenge was perhaps inevitable, but what’s needed
is deliberation. My fear is that this reaction will make a bad situation
While we are trying to destroy Isis, what of the 500,000 civilians
still living and trapped in Raqqa? What of their safety? What of the
very real prospect that by failing to think this through, we turn many
of them into extremists? The priority must be to protect these people,
not to take more bombs to Syria.
We need no-fly zones – zones closed to Russians, the regime, the
coalition. The Syrian people need security or they themselves will turn
to groups such as Isis.
Canada withdrew from the air war
after the election of Justin Trudeau. I desperately want France to do
the same, and rationality tells me it could happen. But pragmatism tells
me it won’t. The fact is we are trapped: Isis has trapped us. They came
to Paris with Kalashnikovs, claiming that they wanted to stop the
bombing, but knowing all too well that the attack would force us to keep
bombing or even to intensify these counterproductive attacks. That is
what is happening.
Emwazi is gone now, killed in a coalition air strike, his death
celebrated in parliament. I do not mourn him. But during his murder
spree, he too followed this double bluff strategy. After murdering the
American journalist James Foley,
he pointed his knife at the camera and, turning to the next intended
victim, said: “Obama, you must stop intervening in the Middle East or I
will kill him.” He knew very well what the hostage’s fate would be. He
knew very well what the American reaction would be – more bombing. It’s
what Isis wants, but should we be giving it to them?
The group is wicked, of that there is no doubt. But after all that
happened to me, I still don’t feel Isis is the priority. To my mind, Bashar al-Assad
is the priority. The Syrian president is responsible for the rise of
Isis in Syria, and so long as his regime is in place, Isis cannot be
eradicated. Nor can we stop the attacks on our streets. When people say
“Isis first, and then Assad”, I say don’t believe them. They just want
to keep Assad in place.
At the moment there is no political road map and no plan to engage
the Arab Sunni community. Isis will collapse, but politics will make
that happen. In the meantime there is much we can achieve in the
aftermath of this atrocity, and the key is strong hearts and resilience,
for that is what they fear. I know them: bombing they expect. What they
fear is unity.
• Nicolas Henin is author of Jihad Academy, The Rise of Islamic State