In late January, FRANCE 24’s Charlotte Boitiaux was contacted out of the blue by an acquaintance who had joined an al Qaeda-linked group in Syria. She recounts her conflicted feelings as a reporter and a friend.
At about 10pm on January 27 a message popped up on my Facebook profile: “Live from Syria – fighting the army of Bashar al-Assad.”
The message was accompanied by a picture of a young man, proud and warlike, wielding an AK-47 and wearing an explosive vest.
I didn’t understand what was going on. But I recognised him immediately.
I’ve known Salahudine (not his real name) for around five years. I’ve sat down to eat with him, we’ve cracked jokes together.
And now I learned that he had travelled 3,000 kilometres to wage holy war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
I knee-jerked: “Why did you go there? Answer me. This is dangerous. You’re waging jihad. Are you off your rocker?”
He replied immediately: “We are just fighting the Damascus regime. Don’t you worry.”
I knew immediately that I wanted to write a portrait. I also knew it was going to be a lot more complicated than I bargained for at the time.
‘I want to leave some kind of a mark’
Salahudine is an acquaintance, not a close friend. But this is a young man who knows my family, who has sat at our family table.
How could I ask him questions with the detachment necessary to all journalists? How could I interview him professionally without putting our relationship in jeopardy? He recognised my dilemma.
“I trust you Charlotte,” he wrote. “I’ll answer all and any of your questions honestly. I’ll tell you anything so long as it doesn’t put my family in danger. I want to leave some kind of a mark of my short time on Earth.”
The first time that I was able to speak with him on the phone I was tongue-tied by my own naiveté.
It was midnight. “Hello Salahudine? Everything OK? I don’t know what to say. Is al Qaeda treating you well?”
He laughed heartily. So did I.
Devotion to al Qaeda
Pangs of guilt began almost immediately, I felt from the very first messages between us that we had become accomplices. At the same time I refused to let myself worry about a man who had surrendered his life to religious fanaticism.
What’s more, he had taken his wife and his two daughters to Syria with him. He told me of his adoration of Osama bin Laden, his devotion to al Qaeda.
I was appalled, yes, but I couldn’t bring myself to hate him. I tried to convince him to come back to Paris, a notion as idiotic as it was vain.
It was too late for that, and Salahudine was no longer the Parisian boy I once knew.
And yet he kept up the conversation with enthusiasm. “How’s your family?” he asked.
“Tell Jérémie [a mutual friend] that I miss our chats.”
It was difficult to hear. How much easier it would have been if I was talking to someone hateful and arrogant, the stereotype of an al Qaeda fighter, heartless and bloodthirsty.
And yet sometimes he could be cold. From the second day of our conversations, he started telling me about his life as a fighter.
He told me about killing a regime soldier, why he didn’t feel guilty about it.
He told me he wouldn’t hesitate to blow himself up if it was his only choice.
On the third day, the hours ticked by and he did not answer my messages. I waited, worried, climbing the walls of my apartment.
“Sorry, just seen your messages,” he wrote. “You know I can’t always reply immediately. I am on the front lines here.”
There were tears in my eyes. I knew that his dearest wish was to die a martyr but this was not something I could accept or even contemplate.
This made him laugh: “Death is a reward for me. I will soon find my Redeemer.”
I told Salahudine that writing his story was going to be complicated for me.
“You’re starting to get attached to me. LOL,” he wrote.
And he was right. I was starting to feel close to him. I couldn’t find the necessary detachment. He made me laugh. And it is extremely disconcerting to be joking around with a member of al Qaeda.
“You’ve been single for a year?” he asked. “If I had known, I would have asked you out.”
I took the bait: “If we had been together, do you think I would have ever followed you on this jihadist madness of yours? You know me, I’m hardly the religious type.”
“I’m sure you would have converted for me,” he joked, adding the popular French text acronym MDR (I'm dying of laughter).
Hell in Syria
Salahudine used MDR about every 10 messages. And up until February 5, we spoke every day, which constituted some 150 pages of conversation.
His last message was a brutal reminder of the realities of the hell into which Syria has descended.
“It’s heating up,” he wrote. “It’s really heating up. Assad’s forces are invading the city, I’m worried for the safety of my girls [his wife and daughters].”
I forgot to ask him how he was, I was focused on what I was going to write, on how I was going to write it.
“I’ve still got questions for you, Salahudine!” I wrote. “I don’t want too much. Tell me about your first day in Syria, give me some colour. What were the days like, what were the nights like? Put yourself in the position of a reader. You arrive in Syria, then what happens? You can’t have known anyone, how did you know where to go, know what to do?”
That was our last interaction. Since then, he has disappeared.
A few days before, I'd written his story from the first person. It was complicated, as I had imagined it would be, but I felt, at least, I was telling his story honestly.
Putting myself in his shoes helped me transcribe his feelings without betraying our friendship, and I hoped that anyone reading this would know that this was his story, not mine.
I had asked him to read it, to make sure there weren't any stupid mistakes. And I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said: “Great stuff, thanks. And I don’t care who takes it or where it’s published. I just hope that it helps you professionally.”
I was paid a little for the story and I gained some visibility as a journalist.
And I fulfilled your wish, Salahudine, you have left a mark of your short time on Earth. I hope I hear from you again soon.
Click here to read the FRANCE 24 EXCLUSIVE: Confessions of a French jihadist in Syria
Click here to read France24.com Editor Sylvain Attal’s editorial on “Confessions of a French jihadist”.
Date created : 2014-02-13