I Was Groomed To Become An ISIS Bride

'I was groomed to become an Isis bride'

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by Grazia |

What drives hundreds of young Western women to travel to Syria to join Isis? Journalist Anna Erelle, 32, posed as a 19 year-old would-be Jihadi bride to find out, risking her life in the process.

As told to Kim Willsher

I stared at the message on the screen.

'My baby...Listen to me!' it read. 'I love you more than I've loved anyone. You should be here with me. I can't stand to think of you in that corrupt country. I'll protect you. I'll shelter you from the world's evils. When you come to live with me, you'll see what a paradise me and my men are building.'

My first Skype session with Abu Bilel al-Firanzi, a French jihadi fighting with Islamic State in Syria, was on a warm Friday evening last April. By Sunday, we were engaged.

Well, not me exactly. Bilel thought he was proposing to Mélodie, a naive 19-year-old French girl who had secretly converted to Islam.

In fact, Melodie was me - a journalist with a well-known French magazine. For the last two years, I've reported on European teenagers sucked into Islamic extremism who risk death to go to Syria or Iraq.

And it happens every week - as the recent high profile case of London teenagers Shamima Begum, 15, 16-year-old Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, 15, show.

But despite having interviewed lots of families and even jihadis, I didn't know the story from a young person's side. I wanted to understand how they can feel so desperate and lost that they choose to leave for Syria and Iraq, and what they expect to find when they get there.

I decided to put 'Mélodie's' profile on Facebook and Twitter to find information about life in jihadi circles. My picture was a cartoon image of Princess Jasmine from the Disney movie Aladdin.

In early 2014, completely out of the blue, a man called Bilel contacted Mélodie. He was French, around 40-years-old and an 'emir', someone high up in Islamic State in Syria. It was only later I would discover that he was close to Abu Bakh al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS.

To begin with we exchanged messages but, very quickly, Bilel wanted to talk on Skype. At first I wasn't sure I'd pass as someone 10 years younger, but once I'd put on a hijab, minimised my make-up, removed my rings and covered the small tattoo on my wrist with foundation, my disguise was convincing.

Yet I was surprised by Bilel's appearance in that first video call. He looked clean - even well-groomed - after a long day fighting at the front. He sat up straight, sticking out his chin and spoke French with a slight Algerian accent.

During our calls he boasted that he had killed 'dozens' of infidels and quickly became very pushy, harassing me, making sure he was always present in my head, spouting lies and ISIS propaganda, and trying to intimidate someone he thought was young and naive. He explained the rules of Sharia and how I should dress and behave. Bizarre things were frowned upon - he flipped out when I blew on my coffee saying it was haram (forbidden) because it was a western habit.

It was pathetic. Here was a man who was nearly 40 trying to groom a girl who he thought was not even 20. I asked what life was like for women in Syria and he said as the wife of someone high-ranking I would be treated like a queen - we'd live in a big apartment and I'd have everything I wanted. He asked me to bring lingerie 'to make my husband happy' and also buy him cotton underpants and Dior or Chanel aftershave. 'You'll take care of orphans and the wounded during the day, while I'm fighting,' he said. He made Isis sound like a humanitarian organisation rather than a terrorist group.

As a journalist, I detested Bilel. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. None of this felt real or scary while I was sitting on my comfortable sofa in my one-bedroom Parisian flat, covered in a hijab. But it quickly became frightening.

Once he sent me 120 emails messages in the space of two hours. In them, he asked if I was a virgin and if I was 'pure'. Another day he wrote that he had a 'special surprise' for me - a picture of him, with a rifle slung across his shoulder. A black bandana embroidered with the Islamic State's white insignia covered his forehead. He stood puffing out his chest, smiling.

Bilel became insistent on me coming to Syria. To encourage me to make the journey he told me he was 'worried' about me. 'I sense that you have a good soul,' he said, and if you continue to live among kafirs, you'll burn in hell.' Bilel expected me to take the same route as the other teenagers who go to Syria, travelling via Amsterdam and Turkey, keeping Isis updated with my progress via disposable mobile phones. The imam had assured Bilel we were already married, so as soon as I arrived in Syria, I'd be his wife.

'You should see how happy the women are here,' he said. 'They used to be lost, like you. One of my friends' wives has arranged a program for your arrival. After your shooting lessons, she'll take you to a very beautiful store, the only one in the country that sells fine cloth. Mélodie, my wife! Hurry up; I can't wait.' You can see how a girl would be mesmerised.

When I didn't come to Syria - and despite the fact Bilel already had three wives, two of them converts like Mélodie, one of them only 20 - the threats began. 'Where are you, bitch?' he wrote. 'I'll make you pay'. As Melodie, I wrote: 'I'm sorry Bilel. I never wanted to disappoint you.'

But the situation escalated after my story was published, when someone issued a fatwa (a death threat) against me in a video. I remember every word: 'If you see her anywhere on earth. Follow Islamic law and kill her. Make sure she suffers a long and painful death....rape, stone and finish her'.

Although I'm not sure if ISIS is aware of my true identity, I've moved home and changed my telephone number three times and now write under a false name. I've lost friends as people around me are afraid. I've also resigned from my job, because editors are worried about repercussions for them.

Then, earlier this year there were reports (disputed by French inteligence) that Bilel was dead. Part of me said, good riddance, another extremist gone, but I also cried. While I didn't regret Bilel's death, I heard he could have been killed because of his contact with me, a journalist. I couldn't bear the idea of being responsible for another human being's death.

While I'm not afraid today, I am afraid for what might happen to me tomorrow. But despite the difficulties being Melodie has brought to my life, I'd do it all again.

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