BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. This week you didn't have to be in Belgium to feel the reverberation of bombs in Brussels. British Prime Minister David Cameron.
PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: These were attacks in Belgium. They could just as well be attacks in, in Britain or in France or Germany or elsewhere in Europe, and we need to stand together.
BOB GARFIELD: And French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Europe's very survival is at stake.
INTERPRETER FOR PRIME MINISTER VALLS: It’s another war because terrorism, this terrorism, Islamic State, wants to destroy us. It wants to destroy men and women. We’ve seen it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Writing in The Guardian this week, French journalist Nicolas Henin criticized world leaders for depicting the challenge posed by ISIS this way, quote, “If we adopt a militaristic warlike vocabulary there’ll be no way back from that. We will only strengthen our enemies,” he wrote. Henin should know. In 2013 while reporting in Syria, he was kidnapped and held hostage by ISIS for nearly a year. He shared a cell with James Foley, Stephen Sotloff, Peter Kassig and more than a dozen other Western captives. Mohammed Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John, an oft-videoed executioner, was one of his jailers. After Henin’s release, filled with what he called “accidental knowledge of jihadism,” he wrote Jihad Academy. In the book he punctures Western conventional wisdom about ISIS and the Syrian conflict and lays bare what he sees as our deadly misperceptions of ISIS. Nicolas, welcome to On the Media.
NICOLAS HENIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you essentially make the argument that the West, and particularly the Western media, buy into the myths that ISIS is selling, right?
NICOLAS HENIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's go through some of ‘em. A big one has to do with the relationship between the Syrian regime and ISIS, that the government –
NICOLAS HENIN: No, you believe that they are enemies. They are not enemies. They cooperate together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They cooperate together?
NICOLAS HENIN: Of course.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Their relationship is symbiotic.
NICOLAS HENIN: Yeah. ISIS needs the regime to kill Syrians in huge numbers, so then ISIS can come and tell the Arab Sunnis in Syria, well, we are the bad guys, powerful enough to protect you. We are like your - your godfathers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: ISIS says that.
NICOLAS HENIN: Yeah, ISIS says that, and the regime, meanwhile, needs ISIS as a life insurance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Life insurance?
NICOLAS HENIN: Yes, of course because as long as ISIS is here, then well, the West will be terrified and will say, well, maybe Bashar al-Assad is a lesser problem. This regime, which claims today that it fights terrorism, that it is secular, is nothing like that. All the foreign fighters who joined the Iraqi insurgency in the early years of the American occupation of Iraq, they all transited through Syria. And this transit was managed by the Syrian intelligence. The regime played with terrorism to - well, ensure its future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We've seen the rise of ISIS, making its capital right inside of Syria, and you’re saying that was also according to Assad's plan, and that’s something that we fail to understand, which is critical, right?
NICOLAS HENIN: Yeah. Assad needs ISIS to survive. He released jihadi prisoners at the very early stages of the other [?] revolution. He declared an amnesty but this amnesty did not concern all the democrats. They stayed in prison. All the political prisoners in jail, they stayed in jail. But all the jihadists, they were released because he wanted a civil war.
He wanted this revolution to become a civil war.
And for the very same reason he also created tremendous fear among the minorities in his country, so that the, the Syrian Christians, for instance, are convinced that if ever the revolution succeeds, then they will be either dead or will have to flee, which was at least at the beginning totally wrong. Yes, there is definitely now concerns for the future of the minorities in Syria, but at its early stage it was just a people begging for its freedom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also suggest that our misperceptions lead to actions, or the lack of actions, that actually create self-fulfilling prophecies.
NICOLAS HENIN: For instance, one of our main mistakes is to believe that ISIS is a problem, no!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What?
NICOLAS HENIN: ISIS is just the result of the problem. If we fight only ISIS, it’s just like if we fight fever but don’t care of the, of the disease. No, we have to fight the disease. And the disease, what is it? It is the massacres being committed against the Syrian population.
I mean, since the beginning of this revolution over 300,000 Syrians have been killed. Do you know that the Syrian regime has killed between 7 to 10 times more civilians since the beginning of this civil war than ISIS? So it is our short view on this and our only focus on ISIS and terrorism because we are afraid of these guys. And it’s normal because it is their job to terrorize us. It is this which creates the conditions for ISIS to be so prosperous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that it is often enough just to cry wolf to create a wolf. Violence produces violence, just as despair breeds radicalization and hate breeds hate.
NICOLAS HENIN: You know, I covered, as a, as a journalist not only the War in Iraq because I arrived in Baghdad five months before the, the American soldiers, and I covered intensively the Syrian revolution. I've been there five times, each time for a long time. And when I arrived first in Syria this revolution was very peaceful, very joyful. People were dancing in the streets. And I have seen this revolution progressively being militarized and radicalized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, they were happy initially because they thought there would be some support, like there was for the Libyan revolution.
NICOLAS HENIN: Exactly, and there, and there wasn’t. There wasn’t any support, and they had been massacred. And I mean I'm not going to advocate for violence, but this violence is somehow a natural reaction. Once a friend of mine, a Syrian opponent told me, you know what, if the Dalai Lama was Syrian today, he would be a jihadist. If you live among fear and mourning, well, you eventually look for some kind of revenge. It’s just because you have nothing else and you realize how fragile is your life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that the Western obsession with the jihadists, the security threat that they represent, comes at a very high cost because it allows the Syrian regime to get away with precisely the kind of brutality that you just described.
NICOLAS HENIN: Yeah, and basically what does it mean? It means that yes, we have to fight ISIS but we have also to counter the Syrian regime because I don't know what the future of this country will look like, but there is one thing I know for sure. It is not possible to destroy ISIS as long as the Syrian regime is in place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another misjudgment of the Western media that you highlight is one that has been echoed by a number of terrorism experts, that we, in elevating ISIS to evil incarnate, we –
NICOLAS HENIN: We serve their purposes. If they put themselves on some kind of pedestal, like okay, we are the very bad guys, we are the worst terrorists of anytime, and this promotes them because if you are like a youngster from a Western suburb and you want to, to rebel, well, you will just join the best bad guy of anytime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we've got the Western obsession we have to deal with. This notion that the Syrian regime will in any way be helpful in the fight against ISIS is profoundly misleading. Our inaction is not dealing with the causes of the disease. That’s another one –
NICOLAS HENIN: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you were in captivity, Jihadi John was among your jailers. Being face to face with them for so long, what do you understand that we can't?
NICOLAS HENIN: They are very trivial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They are very trivial?
NICOLAS HENIN: Yeah, they are very normal guys. They are just like street kids mostly. And this is my advantage on you. You see ISIS fighters only through the videos that they produce. But I lived among them for 10 months, so I don't buy the legend anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nicolas, I want to ask a bit about your captivity, simple questions, some of which aren't so simple. You don’t want to talk about them that's fine, but I just thought I would try.
NICOLAS HENIN: Go ahead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay? First of all, how were you captured?
NICOLAS HENIN: Mm-hmm, very normally. I mean, like yeah.
Like any hostage, you know, like, like in a movie. Have you seen a movie with a, with a hostage being taken?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where they put a hood over your head and throw you in a car?
NICOLAS HENIN: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Seriously?
NICOLAS HENIN: Just like this, just like this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. Do you know where you were taken?
NICOLAS HENIN: Now, yes. I found the location on, on Google Maps. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where was it?
NICOLAS HENIN: Well, that was a facility a bit outside of Raqqa.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Uh huh. What did your cell look like?
NICOLAS HENIN: My very first cell was a bathroom but I've been in over a dozen of cells altogether, moved from Raqqa to Aleppo and a bit in the countryside and then back to Raqqa. So I - they were good at making me visit their country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good tourism. Were you like chained?
NICOLAS HENIN: Sometime, yeah, especially sometimes handcuffed together with Jim Foley.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Had he already been in captivity for a long time?
NICOLAS HENIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He seemed to be senior captive in –
NICOLAS HENIN: Yes, he was, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sometimes you were in a cell with as many as 19 hostages?
NICOLAS HENIN: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they were from different countries.
NICOLAS HENIN: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you negotiate space? I mean, were there tensions? Did you guys argue? Were - did you talk?
NICOLAS HENIN: Well, sometime we had – nice chat together. Sometime we had some arguments. Well, it’s, it’s life. I mean, just try to spend three or four months with just 18 others, each of us having one square meter, and you will see –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One square meter?
NICOLAS HENIN: Yeah, one square meter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You played chess?
NICOLAS HENIN: Yes, we did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How?
NICOLAS HENIN: We improvised chess games. Stephen Sutcliffe even made a, Risk game, so we played –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Risk?
NICOLAS HENIN: Yeah, with, with a pen that we have taken from one of our captors and using small pieces of cardboard from packages of food.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you think about your time in captivity, is there a, a particular memory or a feeling that jumps out at you?
NICOLAS HENIN: [PAUSE] I would say it's, it's – it’s a long journey to recover from it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that it really was kind of like the movies, and I'm just wondering, is there anything about your captivity that we haven't seen on the big screen?
NICOLAS HENIN: No, it was just like in a movie. And, by the way, even the people going to Syria, joining ISIS in Syria to fight, even these people see himself as movie characters. They play their own movie. This is why I think that the most powerful way to fight ISIS are not bombs. It is to kill the narrative. We have to write another movie. We have to build other heroes. And this is why I believe that the French are making big mistakes in the ways they, they fight ISIS.
We created, for instance, accounts on the social media named “Stop Jihadism,” and this is [BLEEP], like they did not understand anything. And I did understand why we are so bad. It’s just because in France we don't know how to write TV series properly.
Just because we have no imagination, we cannot just tell beautiful stories, create beautiful characters, beautiful heroes. And this is what we have to do because in our world, in our societies what do people want? They want to become heroes. They want to be famous. They want to be, to be recognized.
And this is by lack of recognitions that youngsters from our countries are joining ISIS, just because they want to become someone, they want to be somebody! Our society don’t give them a chance. So we have to create our kind of heroes. We have to kill the narrative, creating our heroes and not using the codes of the enemy. And we are totally failing in that. Even the TV report that we are doing on ISIS, what do we do? We are just using their propaganda pictures. This is totally wrong!
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
NICOLAS HENIN: Well [LAUGHS], sorry for being - sometime a bit noisy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nicolas Henin is the author of Jihad Academy.
NICOLAS HENIN: Thank you.