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Life under ISIS Rule; Imagine a World

Aired December 22, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET



FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN HOST (voice-over): Tonight: an exclusive look at life under ISIS rule inside Syria and Iraq.


PLEITGEN: Hello, everybody, and welcome to the special edition of the program. I'm Fred Pleitgen, in for Christiane Amanpour, coming to you

tonight from Munich in Germany.

There's been some progress recently in the fight against ISIS with Kurdish forces making headway in Northern Iraq. However ISIS remains

entrenched, both in Iraq as well as in Syria and very little is known about its inner workings and also how high morale is among its fighters.

Now the German author, Jurgen Todenhofer, has managed to get access to ISIS both in Iraq and in Syria. He's a former German politician who now

travels the world, trying to understand the conflicts of our times.

Tonight, for the first time, you're going to be able to listen to the interviews he conducted and see the video he filmed.


PLEITGEN: Jurgen Todenhofer, welcome to the program.

Thank you for joining us.


PLEITGEN: ISIS is an organization that a lot of people obviously hate, a lot of people fear, but very few people know anything about.

Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has only been seen once in a mosque in Mosul. You were there, as well.

What was it like when you went there?

TODENHOFER: It was just a little mosque and I got a lot of trouble because I wasn't allowed to enter and I've been criticized and we had a

hard dispute about that. I wasn't allowed to go in there because I was only a Christian.

PLEITGEN: What's life like under ISIS?

What's life like for the people in Mosul, because that was the main place that you visited?

TODENHOFER: Life seems to be normal. I say it seems. Normal life is in totalitarian countries under dictatorships.

But if you say it seems to be normal, it means that you have to know that 130,000 Christians have been forced to leave, that an incredible

number of Shias have been forced to leave and have been killed, that the Yazidis have been killed and that only the Sunnis are still in this city.

So I think after one week, you cannot say how life really is.

I had been in Mosul 11 years ago, but I must say, because I have to tell you the truth, it looked like 11 years ago, without this plurality

with Christians and Shias, which was the -- also the charm of this city.

PLEITGEN: One of the things that people there seem to at least appreciate about this totalitarian leadership that you're talking about

there is that the police force seems to work, is that daily life seems to work.

Is that the impression that you got?

How were things organized?

Is the Islamic State, as it calls itself, building state institutions there?

TODENHOFER: It works like many states in this area, especially in the view of law and order, of course. But this is very important for these

people, who have been discriminated by a Shia government, which was discriminating and killing also the Shia -- the Sunni population.

And for many Sunnis -- I think many Sunnis, moderate Sunnis, don't like the radical I.S. Sunnis. But they prefer them to the Shia government

they had before.

So they had a choice to make, if they wanted to be discriminated by Shias or if they want to live with I.S. And I have the impression that

there is no resistance against I.S. in the Sunni population.

And I know the Sunni population very well, because I spent, in 2007, during the war against the United States, a lot of time with these moderate

Sunnis. And they told me exactly the same.

PLEITGEN: The fighters seem to be very confident. They seem to be very proficient and very successful on the battlefield. And we're going to

take a look at an interview that you did with an ISIS fighter in Mosul.


TODENHOFER: It took you how many days to conquer Mosul?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): About four days.

We did not kill all 24 of them. We killed a few in number. But I got terrified and ran away. We did not retreat. God has promised us victory.

We must fight.

TODENHOFER: And you think that you will win the war all over Iraq and Syria? You're sure?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We are certain that God will bring us victory and that all countries will be conquered. We will get to

Rome, Istanbul, even the United States. We are certain of that.


PLEITGEN: On TV we see beheadings. We see people being enslaved.

How much of that did you see when you were there?

TODENHOFER: I didn't see that, but this is horrible for me, too. I saw these videos, too, that these beheading videos are a part of the

strategy of I.S. to make fear and terror in the field of the enemies.

And that is -- this is one of the reasons why the enemies run away when the fighters of I.S. arrive. It's a clear strategy and I had every

day long discussions with them, because I said, you know, I have read the Quran. I know Islam. Islam is a religion of mercy.

But where is your mercy?

And they answered, "There is no time for mercy now. We prefer that our enemies fear us."


PLEITGEN: Why wouldn't the local population rise up against that, though?

How can -- how can they live under something like that?

TODENHOFER: The Sunni population --

PLEITGEN: Because they're not -- they're not radical. The Sunnis of Iraq are not radical people.

TODENHOFER: Yes, but the Sunnis of Mosul and the Sunnis of the province of Anbar are moderate, but they have nothing to fear from I.S.

They accept I.S. and I.S. is helping them, is providing food and things for the poor people of Mosul. But that's not the problem.

I.S. is a huge problem for all the other religions, for Shias. And this is, for me, they're -- there are two points which were very, very hard

to understand for me.

The first one was this incredible enthusiasm of these fighters and this huge amount of young people who arrive every day -- 50, 100, 150, from

the United States, from all over the world, even from New Jersey. You know --

PLEITGEN: You met people from New Jersey?


PLEITGEN: You saw people from New Jersey?

TODENHOFER: You don't suppose a young boy from New Jersey fighting for I.S.

I met the -- the last fighter I spoke to was a guy from an island near the United States, I don't want to mention it because I don't want any

problems for his family. He just passed his law exam with a brilliant mind and he just got a great job offer. And he refused this job offer because

he wanted to fight for the Islamic State.

They believe that they do something great, something historical, something good.

PLEITGEN: They've also taken a lot of prisoners, of course, not just women, but also fighters. And we're going to look at an interview clip now

that you did, because you were able to actually meet a prisoner of war as well.


TODENHOFER: What did they tell you? What will happen to you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Our captors said that we have Islamic State fighters imprisoned with the Kurdish regional government.

You are prisoners here and we will trade you back for our fighters. They didn't say they will kill or slaughter.


PLEITGEN: What did you feel when you talked to that man?

TODENHOFER: I felt incredibly sad because he was so weak, he said, I am so grateful that you speak to me. And then I realized that hundreds of

people were arriving to watch this situation and I stopped the conversation.

This man was completely broken and -- very sad situation.

PLEITGEN: I mean it's very possible that he was tortured and subjected to other sorts of abuses.

TODENHOFER: I don't know. I will not talk about things -- I suppose I think the only reason why he is not yet killed is because he could be

exchanged against I.S. fighters.

PLEITGEN: The way the West is trying to react to the Islamic State is a mix of a bombing campaign, arming moderate rebels, Syrian rebels, and

also trying to get some sort of Sunni uprising going on in Iraq.

Do you think that that has any chance of winning, from what you've seen -- ?


PLEITGEN: -- with the Islamic State?



TODENHOFER: The first reason is why is because I.S. is powerful. They are very, very strong. You see, I don't like them, but they are

strong. I had to admit that these people are strong.

You saw this interview with a young fighter in Mosul. There were 400. They won the battle against 25,000 soldiers and militias -- 400 -- or less

than 400.

These are very strong people. That's one reason why I'm pessimistic. And I think bombarding has been always the wrong strategy.

PLEITGEN: But you say they're strong, what -- how can you win without bombing them?

TODENHOFER: How do you want to bomb them?

They stay in Mosul; 5,000 fighters live in Mosul, everybody in another house. They don't stick together. They don't travel in convoys. I

traveled with them, but never in a convoy. There was a lorry between us and the second car was far away.

Nobody sticks together. They live in different houses and they live in Mosul, a city with 3 million residents. And to kill 5,000 I.S.

fighters, you would have to destroy the whole city. And to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, that's not a strategy. And it will not work.

The only way to fight down I.S. is to fight them down with moderate Sunnis. Only the moderate Sunnis -- Sunnis can win a battle against the

radical I.S. And they did it. In 2007, there was also an Islamic State in Iraq. And this Islamic State in Iraq called ISI was fought down by these

moderate Sunnis.

But at this time, the I.S. was not that strong.

PLEITGEN: That was with the Americans telling the moderate Sunnis that they would get government jobs --

TODENHOFER: They gave them a lot of money.

PLEITGEN: -- afterwards; they would be --


PLEITGEN: -- integrated into the Iraqi security forces.

None of that happened. We're a lot further along now.

TODENHOFER: They felt threatened, yes. And but it's -- it would be - - it would be, in a certain sense, the same strategy.

So I say the Western countries cannot fight down I.S. Only Arabs can fight down I.S. and only Sunni Arabs can fight I.S. And the Sunnis will

only fight against the I.S. if they are reintegrated in the country of Iraq. They are completely discriminated. And this is --

PLEITGEN: One group that you're not talking about is the FSA right now, the moderate Syrian rebels.

TODENHOFER: They're all laughing about the FSA. They don't take them for serious. They say the best arms seller we have are the FSA. If they

get a good weapon, they sell it to us and they didn't take them for serious. They take for serious Assad. They take for serious, of course,

the bombs. But they fear nobody and FSA doesn't play any role.

PLEITGEN: We're going to talk a lot more about ISIS' strategy, about their long-term goals. We'll have more from Jurgen Todenhofer, who has

just visited the Islamic State, in just a moment.




PLEITGEN: Welcome back to the program.

Jurgen Todenhofer, one of the things that struck me the most about your video was that you -- I think this was in Syria -- were with some new

recruits and some of them were already wearing explosive vests.

Describe for me what happened there, why that was the case.

TODENHOFER: A high percentage of the fighters is wearing these vests, these suicide vests, and not to commit suicide, but it's a strategy, if

they die, in their last moment, they will open this belt and they will kill a dozen of soldiers, of enemies, of their enemies.

And that's what they did, also, when they conquered Mosul. So -- and these vests are very small, very easy to work.

I wore one. It's a horrible feeling.

PLEITGEN: You wore one?


PLEITGEN: What was it like?

TODENHOFER: They're horrible. It's -- you know, the feeling that you kill yourself to kill an enemy is something horrible.

PLEITGEN: One of the things that you said since you returned is that the Islamic State is a lot more dangerous than anybody here in the West


Why do you say that?

TODENHOFER: I've seen many, many resistance movements. And I met rebels. I met people of Al Qaeda. I meet, also, presidents, you know,

like Karzai or --I don't meet always --

PLEITGEN: You don't only meet with al Qaeda --


TODENHOFER: Yes, I meet with Karzai and Assad and so on.

But Al Qaeda, in comparison, for example, with I.S., is an empty shell. It's nothing in comparison with I.S.

PLEITGEN: Now why do you say that?

Is it because they're better organized?

Is it because they're more brutal?

Is it because of their ideology?

Where does this come from all of a sudden?

TODENHOFER: It comes from their success. It comes from their simple ideology. It comes from this enthusiasm that nobody can explain.

I told you I was -- I spent two days in a registration house, where 50 people arrived every day. And when I saw these brilliant eyes, these happy

guys -- and not losers who may have lost their lives or missed their lives in their home countries, winners, people who you cannot imagine. Or in the

city of Mosul, I met people from Belgium. I met people from France that -- and Sweden, a wonderful Swedish guy, a blond Swedish guy.

And I think what are you doing here?

And he said, it's the time of my life.

And I said, but why?

And he saw that I didn't understand him. And I didn't understand him. I cannot understand it. And you will not understand it. That is -- it's

incredible. It's a very, very strong bond, I repeat it, like a tsunami, like a nuclear tsunami.

PLEITGEN: You spoke to a fighter from Europe, from Germany --


PLEITGEN: And he made that point very clear. We're going to have a look at that right now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We will conquer Europe some day. It is not a question of us wanting. We will. That's certain.

TODENHOFER (through translator): What if the 150 million Shiites that there are in the world refuse to convert? Will they get killed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We'll kill 150 million, 200 million, 500 million. We don't care about the number.

TODENHOFER (through translator): The Islamic State has made a spectacle of beheading people. You reintroduced slavery. You have

enslaved the Yazidi.

Do you believe that decapitation and slavery are progress for humanity?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Progress or not, I think this will always be a part of human life and it is part of our religion to

instill fear into the disbelievers. And we're going to continue to behead people. It doesn't matter whether they're Shiite, Christians or Jews. And

we're going to continue to practice this and people should think about James Foley.

He and the others didn't die because we started the battle. They died because their ignorant governments didn't help them.


PLEITGEN: This German guy, what was he like?

He seemed pretty eloquent.

TODENHOFER: He is very eloquent. He knows a lot. And I knew him quite well because I had Skype conversations with him during seven months.

So I speak with him at least 14, 16 hours about his ideology and --

PLEITGEN: So he is someone who has credibility within ISIS?

He is someone who --

TODENHOFER: He says what they want him to say. He is a guy -- he's not the official spokesman, but he doesn't say a single word which is not

the opinion of the so-called caliph. And he comes from Germany. He left Germany with a group of 10 people from Solingen.

Two are already dead. And he is -- he's very strong in ideology, very strong in history. And he's sure that he is on the right way, completely

sure. I had no chance, never, I tried to persuade him that this way was wrong. I never had a chance.

PLEITGEN: There's a lot of things that we need to talk about after seeing that interview. One of them is the threat of former ISIS members

coming back to America, coming back to Europe and committing terror attacks there, because people say that's a big threat.

What do you think?

TODENHOFER: No. That's not the main threat. I.S. is a huge threat and even the people who come back may commit a terrorist attack. They did

it, I think, in France or in Belgium.

But the people who come back have lost -- they are not the winners. They had problems with the system. It was too hard for them to fight or

the life was too hard or their wife wanted them to go back.

These are the people who didn't make it. And, therefore, they are not the biggest danger.

The biggest danger in our countries are people who are now thinking to go to Syria and to Iraq or, as they say, to the Islamic State, and to --

could commit a suicide attack or something like that before leaving,

But I suggest we should never underestimate the terrorist danger of I.S. in our countries. But their plan is, in the long run, to attack also

our countries.

So when I spoke, for example, with this young -- about the terrorist danger in Germany, he said, our main problem will be when we come with our


So I --

PLEITGEN: So they want to attack Europe. They want to attack America?

TODENHOFER: They -- one day. They will start with Andalusia and you can say these are fantasies. This is ridiculous. OK. It sounds

ridiculous. It sounds ridiculous also for me.

But if somebody had said six months ago that, at the end of this year, 2014, I.S. would run a country bigger than the U.K., bigger than Great

Britain, everybody would have said you're crazy.

PLEITGEN: In a minute we're going to talk a little bit about your safety while you were in the territory of the Islamic State, when we come




PLEITGEN: Jurgen Todenhofer, welcome back.

What I have here is the Declaration of Safe Passage, I think it is, that you received from the Islamic State.

TODENHOFER: Yes, it says that the caliph is giving a guarantee that I would be protected, the people, my team would be protected and I would come

back to Germany in safety. And it's a clear guarantee.

Our problem was that we didn't know if this guarantee was true

PLEITGEN: Did they treat you well when you were there?

TODENHOFER: They were -- they were correct, but they were not very kind to me. We had very hard discussions about our -- about the way of

investigations, about our freedom. And sometimes they chose a tone that I didn't accept.

PLEITGEN: What about censorship?

How openly were you allowed to travel?

What were you allowed to show?

What did they want to see?

TODENHOFER: We had to give our mobiles, to give our laptops to them and that all the photos were controlled, all the films were controlled.

PLEITGEN: In your travels, you also came about some very young soldiers, child soldiers, essentially --


PLEITGEN: -- who were already wearing ISIS jackets.

What was that like?

TODENHOFER: Yes. Hard. But it shows, again, that there is an enthusiasm that we cannot understand and that we do not understand.

PLEITGEN: Do you think that they were brainwashed or something?

I mean .

TODENHOFER: I had the impression that something was turned, like a key which is turned, which turned their mind.

PLEITGEN: The Islamic State obviously doesn't have diplomatic relations with any countries.

How do you get into the Islamic State and how do you get out?

TODENHOFER: I don't want to tell you all my secrets. But it works with smugglers. And I went to Turkey. And at a certain moment I had to

leave, a certain car and to run.

PLEITGEN: Jurgen Todenhofer, thank you very much for joining us.

TODENHOFER: Thank you.


PLEITGEN: And that's it for this special edition of the program. Remember you can always watch the show again at, and follow me

on Twitter @FPleitgenCNN. Thank you for watching and good night from Munich.