What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
How difficult it was for me to write about myself in the moment, explaining to readers how I felt about certain situations, the fear, the threat, the moment where you get back to your hotel room or home and you’re trying to deal with what you’ve seen out there. I lived through it again. I lived many moments I tried to forget, moments where I found myself in danger, moments where I found myself in the car with Taliban commanders or ISIS commanders. Later, I realized how dangerous those situations were.
I did keep a diary, which is one of the reasons I was able to describe some moments and interactions very precisely. But it was different and difficult for me to take those things that I wrote down for myself and offer it to the world. To be part of the story was something absolutely new.
One of the reasons I have access into the world of jihad, and how I was able to meet people on the most wanted list, is because I’m trying to stay in the middle of everything. I’m trying to stay neutral, even if that’s not always easy. Some people believe reporters should take sides. I believe it’s far more important to gain access to understand how those people think and where the hatred comes from.
I didn’t grow up as a Muslim with this kind of interpretation of ideology, the kind of interpretation groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS are offering people. When I sit with someone in Europe, telling me about how they were radicalized there, when they’re telling me about moments where they don’t belong, I understand that.
I grew up with parents and grandparents who equipped me not to fall for easy answers. But I do understand the processes much better given my own background. In my work life, I’m staying out of the story. In this book, I’m telling the reader how it was to meet people, how it felt when I was threatened from various sides. I’m revealing a lot of myself.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
When I proposed the book, there was no Paris attack chapter; there was no chapter on the so-called refugee crisis in Germany. The saddest part is that the epilogue was not supposed to be a chapter where I describe how it felt for me, my cousin and his wife to lose a family member. Their son was killed in an attack in Munich last year. He was 14. Certain chapters were added or changed given the circumstances, and what I lived through.
It was a very challenging writing process because I was reporting on current events while I was working on the book. I was sent to Munich because we thought it was an attack by some ISIS fighter or returnee. When I left to cover this, I learned that my relative was missing. During the night we learned that he was one of the victims.
Basically I had to tell The Washington Post, I can no longer report here because now my own family is part of the story, so I can no longer be a neutral reporter.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
It was a movie that led to my decision to become a journalist: “All the President’s Men.” I don’t know if Robert Redford played a role in this, but that movie had a huge impact on me when I was in my teenage years in Germany and was looking for what to do. I thought of becoming an actor — which my parents weren’t happy about. But now today, after all the places I’ve been and the people I’ve interviewed, they sometimes say, “We wish you’d become an actress.”
I forced my parents to see this movie. I took scissors and cut out the black-and-white photograph in the newspaper ad that showed Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the newsroom. I put this picture on my door in my room and told my parents, “That’s what I want to do.”
Persuade someone to read “I Was Told to Come Alone” in less than 50 words.
A combination of memoir and reportage, this book gives the reader unique access behind the lines of jihad. This is a book to understand what drives people into the hands of recruiters, and the nature of the threat that is facing the West today.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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