French journalist and author of Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State. He spent 10 months as an ISIS hostage in Syria, where he was held by Mohammed Emwazi.
French journalist and author Nicolas Hénin spent 10 months as an ISIS hostage in Syria, where he was held by Mohammed Emwazi. We spoke with him about the growing move among Western countries to close their doors to refugees. "Welcoming refugees is not a terror threat to our countries; it’s like a vaccine to protect us from terrorism, because the more interactions we have between societies, between communities, the less there will be tensions," Hénin says. "The Islamic State believes in a global confrontation. What they want eventually is civil war in our countries, or at least large unrest, and in the Middle East, a large-scale war. This is what they look for. This is what they struggle for. So we have to kill their narrative and actually to welcome refugees, totally destroy their narrative."
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to our conversation with the French journalist, ISIL hostage, Nicolas Hénin. He was held hostage in Syria by the self-proclaimed Islamic State for 10 months. I asked him about U.S. journalist James Foley, who was beheaded in August of 2014, four months after Hénin was released.
AMY GOODMAN: When James Foley was beheaded, how did you find out? Where was he beheaded?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Well, it was—I recognized the place, because these were valleys where I ran when I escaped. I actually ran very close from this place on the night I escaped at the very beginning of my captivity, so I recognized the landscape. And I was, of course, very much shocked, because I did not believe that that would happen. I was still maybe a bit naive, but we filled ourselves with hope, with desperate hope, during these months of captivity. We had to hope, because if you stop hoping, then you have no reason to survive. So that was maybe a bit naive to believe that, yes, for some of us, it may be a bit more difficult than for others, but that we would eventually, all of us, make it out. And his murder was the evidence that that wasn’t true and that actually some of us, some of our group, would not make it out.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you ultimately get freed, Nicolas?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Well, I believe that there has been negotiations for that. I don’t know the terms of the negotiation. I don’t know what I have been exchanged for. The only thing I know is what the French authorities, what President Hollande told me, that the French government did not pay any money. So, I don’t know anything else.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened after 10 months? You were held, and then tell us about the day you were freed.
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Well, it was a bit strange. I mean, I was—we were moved to a different jail, so away from the group. We had to speak on the day before we were said, "Well, you will be freed." So, and we had to speak for the first time with Kayla Mueller for five minutes. And—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, you had to speak to Kayla?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: She—they brought us to her cell. So we had five minutes of exchange, because, obviously, they wanted us to report that she was with us and alive. And—
AMY GOODMAN: What did you say to Kayla? What was your conversation?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Well, she explained a bit what she had been through.
AMY GOODMAN: What did she say?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: She said that she—she was looking extremely brave. I mean, she was incredibly courageous. At that time, I don’t believe that she had been mishandled yet. Apparently she has been afterwards. But she spent—
AMY GOODMAN: Raped and abused.
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Maybe. But she spent several months in isolation, and she—but she was impressive. She had a beautiful inner strength. I mean, she was strong inside. She obviously had been through some tough moments, but she managed very well to overcome them. I was just impressed. She was looking beautiful. She was strong. She was—I mean, to the point that Jihadi John believed that she converted to Islam. And she said, "Oh, I just want to correct you: I did not convert." And, I mean, no one would dare to contradict him, but she did. That was not aggressive. She was just like, "No, please let me correct you: I did not convert." And she was just like that, very calm, but very decided. And she even spoke to us a few words of French, because her French was actually quite good. And she—yeah, she was really impressive.
AMY GOODMAN: And who were you released with?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: With—we were four French journalists together, and we have been released together. And they just, after some days in a transit place, drove us to the Turkish border and then delivered us to the Turkish military.
AMY GOODMAN: Were there other women held there?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Yes, there were a few women, but they were in a separate cell.
AMY GOODMAN: And did you know who they were?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Who were they?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: I cannot say, because these cases are under blackout.
AMY GOODMAN: Blackout because?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Because of their will and the will of their employer and families.
AMY GOODMAN: We just came from Calais, about two hours north of Paris. There were thousands and thousands of refugees there. Talk about the largest explosion of refugees since World War II and how the West is dealing with them.
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Well, this huge flow of refugees is a major recruiting argument for populist political parties across Europe. And that’s another trap, because actually this refugee crisis was a major blow to the Islamic State and to its propaganda. Because what does the Islamic State propaganda rely on? First, they say Western society is not suitable for a Muslim to live in. A Muslim should emigrate to a Muslim land, and preferably to the caliphate, because this caliphate that we are establishing is the dream land for all Muslims. And the other aspect, the other key point of ISIS propaganda, is based on the fact that Westerners marginalize Muslim, that there is racism and hatred.
And basically, what have we witnessed last summer? First, hundreds of thousands of Muslims fleeing this dream land of Syria. It’s like—it’s just like if you had loads of Jews fleeing Israel just a couple of years after the state of Israel is established. I mean, that’s a—it contradicts all of the speech the state is based on and contracts itself on. And not only that, so they leave this land of sham, that is dream land for ISIS, to immigrate to lands of unbelievers, and on top of that, they are welcomed with open arms by the Western societies, who—and by many people in Europe who say, "Well, you are our brothers, and we will protect you."
And that was so much a blow that I believe that one of the reasons behind the Paris attack was to disrupt this and to stop, to make us close our doors to the refugees, because, actually, welcoming refugees is not a terror threat to us, to our countries. It’s like a vaccine to protect us from terrorism, because the more interactions we have between societies, between communities, the less there will be tensions. I mean, the Islamic State believes in a global confrontation. What they want eventually is civil war in our countries, or at least large unrest, and in the Middle East, a large-scale war. This is what they look for. This is what they struggle for. So we have to kill their narrative and actually to welcome refugees, totally destroy their narrative. And if you kill their narrative, it’s even more efficient than if you drop some bombs and kill some of their fighters.
AMY GOODMAN: Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front party here in France, has just surged in the election yesterday. Now, these are regional elections. Her base is Calais. What does this mean?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Well, she actually benefits a lot from the recent events. Of course, one of the reasons for this surge is the high unemployment rate that we have in France and the economic crisis that is continuing. But she benefited a lot from, first, the refugee crisis, with a surge also in xenophobia. And she is very much Islamophobic, and she plays with that. And the second event was the Paris attack. She played with the fear of the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the rise of the National Front and the rise of ISIS?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Well, it’s surprising to see the parallel somehow and some kind of shared interest between ISIS and the National Front. It can sound a bit provocative to say it like that, but the point is that definitely the Paris attack, just a few weeks before the first round of these elections that have seen the surge of the National Front, are—well, these events are probably related, just like this surge is probably also related to the refugee crisis and—because Marine Le Pen, just like all of the populist leaders across Europe, played a lot with the fear of the people following this refugee crisis. They pretended that this influx of refugees threatened our identity, that it would jeopardize our security. This is totally stupid. I mean, you know, in France, we will welcome this year between 20,000 to 26,000 refugees. We are a country of almost 70 million inhabitants. I was in Sweden last week. They have 9 million inhabitants. They will welcome 190,000 refugees this year alone. I mean, and they are not afraid for their identity. They are not afraid for their security. They are just—well, they are just concerned, well, with the accommodation of all these people and more—much more logistical and practical concerns and issues. But they—I mean, we could welcome even more refugees than we are welcoming. And actually, welcoming refugees is a beautiful way to fight the Islamic State.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Because this kills their narrative, because all their narrative is based on the fact that they are building the holy land for Muslims in their caliphate, self-proclaimed caliphate, on one way, and it’s made also on the Islamophobia. I heard, you know, during my time in captivity once a discussion between French-speaking jihadis, so probably French and—or maybe of mix of French and Belgian. And that discussion was about Islamophobia in Europe. And obviously, Islamophobia was one of the main reasons for which they decided to join the Islamic State, because many of the people, the Islamic State fighters, go there and join the group in an attempt to kind of restore the Muslim pride.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you feel the jihadis were steeped in Islam?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Very little. And by the way, most of the jihadis I know, either that I met during my time in captivity or that I followed on the social media or exchanged with on the social media afterwards, are just "new" Muslims. I mean, they either converted, or they are kind of born-again Muslim. So, to be provocative, a good Muslim will not become a jihadi. I did not meet any jihadi who had a religious childhood. And religion is always kind of a vaccine—can you say?
AMY GOODMAN: Vaccine.
NICOLAS HÉNIN: And religion seems to be always almost a vaccine against terrorism, because a good religious people will never become a terrorist.
AMY GOODMAN: Your message to the Republican presidential candidates now, Donald Trump and others, who are saying the refugee flow must be cut off?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Well, they are playing the game of ISIS. They are just playing it. So—
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Because they—welcoming refugees is kind of a vaccine against terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: And why so many jihadists come from France?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: That’s a difficult question to answer. Maybe because of the proximity of the—of Syria. It’s not difficult to travel from France to Syria, from Western Europe to Syria. And also it’s probably a problem of sociology. It’s probably also the result of social problems that we can have in France. It’s also probably, to some extent, the result of bad policies, with, indeed, some marginalization of Muslims. And there have been likely some failures, as well, from the security services.
AMY GOODMAN: What would you say to young Europeans who want to join, who what to become jihadists?
NICOLAS HÉNIN: This is a very important message. Basically, ISIS will recruit you, telling you jihad is cool, because, yes, it’s cool, if you have no life, no girlfriend, no job, no money, nothing in your home country, and ISIS promises you, what, adventure, engagement, a girl, a car, a weapon, power, money, whatever. So, they all play like jihad is cool. And my answer is: ISIS is a scam, because ISIS does not really fight Assad, does not protect the Muslims in Syria, but kills, to wide extent, a number of Muslims in Syria. ISIS is a disaster for the Syrian people. So, for those who want to join ISIS, I tell them, "I understand the reason for your rage, because, yes, there are many reasons actually to be unhappy about both your life in the West or both the situation in Syria and these civilians being massacred in huge numbers. But ISIS will just make you make this crisis bigger."
AMY GOODMAN: French journalist Nicolas Hénin was held hostage by ISIL for 10 months in Syria.