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Journalist poses undercover as jihadi girlfriend to lure Isis fighter on Facebook

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Here at stylist.co.uk, we like to bring you stories of brave women doing extraordinary things. This is one such tale, of a French journalist who risked everything to investigate why European teenagers are being drawn to Isis.

The French journalist has described how she posed undercover as a jihadi girlfriend to set up a relationship with a notorious Isis fighter based in Syria, in order to investigate why European teenagers are being drawn to Islamic extremism. 

The woman, in her 30s, set up a fake Facebook account to communicate with Abou Bilel, a high-ranking Islamic State militant who asked her to travel to the war-torn country to be his wife.

In a series of increasingly intense messages and Skype calls with Bilel last year, she pretended to be a 20-year-old woman living in Toulouse called "Mélodie", who was a recent convert to Islam.

Her subsequent article for a Paris magazine led to death threats being issued against the journalist, and she now lives under police protection and uses the pseudonym "Anna Erelle". Ahead of the publication of her book In the Skin of a Jihadist next month, she's written a piece for the Guardian detailing her extraordinary and brave investigation. 

Erelle describes how she set up social media profiles under the name Mélodie, using a cartoon image of Princess Jasmine from the Disney film Aladdin. By scouring social media feeds relating to Islamic terrorism in Syria, she caught the attention of Bilel, a "good-looking French jihadi who looked about 35 and wore military fatigues".

Erelle set up a fake Facebook account

Erelle set up a fake Facebook account

Erelle describes how, in her first conversation with Bilel, he invited her out to Syria.

"I deliberately included spelling mistakes, and tried to use teen vocabulary," she writes. "This seemed too big to be true. I had interviewed mujahideen before, but never anyone over 20, and never anyone who expressed anything beyond the official propaganda.

"... Bilel knew nothing about this girl and already he was asking her to join him. I was disgusted. Going after a girl like Mélodie was so easy: I’d met a thousand girls like her, with limited education and guidance. They were vulnerable.

"I wanted to understand how European children were falling for this propaganda, and to grasp the mindset of soldiers who spent their days torturing, stealing, raping, killing, and their nights staring into their computers and bragging. Perhaps this man would give me an insight."

Their relationship soon extended to Skype, where as Erelle explains, "I needed to look 10 years younger, find a veil, and somehow slip into the skin of a 20-year-old woman". 

"I made my voice as tiny, sweet and bright as I could, considering I’d smoked like a chimney for 15 years," she recalls.

In that Skype call - conducted from a computer with a scrambled IP address - Bilel told her, "Syria is amazing. We have everything here. Masha’Allah, you have to believe me: it’s paradise! A lot of women fantasise about us; we’re Allah’s warriors."

CCTV of schoolgirls who fled the UK to join ISIS, Turkey

CCTV shows three schoolgirls fleeing the UK to join Isis in Syria last year

Their relationship quickly became more intense. "Every morning that week, I awoke to find several affectionate messages from Bilel, all beginning with 'my baby,'" says Erelle. "I received more from him than from my boyfriend. Over the next few weeks, Abu Bilel became a full-time job. During the day, I fact-checked his claims at the office. At night, my avatar took over, conversing with him over Skype and coaxing out new information, verifying it by tracking the latest battles online.

"... He badgered Mélodie every day on Skype and Facebook. At one point he was without internet access, and instead sent a tender text message at 6am every morning: 'Have a good day, baby. Think of me. I miss you.'"

The investigation eventually came to a head when Mélodie agreed to travel to Syria, in the company of an imaginary friend "Yasmine". In keeping with the undercover piece, Erelle's plan was to go as far as Turkey with a photographer and take photos of the woman who would apparently meet them there and act as a go-between to get them across the Syrian border.

However, the plan fell apart when Bilel and Mélodie argued over the phone, after she objected to his request that she fly alone to the Syrian border. 

"Bilel’s tone changed. I’d never seen him like this before," she recalls. "[He said] 'Do you think I’m an idiot? From now on, you’re going to shut up. I’m part of a terrorist organisation. You can’t talk to me like that. Don’t you know who I am? I command 100 soldiers every day. I haven’t even told you a quarter of the truth. I’m wanted internationally; that’s why I can’t even go to our cities in Turkey. I can only travel to Iraq. I’m 38, and you and your friend can’t bring me down. You’d better tread lightly."

Kobane

The Syrian city of Kobane; the site of fierce battles between Isis and government forces

Erelle returned to France. "I deactivated my avatar’s virtual existence, keeping only her Skype profile. Mélodie sent a final message, apologising, so that her sudden disappearance wouldn’t arouse suspicion," she writes.

"... A week later, the magazine sent my article to press, under a pseudonym. For me, though, that was only the beginning. The authorities, fearing the terrorists could trace my address and my identity, have twice asked me to change my phone number. I don’t live in my apartment any more. For my safety, I can no longer report on Isis and its networks. Drastic safety measures have been implemented at my workplaces."

"The authorities asked me to keep Mélodie’s Skype account open for ongoing investigations, and to keep an eye on threats toward me. I don’t check it very often. Sometimes, when I do, I’m greeted by terrifying messages. They started when someone claiming to be Bilel’s wife began sending intimidating monologues filled with insults.

"Recently, a journalist friend called to tell me he’d learned from a reliable source that there was a fatwa against me. I spent hours searching the web. After a while, I found a video about me. It shows me wearing Mélodie’s veil on my couch. There’s no audio, but it does include cartoon characters of a devil and French and Arabic subtitles. I’ve seen the video only once, but I remember every word. I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again."

Despite all this, Erelle says she has no regrets in taking part in the investigation. 

"I did my job. I don’t know if I did it well, but I did it with a lot of precautions," she says. "I’m not afraid of yesterday. I’m not afraid today. But I’m very concerned about the future. In the way of thinking of these people, they never let go. When they call for revenge, they actually want to do it and they will try to do it even if they have to die to achieve it." 

Photos: Rex Features

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