I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad
Becoming a journalist at the dawn of the age of jihad, Souad Mekhennet describes her unique journey shining light on terrorist and extremist networks with unparalleled access. When the 9/11 attacks happened, she had just graduated from journalism school in Hamburg, Germany and found herself as one of the first people asking hard questions in the terrorists’ former neighborhood. Between then and now she has distinguished herself by going to places others do not go, interviewing people others cannot access, and asking tough, nuanced, questions. Aided by her knowledge of Arabic and Urdu and deep regional expertise, and often alone as the only reporter her sources will agree to meet, Souad has traveled behind the lines of the Iraq War, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and in Taliban-controlled regions of Pakistan. As jihad came to Europe and ISIS drew European youth to its caliphate, she increasingly encountered people of her generation and background, but who chose a very different path. Souad has an insatiable desire to bring understanding to this complex world. Her insights break down assumptions, humanize difficult stories, and speak hard truths. Though her reporting has put her life at risk, she stays motivated by the bridge-builders she encounters from every culture along the way and their inspiring work to reject division and hatred in all its forms.
Getting the Story Behind the Story: Challenges and Dangers of Investigative Reporting
Bringing her first person accounts to life, Souad Mekhennet recounts the lengths she went to land some of the biggest stories of our time. Reporting for German and American outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, Souad’s personal and professional attributes and deep bank of sources combine to give her unparalleled insight that goes beyond headline news. Some breaks came quickly and moved fast, like identifying the British-born ISIS killer known as ‘Jihadi John’ and gathering the true story of what happened when Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – earning her a nod as a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Others took months and even years to build trust, and to piece together with small shreds of evidence found along the way. In this way she uncovered a CIA rendition program through the story of German-born Khaled El Masri and revealed the secret post-war life and final resting place of a most-wanted Nazi war criminal. Souad takes audiences through the story behind the story to describe what it takes to do investigative journalism in the 24-hour and global news world and the factors that have contributed to her ability to get breaking news.
Reflections On the Rise of anti-Semitism From a German Muslim Nazi Hunter
As a German, Souad Mekhennet grew up in a country shaped by the Holocaust. She spent early years with her Grandmother in Morocco, where the then King protected Jews during the Second World War and where she as a young girl made her first Jewish friend. Upon returning to her German neighborhood she innocently wondered why there were so few Jews. Then, in 1993 Neo-Nazis unleashed an arson attack on the home of an immigrant family from Turkey, killing 5 women and girls and injuring more than a dozen others. That same year, the iconic and pivotal film Schindler’s List was released and the hateful parallel became clear to a teenage Souad. Muslims and Jews were not only cousins in faith, but in the struggle against discrimination and violence. Embarking on a story about a most-wanted Nazi war criminal, a doctor whose story was unknown despite a worldwide search, Souad journeyed to Egypt and discovered the Nazi doctor’s adopted identity, family, and a briefcase with his personal belongings. The story became her co-authored book, The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim. The Simon Wiesenthal Center credits Souad as being the first Muslim to help solve the case of a most wanted Nazi war criminal. Her insights are not merely historical: they speak directly to extremist threads of the polarization and division ascendant in Europe and the United States today.
Learning and Living Your Full Identity
As a German-born reporter for The Washington Post, Souad is a product and champion of liberal democracy and open inquiry. At the same time, a Muslim woman with immigrant parents, she has faced discrimination and exclusion at home and abroad. Her identity and immigrant heritage have at times been a cause of fear and concern for those she worked with – Germans would be afraid of her asking questions of them, one boss thought, and she’d be too sympathetic to her heritage to fairly cover Middle East issues, believed another.
Finding a professional fit where she was seen fully as an asset took her across different outlets in Europe, and ultimately to the United States. Being seen for her abilities and recognized for her accomplishments was long in coming, and still too-often focused on her first-ness, different-ness, other-ness. But at the same time, Souad has come to recognize the power and strength in her identities, and her fluidity of culture as an asset. Her story is about not giving up on your dreams and finding strength in all of what you can offer, even if it’s not been done before. As a German, Muslim, daughter of immigrants in the 1980s, she saw the movie All the President’s Men on TV and dreamed that she could one day work for The Washington Post. And now she does it – in heels.
Dangers of the Rise of Populism
Drawing on her extensive first-hand experience as a reporter covering the rise of extremism and global politics around the world, Souad Mekhennet sheds vivid light on the rise of populism in the west and the many dangers it presents. Filled with substantive analysis and fascinating anecdotes from years spent as a reporter on the road, Mekhennet decodes how populism actually plays into the hands of terrorist recruiters and strengthens the very organizations it claims to strive to defeat.
Souad Mekhennet is an award-winning journalist and book author who defies simple characterization. Her significant contributions to public discourse and global understanding are uniquely forged through a combination of her professional acumen and pathbreaking determination as a German woman of Moroccan and Turkish parentage. Souad’s immense cultural fluency sheds light on the evils of our time, but also support justice. Her dangerous encounters read like scenes from an action thriller, but also portray unparalleled humanity. Whether in the remote tribal regions of Pakistan, attending global gatherings in Dubai or Switzerland, on the streets of European capitals, or visiting mosques and synagogues across the United States, Souad’s reporting consistently challenges assumptions and breaks down barriers between people.
Based in Washington and Frankfurt, Souad Mekhennet is a national security Staff writer for The Washington Post where she was part of the reporting team recognized as Pulitzer Prize finalists in 2019. Previously, Souad covered terrorism and national security issues for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and NPR. She also worked at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and ZDF in Germany. She was a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and is a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Geneva Center for Security Policy. She was also named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Souad first reported for The Post in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, delving into the background of the Hamburg cell and writing on the threat al-Qaeda posed in Europe, North Africa and the Gulf. She was part of The Post’s coverage of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In 2004, she began a long interlude at The New York Times where she produced some of the most defining insights into the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, most notably the CIA’s botched rendition of Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen. Souad returned to The Post in 2014 and helped unmask the identity of terrorist Jihadi John. Known for closely monitoring activity within terror networks, she has many times been the first to break news and publish front page stories, such as reporting the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the group behind the 2015 Paris attacks, 15 hours before government confirmation and other media.
In her deeply reported memoir, I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad, Souad recounts how she went to jihadi strongholds to interview the leaders of and the converts to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. A product and champion of liberal democracy who is culturally and linguistically at home across the Arab world, Mekhennet is fair-minded and fearless as she seeks to find out who these people are and what motivates them. The book provides offers unique access and insight across countries. Her other three books include: Islam; The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim, co-authored with Nicholas Kulish; and The Children of Jihad: The New Generation of Islamist Terror in Europe, co-authored with Claudia Sautter and Michael Hanfeld.
Highlighted “On Air” Appearances and Speeches: