In 2014 a French journalist took to social media in an attempt to bait and expose a Syria-based Islamic State recruiter. The plan seemed simple enough: Solicit information on terror cells’ use of social media to recruit, tease travel arrangements to expose a network used by European sympathizers, and gain a better understanding of those drawn to radical causes.
Using the pseudonym Mélodie, the journalist delved into the online world of extremism to “grasp the mindset of soldiers who spent their days torturing, stealing, raping, killing, and their nights staring into their computers and bragging,” wrote the author, who now goes by another manufactured name, Anna Erelle, and lives under police protection.
Establishing a connection with a recruiter turned out to be surprisingly easy, and it happened to be with a prominent figure. Posing as a 20-year-old convert to Islam, Mélodie launched into an ongoing dialogue over Skype with a man named Bilel, a recruiter with direct ties to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former Islamic State leader who was killed in October 2019 following a raid by Special Operations forces.
“Syria is amazing,” the jihadist told her after making contact. “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.”
The process that unfolded — a marriage proposal by the ISIS recruiter, partial travel to Syria to expose more of the cell’s operation, and subsequent ordeal that led to “Mélodie” moving out of her apartment and into police protection — formed the basis of Erelle’s 2015 nonfiction bestseller “In the Skin of a Jihadist,” as well as the subsequent 2018 film “Profile,” which debuted at the Berlin Film Festival and SXSW, taking home awards at both.
Now, ”Profile” has been picked up by Focus Features and is slated for a U.S. release, the studio announced.
Timur Bekmambetov, the director behind 2008′s “Wanted,” starring Angelina Jolie, helmed the project after producing unconventional computer screen-based thrillers “Unfriended” and “Searching,” a film that received critical acclaim and strong performances from John Cho and Debra Messing.
After confirming the film’s American release, Bekmambetov commented that its relevance is greater now than ever due to an online migration fueled by COVID-19.
“While the pandemic has shifted our entire lives online, with school gone remote, work meetings replaced by video calls, and [virtual] happy hours, it has also raised numerous questions about our digital privacy, data protection, and cybersecurity,” Bekmambetov said in a release.
“That makes this the best time to watch a movie like ‘Profile’ for those who have spent months in lockdown with their computer screens and who can relate to the paranoia and riskiness driven by the Internet and online technologies in a time when everyone from the terrorists to your government wants a piece of your digital exposure.”
As for Erelle, after her article was published, she was told that, for safety purposes, she was no longer allowed to report on ISIS.
“For me, though, that was only the beginning,” she wrote. “The authorities, fearing the terrorists could trace my address and my identity, have twice asked me to change my phone number.
“Drastic safety measures have been implemented...”
“Profile” is slated for a May 14 release.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.