Itai Anghel: The brave Israeli interviewing ISIS, Kurdish fighters in Syria

Courage is a quality we value so highly we’re willing to pretend we have it.
February 12, 2015

Courage is a quality we value so highly we’re willing to pretend we have it.

I don’t know whether Brian Williams fits that description, but I do know the unfortunate side effect of Coptergate is that it has cast suspicion on all TV journalists in the infotainment age. Are they more intent on building their brand, or giving voice to their subjects? Are they out there looking for truth, or for backdrops? Are they really reporting, or just playing reporter?

One answer came to my inbox last week, when an Israeli friend sent me a link to a segment on “Uvda,” Israel’s version of “60 Minutes.”

It was a report by an Israeli television journalist named Itai Anghel who had crossed into Syria to report on the Kurdish militia’s fight against ISIS. An Israeli, in Syria — and Iraq — interviewing ISIS fighters, Kurdish guerillas, and Syrian citizens. I watched it in awe. And revulsion. And appreciation. When it was over, I played it again. [Watch the video at the bottom of this column]

I Googled “Itai Anghel” and found just one mention of him in the American press, in a Huffington Post blog post, where the writers credited him with cojones “the size of pumpkins.” 

I think that’s an understatement.

Last November, ISIS was cutting through northern Iraq and Syria like a hot knife through butter. The only force that stood in its way was the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. 

Anghel with Kurdish fighters in Syria (YPG)

Anghel has a contact within the YPG. For 20 years he’s been covering conflicts across the world for Israeli TV — Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Four years ago, he filmed Kurdish rebels in the mountains of southern Turkey.

“The Turks were using Israeli drones against them, manned by Israelis,” Anghel recalled when I reached him by phone in Tel Aviv. “I thought how crazy that I’ll be killed by a 19-year-old with a joystick in Ashdod.”

He grew close to a Kurdish commander named Media, who allowed him to watch her fight against ISIS.

Yes, her fight.

Anghel with a female Guerrila fighter in Syria (YPJ)

Anghel’s remarkable segment, titled, “No Free Steps to Heaven,” documents the Kurdish female combat militia that repelled ISIS in the town of Mahmour and several surrounding villages. Kurds, who are largely Sunni Muslims, are fiercely nationalistic. Their female fighting forces have no parallel in the world.

The women’s blood-curdling yell sends ISIS fighters scurrying — they believe if a woman kills them, they won’t go to heaven and get their 72 virgins.

“It’s the self-deception of the racist patriarchy,” a Kurdish woman soldier tells Anghel.

The other shocking part of Anghel’s report is his interview with captured ISIS fighters. He speaks with them in Arabic, and their cold-blooded responses tell you exactly what the world is up against.

One young terrorist admits to decapitating dozens of people.

“How did you feel when you killed people?” Anghel asked. Anghel knew the American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS.

“I felt nothing,” the young man answered.

The man said he prefers to decapitate with a blunt knife, so as to inflict more pain. He said ISIS will kill any Westerner, any Christian, any Shiite, any journalist.

[MORE: Q-and-A with Itai Anghel]

“Even a Sunni journalist,” the prisoner said. “It’s enough that he’s a journalist.”

When Anghel asks the killer what he makes of the fact that he, Anghel, is a Jew and an Israeli, the man can’t even process it.

To be honest, I can’t blame him.

I asked Anghel if he was frightened. 

“I’m scared,” he said.  “I’m scared to death.”

But he has developed techniques to overcome the fear. He was in Pakistan just after 9/11, for instance, filming crowds burning the United States’ and Israeli flags. Instead of moving away, he walked straight up to the most vicious-looking protester and asked for a cigarette.

“Running away was something that attracts attention. So I do exactly the other thing,” Anghel told me. “if I will attract attention, then it is the beginning of the end. The thing is try not to attract attention. I mean, I try not to be interesting. I’m working on not being interesting when I’m working in journalism.

That approach may be the opposite of the celebrity-driven American TV journalism, but the impact is huge. In Israel, his reports on Israel’s Channel 2 shape public opinion and affect policy.

In a 2010 interview with Anghel, Kurdish Cmdr. Media took Israel to task for arming Turkey in its fight against Kurdish rebels.

“If any people in the world has suffered like ours, it’s yours,” she said. “We have studied the history of Israel and the Jewish people long and hard. Despite the mutual pain and suffering, your lack of sensitivity and policy toward us saddens me deeply.”

Her remarks sparked a national backlash against Israel’s Turkish policy.

But Anghel’s groundbreaking reports have never been aired for American audiences. He’s never stood in front of a camera in rain boots as a hurricane formed in the distant background. He has never been on Letterman.

Maybe because of all that, he’s a reminder of the power of great journalism, and the courage of real journalists.

“I go only to countries where the intelligence in the country itself is completely in chaos,” he said. “Chaos is my heaven.”

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