Paris: Mohamed Sifaoui has a price on his head and a book on the best-seller list.
Three years after he left his native Algeria, the Muslim journalist began to serendipitously infiltrate France’s extremist Islamic circles last fall. Sifaoui spent four months with the followers of al Qaeda, praying with them and listening to them discuss attacks, secretly taping them.
The result was a book and two television documentaries: and a new life as a marked man.
His reports, breaking no new ground about the Islamic militant movement, confirmed from an insider’s perspective many Muslims’ uncompromising hatred for the West and for Jews.
"I’m not brave, I’m just doing my job," Sifaoui says through an interpreter, sitting window-side at a cafe a few blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. "I’m still a journalist" (and a minor celebrity here) "until I die." Which will be soon, if the people who feel betrayed by Sifaoui have their way.
Sifaoui is reluctant to say whether a fatwa, an Islamic ruling calling for his death, was issued. But he has received threatening phone calls and recently agreed to police protection.
Accompanied by two plain-clothed security guards, he hesitates to discuss what security precautions he has taken besides avoiding certain mosques and certain heavily Arab neighborhoods.
Sifaoui, 39, has a neatly trimmed beard and nervous eyes that dart around while he speaks. With black leather jacket and gold-rimmed glasses, he is the picture of a French intellectual.
"I am anti-fascist, anti-extremist," he says. He’s a believing but non-practicing Muslim. "I like my little glass of whiskey."
Sifaoui, a reporter for the weekly French newspaper Marianne, in October was covering the trial of Islamic militants accused in a 1995 bombing campaign.
A schoolmate from Algeria, Karim Bourti, who had served a prison sentence in France on a terrorism charge, recognized Sifaoui in the courtroom.
Are you a believer in the al Qaeda brand of Islam? Bourti asked.
Yes, said Sifaoui, smelling a story. "I lied, of course," he says.
Sifaoui, an authority on Islamists’ beliefs, met Bourti’s friends in the subsequent weeks and, after some close calls early on, convinced them he was a fellow traveler.
"I became another person," Sifaoui says.
Though repulsed by the opinions he was hearing, that Islam sanctions civilian deaths since the victims are not Muslim, Sifaoui found himself agreeing. "I could control myself," he says.
Only five people, including his wife and editors, knew what he was doing. His wife, he said, "was scared."
Until he dropped out two days before his book "My ëBrothers’ the Assassins" was published, Sifaoui lived with the Islamic militants of Paris 12 hours a day and prayed with them five times daily. He watched them raising money on the streets of Paris and recruiting future terrorists in jails and in mosques. He traveled with them to London and Madrid. Sometimes he openly taped his conversations, sometimes he used a hidden camera and microphone.
What would happen if he were discovered? Sifaoui makes a slashing motion across his throat.
"They would have killed me," he says.
Sifaoui knew the risk he was taking but says it was worth it. Would he do it again?
"Oui," he responds, "because we all are threatened by terrorists," not only journalists posing as sympathizers.
His Islamic cohorts asked him to scout possible terrorist targets in Paris. Sifaoui took the assignments but brought back fake information. He was not privy to planning for specific terrorist attacks, he says, and did "nothing" illegal.
"I had to stop," he says, "because I am a journalist." If he had stayed any longer, "I would have become a terrorist."
His secret was out when he stopped returning their phone calls and his first documentary appeared on TV. "Everything changed in my life," Sifaoui says.
Now he’s back with his wife and two young children, living carefully.
What will he tell his kids about his exploits when they are older?
"I will tell them we have to live in peace," he says. " I will tell them they have to reject extremists."
Sifaoui chose his book’s title based on the term the terrorists use to address each other, but he doesn’t consider them his brothers. That’s why he put "brothers" in quotes.
His reports named names (Bourti is now under arrest, suspected in the beating of a Muslim cleric) and gave details of how al-Qaeda works.
"I didn’t change anything," he says. " I told everything I could prove."
"It’s the strongest experience of my life," he says. "The book explains how al-Qaeda works."
Sifaoui found information, corroborating police reports, about plots to use chemical weapons against France.
This is what he learned: "We have to be scared. They want to fight until the end. They are sure that God is behind them. It would be a mistake [to think] that only the American people are threatened."
Al-Qaeda, Sifaoui says, has targeted "all the Occidental people," adding that it has special contempt for Jews. "They said that Jews are monkeys, pigs. They said they are going to kill the Jews until the last one."
Sifaoui’s days of praying daily ended when he resumed his life as a journalist, but he has kept his beard. It’s a sign, he says, that not only terrorists are hirsute.
"My ëBrothers’ the Terrorists" has reached No. 8 on the French best-seller list, Sifaoui says. The English translation, published by Granta, a British press that specializes in human rights issues, will appear later this year.
The reviews in the French press (and in some newspapers in Algeria) have been favorable, he says. Recognized on the street, Sifaoui is frequently stopped for congratulations. Many Arabs here, he says, praise his work.
French Jewry, surprisingly, has not sought him as a speaker. His first appearance, at a French-Israeli friendship organization, will come at the end of March.
A visitor offers Sifaoui kol ha’kavod, Hebrew for "all the honor." In other words, congratulations. He’s never heard that expression.
Then the visitor says "Mazel tov!"
Sifaoui smiles. He’s heard that from French Jews. "Mazel tov, I know."