It seemed too odd to be true: a German man called Markus Nowotny contacted the Islamic State terror group online, offering to be a suicide bomber.
Islamic State handlers responded immediately and began grooming the man to be a martyr for their cause.
Except Mr Nowotny was Björn Stritzel, an undercover journalist with Germany's Bild daily. Now he has published a multipart series in the tabloid on his efforts to penetrate the recruitment and suicide attack network of Islamic State, also known as Isis.
A year after attacks in the Bavarian cities of Würzburg and Ansbach linked to the terror group, the journalist posted a message on an online forum sympathetic to the group asking how to contact its news agency, Amaq, which publishes videos and reports after Isis attacks.
Immediately he got an answer and was connected to two English-speaking handlers who claimed to be in Syria. They encouraged the journalist first to destroy his existing mobile phone Sim card and, using another, to contact them again via a more secure messaging app called Wickr.
Ordered to attack
They offered him no honeymoon: within days of first contact, stringing his handlers along, the Bild journalist came under pressure to carry out an attack.
“Go into a hospital, find the seriously ill and slaughter them,” wrote the Islamic State contact man identified only as “Abu. K.”. “Don’t plan too much, hit out quickly, the more time you allow yourself the more mistakes can happen. As soon as the basic plan stands, just trust Allah.”
He was also pressed to record a video professing loyalty to Islamic State, such as that left behind by Anis Amri, the Tunisian man behind Berlin’s Christmas market truck attack.
The journalist was given precise instructions as to the content of the message.
“Don’t say, ‘I am doing this because you are attacking us’ or ‘if you stop, we will too’,” Abu K wrote. “Instead: ‘I am doing this because the Caliphate ordered me to attack the crusaders and their citizens.’”
After increasing frustration with “Markus Nowotny” and his repeated failure to record a “martyr” video or plan an attack, despite being sent bomb-building videos, Abu K finally explained his view on the Islamic State mission.
“The whole idea that this is a political war is wrong,” he wrote. “We kill them because it was ordered by Allah and not because they attack us. The only ways out for them are to convert or to pay with their heads.”