The Horror Before the Beheadings

islam will never submit

ISIS Hostages Endured Torture and Dashed Hopes, Freed Cellmates Say

The hostages were taken out of their cell one by one.

In a private room, their captors asked each of them three intimate questions, a standard technique used to obtain proof that a prisoner is still alive in a kidnapping negotiation.

James Foley returned to the cell he shared with nearly two dozen other Western hostages and collapsed in tears of joy. The questions his kidnappers had asked were so personal (“Who cried at your brother’s wedding?” “Who was the captain of your high school soccer team?”) that he knew they were finally in touch with his family.

It was December 2013, and more than a year had passed since Mr. Foley vanished on a road in northern Syria. Finally, his worried parents would know he was alive, he told his fellow captives. His government, he believed, would soon negotiate his release.

What appeared to be a turning point was in fact the start of a downward spiral for Mr. Foley, a 40-year-old journalist, that ended in August when he was forced to his knees somewhere in the bald hills of Syria and beheaded as a camera rolled.

The Fate of 23 Hostages in Syria

At least 23 foreign hostages from 12 countries have been kidnapped by Syrian insurgents, sold or handed over to the Islamic State, and held underground in a prison near the Syrian city of Raqqa.

 

His videotaped death was a very public end to a hidden ordeal.

The story of what happened in the Islamic State’s underground network of prisons in Syria is one of excruciating suffering. Mr. Foley and his fellow hostages were routinely beaten and subjected to waterboarding. For months, they were starved and threatened with execution by one group of fighters, only to be handed off to another group that brought them sweets and contemplated freeing them. The prisoners banded together, playing games to pass the endless hours, but as conditions grew more desperate, they turned on one another. Some, including Mr. Foley, sought comfort in the faith of their captors, embracing Islam and taking Muslim names.

Their captivity coincided with the rise of the group that came to be known as the Islamic State out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war. It did not exist on the day Mr. Foley was abducted, but it slowly grew to become the most powerful and feared rebel movement in the region. By the second year of Mr. Foley’s imprisonment, the group had amassed close to two dozen hostages and devised a strategy to trade them for cash.

It was at that point that the hostages’ journeys, which had been largely similar up to then, diverged based on actions taken thousands of miles away: in Washington and Paris, in Madrid, Rome and beyond. Mr. Foley was one of at least 23 Western hostages from 12 countries, a majority of them citizens of European nations whose governments have a history of paying ransoms.

Their struggle for survival, which is being told now for the first time, was pieced together through interviews with five former hostages, locals who witnessed their treatment, relatives and colleagues of the captives, and a tight circle of advisers who made trips to the region to try to win their release. Crucial details were confirmed by a former member of the Islamic State, also known asISIS, who was initially stationed in the prison where Mr. Foley was held, and who provided previously unknown details of his captivity.

The ordeal has remained largely secret because the militants warned the hostages’ families not to go to the news media, threatening to kill their loved ones if they did. The New York Times is naming only those already identified publicly by the Islamic State, which began naming them in August.

Officials in the United States say they did everything in their power to save Mr. Foley and the others, including carrying out a failed rescue operation. They argue that the United States’ policy of not paying ransoms saves Americans’ lives in the long run by making them less attractive targets.

Inside their concrete box, the hostages did not know what their families or governments were doing on their behalf. They slowly pieced it together using the only information they had: their interactions with their guards and with one another. Mostly they suffered, waiting for any sign that they might escape with their lives.

The Grab

It was only a 40-minute drive to the Turkish border, but Mr. Foley decided to make one last stop.

In Binesh, Syria, two years ago, Mr. Foley and his traveling companion, the British photojournalist John Cantlie, pulled into an Internet cafe to file their work. The two were no strangers to the perils of reporting in Syria. Only a few months earlier, Mr. Cantlie had been kidnapped a few dozen miles from Binesh. He had tried to escape, barefoot and handcuffed, running for his life as bullets kicked up the dirt, only to be caught again. He was released a week later after moderate rebels intervened.

They were uploading their images when a man walked in.

“He had a big beard,” said Mustafa Ali, their Syrian translator, who was with them and recounted their final hours together. “He didn’t smile or say anything. And he looked at us with evil eyes.”

The man “went to the computer and sat for one minute only, and then left directly,” Mr. Ali said. “He wasn’t Syrian. He looked like he was from the Gulf.”

Mr. Foley, an American freelance journalist filing for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse, and Mr. Cantlie, a photographer for British newspapers, continued transmitting their footage, according to Mr. Ali, whose account was confirmed by emails the journalists sent from the cafe to a colleague waiting for them in Turkey.

James Foley edited video from Aleppo, Syria, two weeks before he was kidnapped in November 2012. CreditNicole Tung

More than an hour later, they flagged a taxi for the 25-mile drive to Turkey. They never reached the border.

The gunmen who sped up behind their taxi did not call themselves the Islamic State because the group did not yet exist on Nov. 22, 2012, the day the two men were grabbed.

But the danger of Islamic extremism was already palpable in Syria’s rebel-held territories, and some news organizations were starting to pull back. Among the red flags was the growing number of foreign fightersflooding into Syria, dreaming of establishing a “caliphate.” These jihadists, many of them veterans of Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, looked and behaved differently from the moderate rebels. They wore their beards long. And they spoke with foreign accents, coming from the Persian Gulf, North Africa, Europe and beyond.

A van sped up on the left side of the taxi and cut it off. Masked fighters jumped out. They screamed in foreign-accented Arabic, telling the journalists to lie on the pavement. They handcuffed them and threw them into the van.

They left Mr. Ali on the side of the road. “If you follow us, we’ll kill you,” they told him.

Over the next 14 months, at least 23 foreigners, most of them freelance journalists and aid workers, would fall into a similar trap. The attackers identified the locals whom journalists hired to help them, like Mr. Ali and Yosef Abobaker, a Syrian translator. It was Mr. Abobaker who drove Steven J. Sotloff, an American freelance journalist, into Syria on Aug. 4, 2013.

“We were driving for only 20 minutes when I saw three cars stopped on the road ahead,” he said. “They must have had a spy on the border that saw my car and told them I was coming.”

The kidnappings, which were carried out by different groups of fighters jousting for influence and territory in Syria, became more frequent. In June 2013, four French journalists were abducted. In September, the militants grabbed three Spanish journalists.

Checkpoints became human nets, and last October, insurgents waited at one for Peter Kassig, 25, an emergency medical technician from Indianapolis who was delivering medical supplies. In December, Alan Henning, a British taxi driver, disappeared at another. Mr. Henning had cashed in his savings to buy a used ambulance, hoping to join an aid caravan to Syria. He was kidnapped 30 minutes after crossing into the country.

The last to vanish were five aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, who were plucked in January from the field hospital in rural Syria where they had been working.

The Interrogation

At gunpoint, Mr. Sotloff and Mr. Abobaker were driven to a textile factory in a village outside Aleppo, Syria, where they were placed in separate cells. Mr. Abobaker, who was freed two weeks later, heard their captors take Mr. Sotloff into an adjoining room. Then he heard the Arabic-speaking interrogator say in English: “Password.”

It was a process to be repeated with several other hostages. The kidnappers seized their laptops, cellphones and cameras and demanded the passwords to their accounts. They scanned their Facebook timelines, their Skype chats, their image archives and their emails, looking for evidence of collusion with Western spy agencies and militaries.

“They took me to a building that was specifically for the interrogation,” said Marcin Suder, a 37-year-old Polish photojournalist kidnapped in July 2013 in Saraqib, Syria, where the jihadists were known to be operating. He was passed among several groups before managing to escape four months later.

“They checked my camera,” Mr. Suder said. “They checked my tablet. Then they undressed me completely. I was naked. They looked to see if there was a GPS chip under my skin or in my clothes. Then they started beating me. They Googled ‘Marcin Suder and C.I.A.,’ ‘Marcin Suder and K.G.B.’ They accused me of being a spy.”

Mr. Suder — who was never told the name of the group holding him, and who never met the other hostages because he escaped before they were transferred to the same location — remarked on the typically English vocabulary his interrogators had used.

During one session, they kept telling him he had been “naughty” — a word that hostages who were held with Mr. Foley also recalled their guards’ using during the most brutal torture.

It was in the course of these interrogations that the jihadists found images of American military personnel on Mr. Foley’s laptop, taken during his assignments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“In the archive of photographs he had personally taken, there were images glorifying the American crusaders,” they wrote in an article published after Mr. Foley’s death. “Alas for James, this archive was with him at the time of his arrest.”

A British hostage, David Cawthorne Haines, was forced to acknowledge his military background: It was listed on his LinkedIn profile.

The militants also discovered that Mr. Kassig, the aid worker from Indiana, was a former Army Ranger and a veteran of the Iraq war. Both facts are easy to find online, because CNN featured Mr. Kassig’s humanitarian work prominently before his capture.

The punishment for any perceived offense was torture.

“You could see the scars on his ankles,” Jejoen Bontinck, 19, of Belgium, a teenage convert to Islam who spent three weeks in the summer of 2013 in the same cell as Mr. Foley, said of him. “He told me how they had chained his feet to a bar and then hung the bar so that he was upside down from the ceiling. Then they left him there.”

Mr. Bontinck, who was released late last year, spoke about his experiences for the first time for this article in his hometown, Antwerp, where he is one of 46 Belgian youths on trial on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization.

At first, the abuse did not appear to have a larger purpose. Nor did the jihadists seem to have a plan for their growing number of hostages.

Mr. Bontinck said Mr. Foley and Mr. Cantlie had first been held by the Nusra Front, a Qaeda affiliate. Their guards, an English-speaking trio whom they nicknamed “the Beatles,” seemed to take pleasure in brutalizing them.

Later, they were handed over to a group called the Mujahedeen Shura Council, led by French speakers.

Mr. Foley and Mr. Cantlie were moved at least three times before being transferred to a prison underneath the Children’s Hospital of Aleppo.

It was in this building that Mr. Bontinck, then only 18, met Mr. Foley. At first, Mr. Bontinck was a fighter, one of thousands of young Europeans drawn to the promise of jihad. He later ran afoul of the group when he received a text message from his worried father back in Belgium and his commander accused him of being a spy.

The militants dragged him into a basement room with pale brown walls. Inside were two very thin, bearded foreigners: Mr. Foley and Mr. Cantlie.

A still image from a video, released in August, in which a militant from the group that calls itself the Islamic State beheaded James Foley.

For the next three weeks, when the call to prayer sounded, all three stood.

An American Named Hamza

Mr. Foley converted to Islam soon after his capture and adopted the name Abu Hamza, Mr. Bontinck said. (His conversion was confirmed by three other recently released hostages, as well as by his former employer.)

“I recited the Quran with him,” Mr. Bontinck said. “Most people would say, ‘Let’s convert so that we can get better treatment.’ But in his case, I think it was sincere.”

Former hostages said that a majority of the Western prisoners had converted during their difficult captivity. Among them was Mr. Kassig, who adopted the name Abdul-Rahman, according to his family, who learned of his conversion in a letter smuggled out of the prison.

Only a handful of the hostages stayed true to their own faiths, including Mr. Sotloff, then 30, a practicing Jew. On Yom Kippur, he told his guards he was not feeling well and refused his food so he could secretly observe the traditional fast, a witness said.

Those recently released said that most of the foreigners had converted under duress, but that Mr. Foley had been captivated by Islam. When the guards brought an English version of the Quran, those who were just pretending to be Muslims paged through it, one former hostage said. Mr. Foley spent hours engrossed in the text.

His first set of guards, from the Nusra Front, viewed his professed Islamic faith with suspicion. But the second group holding him seemed moved by it. For an extended period, the abuse stopped. Unlike the Syrian prisoners, who were chained to radiators, Mr. Foley and Mr. Cantlie were able to move freely inside their cell.

Mr. Bontinck had a chance to ask the prison’s emir, a Dutch citizen, whether the militants had asked for a ransom for the foreigners. He said they had not.

“He explained there was a Plan A and a Plan B,” Mr. Bontinck said. The journalists would be put under house arrest, or they would be conscripted into a jihadist training camp. Both possibilities suggested that the group was planning to release them.

Read more – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/world/middleeast/horror-before-the-beheadings-what-isis-hostages-endured-in-syria.html?_r=0

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s