The café at the Turkish border crossing to Syria is a ramshackle affair—a small concrete structure with a tarp roof and tables facing the parking lot. On a spring morning in 2014, Sean (not his real name), a tall, trim ex-military Irishman, arrived at eight a.m. and rolled cigarette after cigarette of loose Golden Virginia tobacco. The café’s plastic chairs were a pain to sit on for hours and the flies were another story, but it was part of the job.
He was waiting for a crew of European journalists to come back into Turkey after nearly a week inside Syria. Sean knew northern Syria well. He had taken more than 40 trips throughout the region with media crews since Syria’s peaceful protests descended into civil war in 2011, and he had a network of contacts that extended through the various militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad. These days he sent his crews in alone and ran their security from the border. It was more flexible that way, and the crews attracted less attention without him.
As usual, Sean reached out to his contacts before the crew went in, just a quick “Hey, habibi, how’s it going?” on Skype to get an update on the ground. Syria was growing more dangerous, with fewer journalists going inside. Bombings, shifting militia loyalties, criminal gangs and kidnappings were on the rise. The security situation in Syria changed hourly, and Sean spent his days checking the news, reaching out to contacts, monitoring his journalists’ whereabouts and running through the protocol of how to deal with all the things that could go wrong. There were many.
But today was the best day of the job—the day the journalists returned. He could picture the road they would be driving on out of Aleppo as it wound through olive farms and verdant hills, past the large city of Azaz toward the crossing into Turkey. Sean sat at the border so often the Turkish immigration guys had come to recognize his face among the motley mass of rotating foreigners. Usually the Turks would let Sean walk into no man’s land to help the journalists carry their gear across the border. That was his favorite part—high fives and man-hugs all around, adrenaline pumping on a job well done, everyone back in the car and off to the hotel bar for a celebratory drink.
Then Sean’s iPhone rang. It was the news desk with an update on the crew’s location from the electronic tracker the journalists carried. Their car was almost at the border when suddenly it had turned around. “They’re moving backward!” the news desk told Sean.
Fuck, Sean thought. He knew the journalists could have forgotten something and gone back for it. They could have had a car accident or been bombed from a plane and gone back for medical treatment. But he had a feeling that wasn’t what had happened. Something in his gut told him it was much worse. The journalists had been kidnapped.
It was 10:30 a.m. Sean pulled on his flak jacket, grabbed his medical kit and ran toward the border. If he was right, he figured he had about three hours before the crew would be sold to ISIS.
There is no “normal” kidnapping and ransom (K&R) case. Each one is a tangle of false leads, misaligned interests and lies. Each one is also potentially lethal. But it is a business, and just as there are career kidnappers—pirates, South American gangs, Niger Delta militants—there are career responders too.
A hostage-response operation comes in two parts: the crisis-management team (CMT), led by a negotiator, and an incident-response team (IRT), comprising the men on the ground. These are men like Sean: the knuckle-draggers, as they’re sometimes called, who are contracted to handle the logistical legwork such as pickups and drop-offs.
It’s a booming business. Global kidnapping of internationals is on the rise. In Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Mali, Somalia, Kenya, Cameroon, Haiti, Yemen, Kashmir, everyone is a potential victim—journalists, aid workers, diplomats, missionaries, tourists, hikers, engineers.
No official statistics on global kidnappings exist, since most companies want to keep them as quiet as possible. Charles Regini, director of global response at Unity Resources Group, a security-consulting company, says the most tossed-around number for global kidnapping cases is about 25,000 a year. But those are likely only the reported cases. Many are handled privately, and Regini suggests the real count could be 10 times as high.
In South America and the Niger Delta, kidnappings can usually be resolved with patience and a flexible playbook. But in the Middle East and North Africa, criminal gangs sell victims to the highest bidder. Hostages are moved up a ladder of interested parties until they’re in the hands of Islamic extremists. Then the victims are in real danger. To rescue them, responders race to stop the kidnapping as early in the selling chain as possible.
But the rise of ISIS, in Syria and parts of Iraq, has been a kidnap responder’s nightmare. At least 40 foreign journalists have been kidnapped in Syria since the start of the uprising in 2011. Media blackouts and the chaos of civil war make it impossible to know how many Syrian nationals and foreign aid workers have been abducted. What is known is that ISIS released at least 14 Europeans for ransom in the spring of 2014. Then, over the summer, the group beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. British aid workers David Cawthorne Haines and Alan Henning were next. In mid-November, ISIS killed American aid worker Peter Kassig, a 26-year-old former Army Ranger who had converted to Islam in captivity and taken the name Abdul-Rahman. Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old aid worker, was ISIS’s last known American hostage. Mueller was killed in February 2015. ISIS claimed she died in a Jordanian air strike, but the Pentagon said there was “no doubt” ISIS killed her. The group is still holding British photojournalist John Cantlie.
Unlike the U.K. and the U.S., European governments actually pay ransom for their citizens, though they officially deny this. An investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates earned at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, almost all of it from Europe. There is debate as to whether that means European nationals get kidnapped more often, but it certainly means they have a better chance of getting out alive. The 14 Europeans held with Foley and Sotloff were released for between $2.2 million and $5.5 million each.
That also means ISIS’s coffers were overflowing. In the fall of 2014, the organization was earning more than $1 million a day from oil sales. After ISIS took Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and all the money in its banks, it no longer needed ransoms to fund operations.
That growing wealth has jammed a wrench into the gears of those working to free American hostages: How do you negotiate with kidnappers who don’t need money? And what if beheading a captive in an online propaganda video is worth more than money anyway?
“What’s happening in Syria is something nobody has had to manage before,” says John Schafer, a K&R negotiator since 1994. “It’s totally different. Every negotiator, everyone who manages crisis response is rethinking their entire existence after these latest ISIS deals.”
The first thing that happens after you’re kidnapped? Nothing.
Terrorist groups rely on a period of silence to establish fear and confusion, and to research the victim. On the other side, responders need to figure out who the kidnappers are, ideally before their initial call even comes in. First, responders build a case history: who has previously been taken in the area, how they were taken, how long they were held, by whom, how the victims got out and how much was paid. Intelligence gathering is key. Frequently during the period of silence, an incident-response team is deployed to track down leads.
Next comes an evaluation of the victim’s entire digital footprint, personal and professional. What can be sanitized quickly to remove personal, religious, financial and political commentary from social media? The responder knows the kidnappers are doing their own digital recon to assess the hostage’s worth. They’re online, checking home zip codes for property values or reading an employer’s annual report to determine how much ransom they can demand.
Once the kidnappers make contact, the CMT distributes a telephone number that will be used for communication with the hostage takers. It’s crucial to have only one line of negotiation, manned by an appointed “communicator” whom the responder chooses and trains. He’s looking for someone who is calm and has clear pronunciation, someone who will be able to handle the threats the hostage takers will inevitably throw into the mix. The communicator is a person affiliated with the victim—a relative or an employee of the victim’s company. In some cases, it needs to be someone who speaks the local language.
The guy was sobbing. “He’s going to kill us!” The pistol was aimed at Sean’s head.
Next comes the part every responder dreads: letting the family know it is going to be bad. There will be silence, there will be threats, and there is no guarantee the victim will get out, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. “You always have an agreement. You always see in their eyes ‘I hear you, thank you, you’re right, we’re ready for that.’ But it never happens that way,” says Regini. “There’s still a sense of urgency and a sense of immediacy and strong emotions about what we have to do tomorrow or the next day. You have to constantly remind them, ‘This is a long process; it will take time. We have strategy recommendations for you. They’re not going to work. We’ll have to try other things.’ Preparing a family for that, supporting them through that time is very, very hard.”
Each negotiator’s playbook for communication is unique and constantly evolving, but there are certain universals. Once communication is established, you need to set up a code word to know you’re dealing with the right people. Always start by asking how the victims are doing; make sure you remind the person on the other side that these victims are human. Everything the communicator does is scripted, drilled, practiced and rescripted. When the call comes, everything is recorded and noted. Every threat is written down.
“It becomes an exercise in handling objections the other side puts on each other,” explains Schafer. “How do you respond when someone says they’re going to kill the hostage? The response would be ‘We understand you have the power to kill them, but in order to continue the conversation, it’s important for you to keep them as safe as you possibly can. Do you have any needs we might be able to help you with that?’ We try to change the conversation from a threat to what their medical needs are, increasing their humanity.”
Schafer says the most frequent donation is money for communication. Kidnappers frequently use burner phones and throw away SIM cards for fear of being traced. This means cash left in envelopes on street corners or bridges. Small amounts of money, maybe $200 in local currency, stuffed inside a USAID bag of flour and left sitting on a bridge. There are other subtle rules to the game. You never give them exactly what they ask for.
“If they say a red bag, you do a bag that has blue and then red on it, because once you give 100 percent compliance, they have you,” Schafer says. “You never know until the end, until you get your people back, what’s going to happen.”
Sean had planned for this; it was part of the job. He called the CMT at the headquarters of the media company where the journalists worked: “I’m going in. Don’t call me until I call you.” The clock was ticking, and every minute mattered. He called his wife. “There’s been a situation. I think they’ve been abducted. I’m going in to get them out. Don’t worry,” he told her. She told him she wasn’t worried; she was “fucking concerned.”
As Sean jogged the mile through the crossing into Syria, he thought through his next moves. He needed permission and a guarantee of safe passage from the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition that controlled the crossing and surrounding areas. Next, he needed a car and an escort and then he needed to get fucking moving. After that he’d be winging it.
Crossing into Syria, he legged it to the Islamic Front’s media center to the west of the border gate. Inside the squat building, Sean found Yusuf, one of the group’s activists. “I need your help,” he explained. Yusuf and one of his fighter friends volunteered to drive Sean into the town of Tal Rifaat.
It was a 40-minute drive, and Sean used the time to assess the situation. If the journalists were injured, either during a car accident or some type of explosion, he needed to get to the hospital. If it was an abduction, he needed to get to their last known location and retrace their steps. The first minutes of a kidnapping are violent as hell. Hostage takers want to put the fear of God into victims, which means injuries, most likely head trauma. But if there had been a car accident, that could mean chest trauma; if it was an explosion, catastrophic bleeding. Sean played through the scenarios in his head: problem, solution, problem, solution. Click—click—click.
The car sped into town, but Sean felt the men he was with had no idea where they were going. They were circling, losing time. “Just fucking stop someone and ask!” Sean demanded. He knew that compromised them—he was an unarmed white guy in a soft-skin vehicle—but he had no choice. They had stopped at an intersection to flag down pedestrians when two men pulled up in a 4x4.
What have ISIS got to negotiate for? They’ve got $42 billion in the Bank.
“I know you,” the well-dressed passenger said to Sean. He spoke flawless English, but Sean didn’t recognize him. “Local Islamic Front commander,” Sean remembers Yusuf prompting him. Sean got out of the car. He was now completely compromising himself. “Habibi! How are you?” Sean asked. He was going for broke. “We have a situation. I think my friends have been kidnapped. I need your help.”
The Islamic Front prided itself on helping journalists cover Syria safely while ISIS steadily unfurled its tentacles in cities across northern Syria.
Sean decided to follow his gut. He asked the commander to take him to the crew’s last known location based on the tracker data. They drove to a house on the outskirts of town. As they were getting out of the car, the front door of the house flew open and a young translator who had been traveling with the journalists ran straight at them. The kid was covered in blood.
“They were kidnapped!” he shouted. “They tried to escape, but they caught them. They are going to come here and kill us!” The kid babbled about a well-known gang leader. “He took them! He’s going to come kill us!”
The translator ran back inside the house, and a young guy came out. “You have to leave!” he shouted at Sean. “You have to leave! Now!”
“Just calm down,” Sean told him.
“You have to leave now! They are going to kill us!” Then the guy pulled a gun and pointed it at Sean’s head.
There is no application to fill out to become a K&R responder. Most are ex-military, ex–Special Forces or ex–FBI negotiators.
Sean came out of the British army infantry and worked in the prison system, where he trained as a hostage negotiator. After running into a friend who worked as a bodyguard for the rich and famous, Sean shifted into “close protection” and spent three years in London and the south of France, looking after multi-billionaires. “I was living the life of a Walter Mitty billionaire myself,” he says. “Driving fast cars, being on the best yachts in the world, flying on the Concorde, you name it.” His client was a friend of George H.W. Bush. One day, while shooting the shit with Bush’s Secret Service men, Sean admitted that the job had begun to bore him. Most people he looked after didn’t even need a bodyguard; they just liked the idea of having one. The agent suggested Sean join the United Nations. He applied and was assigned to East Timor. When the UN called and told him, Sean and his wife spent three hours trying to find the place in an atlas.
He moved through Bosnia and Georgia, where he worked in close protection, even watching over former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan a few times. Then a friend called: The U.S. was invading Iraq. Did he want to come to Baghdad? Yes. In Baghdad he ran security for engineers and, later, for journalists. He’s handled kidnapping cases in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela and Colombia.
Sean is messianic about keeping a low profile. He’s fit but doesn’t pump weights so as not to get bulky and stand out in a crowd. He dresses in local clothes and travels in soft-skin vehicles. His regiment tattoo has been covered with another symbol to make sure the bad guys never know the extent of his military service.
For a while Sean’s wife didn’t know much about what he did. They didn’t discuss it. Sean would come from hell on earth to the house in the British countryside they’d redone themselves and switch off. He had a standard operating procedure: up at 5:30 a.m., morning cup of coffee, walk the dogs. He kept a wall between his life and the job.
One night over wine, his wife called him on it. She told him she needed to know more about what he did. So he started opening up, sending her links to news stories from his journalists. She was horrified. “That’s one thing my wife hates,” he says. “She hates that you’ll put your life on the line to help those guys. But that’s part of the parcel.”
That problem has only gotten more acute with Syria. “In Syria with ISIS it’s a totally different ball game. They don’t want to negotiate. What have ISIS got to negotiate for? Fuck all. They’ve got $42 billion in the bank,” he explains.
Sean discusses the possibility of kidnapping with every team he works with. “Except for the Europeans, if you get taken or you get sold to ISIS, then that’s it. You’re done,” he explains. Some strategies can reduce the risk: Wear local clothes, and don’t wear wraparound sunglasses or chew gum—things Westerners do that Arabs don’t. Never stay in a location longer than an hour, though 45 minutes is better. This lessens the risk of opportunistic kidnappings. (If opportunists spot a Westerner, they need to prepare to grab them. This includes arming up, organizing vehicles and figuring out a safe house. Security consultants assume that takes about an hour.) To prevent a premeditated kidnapping, potential victims should vary their routines and tell as few people as possible where they’re going and when.
You can try to mitigate the risk, but no one can make it disappear entirely. So Sean talks to crews about what to do in the event of a kidnapping. “I can’t tell anyone that they must try to escape,” he says. “I give them options. You comply or you fight. Those are your two options. If you comply, you comply all the time. If you fight, you do it right away, because that’s when everyone’s adrenaline is up.” If you try to escape, the whole team has to do it together. No man left behind. If you leave someone behind, that is their death sentence. Personally, Sean says, he would always try to escape. He would rather take a bullet in the back of the head trying to get his people out than have his beheading end up on YouTube.
The young guy was sobbing. “He’s going to kill us. Leave!” The pistol was aimed at Sean’s head.
Sean readied himself to do a pistol grab when the commander stepped in between them. “He’s with me,” the commander said. The guy lowered his gun but continued to beg Sean to leave. If the gang leader heard Sean was in town, he would kill them all.
Knowing the journalists had been kidnapped and had attempted to escape didn’t solve any of Sean’s problems. He didn’t know where the journalists were or what condition they were in. What he did know was getting caught after an escape attempt was bad. Not only would the journalists be punished for running, the hostage takers might decide to sell them sooner. They could have already moved or killed them.
“You need to leave now, because there could be bigger problems,” the commander told Sean. He protested, but the commander wasn’t hearing it. The young guy was still sobbing. Sean was fucked. He didn’t want to leave, but he needed to show the commander that he trusted him. It would be the commander’s men who would have to find the journalists regardless of whether Sean tagged along. Finally, Sean agreed to go.
Sean did the calculations. He was 80 percent confident that if the journalists were alive and still in the town, the Islamic Front militia would get them back. After an attempted escape, the journalists would have been beaten, badly. They would need immediate treatment for head injuries, gunshot wounds or brain trauma. That would mean getting them to the nearest Turkish hospital, six miles from the border. Would the usual ambulances be at the crossing? If not, Sean would treat them and then get a taxi or drive them himself. Then, medical evacuation, first to Istanbul, then Europe. Next problem: passports. Had they been robbed? Probably. They would need copies of their passports from the CMT. Then get the CMT to straighten things out with the embassies. Click—click—click.
Sean called the CMT to report the kidnapping: “If they’re alive, the Islamic Front will get them out. Start planning a medical evacuation and passports.” He hung up and rolled a cigarette.
Walkie-talkies crackled inside the Islamic Front’s military police headquarters. The commander was radioing his on-duty fighters: “Everyone get ready. Go down to the trucks.”
The Islamic Front military police go on countless raids. Everyone was calm, going through the routine procedure. Abu Ahmed (not his real name) grabbed his AK and ammunition and filed out of the former elementary school to the yard. About 15 men were on duty that morning, and they gathered in front of two military-police vehicles as they waited for their commander to join them. Abu Ahmed lit a cigarette.
The commander arrived 10 minutes later. He was in his 40s, a respected leader, not too serious, not too funny, a good commander who treated his men well. He told them they were going to the media center. Abu Ahmed and four other men crammed inside the cab of a camouflaged Toyota truck while two more stood in the truck bed with a Doshka, a Russian-made heavy machine gun. The commander and the rest of the team climbed into a Hyundai van, and the convoy set out.
When they pulled up at the media center, Abu Ahmed noticed the director’s face was ashen. “Journalists have been kidnapped,” he heard him tell the commander. Word spread that the operation involved liberating kidnapped foreign journalists; the men were psyched for something heavy. But by the time they climbed back into their cars, a switch had flipped. Foreigners were worth a lot of money. This wouldn’t be easy. Abu Ahmed thought there would be a clash. The driver was speeding, and someone started to sing to take the edge off. The revolutionary song “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” filled the truck’s cab.
“The Syrians won’t be humiliated! Get out Bashar!” the men chanted together. “We will remove Bashar with our strength! Syria wants freedom!”
The truck bumped along the potholes on a road to the outskirts of the town. The convoy pulled up to the gang leader’s villa, a large house with a wide spread of land, like a mansion dropped on a farm. Four fighters jumped out of the van and took up positions around the house. The rest went straight to the front door.
Abu Ahmed stood behind the commander as he knocked.
A young man opened the door. “What?” he asked nonchalantly.
“You have kidnapped journalists, and we need these journalists,” the commander told him.
“That’s not true,” the kid said.
“We have orders to search this house.”
“We haven’t kidnapped anyone,” the kid said. He looked nervous. “I can’t let you check the house until the owner arrives.”
The commander didn’t need to issue an order. Two men pulled the kid from the door frame and handcuffed him. The rest followed the commander in formation, weapons drawn, into the house.
It happened fast. Two unarmed men in the front, realizing they were outnumbered, raised their hands. Military police handcuffed them as Abu Ahmed and five others moved to the nearest hallway to begin clearing rooms. They saw two armed men guarding a closed door.
“Don’t shoot!” the men shouted as they lowered their AKs to the floor and raised their arms. “We don’t have anything to do with this!”
The men kept their arms up as Abu Ahmed approached. He stood guard, gun cocked, as his colleague took off his scarf and pulled it over one of the guards’ eyes as a blindfold and cuffed him. Abu Ahmed pulled a pistol from the man’s belt. “We don’t have anything to do with this,” the man repeated. “We were just following orders!”
They led the men outside and put them in the van. Abu Ahmed was surprised it had been so easy. A few minutes later, the commander came out with the journalists. They had secured the hostages in less than 30 minutes, but the clock was still ticking. They needed to move the journalists to a hospital—one of them had been shot.
Minutes later, Yusuf’s phone rang at the border. The Islamic Front had located the journalists. They had asserted control, peacefully, and would bring them to the border after medical treatment. Sean called the CMT: “Look, we can’t be sure until I get eyes on them. I have to confirm that they’re alive and well.”
At 3:30 p.m. Sean ran out to meet them. The journalists were badly shaken, violently beaten, and one of them had several gunshot wounds, but they were alive. As long as they didn’t have significant brain trauma, the rest was logistics. The journalists were hopped up on adrenaline, jittery and anxious to get out of Syria. Sean checked their vitals. Outside the café where seven hours earlier Sean had daydreamed about high fives and celebratory drinks, they got into an ambulance for the drive to the Turkish hospital.
The CMT had organized passport copies, a private jet evacuation to Istanbul, new passports in the capital and travel back to Europe. A member of the CMT would meet the journalists at the Istanbul hospital. Sean handed off the crew, sorted out the final paperwork in southern Turkey and paid the hotel bill and the drivers.
The next morning, he got on a plane home. He kissed his wife, had a glass of wine and slept. It was over. He got his men out. At 5:30 a.m. he made a cup of coffee and walked his Labradors. In the afternoon, he sat down to write the incident report.
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