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Category — AF-PAK ISIS

Da’ish claims responsibility for killing Pakistani diplomatic staffer in Jalalabad

PESHAWAR: The local franchise of an ultra-violent Middle Eastern terrorist group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the killing of a Pakistani diplomatic corps member in eastern Afghanistan.

The Khorasan chapter of the Islamic State (IS), also known by its Arabic acronym Da’ish, claimed credit for the murder of Rana Nayyar Iqbal in an Arabic-language message released on its website, Aimaq.

Iqbal, who worked in the visa section of the Pakistan Consulate General in Jalalabad, was shot multiple times outside his residence on Monday evening.

He died before he could be transported to hospital.

Earlier today, his body was handed over to Pakistani security officials at the Torkham border crossing from where it was taken to Islamabad for final rites.

In July, two officials of the Pakistani Consulate General in Jalalabad went missing while returning to their home country by road. They were later rescued.

Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar, is a busy trading hub about 70 kilometres from the main border crossing with Pakistan, from which landlocked Afghanistan imports much of its goods.https://tribune.com.pk/story/1552458/3-daish-claims-responsibility-killing-pakistani-diplomatic-staffer-jalalabad/

November 8, 2017   No Comments

ISIS graffiti appears on wall in Rawalpindi

by Israr Ahmad in The Nation, Nov 3, 2017
RAWALPINDI – Graffiti supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), commonly known as Daesh, appeared on the wall of a building on Mall Road, sources and police told The Nation on Thursday.

According to the sources, vandals had scrawled the word ISIS on the building of State Bank of Pakistan before it was removed by the police. A heavy contingent of the police, the Counter Terrorism Department, and other intelligence agencies rushed to the scene and removed the wall-chalking, the sources said. The law enforcement agencies have started an investigation into the incident to track down the mischievous elements, the sources said.

Potohar Division Superintendent of Police Syed Ali said that the piece of the graffiti was spotted daubed on the wall of a building. He said that an investigation was underway and a case would be registered against unknown offenders. He said police were clueless to ascertain as who carried out the graffiti in the sensitive area.

On September 24, a Daesh flag was also spotted hanging on a bridge on Islamabad Expressway. The ISIS flag was removed immediately after a citizen alerted the police.

The graffiti supporting the ISIS was also seen on the wall of a house adjacent to a mosque in Wah Cantonment on February 10 earlier this year.

November 3, 2017   No Comments

Denial of IS footprint: Editorial in Dawn, September 30th, 2017

THE vigour and alacrity with which Pakistani authorities deny that the militant Islamic State group has an ‘organised’ presence in the country is matched perhaps only by evidence of an IS footprint in the country. On Thursday, the Foreign Office spokesperson once again denied that evidence of an IS presence in the country, or at least sympathy for IS, is of any significance.

The incident in which a version of the IS flag was confiscated by the police from the outskirts of Islamabad following a civilian report is troubling because authorities were not only unaware the flag was on display but once their attention was brought to the matter, they have been unable to explain who is responsible for the act. Across the board, the security apparatus seems unwilling or unable to recognise the threat that IS may pose.

In Pakistan, the absence of an organised IS network like in the Middle East or that of the TTP can be misleading. A wave of attacks in Europe have demonstrated that a combination of sophisticated propaganda via the internet and the presence of disaffected individuals in society can have terrifying consequences. Pakistan’s vulnerability is also deeper: IS ideology can penetrate existing terror networks or their remnants and morph into a menacing new threat.

Instead of recognising that reality and developing a strategy to combat it, the state seems to be repeating many of the mistakes it made early on in the fight against the TTP and other anti-Pakistan militant groups.

Then too there was a belief a soft approach to militancy or so-called peace deals would prevent the problem from growing out of control. But it did grow out of control, to the point that the state has had to launch the largest internal security operations in its history to fight militancy and terrorism.

Troubling too is the glib manner in which counterterrorism operations are reported by the police.

In yet another incident where individuals who are mysteriously eliminated in police ‘encounters’ are later labelled as members of all manner of terrorist groups, the Karachi police on Thursday killed five individuals, one of whom was identified as a member of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The individuals were, according to the police, planning to carry out attacks on Muharram processions. While Al Qaeda does have a sectarian strain in its militant ideology, more details are needed about the victims and their alleged militant affiliations before firm conclusions can be drawn.

What is striking about the police claims is that a hotchpotch of militants was found together — and a typically large number of attacks have been attributed to them. While the incident will soon be forgotten, the broader pattern is clear: the state seems to be lurching from incident to incident without a clear idea of the nature or scale of the threat it faces. https://www.dawn.com/news/1360857/denial-of-is-footprint

October 1, 2017   No Comments

Nacta keeping an eye on Pakistanis who ‘fought abroad’

Report in Dawn, August 30th, 2017
ISLAMABAD: The National Counterterrorism Authority (Nacta) has begun the process of compiling data on Pakistan-based individuals that are suspected of involvement with terrorist organisations abroad, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Interior was told on Tuesday.

Nacta chief Ihsan Ghani said the authority had completed the task of data compilation on suspected militants who had fought in conflict zones such as Yemen, Iraq or Syria.

“We are in the process of having the data verified from federal and provincial departments,” he told the committee during a briefing on the status of implementation on the National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism and extremism.

The verification process would help sift those who went to these areas to earn a livelihood from those who posed an actual threat.

The point of the exercise was to minimise the blowback on Pakistan once these suspected fighters returned to the country after groups such as the so-called Islamic State (IS) began losing ground in Iraq.

The Nacta chief detailed measures to choke terrorists’ financial networks, saying that a task force had been established under the authority to coordinate efforts in this regard.

Progress on updating the list of those individuals who were placed on the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997 was also shared with the committee. The bank accounts of around 5,000 of the more than 8,000 individuals on the list had been frozen, he said, while they could no longer be issued passports or gun licences.

Mr Ghani revealed plans to develop a mobile phone app to assess hate speech, where local authorities could upload any suspected speech on the app, which would relay it to the authority for vetting. He also apprised the committee of a national policy to counter violent extremism, which had been approved by the government.

In addition, an official of the interior ministry told the participants about plans to re-validate all existing arms licences and confiscate all unlicensed weapons across the country. A committee, chaired by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi himself, would review the policy on prohibited bore weapons, the official said.

August 30, 2017   No Comments

Islamic State & Baloch militants: By Dr Raza Khan in The Express Tribune, July 2 2017

The writer is a political and security analyst with a doctoral degree in International Relations
The biggest stronghold of the global terrorist and militant organisation, the Islamic State (IS), in Pakistan has been shattered. The said base of the IS reportedly was smashed in a security operation conducted in a far-flung area of Balochistan’s Mastung district.

This is Pakistan’s counterterrorism agencies greatest achievement against the IS. However, Ejaz Bangulzai, who was controlling the IS activities in Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab reportedly escaped. The cave complex was being used by the IS and its local affiliate Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).

But it must be admitted that Pakistani counterterrorism agencies operations against the IS have, by and large, been reactive rather than proactive. The recently conducted operation in Mastung points towards this fact. The operation was conducted after attack on the Deputy Chairman of Senate, Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, and the abduction and presumed execution of two Chinese teachers based in Quetta. Reportedly, during the Mastung operation the vehicle in which the Chinese nationals were abducted was recovered but their whereabouts could not be traced, while officials also claimed to have killed Haideri’s attackers.

The kidnapping of the two Chinese teachers allegedly by the IS at a time when work is under way on CPEC is profoundly purposeful. So far neither the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) nor al Qaeda or any of their foreign and local affiliates have claimed or vowed to attack the CPEC projects and personnel engaged in work on these projects.

Irrespective of the presence of the IS, the scale of the threat it poses and counterterrorism operations against the group there is another important aspect to the recent dismantling of the IS network in Balochistan. The revelation that the largest stronghold of the IS in Pakistan was in Mastung and the group is being led by a Baloch, Bangulzai, is very surprising. Previously, there has been negligible presence of Baloch within the religiously-oriented militant and terrorist groups operating in Pakistan. Almost all of these groups have been dominated by Pashtuns and Punjabis. Contrarily, a sizeable number of Baloch have been part of non-religious separatist militant terrorist groups like the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and the Baloch Liberation Front, and these groups never espoused an Islamist agenda.

Within that context it is not difficult to understand that Bangulzai must have got support and funding from state and non-state actors, which are against stability in Pakistan and resultantly against economic corridor. Here it is important to note that already an Iranian Baloch nationalist and sectarian group, Jundullah, founded by Abdul Malik Regi, struggling to separate Balochistan and Sistan-Baluchestan province of Iran to create an independent Baloch state used religion as its foundational and operational agenda. Hence, Pakistani Baloch separatist militant and sectarian groups failing to get a separate state after decades of struggle with support from India and Afghanistan may now want to join hands with Jundullah or follow it. But for the time being, these groups and individuals would like to use a religious façade only to create problems for CPEC.

It is also pertinent to note that militant groups like the TTP, al Qaeda or sectarian groups such as LeJ have never been potent in the Baloch inhabited parts of the province or for that matter the entire Balochistan. This compels one to understand why the IS or LeJ want to create their networks in the province and not in the remote and relatively more mountainous and inaccessible Fata. They might have been provided sanctuaries by Baloch nationalists in the province to create problems for the state of Pakistan and its security forces, aiming to sabotage CPEC. Let’s not forget Mastung has been a stronghold of the BRA.https://tribune.com.pk/story/1448219/islamic-state-baloch-militants/

July 2, 2017   No Comments

Daesh and the region: by Syed Arfeen in The News on Sunday, June 18, 2017

The author is a Senior Investigative Correspondent of Geo News in Karachi.
Post Iran attacks, the jihadi media was jubilant. The Islamic State claimed the twin strikes on Tehran, raising serious concerns of the looming threat in the region.
While celebrating the attacks, Daesh affiliates released various online posters. In one of the posters, a Daesh militant was shown carrying the outfit’s flag at the famous Azadi Square of Tehran. Another poster said, “The war has not yet begun.” There was a poster carrying the statement, “By the order of Allah, we are near in Iran.”
Immediately after the terrorist attacks, Daesh’s mouthpiece agency, Amaq released a video showing two militants killing a man inside the parliament building. The clip was sent by a member of the terrorist squad participating in the operation and was later killed during the encounter.
Militant organisations have long vowed to attack Iran, the only declared Shia state in the world. They consider Tehran as centre of evil, interfering and supporting anti-sunni elements in neighbouring countries.
The Iranian capital was targeted in the midst of the gulf crisis. Tehran accused Riyadh of these deadly strikes deepening the prevailing tension in the region.
Iran showed full support to Qatar, which is facing threats from the Saudi led coalition. In the gulf diplomatic crisis, the question is how Daesh is going to exploit the tensions in the region and how is it going to be emboldened?
Editor of Newsweek Pakistan and author, Khaled Ahmed, believes Iran after Khomeini systematically pushed the non-Shia down, a totalitarian state could do it easily, the popular bias is on the same level as the popular bias against Ahmadis in Pakistan. “Sunni Baloch in the east and Sunni Arabs of Khuzestan in the west of Iran are restless but can’t communicate among themselves because of ethnic and linguistic differences,” Ahmed tells TNS.
“The power of the state prevents disorder. But Iran is surrounded by unfriendly states who can exploit its internal regimentation disenfranchising the non-Shia. The recent attack by Daesh is the beginning of this trend,” he adds.
“Daesh will benefit from the intra-Sunni power struggles. First, it can benefit directly from the turmoil on the Sunni side of the geo-sectarian divide. Second, Iran is also trying to exploit the divisions in the Sunni camp and a growth in Iranian influence, in turn, provides Daesh with more room to grow as well,” explains Kamran Bokhari, a specialist on geopolitics of the Middle East & South Asia.
Those observing the gulf crisis closely are of the opinion that there are limits to how far a country can patronise al Qaeda or Daesh. It is far more dangerous for the Saudis to do this because the more the Saudis use the sectarian card against Iran the more they empower Daesh and al Qaeda. It is a double-edged sword that cuts more deeply into Saudi Arabia. Iran will always be less vulnerable because it is a totalitarian state than the Arab sheikhdoms without the army like the Pasdaran needed for totalitarianism.
Besides eyeing the Middle East, Daesh is constantly struggling to expand its foothold in the South Asia region. Last week, reports emerged that Daesh militants had captured Tora Bora mountains. In a radio announcement on June 13, it was announced that Daesh had expelled all their opponents, including Afghan Taliban from the area.
“Daesh is a major threat (to Pakistan) because Daesh is using the elements of TTP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, al Qaeda, Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban to build its infrastructure on both sides of the Durand Line,” says Bokhari.
From June 1 to June 3, Pakistani security forces conducted an intelligence driven operation in Mastung. The LeJ spokesman claimed that those killed in the Mastung operation were not their men but were members of Daesh.
Recently, Daesh published an info graphic chart of its attacks during the last 8 months in Khurasan. The banned organisation claimed it had killed and injured more than 2200 people, including American, Pakistani and Afghan security officials, members of Afghan Taliban, Shia and Ahmedi community.
“Regional tension is not where Daesh gets a foothold, it feeds into the ideological extremism of the victim state and exploits a prepared sectarian ground to plant itself. Ironically, Muslim democracies are more vulnerable than kingdoms and sheikhdoms,” Ahmed says.
When the departure of trained Sunni and Shia militants from the Middle-East war theatre begins, Pakistan will face the crisis of a new wave of sectarian violence. http://tns.thenews.com.pk/daesh-region/#.WUYSZmiGPIU

June 18, 2017   No Comments

How strong is Islamic State in Pakistan?

By Imdad Hussain in The Express Tribune, Mar 10, 2017
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist specialising in diplomatic and security issues.
Security forces have successfully busted several attempts by Islamic State to establish itself in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but their continued activities in Pakistan show the threat they pose is as real as it gets.

The militant organisation, originally based in the Syria-Iraq region, recently claimed responsibility for the attack on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine in Sehwan, which killed over 80 people. Last year, it had taken responsibility for an attack on the police academy in Quetta.

Islamic State was not considered dangerous until it located itself in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan’s tribal areas. It announced its formal establishment in January 2015 and since then has expanded its influence in the war-torn country by launching attacks in Jalalabad and Kabul and by making alliances with the local militants in the country.

Bloodbath at Sehwan shrine

Though the Afghan Taliban oppose Islamic State and have clashed with it several times, breakaway factions like the Mullah Rasool group are on good terms with the organisation. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is now based in Afghanistan and has ties with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has also sworn allegiance to Islamic State.

IS in Pakistan

After establishing itself in the volatile Afghanistan, the banned outfit is believed to have developed ties with militant organisations in Pakistan. The possibility of Islamic State trying to grow its influence in Pakistan was already feared because many of its leaders and members in Afghanistan have strong connections with Pakistan. Its first head in Afghanistan Hafiz Saeed Khan was born in Orakzai Agency and was a TTP commander initially. His maiden twelve-member shura consisted of nine Pakistanis, two Afghans, and one person of unknown origin. Abu Haseeb, who succeeded Khan after he was killed in a drone attack, studied in Pakistani madrassas and has links with Pakistani militants.

Alliance of convenience among terror outfits in Pakistan matter of concern for US: Gen Nicholson

A number of other TTP commanders and militants also joined Islamic State after they escaped military operations in Pakistan. Videos were released in 2014 and 2015 showing several of the TTP former commanders pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr alBaghdadi – the leader of Islamic State. Several members of other militant groups have done so such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which reportedly partnered with Islamic State for the attack on Quetta’s police training school last year.

Reports about the arrest of Islamic State members from Lahore, Sialkot and Gujranwala also point at the group’s efforts for establishing itself in the country. A few members were arrested in Peshawar as well, carrying pamphlets inscribed with warnings against polio vaccinations, while earlier, pamphlets were distributed in Kurram Agency with threats of attacks in the area. Pro-Islamic State wall chalking was also reported in different parts of the country including Karachi and Gilgit.

It is believed that Islamic State, with thousands of members in Afghanistan, has a relatively smaller number of followers living in Pakistan, that too in hiding. The group allegedly recruited about 50 young refugees in Pakistan and sent them to Afghanistan for militant training. The news of Bushra Cheema, an educated woman from Lahore who went to Syria along with her four children, also garnered attention two years ago.

Regional context

As a militant organisation with regional ambitions, radical ideology, and large recruitment pool of existing and potential militants, Islamic State poses a threat not only to Pakistan and Afghanistan but to the entire region. Its recent expansion to Afghanistan’s eastern and northern parts rightfully ringed alarm bells to as far as Russia which blames the US for Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, Islamic State released media content targeting China specifically. The two videos asked Muslims around the world to fight the kafirs of China and to revenge the deaths of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

India is also under its radar with the militant group carrying out supposedly its first attack in the country this week. A low-intensity blast in a train in Madhya Pradesh injured 10 passengers and prompted coordinated police operations which saw the arrest of eight Islamic State members.

Trouble in paradise

Though Pakistan has long been a hotbed of militant activities, concerned authorities believe Islamic State cannot put down roots in the country due to the ongoing operations including recently-launched Radd-ul-Fasad and many intelligence-based raids.

Islamic State members hide among public in K-P

The security efforts, particularly those in the wake of Sehwan blast, are geared towards targeting all terrorists including Islamic State and their facilitators. The counter-terrorism measures also focus on dismantling the nexus between criminals and militants.

Pakistan is further coordinating with Russia, China, Afghanistan and other regional countries to contain terrorism and Islamabad’s participation in a recent Moscow meeting was part of its efforts to tackle the growing threat of Islamic State in the region.

Right strategy

With widespread military efforts against militants across Pakistan, it will be hard for Islamic State to establish itself in Pakistani territory. But its existence in Afghanistan can allow the banned group to continue carrying out cross-border attacks or coordinating with local militants to hit targets in Pakistan.

The situation demands strict border management which, as many analysts maintain, can only be possible if ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan – currently marred by a lack of trust – improve drastically.

A comprehensive response, in addition to security cooperation with Afghanistan and elimination of safe havens, should also include police training and programmes to counter radicalisation.https://tribune.com.pk/story/1350564/strong-islamic-state-pakistan/

March 10, 2017   No Comments

Horror before the Beheadings: By Rukmini Callimachi in The NY Times, Oct 26, 2014  

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.

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 as ISIS, 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.

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 fighters flooding 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 Europeansdrawn 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.

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.

One day, their guards brought them a gift of chocolates.

When Mr. Bontinck was released, he jotted down the phone number of Mr. Foley’s parents and promised to call them. They made plans to meet again.

He left thinking that the journalists, like him, would soon be freed.

A Terrorist State

The Syrian civil war, previously dominated by secular rebels and a handful of rival jihadist groups, was shifting decisively, and the new extremist grouphad taken a dominant position. Sometime last year, the battalion in the Aleppo hospital pledged allegiance to what was then called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Other factions of fighters joined forces with the group, whose tactics were so extreme that even Al Qaeda expelled it from its terror network. Its ambitions went far beyond toppling Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president.

Late last year, the jihadists began pooling their prisoners, bringing them to the same location underneath the hospital. By January, there were at least 19 men in one 20-square-meter cell (about 215 square feet) and four women in an adjoining one. All but one of them were European or North American. The relative freedom that Mr. Foley and Mr. Cantlie had enjoyed came to an abrupt end. Each prisoner was now handcuffed to another.

More worrying was the fact that their French-speaking guards were replaced by English-speaking ones. Mr. Foley recognized them with dread.

They were the ones who had called him “naughty” during the worst torture. They were the ones the hostages called the Beatles. They instituted a strict security protocol.

When they approached the cell holding Mr. Suder, the Polish photojournalist, they called out “arba’een”: Arabic for the number 40.

That was his cue to face the wall so that when the guards entered, he would not see their faces. Several hostages were given numbers in Arabic, which appeared to be an effort to catalog them — not unlike the numbers American forces had assigned to prisoners in the detention facilities they ran in Iraq, including Camp Bucca, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, was briefly held.

“When the Beatles took over, they wanted to bring a certain level of order to the hostages,” said one recently freed European captive.

The jihadists had gone from obscurity to running what they called a state.

In areas under their control, they established an intricate bureaucracy, including a tribunal, a police force and even a consumer protection office, which forced kebab stands to close for selling low-quality products.

That focus on order extended to the hostages.

After months of holding them without making any demands, the jihadists suddenly devised a plan to ransom them. Starting last November, each prisoner was told to hand over the email address of a relative. Mr. Foley gave the address of his younger brother.

The group sent a blitz of messages to the families of the hostages.

Those who were able to lay the emails side by side could see they had been cut and pasted from the same template.


By December, the militants had exchanged several emails with Mr. Foley’s family, as well as with the families of other hostages.

After the first proof-of-life questions, Mr. Foley was hopeful that he would be home soon. As his second Christmas away from home approached, he threw himself into organizing a jailhouse version of Secret Santa, a tradition in the Foley household.

Each prisoner gave another a gift fashioned out of trash. Mr. Foley’s Secret Santa gave him a circle made from the wax of a discarded candle to cushion his forehead when he bowed down to pray on the hard floor.

As the weeks passed, Mr. Foley noticed that his European cellmates were invited outside again and again to answer questions. He was not. Nor were the other Americans, or the Britons.

Soon, the prisoners realized that their kidnappers had identified which nations were most likely to pay ransoms, said a former hostage, one of five who spoke about their imprisonment in the Islamic State’s network of jails on the condition that their names be withheld.

“The kidnappers knew which countries would be the most amenable to their demands, and they created an order based on the ease with which they thought they could negotiate,” one said. “They started with the Spanish.”

One day, the guards came in and pointed to the three Spanish captives. They said they knew the Spanish government had paid six million euros for a group of aid workers kidnapped by a Qaeda cell in Mauritania, a figure available online in articles about the episode.

As the negotiations for the Spanish prisoners progressed rapidly — the first was released this March, six months after he had been captured — the militants moved on to the four French journalists.

The European prisoners went from answering additional personal questions to filming videos to be sent to their families or governments. The videos became more and more charged, eventually including death threats and execution deadlines in an effort to force their nations to pay.

At one point, their jailers arrived with a collection of orange jumpsuits.

In a video, they lined up the French hostages in their brightly colored uniforms, mimicking those worn by prisoners at the United States’ facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

They also began waterboarding a select few, just as C.I.A. interrogators had treated Muslim prisoners at so-called black sites during the George W. Bush administration, former hostages and witnesses said.

With time, the 23 prisoners were divided into two groups. The three American men and the three British hostages were singled out for the worst abuse, both because of the militants’ grievances against their countries and because their governments would not negotiate, according to several people with intimate knowledge of the events.

“It’s part of the DNA of this group to hate America,” one said. “But they also realized that the United States and Britain were the least likely to pay.”

Within this subset, the person who suffered the cruelest treatment, the former hostages said, was Mr. Foley. In addition to receiving prolonged beatings, he underwent mock executions and was repeatedly waterboarded.

Meant to simulate drowning, the procedure can cause the victim to pass out. When one of the prisoners was hauled out, the others were relieved if he came back bloodied.

“It was when there was no blood,” a former cellmate said, “that we knew he had suffered something even worse.”

As the negotiations dragged on, conditions became increasingly grim.

During one extended stretch, the hostages received the equivalent of a teacup of food per day.

They spent weeks in darkness. In one basement, their only illumination was the finger of sunlight that stretched under their locked door. After dusk, they could not see anything, spilling food on themselves until their guards eventually gave them a flashlight.

Most of the locations had no mattresses and few blankets. Some of the prisoners took discarded pants, tied one end and filled the trouser legs with rags to create makeshift pillows.

The prisoners turned on one another. Fights broke out.

Mr. Foley shared his meager rations. In the cold of the Syrian winter, he offered another prisoner his only blanket.

He kept the others entertained, proposing games and activities like Risk, a board game that involves moving imaginary armies across a map: another favorite pastime in the Foley family. The hostages made a chess set out of discarded paper. They re-enacted movies, retelling them scene by scene. And they arranged for members of the group to give lectures on topics they knew well.

Execution Deadlines

This spring, the hostages were moved from below the hospital in Aleppo to Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. They were incarcerated in a building outside an oil installation, where they were again divided by sex.

By March, the militants had concluded the negotiations for the three Spanish journalists.

When the first deliveries of cash arrived, the guards discovered that some of the bills were damaged. They complained to the remaining hostages that their governments did not even have the decency to send crisp notes.

By April, nearly half of the captives had been freed. There had been no progress, however, on the ransom demands the jihadists had made for their American and British hostages.

During the triage phase, the guards identified the single Russian hostage, a man known to the others as Sergey, as the least marketable commodity.

Identified in the Russian news media as Sergey Gorbunov, he was last seen in a video released in October 2013. Stuttering, he said that if Moscow failed to meet the kidnappers’ demands, he would be killed.

Sometime this spring, the masked men came for him.

They dragged the terrified prisoner outside and shot him. They filmed his body. Then they returned to show the footage to the surviving hostages.

“This,” they said, “is what will happen to you if your government doesn’t pay.”


Mr. Foley watched as his cellmates were released in roughly two-week increments.

As the number of people in the 20-square-meter cell in Raqqa grew smaller, it was hard to stay hopeful. Yet Mr. Foley, who had campaigned for President Obama, continued to believe his government would come to his rescue, said his family, who learned this from recently freed hostages.

On May 27, the few remaining hostages were reminded that different passports spelled different fates.

Those who had been taken together were, in most cases, released together. Not so for the Italian and British aid workers for the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, a small French organization, who were grabbed less than a mile from the Turkish border after returning from a refugee camp where they had gone to deliver tents.

In late May, the Italian, Federico Motka, was told he could go, according to a fellow captive, allegedly after Italy paid a ransom. (The Italian government denied the claim.) But his co-worker, Mr. Haines, was left chained inside. Mr. Haines was beheaded in September after being forced to read a script blaming the British government for his death.

By June, the cellblock that had once held at least 23 people had been reduced to just seven. Four of them were Americans, and three were British — all citizens of countries whose governments had refused to pay ransoms.

In an article recently published in an official Islamic State magazine, the jihadists described the American-led airstrikes that began in August as the nail in those hostages’ coffins.

At the same time, they laid out the role European and American ransom policies had played in their decision to kill Mr. Foley.

“As the American government was dragging its feet, reluctant to save James’s life,” they wrote in the magazine, Dabiq, “negotiations were made by the governments of a number of European prisoners, which resulted in the release of a dozen of their prisoners after the demands of the Islamic State were met.”

Fifteen hostages were freed from March to June for ransoms averaging more than two million euros, the former captives and those close to them said.

Among the last to go was a Danish photojournalist, Daniel Rye Ottosen, 25, released in June after his family cobbled together a multimillion-euro ransom, three people briefed on the negotiation said. He was one of several departing hostages who managed to smuggle out letters from his cellmates.

“I am obviously pretty scared to die,” Mr. Kassig wrote in a letter recently published by his family. “The hardest part is not knowing — hoping, and wondering if I should even hope at all.”

Mr. Foley seemed to sense the end was near. In his letter, amid expressions of love, he slipped in a sentence instructing his family on how to disburse the money in his bank account.

In August, when the militants came for him, they made him slip on a pair of plastic sandals. They drove him to a bare hill outside Raqqa. They made him kneel. He looked straight into the camera, his expression defiant. Then they slit his throat.

Two weeks later, a similar video surfaced on YouTube showing Mr. Sotloff’s death. In September, the militants uploaded Mr. Haines’s execution. In October, they killed Mr. Henning. Only three from the original group of 23 remain: two Americans, Mr. Kassig and a woman who has not been identified, as well as a Briton, Mr. Cantlie.

The militants have announced they will kill Mr. Kassig next.

Across Europe, those who had survived gasped when they saw the footage of their cellmate’s death: The cheap, beige-colored plastic flip-flops splayed next to Mr. Foley’s body were the same pair the prisoners had shared.

They had all worn those sandals to the bathroom.

Those who survived had walked in the same shoes as those who did not. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/world/middleeast/horror-before-the-beheadings-what-isis-hostages-endured-in-syria.html?_r=0

October 26, 2014   No Comments