BANGALORE - While the US, Britain and Italy,
whose citizens have been taken hostage, have refused to
concede demands of hostage-takers, militant groups have
sent out clear signals that they, too, mean business.
American contractors, Jack Hensley and Eugene
Armstrong, and a British engineer, Ken Bigley, were
abducted from Baghdad, with their kidnappers demanding
the release of Iraqi women prisoners. Early this
week, Hensley and Armstrong were beheaded, and Bigley's
fate is uncertain. On Thursday, a group calling itself
Jihad Organization claimed on an Islamist website that
it had "slaughtered" two Italian aid workers taken hostage
more than two weeks ago. The claim is yet to be
confirmed. Britain and Italy are part of the US-led
coalition in Iraq and have refused to pull out their
troops deployed there.
emerged as a powerful "smart weapon" in the Iraqi
insurgents' arsenal. However, it does seem that its
indiscriminate use could alienate Muslim opinion. This
is evident from the response of the Arab world to the
abduction in the last week of August of two French
journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot.
The Islamic Army of Iraq
that abducted them demanded that France lift a ban on
Islamic headscarves in state schools. This is the first time
since the kidnapping of foreigners started in Iraq in
April that hostage-takers have laid down conditions
external to Iraq.
and political leaders who have hitherto maintained silence
on the issue of hostage-taking responded sharply
to the kidnapping of Malbrunot and
Chesnot. Lebanon's senior-most Shi'ite Muslim cleric,
Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, described the
abduction as "a brutal operation on the human level, a bad one
on the Islamic level, and a losing one on the
political level". The abductions and their link to the headscarf
ban "provokes the ire of Muslim scholars and
intellectuals worldwide", Fadlallah said.
who have criticized the abduction of the French
journalists are Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat,
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the
Palestinian militant group Hamas, Egypt's outlawed
Islamist militant group the Muslim Brotherhood, and
Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro.
France was at
the forefront of the international opposition to the US
invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is seen as a friend
of the Arab world. The kidnapping of other Westerners
working in Iraq has failed to evoke such a response from
the Arab world and this has to do with the fact that
their governments are part of the US-led coalition.
While gruesome decapitations of foreign hostages
and the hosting of videos of the beheading have
generated considerable revulsion among Muslims,
especially moderate opinion, denunciations have not been
as vociferous as in the case of the French hostages. The
general feeling is that the West is outraged over a few
executions and gives endless footage to hostages in the
media, while the killing of thousands of Iraqis and
Palestinians goes by largely ignored.
Indeed, more Iraqis than foreigners have been kidnapped in
Iraq, but their plight has gone by mostly unreported.
Hundreds of Iraqi businessmen and professionals have
been abducted and held for ransom since the ouster of
the Saddam Hussein government and the subsequent
breakdown of law and order in Iraq last year. More than
135 foreigners working in Iraq have been abducted in
recent months. While most have been freed, more than 30 are said to
have been executed by their captors - more than a third of the
executed were beheaded.
kidnapping of foreign workers began in April when the
al-Saraya Mujahideen (Mujahideen Brigades) took three
Japanese and four Italians, one of whom was subsequently
killed. The beheading of hostages began a month later. A
26-year-old American, Nick Berg, was abducted and then
decapitated. Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Unity and Holy War),
an Islamist group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and with
links to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the
Since then, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad has
claimed responsibility for at least seven other
executions of hostages, including Korean translator
Kim Sun-il, Bulgarian truck drivers Georgi Lazov and
Ivaylo Kepov, and the American contractors, Hensley and
The Islamic Army in Iraq's record
on kidnappings is almost as fearsome. It abducted
Angelo de la Cruz, the now-freed Filipino hostage;
killed an Italian hostage and is now holding two French
Another group that has been
active in the hostage-taking business is Ansar al-Sunna
(Followers of the Tradition). It claimed to have
murdered an Arab holding US citizenship and captured a
US marine of Lebanese origin. It kidnapped 12 Nepalese
workers and then executed them. Others include the
Holders of the Black Banners, which kidnapped seven
truck drivers and then freed them, and the Islamic
Movement for Iraq's Mujahideen, which freed a Lebanese
hostage in recognition of "his country's resistance
The most common condition for
release put forward by these groups is that countries to
which their hostages belong pull out troops stationed in
Iraq, that the companies they work for stop doing
business in Iraq or provide services that will result in
the stabilization of the US occupation. The groups that
are engaged in hostage-taking might all be opposed to
the presence of the US-led occupation forces in Iraq,
but not all of them are in the kidnapping business for
political reasons. Some are mere criminal gangs who have
seen the immense possible prospects of profit that
hostage-taking holds out. These abduct foreign workers
in Iraq, cloaking conditions for their release with
political issues. It is money finally that secures the
release of the hostages.
The Black Banners
demanded that India pull out its troops from Iraq - when
India has no troops in Iraq. They then demanded that the
employer of the three Indian hostages, Kuwait and Gulf
Link Transport Company (KGL), halt operations in Iraq.
The negotiations to secure the release of the hostages
were protracted, not because the issues being discussed
were intractable political ones but because of hard
wrangling over money. Ultimately, US$500,000 paid by KGL
to the kidnappers did the trick and the hostages were
It appears that local criminal gangs
do the actual kidnapping. The hostages are then sold up
the chain to larger militant outfits, which use the
hostages as pawns and bargaining chips. Foreign hostages
apparently carry a higher price tag.
Many of the
abductions in Iraq have been attributed to al-Zarqawi or
to "groups with links to al-Zarqawi". This could be
because a large number of gangs might be supplying his
group with hostages - hence the many groups with "links
But a more plausible explanation lies
in the way Islamist militant groups are evolving post-September
11, 2001. Just as al-Qaeda has groups with
links to it, so also al-Zarqawi's al-Tawhid wal-Jihad
with outfits in Iraq. Terrorist cells and outfits with
links to al-Qaeda have proliferated across the world.
What links these groups is a similar outlook and
ideology. The al-Qaeda-linked groups act under different
names and carry out attacks on their own.
an Egyptian expert on militant groups, likens this
phenomenon to "McDonald's giving out franchises ...
All they have to do is follow the company's manual.
They don't consult with headquarters every time they
want to produce a meal."
It is possible that the
various groups engaged in the kidnapping of foreigners
in Iraq are "franchises" of al-Zarqawi's al-Tawhid
wal-Jihad. A similar ideology and opposition to the US
and its allies bond them. They might even supply one
another with hostages. But they act under different names
- sometimes very similar names - contributing to the
coalition's confusion over the identity of the groups
that are taking their citizens hostage.
taking of hostages is proving more useful in generating
terror than even suicide bombings. Suicide bombings have
been regarded as a low-cost, high-yield "smart weapon"
in a militant group's armory. Hostage-taking is smarter.
It allows for very specific targeting. The investment
and planning required for abduction are far less. In
suicide attacks, bombers strapped with explosives have
to evade security checkpoints or devise ways to breach
highly secured installations and buildings. But the
chances of being caught while going after aid workers,
truckers or contractors is almost nil, especially in a
country where law and order have collapsed. And with
criminal gangs willing to kidnap for a price,
implementation of the tactic is even easier for an
insurgent group. It is a virtually risk-free method.
Hostage-taking has become the Iraqi insurgents'
favored means of pursuing the anti-coalition agenda. But
indiscriminate choice of victims and excessive use along
with grisly decapitation of victims could undermine
international support for the Iraqi cause.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher/writer
based in Bangalore, India. She has a doctoral
degree from the School of International Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi. Her areas
of interest include terrorism, conflict zones, and gender
and conflict. Formerly an assistant editor at the
Deccan Herald (Bangalore), she now teaches at the Asian
College of Journalism, Chennai.
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