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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
29 January 2006

IRAQ: Mixed motivations behind kidnappings

BAGHDAD, 29 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - Some 300 foreign civilians have been abducted since the US-led war in Iraq started in March 2003, but according to members of Iraq’s government, the identity of those who kidnapped them remains vague.

“Figuring out who is being held by insurgents, and who is being held by criminals, has made our work very difficult,” said Muhammad Mounir, a senior official in Iraq’s interior ministry.

According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), people involved in kidnappings are often identifiable as groups, but not necessarily as individuals. “It’s very hard to say in whose hands the hostages are,” Joost Hilterman, Middle East Project Director for the ICG, said.

These groups, say ICG, include foreign fighters from other Arab and Muslim countries, local insurgents and criminal gangs.

Groups linked to al-Qaeda have been named in association with many high-profile kidnappings in Iraq, including those of aid workers, according to the Iraqi government.

Since 2004, a total of nine foreign and three Iraqi aid-workers have been abducted, according to Cedric Turlan, from the Amman-based NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI). One was reportedly killed and four have been released.

One of the highest-profile cases involved Margaret Hassan, the 59-year old director of the aid agency CARE International in Iraq. Married to an Iraqi national, Hassan was herself a British citizen. She was abducted in October 2004 and reportedly killed less than a month later, but her body was never found.

Hassan was only one of at least 39 hostages to have been killed to date.
In November 2005, four foreign peace activists associated with Christian Peacemaker Teams were kidnapped by a group which called itself the “Swords of Righteousness Brigade”. This previously unknown outfit originally demanded the release of Iraqi prisoners by 10 December 2005.

On 28 January, a tape dated from 21 January and broadcast by al-Jazeera, gave US and Iraqi authorities a "last chance" to release all detainees in Iraq, threatening to kill the four hostages if their demands were not met. It did not mention a deadline.

Apart from aid workers, those kidnapped also include diplomats, journalists, businessmen, engineers and truck drivers.

But according to Abu Omar [real name withheld], a member of a militant group called the Islamic Army, the abduction of aid workers draws more media attention than the abduction of journalists or contractors.

When the targeting of foreigners started in April 2004, NGOs reinforced their security and restricted their movements, particularly outside of cities, according to Turlan.

Later that year, the vast majority of foreign aid workers were forced to work from bases in countries neighbouring Iraq.

Kidnappers, however, do not just target non-Iraqis. Local authorities also report that hundreds of Iraqis have been kidnapped, especially those working for organisations linked to the US military, or in professions in which they earn good money, such as medicine and teaching.

Many of these cases go unreported.

According to Abu Maruan [real name withheld], a senior member of the Islamic Army, potential hostages are chosen carefully, with insurgents planning their victims on the basis of the impact it will have in the international media.

“We consider what this person represents internationally, and then a plan is worked out before the manoeuvre,” added Maruan, who is responsible for collecting background information on hostages in advance of kidnapping operations.

The personal histories of potential hostages are studied. “In one case, we even knew where the target went to primary school,” he said.

Some Iraqi insurgents said the main reason for kidnapping foreign aid workers was to pressure the US to withdraw its military from Iraq. Others claimed that money gained from ransoms was put back into the local community to improve services.

Maruan explained that money raised from ransoms made from their kidnapping operations was generally used “to fuel the insurgency and help feed poor families in areas of the western Anbar governorate, [people] who are homeless because of US military offensives”.

However, the ICG’s Hilterman said kidnappings were often carried out by criminals hoping to reap “pecuniary gains”. Kidnappers will abduct their victims before “selling them to the highest bidder,” he said.

In these cases, it is the bidder who tries to extract ransom money.

Anyone with money – Iraqi or foreign – is seen as a “valuable asset,” Hilterman noted. “It’s a market economy out there,” he said.

Insurgents themselves concede that criminals often use the names of genuine rebel groups when demanding ransoms. “These people say that they’re insurgents, but they’re just robbers using our name to obscure their identities,” said Omar.

“They’re not on our side – they’re just looking for money.”


This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but May not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2006

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