Monday, January 24, 2005

Captive Audience: The French Secret Recipe for Resolving an Iraqi Hostage Crisis

January 5- For the past couple of weeks, the massive devastation in Southeast Asia seems to have had a strange ripple effect in Iraq: it made TV airtime for a hostage video harder to come by. Tsunami disaster footage took center stage on Arabic satellite networks as it did everywhere else, leaving the comparatively banal image of a beheading wanting for an international audience.

Which is not to say that the country’s media-savvy insurgents have been sitting idly by. Witness Tuesday’s assassination of the Baghdad governor and a new spate of deadly car and roadside bombings in the Iraqi capital. These attacks send a potent message to local authorities and increase the likelihood of a delay in the country’s planned late-January elections, although they fall short of earning the global public outcry that earlier hostage spectacles have done. As a comprehensive study of Iraq’s hostage crisis shows, the tactic of kidnapping has been the insurgents’ most effective tool of all. Some countries have withdrawn their troops in exchange for their nationals’ release, many businesses and aid groups have been persuaded to leave Iraq or avoid coming, and countless Iraqis are afraid to cooperate with the provisional government and may shun the ballot boxes when elections eventually take place. So there is every reason to expect a new wave of masked men to appear in grainy videos soon. (At this writing, journalist Florence Aubenas has been reported missing and is feared to have been kidnapped.)

Just ask Georges Malbrunot, a freed French hostage who has been making the rounds of radio and television since his December 21 release. Though attention to his story outside France has been relatively modest given the mega-tragedy to Iraq’s southeast, the world still wants to know how Malbrunot, his French journalist colleague, and their Syrian driver managed to escape death. And the world still does not have a complete answer. He told the BBC, NPR, and other Western networks that he did not know whether a ransom had been paid by France, although the French weekly Le Canard Enchaine has reported that there were in fact millions of francs in pay-offs. He also declined to throw much light on the negotiations that apparently took place. Instead, he mainly observed that his captors were not so much Iraqi patriots as pan-Islamists (he told a press conference in France, “…we were immersed in planet Bin Laden …”) and repeated the kidnappers’ warning to all foreigners (“They told us, ‘Iraq is a land of war now, and don’t come back to Iraq,’” Malbrunot explained to NPR’s Jacki Lyden, advising American journalists, “Don’t go there. Nothing is better than life…”). He also took pains to criticize a French Deputy, Didier Julia, for allegedly complicating matters by visiting Syria on his own initiative and trying to secure the hostages’ release through former Saddam loyalists.

But there is more to Malbrunot’s story which he appears to have saved for Al-Jazeera – to begin with, his support for the insurgents. In a half-hour interview he gave to the Arabic-language network which was broadcast Monday, January 3, he said,

I think the Islamic Army in Iraq should focus its work on resisting the American occupation and those who cooperate with it. The important thing is that there be a resistance. Islamic or non-Islamic, we believe in the sacred right of any resistance. Yet in the West, and even in the Arab world, when we see heads cut off, it does not lead to anything but the slandering of the image of the resistance in the entire world. The true resistance fighters should preserve their reputation, and demonstrate that their fight is a legitimate and just resistance …

Chalk it up to Stockholm Syndrome if you wish. But for a fluent Arabic speaker and author of two books who has spent ten years in the Arab Middle East, Malbrunot cannot claim to be ignorant of the incendiary effect these remarks have in the region. (It bears noting that he said he speaks Arabic but gave the interview in French. The above quote and all the ones to follow are my translation of the Al-Jazeera audio feed, which is in turn a running translation from French into Arabic; the original French is inaudible.) Malbrunot’s thumbs-up for “resisting the American occupation and those who cooperate with it” is understood by Al-Jazeera audiences to mean an endorsement of attacks on coalition forces in the broadest sense – including Iraqi government, police, and election officials. Coming not from an Islamist cleric but from a freed Western hostage, these comments are a morale boost to an insurgency whose bloody tactics and nihilism have been criticized by liberal Arab columnists across the region. They also serve to further endear France and its people to the more hard-line political players in Iraq and its periphery – a fact which is inseparable from the still-unanswered question of how Malbrunot and his friends escaped death.

The reason the question is so important is that other countries would like to help their own citizens escape captivity or worse in Iraq as well. The long months of hostage spectacles have caused angst and finger-pointing in Europe and the United States – both at TV media for fueling the trend by giving militants a platform to air their videos, and at various governments for allegedly paying ransoms. Arab pundits, too, are grappling with the problem. An Al-Hayat columnist in October called upon “the little countries” to stop incentivizing Iraqi militants by paying them off, and a more flippant writer in the Lebanese online daily Elaph advised Western governments to adopt the old school response of taking their own hostages – say, Iraqis who live in the West. All this, and the French secret recipe remains a secret.

At least we know what the secret is not. The French government’s robust opposition to war in Iraq clearly contributed to the kidnappers’ mercy on Malbrunot and his friends, but it is not by itself what saved them. “Our being French was to our interest …” he told Al-Jazeera. “France was occupied in 1939, and occupation means [we know] the necessity of having a resistance. Therefore, they [the kidnappers] fiercely distinguished being French from being American.” Leaving aside Malbrunot’s selective memory, which omits both the long history of French colonialism and the fact that it was American troops who ended the Nazi occupation of France, his point has merit as it reflects popular wisdom in the Arab world today – the only wisdom that matters to a hostage in Iraq. But all that this pro-French sentimentalism accomplished was to inspire the kidnappers to think more creatively about their demands. As there weren’t any French soldiers in Iraq to be withdrawn in exchange for the hostages’ release, the insurgents demanded instead that France rescind its law banning the head scarf in French public schools – and the French government publicly refused to do so. At which point France found itself in the same predicament as any other country facing an unacceptable demand from Iraqi kidnappers. (As of this writing, the presumed kidnapping of French journalist Florence Aubenas only underscores the fact that insurgents in Iraq do not play favorites among Westerners.)

By improvising its demands, however, the “Islamic Army” also exposed a potential weakness: its global agenda. And therein lies the secret of the French response. Malbrunot explained what he meant by “planet Bin Laden” on Al-Jazeera:

I meant to say that I discovered that the Islamic Army in Iraq did not have the solely Iraqi goal of putting a stop to the American occupation, but that this army identifies with the Bin Laden organization. The kidnappers repeatedly referred to Bin Laden. I spoke with one of the young men, who had been in a training camp in Afghanistan, who informed me that his organization has goals that exceed their differences with the Americans and transcend the ongoing war in Iraq. He said that they are present in 60 countries, and their priority is to depose the regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and establish a caliphate from Spain to the borders of China, in addition to ideas hostile to the West which he would express almost constantly. … I said that I lived on “planet Bin Laden,” because we had departed the realm of the Iraqi-American problem and entered with them discussions and topics of an international nature. Our discussions grew deeper and dealt with European and internal French issues including the [ban on the] head scarf and others.

The kidnappers’ hand was weakened by harboring global ambitions because they held fewer cards in international negotiations than in local ones. Bin Laden may well be an emperor in exile, but in the 60 “provinces” where he maintains cells, including France, his minions are embattled – operatives imprisoned, slush funds busted, front groups padlocked.

Malbrunot could not detail French government actions, except to note that they were extensive and coordinated between intelligence agencies and the foreign ministry, but some charming hints of what transpired came out indirectly in his interview anyway. At one point during his four-month ordeal, he recalled, “one of the [Al-Qaeda] officials came to the place where I was confined and told me, ‘You will be released soon…’ When I asked him about the reasons for the delay, he said, ‘there are several interventions and mediations, and there were Islamic personalities that had offered to pay sums of money to release you, and we had said to them, ‘we do not want monies,’ and this has delayed the release.’”

The implication here is that the French government deputized several groups to negotiate for the hostages simultaneously – perhaps in France as well as Iraq, some officially, some unofficially – including an Islamic organization, which offered a ransom. French Deputy Didier Julia’s maverick attempt to open a separate negotiating track with Saddam loyalists in Syria may have frustrated other efforts temporarily, but it also contributed to the pool of information France acquired on who the kidnappers were and who they were not. Perhaps not entirely by design, French authorities managed to size up their opponent by confronting the group with a series of ideological and moral tests – from Ba’thism to pan-Islamism, from political give-and-take to the prospect of a bribe. For several months, they did not get back their citizens but they did learn a lot about their captors.

In the meantime, there was nothing for the soldiers of the Islamic Army to do but sit around and watch satellite television. From the room adjoining that of his confinement, Malbrunot said he could hear the insurgents flipping channels. For local news, they watched the new Iraqi network Al-Iraqiya. Friday afternoons they watched the weekly sermon on Saudi satellite television. And for international coverage, they turned to Al-Jazeera. Which suited France just fine. The kidnappers watched Prime Minister Michel Barnier appear on the network to plead for the hostages’ lives. They also saw coverage of large, well-organized rallies of Muslims in Paris in support of the captives. Even the management of Al-Jazeera found it in its heart to issue its own call for their release. “They [the kidnappers] told us, ‘The Muslims in France are protesting for your benefit more than the Christians,’” Malbrunot recalled. “…I want to thank the entire Muslim community in France, which demonstrated its unity and sent this excellent message, and convinced the kidnappers that these journalists are not spies. These are messages that were repeated on your network Al-Jazeera.”

“You mean to say that the kidnappers were watching Al-Jazeera?” the interviewer asked, a twinkle in his eye.

Indeed, in the global village of “planet Bin Laden,” the kidnappers were a captive audience.

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