Reporting and surviving a war with no rules.
- By James TraubJames Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation. "Terms of Engagement," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly. Follow his Twitter feed at @JamesTraub1 or his presidential alter ego at jqaspeaks.tumblr.com.
In the ancient southeastern Turkish city of Antakya, 20 miles from the border with Syria, a plump Syrian merchant who calls himself Abu Nabil can be found most evenings drinking tea in the Bellur, a pleasant open-air café. Abu Nabil is the kind of mysterious middleman who germinates spontaneously in war zones. His specialty, or so he says, is arranging the release of journalists and activists kidnapped by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
When I met Abu Nabil, in the first days of October 2013, he told me that he was at that very moment negotiating for the freedom of James Foley, an American freelance journalist who had disappeared the year before. I said that I had heard that Foley was held by rebels, not by the regime. Abu Nabil shot me a masterful look. "The company"-Kroll Risk and Compliance Solutions, the private security firm working the case-"doesn’t know anything, the government doesn’t know anything, nobody knows anything," he said, through an interpreter. "James Foley will come to his family in 15 days."
Foley did not come to his family in 15 days; whatever hole he has been deposited in, he is there still. Abu Nabil’s tale, like so many of the narratives emerging from a vicious civil war now well into its third year, was a compound of outright lies, exaggerations, and, quite possibly, truth. The kidnapping and ransom specialists at Kroll had been sufficiently persuaded of Abu Nabil’s veracity that they dispatched two agents to Antakya, where they had spent weeks trying fruitlessly to press this Arabian Sydney Greenstreet for hard proof.
The fate of journalists kidnapped in Syria is a terrifying mystery. As of press time, at least 30 journalists, as well as a number of humanitarian actors, are languishing in captivity. In only a few cases do their colleagues or employers know where they are or who is determining their fate. In almost no cases have their captors made any effort to communicate. It is as if these unlucky men and women have simply disappeared.
The early days of the war saw a number of tragic deaths of journalists, including the Sunday Times of London’s Marie Colvin and freelance photographer Remi Ochlik, killed by regime shelling during the bombardment of Homs. And then things took an even nastier turn. On August 13, 2012, Austin Tice, an American former Marine, law student, and sometime journalist, was nabbed, apparently by the regime. Nothing has been heard from him since October 2012. Two months later, the nbc reporter Richard Engel and his team were kidnapped by what Engel described as the pro-regime militia known as shabiha. They escaped after five days when their captors drove into a rebel checkpoint. Those were just early mile markers on the road to anarchy. Today, rampant kidnapping has become the norm.
Covering wars is, of course, a dangerous job; that’s one of the things many war correspondents like about it. But Syria is dangerous in a way that is less thrilling than sickening. Stephanie Freid, who covers the war for the Chinese cctv network, says, "I’ve never been in a bleaker, darker setting; it’s a godless place. Whenever I go in I feel like, ‘Just let me get out alive.’" While some major news organizations continue to work inside Syria, many of the world’s most experienced war correspondents-including C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, Paul Wood of the bbc, and Janine di Giovanni of Newsweek-stopped crossing into Syria in September 2013. They’re not afraid of being killed, at least no more than any sentient being would be in such a dangerous place. "I can take anything but kidnapping," says di Giovanni.
Thus at a moment when Syria’s destiny hangs in the balance, and states opposed to Assad’s regime debate how, if at all, to support the rebels, it has become almost impossible to know what is actually happening inside the country. Though YouTube videos and citizen journalism of various bias and veracity litter the Internet, the average engaged person knows less and less about the real balance of forces, both between the regime and its opponents, and among the rebels themselves. Of course, given the actual state of chaos and internecine warfare on the ground, more coverage might not result in more support for the rebel cause.
The Assad regime has arrested journalists and probably targeted others like Colvin for death. That is what pitiless regimes do in the midst of wars. What makes Syria unique is the growing role of foreign jihadi forces among the rebels. Since the summer, the al Qaeda affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (isis) has spread like a contagion across the "liberated" region of northern Syria, from Idlib in the west to Raqqa in the east. Journalists who travel there are thus all too likely to come in direct contact with al Qaeda, which rarely happened even in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And al Qaeda has made clear that it views Western journalists as infidels and worse-cia agents. They seize them not in order to get something in exchange, as criminal gangs and even "moderate" rebels brigades do. They seize them as agents of the enemy. The only mystery is why isis doesn’t kill them.
Newspapers have employed war correspondents since the Napoleonic era. And though, for the first century or so, a combination of wartime censorship and the boosterism of the press turned much of the coverage into propaganda, journalists have been exposing the senselessness and cruelty of battle at least since the Crimean War. In the line of duty, they have, of course, been killed and injured along with the troops they covered. But it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that journalists found themselves swallowed up in that senselessness and cruelty.
It is the apocalyptic mind-set of Islamic extremists that has, more than anything else, produced an existential threat to journalists-though not only to them. Grim signposts along this journey include the videotaped beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by the Pakistani Taliban in 2002, the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad the following year, and the murder of dozens of humanitarian workers who had devoted themselves to helping Afghans. During the Iraq War, criminal gangs seized a number of Westerners and sold them to jihadists. The Afghan Taliban kidnapped, among others, New York Times reporters David Rohde and Stephen Farrell. Rohde says that his kidnappers were absolutely convinced that he was a cia agent, despite the evidence of his work they found on the Internet, and exulted in the seizure of an American. "They told me," he says, "that every day they had me, the American government was forced to waste enormous amounts of time on my case."
But the Taliban was not nihilistic; Rohde’s captors made demands from the outset. They wanted $25 million and 15 prisoners freed from the Guantánamo prison. Over time, they knocked the price down to $7 million and seven prisoners. (Rohde ultimately escaped after seven months and no ransom appears to have been paid.) This was pretty much par for the course. David McCraw, the assistant general counsel at the New York Times and its go-to guy on kidnappings, says, "In Iraq and Afghanistan, or in northern Africa, you could just go higher up the food chain and find the guy you had to deal with." McCraw thinks of Somali pirates as the supreme example of this "old-line model"-they bargain their way to an acceptable number and then unload their captives as fast as possible. Al Qaeda, by contrast, doesn’t want anything. Their kidnappings are, in effect, non-transactional.
A Syrian photojournalist whom I will refer to as Abdul moved back to Damascus from the Gulf just as the popular revolt was getting underway. In March 2011, he was seized by regime elements, tortured, and then released. He moved to a pro-opposition suburb and began to organize peaceful protests. In June of that year, he started one of the first Syrian opposition Facebook pages. He began to take pictures; when the regime launched a major assault on the eastern suburb of Ghouta, Abdul was there with his camera. In February 2013, Abdul was finally forced to flee to the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, where we met, but he continued to travel back and forth to Syria.
In August, Abdul went to cover the fighting that had leveled much of Aleppo, including its fabled market. It was a trip he had taken many times, always on his own. This time, he was stopped at a checkpoint by isis and taken away. "For the first four days," says Abdul, "I was forced to remain standing. After that they hung me from the ceiling. They gave me electric shocks. They said I must be a spy. Otherwise, why I would have all that camera equipment?" Reasoning with them was pointless. After 33 days, Abdul says, "they were finished with me." He was thrown into a car and dumped out in the countryside. Several months after I talked to Abdul, I learned that he had gone missing and was believed to have been abducted once again.
Few Syrian journalists who have been kidnapped since August 2013 have been released. Firas Tamim, a Syrian who returned to the country from Holland in 2011 and now delivers emergency supplies from Reyhanli to his native Latakia province, told me that he had tried to negotiate the release of a 20-year-old Syrian journalist who had crossed from Reyhanli and been seized by isis. Tamim felt personally implicated because he had given the young man his Metallica T-shirt, which the jihadists had interpreted as an emblem of devil-worship.
"I called the isis ‘emir’ for Latakia," Tamim said-hoping that he could plead his case. The jihadist leader told him with icy nonchalance: "Oh, they killed him. But he’ll be seeing Allah soon in paradise, because before we killed him, we taught him how to pray and be a good Muslim." Tamim has not yet been able to bring himself to tell the boy’s mother, who believes that her son is still imprisoned.
One afternoon, Tamim brought me to meet a Salafist commander who went by the name Abu Abdulrahman. He was resting in an apartment in Antakya and preparing to return the next day to his battalion in the forested hills outside Latakia. When Tamim, who was translating for me, explained that I was a journalist, Abu Abdulrahman said, "I hope he’s not planning to cross the border; I would advise him not to." In the past, Tamim had often arranged for journalists to embed with Abu Abdulrahman’s brigade, but he had not done so since May. I assured him that I would not cross the border.
Just before arriving, I had read a mind-boggling article in the English Der Spiegel describing Atmeh, Syria-just across the border from Reyhanli-as a "Disneyland for jihadists," where 1,000 foreign fighters lived as in the days of the Prophet Mohammed, albeit with "Facebook and [the video game] Counter-Strike." Jihadis from Pakistan, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Britain, and elsewhere-most of whom had transited to Syria by way of Antakya-could buy their native food and clothes, exchange any currency, or hang out at an Internet café that flew the black flag of al Qaeda. After receiving weapons training, they would disperse across the country. I asked Abu Abdulrahman if the article was accurate. "Atmeh has become an emirate," he said.
Like many pious Syrian rebels who describe themselves as Salafists, Abu Abdulrahman recoiled in horror from the foreign extremists. What upset him most was that isis and other foreign fighters had blackened the reputation of jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, whose rank-and-file is Syrian, though its leaders have pledged loyalty to al Qaeda. The foreign fighters do not believe in the nation-state, and thus do not even accept that they are "foreigners"; the place to which they have traveled is al-Sham, the former home of the Levantine caliphate, which they hope to re-establish. "Nusra always worked quietly among the people," said Abu Abdulrahman. "Now the media describe the groups as if they’re the same." Al-Nusra’s leaders have, in fact, tried to distinguish themselves from isis by publicly declaring their intention to leave Syria as soon as Assad has been dislodged; they’ve become the al Qaeda good guys.
Anthony Loyd, a correspondent for the Sunday Times and the author of two volumes of eloquent, tumultuous memoirs, may be the greatest war correspondent of his generation. If anyone knows what he’s doing out there, it is Loyd.
In the middle of September, at a time when many of his colleagues had concluded that Syria was a no-go zone, Loyd and his photographer, Jack Hill, crossed into the country near Reyhanli. Loyd had crossed into Syria at least 12 times during the past few years; he knew the drill. He went in "heavy": His car had tinted windows and was accompanied by an escort car with four gunmen from a Free Syrian Army (fsa) brigade, later joined by another car with four more fighters. But Syria had changed since his last trip. Everywhere, the fsa was losing out to isis. In Atmeh, Loyd’s caravan was stopped at an isis checkpoint. A fighter came over to the car and demanded that the passengers roll down the window. They did so; then all hell broke loose.
"They were incensed," recalls Loyd. "One of them wanted to shoot us." Loyd and Hill, heeding a basic security protocol, stayed in the car. One attempt on Loyd’s part to intercede drove his captors into a paroxysm of fury. "It was like an existential play," says Loyd. "Our fate is being discussed without any input from us at all. There’s a hot sun beating down. We sat in the car staring at the dashboard. Every once in a while, our interpreter came over to say, ‘They want to take you away.’"
In Loyd’s experience in war zones, danger was announced by the thundering boom of shells and rockets. Now he and Hill sat in heat-stunned silence. Loyd thought of pulling out the map of Chechnya he had thoughtfully brought along in case he ran into Chechen jihadis; but he realized that nothing could bridge the gulf between himself and his would-be jailers. An hour, a hideously distended hour, passed. Loyd felt sure he was going to be either taken or murdered. And then a local Syrian interceded; Loyd cannot be more specific without jeopardizing his savior.
A few days later, a post appeared on a jihadi website in Arabic warning of "a type of spy who collects the news and gives it to their masters in detailed reports, which would hurt the jihadis." The author went on: "We must take an important step, that is by capturing every journalist, identifying the equipment they use to report the news, and body-search them for chips which they usually hide in hidden areas." He listed some of the more notorious news organizations: bbc, cnn, Al Arabiya. If found guilty, "they should be dealt with accordingly."
Two days after that message went up, Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, put a post of his own on a private Facebook site he operates for war correspondents: "Given the deteriorating security situation in northern Syria and the vastly increased kidnapping threat, please refrain from all travel into the area for the moment…. Even the most stringent security protocol and the use of trusted, armed escorts will not protect you from running into trouble at the moment."
I spoke to quite a few reporters in the days after Bouckaert’s post. All acknowledged the growing danger, but many still said that they knew a fixer, or an entry point, or a rebel brigade that could ensure their safety. War correspondents don’t necessarily stop swimming just because the lifeguard posts a shark warning.
The growing danger of covering wars has spawned new equipment, new practices, and new professionals. War correspondents for major media organizations, as well as many freelancers, now carry satellite-tracking devices that allow their movements to be monitored by someone on the outside. And news organizations operating in danger zones now work closely with security officials. News bureaus routinely include a security professional who gathers intelligence, trains and prepares journalists, and then tracks their movements. In general, broadcast teams in the field include a security expert, often a retired soldier from a special operations unit. Sometimes they will be intentionally misidentified as, for example, a "medic."
I spoke to several people in the security industry; the most remarkable was Darren White, a former British soldier who runs a private security firm called Dragonfly. Though he had planned on doing police work after his retirement from service, White found himself in demand as a security official embedded with news organizations in Iraq. He was at pains to distinguish what he and his colleagues do from the popular image of a squad of trigger-happy Blackwater guards pointing huge guns at terrified civilians. "We are," he told me, "one individual with a group-cameraman, correspondent, producer, fixer. We’re responsible for their safety. You become part of the media group." He said that the going rate for people like him was about $1,600 a day, which is why only the largest news organizations can afford such services.
I had heard about White from Janine di Giovanni, who had met him a few wars back. Di Giovanni-a veteran war correspondent and stringer, who became Newsweek‘s Middle East editor in November 2013-travels by herself, but White had agreed that when she went to Syria, he would provide "overwatch" from his office in England. White monitors virtually every movement she makes inside Syria; di Giovanni says that he can literally tell her to turn left rather than right, to go through a border fence at this point rather than that. White knows Syria from personal experience. Over the years, he says, he has built up a network of contacts, affiliated with neither the regime nor the rebels, who provide him with a fine-grained mental map of the location of soldiers and irregulars. (He has, he says, similar networks in Iraq and Afghanistan.) White is sometimes consulted in kidnapping cases and says that once he knows the date and location of an abduction, he can determine who was operating there at the time. He often does this work gratis.
White does not have a high opinion of the security practices of news organizations. He thinks too many journalists are careless about their own safety, which is almost certainly true. He believes that many of them are being kidnapped either because their employers are too cheap to pay for security or too focused on past wars, like the Balkans, whose lessons do not apply to the anarchic setting of Syria. I pointed out that both Paul Wood of the bbc and Richard Engel of nbc had been kidnapped in the company of their security men. "Duty of care was lacking," White rejoined. An alternative hypothesis, which I heard from some journalists, is that traveling with a muscled-up guy in wraparound sunglasses-even if he’s not brandishing a gun-sends the wrong message to people who are rather sensitive about Western power.
Big Security is an adjunct of Big Journalism. But for many journalists operating in Syria, services like White’s are an inconceivable luxury. (White provides di Giovanni a basic package free of charge.) Many freelancers can barely afford a satellite tracker, much less their own hired muscle; and Syria is, increasingly, a freelancer’s war. Indeed, the Syrian maelstrom into which so many journalists have been sucked has been whipped up by two converging phenomena: the rise of a new class of warriors who do not recognize the category of "neutral," and the rise of a new class of journalists who are far more vulnerable, if at times also more nimble, than their predecessors.
Alice Martins is a 33-year-old Brazilian woman who carries a camera, and very little else, when she slips into Syria from the Turkish border town of Urfa. Martins is a freelancer who sells pictures to Agence France-Presse; she has no ambition to join a newspaper or news agency. She used to work as a photographer for an ngo in Namibia that provided education on hiv/aids. Then she moved to Gaza, where she worked with an American nonprofit that founded the Gaza Surf Club. Soon thereafter, she began photographing inside the refugee camps. And when Aleppo rose up against the Assad regime in the spring of 2011, she picked up stakes in order to cover the war.
Martins does not speak Arabic and has no Darren White to guide her footsteps. And yet she files from places sensible journalists avoid. In mid-September 2013, she wrote an article for Vice from Raqqa, a city under the divided control of isis and the Salafist brigade Ahrar al-Sham. She described running into an isis fighter who politely warned her away from a street ringed with snipers; she was on her way to meet the more moderate rebels of a third group, the Ahfad al-Rasul brigade. A battle between isis and al-Rasul ended decisively when jihadis detonated a car bomb near the latter’s headquarters, killing two of its top commanders.
When I asked Martins whether she felt she was taking her life in her hands, she demurred. "I’m short," she said, "I have dark hair, I look like I could be Syrian, I dress very modestly"-in headscarf and a niqab covering her face-"and I work alone." Martins never embeds herself in a battalion, much less travels with security, but she has strong contacts with Ahrar al-Sham and feels that she is under their protection. She has equal faith in her regular fixer/translator. And as a woman, she says, she can cross checkpoints without being stopped. "These guys are scary," she says, "but they try to avoid women." I couldn’t help thinking that these were the kind of rules and procedures that sounded reassuring right up until the moment that they weren’t.
But Martins has a point: Of the at least 18 foreign journalists now being held in Syria, not one is a woman. To jihadists, men incarnate the hated power of the West; woman incarnate … nothing, perhaps. It’s hard to say; isis doesn’t talk.
Almost all of those kidnapped correspondents, however, are freelancers. Syria is the war of and on the lone journalist. Several trends have merged to make this so: Diminishing revenue has forced major news organizations to cut back on their foreign coverage; the American exhaustion with a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has reduced the appetite for adventures abroad; and the rise of both Web-based and citizen journalism has created an entirely new breed of correspondents, many of them only tenuously linked to an employer, and most of them newcomers to the trade.
Some of the newbies are, in fact, plainly way out of their depth. Stephanie Freid of cctv recalls traveling to Syria in the dead of winter, staying in homes with neither heat nor electricity, with a freelancer who not only hadn’t bothered to bring a flak jacket, a helmet, or a medical kit, but didn’t even have a coat. Peter Bouckaert says that when the war first broke out, he got calls from young freelancers who thought they could just cross from Lebanon and Jordan and get going. "They think it’s like Iraq 2003 and they’re going to jump on a Marine brigade." Others cut their teeth in Libya, where, for all the danger that led to the death of several prominent correspondents, you could hop in your car and race back to the safety of Benghazi at the end of a day of fighting. Syria offers no such zone of safety.
Established news organizations are now wary of taking work from freelancers lest they encourage reckless behavior. Austin Tice had no journalistic experience when he left Georgetown law school for Syria in 2012. A New York Times profile of Matthew Schrier, who was tortured by Islamic rebels before escaping after seven months, described him as a former film student who had spent a decade processing health care claims and went to Syria looking for "a fresh start." The Washington Post, which published some of Tice’s articles, no longer takes freelance work; neither do the New York Times or the Associated Press (ap), among others, though this appears to be a matter of practice rather than formal policy. (Foreign Policy publishes the work of freelancers who cover the war, but it does not supply credentials or letters of recommendation.)
And yet many of the independent journalists I spoke to bristle at the image of the feckless newcomer; some have long experience in the field, and others have adopted the same security precautions their regularly paid colleagues do. Someone like Alice Martins, who intimately knows the terrain she moves in, and travels so lightly as to be effectively invisible, may be safer than a journalist embedded in a caravan of fsa fighters and protected by a security officer.
Nevertheless, freelancers are now most endangered chiefly because they’re the ones left in the field. Most major news organizations have pulled their reporters from northern Syria. (The regime still occasionally supplies visas for travel to and around Damascus, and both freelance and staff journalists continue to travel in the Kurdish areas of the North, which are less volatile.) Freelancers who have developed contacts and expertise in Syria can’t simply cool their heels in Beirut or Istanbul and collect a paycheck. So even when the shark warnings are posted, they’re the ones likeliest to go back in the water.
So what happens when the shark strikes? Freelancers don’t have news organizations to leap into the breach; some don’t even have health insurance. All they have are colleagues. And so with every kidnapping, a new informal network takes shape. Sometimes the publication to which a freelancer has been supplying work takes responsibility; sometimes it brusquely dismisses any obligation; rarely does anyone talk about what happened. (I was repeatedly urged to eliminate identifying details about kidnapped journalists, and I have done so in any case where the person’s safety might be compromised.)
Journalists are deeply divided among themselves, and within themselves, as to the wisdom of maintaining a news blackout in the case of disappearances. The chief argument for doing so is that secrecy allows private negotiations to proceed unhindered. The chief argument against, however, is that it deprives the victim of the leverage of public pressure. After six weeks of a blackout with little progress, James Foley’s family, along with GlobalPost, for whom he was filing stories, decided to go public in January 2013. Others have made a similar decision. So far, neither tactic has worked. In December, a group of news organizations-including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Reuters, and ap-released an open letter to "the leadership of the armed opposition in Syria" imploring them to stop seizing journalists and to help find those who have been taken. It seemed a desperate plea. isis doesn’t negotiate, and it doesn’t respond to public pressure.
By the time I arrived in Antakya in the last days of September, the journalistic body count had become almost absurd. Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists had suggested I look up two Spanish freelance photographers headquartered there; days before I arrived, both were kidnapped on the way to Raqqa. A third Spaniard, Marc Marginedas, whose family agreed to make his kidnapping public, had been seized just outside of Aleppo. An Italian and a Belgian had just been released after five months. The former, Domenico Quirico, a veteran reporter for La Stampa, described a litany of humiliations at the hands of a band of thugs with an Islamic veneer. The revolution, he wrote, had been betrayed by "fanatics and bandits" who had made Syria "the Country of Evil … where even children and old men rejoice in their malevolence."
In fact, the only Westerner in town was Barak Barfi, an Islamic scholar and fellow at the D.C.-based New America Foundation. Barfi was spending as much of his time looking for his kidnapped friends as he was reporting. He was fielding calls every week from desperate friends and colleagues of seized journalists.
One night, I was having dinner with Barfi when Andrea Bernardi, an Italian freelance videographer, came over to join us. "Did you hear about the guy that got kidnapped today?" he asked. Barfi, who had been fiddling with his phone, snapped to attention: "Who?" Andrea described the victim. Barfi clutched his head in his hands: A few weeks earlier, the man had slept on his floor in Antakya. Was it really true? Barfi sprang into an all-too-well-rehearsed routine, calling contacts at the State Department, the FBI, and officials of other governments, while fielding calls and emails from journalists who had just heard the news.
Barfi introduced me to Hamza Ghadban, a Syrian journalist who had worked for an Arabic-language broadcaster in London and then returned to Syria to cover the rebellion. Ghadban now operates from Antakya and travels widely across northern Syria. He was convinced, as many rebel sympathizers are, that the regime has subterranean connections with the foreign jihadists. He told me that the isis camp in Aleppo had been unscathed until the jihadists decamped, while the next-door headquarters of the Tawhid Brigade, affiliated with the fsa, had been leveled by government artillery. In Raqqa, too, the isis base had not been shelled. It’s also widely believed that in the summer of 2012, Assad released from prison some of the Sunni extremists who had fought American troops in Iraq, and who may then have joined with foreign fighters to form isis. Those fighters now seem at least as preoccupied with dislodging moderate rebels from key checkpoints and northern towns as they are with fighting the regime.
It’s bizarre to think that Assad may have struck a deal with his bitterest enemies, yet the jihadists have vindicated in a spectacularly brutal fashion his long-time claim that he is not fighting Syrian patriots, but foreign terrorists. The rise of these al Qaeda affiliates has cut the ground out from Western critics who advocate international military support for the rebel cause. Leading figures like Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have publicly stated that, for Washington, the Syrian war is not a simple choice between two sides. Whatever the case, isis has done far more harm to the rebels’ cause than it has to the regime. In early December, the U.S. government temporarily suspended delivery of nonlethal aid to the moderate rebels, over concerns that it was being regularly seized by al Qaeda.
It was Ghadban who told me about Abu Nabil, the man who claimed to be negotiating for James Foley, the freelancer who had gone missing in 2012. Foley had been seized in Binnish, in Idlib province, along with a British freelance photographer whose family, unlike the Foleys, has chosen to keep a cloak of silence over his abduction. The Brit had been kidnapped before in the same region, and after his release had done something, which I cannot disclose here, to deeply anger Islamist rebels. For that reason, journalists believe that both were taken by Islamists, though perhaps later sold to the regime. (Philip Balboni, the ceo and co-founder of GlobalPost, says that he has no evidence that Foley was ever held by rebels.)
That’s where Abu Nabil comes in. A bespectacled man in a green polo shirt with "Aviation Industry" stitched on the chest, he explained to me that he was a prominent Aleppo merchant, a contractor. "For more than 20 years, I’ve been working with high-ranking members of the regime," he said, as we sat in the café in Antakya. "I have very personal relations with some of them. I especially do a lot of business with intelligence officials." He said that he served as the owner of record of an expensive property in Aleppo that a senior intelligence official had purchased, but wished to keep secret.
The go-between was happy to explain his method. "When people first come to me," he said, "I ask for the names of the people kidnapped and the time and place of the kidnapping. Then I start making calls, usually to more low-level officials. I know a man at the central records office, and he can tell me whether the person is alive or dead." If the subject is alive, Abu Nabil starts ringing his contacts in the regime’s 25 intelligence agencies. Twenty-five? He started ticking them off-Palestine Branch, 215 Military Intelligence, etc. At that point, he says, the bargaining begins. Some are for sale, some not. The price always varies. Abu Nabil says that he is motivated by the "great injustices committed against the Syrian people"-by both sides, he quickly adds-though he plainly rakes off some fraction of the ransom.
Ghadban had seen what he considered convincing evidence that Abu Nabil could deliver. Earlier in 2013, he had been approached by acquaintances from Aleppo who were hoping to recover three rebels who had been taken on the battlefield, exhibited on tv, and convicted of terrorism. He brought them to Abu Nabil. "He checked," says Ghadban, "and came back and said, ‘It will cost you $50,000.’ I saw them hand over the money." Two of the three were released, and the remaining prisoner was expected out soon.
But Abu Nabil was also a brazen liar. Firas Tamim, the fixer who had been ferrying supplies across the border, joined us at the café and asked him about an abductee, whom the businessman claimed to know. When Abu Nabil left the table for a moment, Tamim told me that he had made up the name.
There was enough truth, or at least plausibility, to his account of Foley’s abduction that Ghadban had, he said, taken Abu Nabil to meet with State Department officials in Istanbul. And Kroll, the security firm GlobalPost had retained, had sent its agents to exhaustively test his bona fides. But when they pressed him for a "proof of life"-an answer to a question only Foley would know-Abu Nabil came back only with answers to inconclusive questions they hadn’t asked. Finally, he claimed that Foley was about to be released, but that never happened. "He never gave us any reason to believe any of his story," says Richard Hildreth, managing director of Kroll. Perhaps Abu Nabil can deliver with Syrians, but not Americans.
Perhaps the problem is the private security firms. None of the journalists or other activists who had run across the Kroll agents in Antakya thought they were making any meaningful inroads on the case. ("We don’t tell people what we do," rejoins Hildreth. "We’re not looking to print a story at the end.") I asked David Rohde if the private security firms that the New York Times had retained after he had been kidnapped had been able to resolve his case. "No," he said. But neither, in the final analysis, could American government officials or the gifted and deeply knowledgeable reporters who devoted themselves to the case. Figures like Abu Nabil thrive on the agonizing mix of desperation and futility that suffuses the atmosphere on Syria’s borders.
I kept my promise to Abu Abdulrahman not to cross into Syria; but just barely. In the border town of Kilis, a few hours east of Antakya, Barak Barfi and I walked through Turkish passport control to the no-man’s-land between the two countries. The border guards could not fathom what we were doing, but ultimately waved us through. We walked down a well-maintained four-lane road. About 200 yards away stood the Syrian checkpoint, which was controlled by the Northern Storm brigade of the fsa. Beyond that were the low stone houses of the village of Bab al-Salama.
Bab al-Salama had long been a popular crossing, with a good road leading straight to Aleppo. Now that route was like Russian roulette, with more than one bullet in the chamber. Even the moderate rebels at the checkpoint kept a list of journalists accused of some transgression, usually imaginary; if you happened to be on the list, you could be let through and then seized a few hundred yards down the road. Greater danger lay in Azaz, several miles to the south, access to which was controlled by isis checkpoints. Even Syrians told me that they had learned to give Azaz a wide berth.
This was the day after we had learned of the new abduction-the man who had slept on Barfi’s floor. At the time, Andrea Bernardi, the freelancer who broke the news at dinner, had plaintively asked: "Why do we still go into Syria? What are we learning? What’s the story?" Those seemed like the sane questions to ask; whatever there was to be learned seemed small compared with the very real danger of abduction. This was the conclusion almost all major news organizations had reached. And yet I knew that some intrepid journalists, perhaps including Bernardi, who himself had been held captive by foreign jihadists for several days, would continue to find reasons, both noble and self-serving, to go inside.
Barfi and I stood in the middle of the road, facing south toward Syria. A sharp wind whirled plastic bags and bits of rubbish across the pavement. We turned around.
I called Alice Martins in Turkey a few days after I returned home. I asked if she knew about the new abduction; she did. "I was really upset," she said. "I know him quite a bit. He’s someone we didn’t think was in danger." She told me she had put off her plans to go back inside. The protective mantle of Ahrar al-Sham no longer seemed so reassuring. isis was extending its dominion across the North, draping the black flag of al Qaeda across the country. Martins wanted, more than anything, to tell the story of Syria, but she was no longer sure that she could. "I think," she said, "it’s too crazy." Soon afterward, she returned to Brazil.