Paris 20 June 2005: Where was Amnesty International last winter when French journalist Florence Aubenas sat crouched in a dark airless cellar somewhere near Bakuba, blindfolded, hands and feet bound, half-starved, forbidden to speak, hardly allowed to move, punished for the slightest infraction? Speaking at a packed press conference in Paris on June 14th, Aubenas told how she spent five months as a prisoner of vaguely identified mujahidin whose low-level cruelty—after all, they didn’t behead her—should set off bells at Time and Newsweek, where exposing the alleged mistreatment of jihadi prisoners at Guantanamo seems to be a new kind of religion.
What was the French journalist guilty of, why was she treated so badly, how could it take the ultra sophisticated French government five months to liberate her, what did they give and promise in exchange? Did she or did she not share 55 days of captivity with the Romanian journalists released on the 22nd of May?
The press conference was a one-way street: Aubenas told her story with disarming charm, gave evasive answers to serious questions, and abruptly closed the session without letting her colleagues probe any further. You could not help being impressed by the strength of character of the 44 year-old journalist with the smiling blue eyes and sweet sense of humor, clearly delighted to recover her freedom…and her coquetterie too. Her exotic earrings dangled and sparkled in sharp contrast to the ordeal she described: one shower per month, meager rations, two trips to the bathroom per day, deprived of light and fresh air, deprived of her identity by captors who downgraded her from Florence to Leila to Number 6. 157 days of uninterrupted gratuitous cruelty.
To what end? Florence Aubenas, who works for the free-wheeling leftwing daily Libération, and her Iraqi fixer, former fighter pilot Hussein Hanun Al Saadi, were captured on January 5th just two weeks after Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot were pried out of the clutches of the “Islamic Army of Iraq.” Aubenas was captured after interviewing refugees from, as she expresses it, “Al Falluja, the city the Americans destroyed.” Her fixer Hussein, joyously reunited with his wife and four children in Baghdad, describes his jailers as “Islamic salafists, Iraqi patriots who are fighting against the Americans,” adding that they are “moderates.” They did not behead him either.
Neither the very real suffering of the captives nor the sincere devotion of the Comité de Soutien that tirelessly organized spectacular demonstrations of support for the hostages can chase away nagging questions about the hows, whys, and wherefores of these kidnappings of journalists sympathetic to the cause, and their role in undermining American-Iraqi efforts to stabilize the country. Why are the jihadis kidnapping journalists who openly claim to be on their side? Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian Communist journalist released in March, accused American soldiers of deliberately trying to kill her because she “knows too much.” Malbrunot assured his jailers of his sympathy for their “résistance.” Florence describes the terrorist stronghold of Falluja as the city “the Americans destroyed.”
Reliable sources have now established connections between all of these kidnappings--interlocking networks with ramifications in Syria and Europe, connivance of some fixers, troubling contradictions and inconsistencies.
Omar Hayssam, a Syrian businessman living in Bucharest has been arrested and accused of arranging the kidnapping of the Romanian journalists, with the collaboration of their Iraqi-American fixer. Hussein Hanun’s brother was supposed to accompany Guiliana Sgrena on the day she was kidnapped. Hussein himself acted as a go-between in the early stages of negotiation for the release of Malbrunot and Chesnot. And everybody’s favorite whipping boy, the infamous French deputy Didier Julia, played an ambiguous role in both French hostage cases. Julia’s connections with Syria and Saddam enjoyed official blessings up to the eve of the 2003 military campaign in Iraq. They may not be quite as effective as the Ceaucescu-era network reactivated by the Romanian authorities to liberate their hostages but, according to Libération’s own chronicle, Julia’s network was involved in the negotiations from beginning to end. Though he is accused of meddling, threatened with disgrace, blamed for delaying the release of the hostages, Didier Julia remains serenely unperturbed. It looks like this is part of the game. Blame Julia, deny everything, praise the French secret services, and go for the human interest story.
Add to this the fact that the released hostages report the Iraqi terrorists' strong interest in coverage of the story in the French press, and it is not difficult to imagine masterminds and/or second guns right here in France working hand in hand with the “Iraqi patriots” and assorted “résistants” on the ground. At a price of tens of millions of dollars per hostage, this begins to look like one of those Europe or US-based Palestine charities that are pouring money into terrorist coffers.
The newly appointed PM Dominique de Villepin earned eternal glory in France for his anything-but-war speech at the UN in the spring of 2003. He and Jacques Chirac, the princes of peace, rode their white horses to sky high popularity. Today, that glory and five eurocents couldn’t even get you a cup of Starbuck’s coffee at l’ Opéra. Romanian president Traian Basesco took the helm of a crisis unit immediately after the three Romanian journalists were kidnapped, refused to pull his troops out of Iraq as ordered, and got his hostages back in short order. Somehow this helped the French secret services. But how? The three Romanian journalists did spend 55 days in the same underground cell as Florence and Hussein; the Romanian agents worked through the same intermediary as the nasty guy the French nicknamed the Imprecator. Since the French had been negotiating with him since January, how exactly did the Romanians help them clinch the deal?
The different versions presented by Florence, Hussein, Libération editorial director Serge July, Romanian journalist Marie-Jeanne Ion, and various French officials show strong internal coherence…but they fall apart when placed next to each other. Why were a French journalist and her Iraqi fixer held in cruel bondage for five months until negotiations finally led to their release when, according to official declarations, there was no financial demand, no political demand, no payment of ransom. What exactly was being negotiated and with whom?
Was the French government haggling over the price? For five months? Were the French secret services really searching for a reliable intermediary? By their own admission, their first contact, the Imprecator, was the right guy. And he is apparently the very same “Boss” or “El Hadji” who interrogated Florence Aubenas, “directed” her in a series of six videos, contacted the editors of Libération in the first week of captivity and released Florence and Hussein in the last day. For five months, El Hadji kept her informed of the pace of negotiations; he complained that her embassy wasn’t coming through, got bright ideas, asked for her opinion, even asked her for Jacques Chirac’s e-mail address, monitored her media visibility in France, repeatedly promised her imminent release, and disappointed with hints of undefined glitches.
So on the one hand you get French officials claiming that they were in the dark, desperately searching for someone to talk to, while Florence Aubenas got ample information from her judge and tormentor. She gives the impression that El Hadji wanted nothing better than to release her. As if he sincerely regretted the failures of her government, which forced him against his own best wishes to keep her. But that didn’t prevent him from imposing a regime of inhuman cruelty, with unjustified constraints, strict rules, and perverse punishment.
What were French officials and super-duper secret agents doing for five months, while the Comité de Soutien organized torchlight parades, balloon launchings, roller blade rallies, concerts, poetry readings, petitions, intellectual confabs, regattas and every imaginable spectacular sort of event in the never dimmed media spotlight? Giant portraits of the Florence & Hussein couple hung from public buildings and private dwellings, like votive images. Messages for Florence and Hussein were thrown in bottles to the sea, spread through cyberspace, read in schoolrooms. Aside from the touching signs of loyalty to an imprisoned citizen, what was the real purpose of these self-addressed appeals? Do the hearts of Iraqi jihadis melt at the sight of a thousand balloons, a hundred fifty sailboats? Obviously not. According to the ex-hostage, there was not the slightest change or improvement in conditions from beginning to end of her ordeal.
Which is not to say that this mobilization did not unwittingly correspond to one of the kidnapper’s explicit or implicit demands. Aubenas, like other former hostages, remarks on her captors’ media savvy strategy. The added value of a hostage is calculated in terms of financial gains, media exposure, and, if I am not mistaken, dhimmitude.
Georges Malbrunot told me [my article and interview Makor Rishon , FrontPage, NY Sun] with a Gallic shrug that the Iraqi résistants don’t kidnap Americans because Americans don’t pay ransom. As for Europeans, some admit it and some don’t but everyone knows they pay. And the going price couldn’t be much of a secret. I can’t imagine the French government knowingly condemning one of its citizens to months of inhuman imprisonment for the sake of bargaining down a few million dollars. If the negotiations dragged on so long, it must mean that this agonizing wait was part of the game. And the media exposure part of the ransom? Which would make the popular mobilization a cruel accomplice to the victim’s suffering, extending it by the misguided campaign to bring it to an end.
The guards took orders from the Boss who undoubtedly operated at the behest of higher ups, and so on and so forth: the hand of Syria is clearly at work. Is France being punished for supporting UN Resolution 1559? Unmistakable indicators on the domestic scene show that this halfhearted support is dwindling as France inches back to its abiding pro-Syrian position, personally propelled by Jacques Chirac. It would seem, however, that the sentiments are not strong enough to satisfy his Syrian buddy. A car bomb here, a hostage there…until the message gets through. Here’s how Radio France Internationale, commonly known as the voice of the Quai d’Orsay, gave its inimitable twist to President Bush’s warning to the Syrians to get their secret services out of Lebanon. The reporter notes that Syria has withdrawn from Lebanon, wonders how much compliance it will take to satisfy the (pesky) American president, and opens the mike to the Syrian minister of information, who explains that Booouuush is disappointed because Lebanon didn’t fall into line with his anti-Muslim pro-Israeli policies…
Why do the jihadis capture journalists who are favorable to their cause? Florence Aubenas told the Boss that by preventing journalists (meaning the right kind of journalists) from reporting on what is happening in Iraq, his group was acting against their own interests.
Which brings us to the crux of the question. President Bush is accused of alienating public opinion in Europe and the Middle East because of his reckless violence and ignorance of other cultures. He is blamed for causing the terrorism that he has vowed to combat, blamed for the war being waged against the United States and Western culture. The liberation celebration organized by the Comité de Soutien at Place de la République kicked off with a fifth rate rapper whining “shame on Bush shame shame shame, shame on Bush, we don’t want this war, shame shame shame.” Maybe he didn’t get the fantastic crowd reaction he was fishing for, but nobody sang shame on the jihadis who kept Florence and Hussein in a dark cellar for five months. Just shame on Bush.
That’s dhimmitude. Praise the persecutor and destroy your own ammunition. Accept humiliation, do the bidding of the Bosses, the El Hadjis. Pay the intermediaries, pay the “hotel bill,” pay homage to the résistance, glorify the might of the jihadis by displaying your own frivolous impotence, dissolve your population in sugary emotions, and leave your masters free to wield the sword and the car bomb.
And the reward for dhimmitude is…
…further humiliation. Greater cruelty. Harsher conditions. Abject surrender.