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France's Terror Double-Take By: Nidra Poller
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Islamic Army in Iraq made its TV débuts in the spring of 2004 with the barbarous mutilation of four American contractors grabbed out of their firebombed car, cut to pieces, and hung from a bridge in Falluja.  The same group, now sporting a long list of beheadings, including Italian journalist Enzo Baldini, recently threatened to attack Americans on our own soil.  August 20, 2004 two French reporters, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, and their Syrian chauffeur, Mohamed Al Jundi, were captured by the Islamic Army on their way from Baghdad to Najaf.  Chesnot and Malbrunot are Middle East specialists, French style.  They speak Arabic, lived in Arab countries, sympathize with Arab causes.  It took four months of turban diplomacy, scraping and bowing at the feet of French Muslim chiefs, whipping up support from the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah, taking the anguished relatives of the hostages to hear prayers for their release in mosques and cultural centers, plus undisclosed sums of money and political promises to secure the release of the reporters just in time for Christmas.  P.S.: their chauffeur is suing the US Marines for mistreatment, torture, and barbarous acts committed when they rescued him during the November offensive in Falluja. 

Presented as a triumph of French diplomacy and topnotch secret service sleuthing, the hostage release celebration was of short duration.  Washed off the front pages by the tsunami and then embittered by a new incident: 5 January 2005, Libération’s correspondent in Iraq, Florence Aubenas, and her Iraqi chauffeur-fixer, disappeared.  This time the mobilization is low key and rather pathetic: petitions signed by French writers and journalists, now joined by Arab journalists, appeal to whom it may concern to release this journalist who understands Arabs, their culture, their causes.  No communication from the kidnappers has been made public so far.

When the kidnappers released Chesnot and Malbrunot, they left them with a word to the wise: Iraq is dar al harb.  Don’t come back.  Tell your colleagues to stay away.  Malbrunot, the more voluble of the two, unhesitatingly relayed the advice.  French media are caught on the horns of a dilemma: they thought they were invulnerable because France does not have troops in Iraq.  They discover they can’t cover the story, because…France has no troops in Iraq.  No place to be embedded.  But if they stay away, the world will only get one side of the story: the coalition / Allawi version.

27 December 2004.  Georges Malbrunot cordially received me at the home of his fiancée in Droiturier, a cluster of houses around a small church, lost in the wooded hills of the Allier region, some 30 kilometers from Vichy.  To my surprise, no English-speaking journalist had thought to interview him.  Here is the transcript of our 2-hour dialogue.

[Excerpts from the exclusive interview were published on 3 January 2005 in a “Special to the NY Sun”]

NP: You lived for nine years in East Jerusalem  Did you feel safe there? 

M: Yes.  It wasn’t a political or ideological choice.  I just happened to live in the Arab residential neighborhood. I could just as well have lived in the Jewish neighborhood.  In fact, it was safer in the East, because the bombings were on the Jewish side in the West.  .

NP: Did this influence your feeling of safety in Iraq? 

M: Yes…but these are two very different situations.  The Israel-Palestine conflict is less complicated…much less violent, Palestinians don’t take hostages, the rules of the game are clear.  Iraq is historically a violent country…  In ’58, when they overthrew the king, they slit the throat of the prime minister, they dug up his body and paraded through the city.  Iraq is a violent country, so the risk was greater.  After the first kidnappings last April, you had to be on the alert.  Our idea was to blend into the crowd.  We lived in a shabby little hotel, I grew a beard, tried to look like the local people. 

NP: You learned to speak Arabic in Israel? 

M: Yes. 

NP: And Hebrew?

M: A bit but it’s not so important, the Israelis speak English so you don’t have to learn Hebrew.

NP: You went to Iraq before the intervention?

M: The first time was in ‘96, for news and for the book I was writing. 

NP: You were on familiar ground? 

M: Relatively.  I’d been there ten times already, I had written two books…I knew it rather well.

NP: You were already in Iraq before the military campaign started in March ’03? 

M: Just after the war.  One week later. 

NP: Did you feel that things were changing then? 

M: Within a month or two I saw that it was changing in the wrong way.  I did an article in June ’03 on the way the Americans, the new reigning power, were seen by their interlocutors, Iraqis, foreign diplomats, NGOs.  What they thought of the Americans who governed the country, especially Bremer.  It was alarming.  I could see that they were heading for disaster.  They don’t know the realities.  I was particularly shocked by the rotations in the ministries…people fly in, and 2 months later they’re replaced.  They won’t be able to get the country on its feet that way.  I’ve seen how Israelis handle an Occupation, they know how to deal with Palestinians, they speak Arabic.  The American soldiers are cowboys, there are humiliations, they arrested elderly people, put plastic bags on their heads, I could see they were heading for trouble.  Iraqis are proud…and violent.  They knows their past.  I could see the Americans messing up.  They don’t know how to occupy a country. 

NP: Do you think that was their intention?  To occupy? 

M: No it wasn’t their intention but…they don’t know how…  The French occupied Algeria, we massacred as much or more, but the difference is we knew how to talk to people…  The Americans don’t.  It’s a cultural problem.  You go into Falluja, you enter a home, the women are there, it’s wrong.  In Iraq the women are invisible, it’s haram (forbidden), it’s shameful.  Their lack of culture undermines their efforts.  I saw right away that the Americans were off to a bad start.

NP: And the British? 

M: They knew better.  They occupied Iraq forty years ago.

NP: Poor Americans, they never occupied anyone!  They don’t know how to occupy people.  [laughter] 

M: But it’s true.  When you occupy a country you acquire experience.

NP: Aside from your colleague C. Chesnot, did you hang around with other journalists or do you prefer to work by yourself?

M: I prefer to work alone.  Christian and I don’t need a translator, and we were already familiar with the situation, we had our contacts…

NP: Sara Daniel published an article in Le Nouvel Observateur in early November.  She tells how she used to go with the insurgents to huge unguarded ammunition dumps, where they would help themselves to whatever they wanted.  Did she feel safe because she was French, or was she foolhardy?

M: Maybe she needs ammunition.  I’ve come to realize how many lies journalists can tell.  I prefer not to denigrate my profession.  I saw what Sara Daniel wrote about us in Figaro magazine …we had dinner with 25 people while in detention!  It’s fiction!

NP: At that same period (March,-April 2003) after the jihadis cut up and burned the American contractors, Patrick Fandjo and other French correspondents did their reports standing in the midst of jihadis, who were boasting how they’re going to cut all the Americans to pieces, burn them…

M: Talk is cheap in the Middle East.  It might be true but…it’s easy for people in Iraq to say “I’ll kill Americans.”  I’m wary about all that stuff.

NP: You saw the real ones.  It’s convincing 

M: Right!  There I saw the real ones.  Yes, it’s convincing.

NP: After you were kidnapped [on August 20th] you were held for two weeks at a farm near Latifya.  There was a family living on the farm.  Were you already in the hands of the Islamic Army?  Al Jundi is quoted in Le Figaro as saying you were turned over to them on the 3rd day.

M: No…we were in their hands from the beginning.  They have people who capture hostages, others who guard them, they have a court…it’s quite well organized.  

NP: The prisoners who were executed…Enzo Baldoni, for instance…were they killed at that farm, or somewhere else?

M: I don’t know but probably yes, at the farm.  It was pretty big, it was in a palm grove, there were huts…  We saw the Iranian consul who was later liberated.  And the Iraqi from the electrical power station, who was beheaded.  The day after we were captured they brought in two Macedonians with their chauffeur.  We were put in a different hut and when we came back they were gone.  Two months later we heard they’d been beheaded.

NP: You heard about these horrible things quite a bit later?

M: Yes, pretty late.

NP: Your first line of reasoning was “we are French journalists, we are not pro-American, we’re here to write about the résistance.” 

M: We were trying to save our lives…you can imagine.  And we did disagree with the American policy.  I was against the war.  You know, when you go to war you solve one problem and create two or three others…at the end of the day you have more problems than before.  We were very critical of the way the Americans handled things in Iraq, we could see they were heading for disaster…dismantling the whole security apparatus, thinking they could destroy everything and start from zero.  Iraq is an old country…

NP: You co-authored with C. Chesnot 2 books on Iraq under Saddam Hussein.  You had contacts when you researched these books?  Did you use the same contacts when you came back after the war?

M: You know, for the first book…under Saddam’s regime it was quite impossible for us to have contact with Iraqis.  Most of them were afraid to talk.  We had a few contacts but mainly outside the country.  Diplomats, Iraqis…

NP: You didn’t feel it was dangerous to be in Iraq? 

M: Under Saddam?  There was no danger for a journalist.

NP: They knew what you were doing, what you were writing? 

M: The only good thing about dictators is you can go around.  You could walk in Baghdad at midnight, nobody would touch you. 

NP: His secret police weren’t interested in you then? 

M: They might ask “who are you,” but that’s all.  The only advantage of dictatorships is that security is ensured.  That’s why many Iraqis regret Saddam today, they say we had security at that time.

NP: Yes, but for others maybe it wasn’t so secure.  Anyway, we know that exists, you have people nostalgic for communism…

M: Yes, I’m telling you the way the people experience it.

NP: Your first line of reasoning was “we’re French journalists, we’re not pro-American, we are here to write about the résistance.”  Looking back, do you think they were really investigating for four months to find out if that was true?  Or were there other things going on?

M: Other things. 

NP: I know…some you can tell and some you can’t. 

M: We were trying to save our lives, you understand.  But it’s also because we really disagreed with American policy.  It was easy for us to say that the French were against war and I was against war…

NP: Did you have to go beyond what you really think? 

M: No.  I was against the war.  You know, when you go to war you solve one problem and create two or three problems.  At the end of the day you have more problems than before.  We always took a tough stand on the way the Americans handled Iraq.  We said, they’re headed for disaster, thinking they can wipe the slate clean, disbanding the whole security apparatus… Iraq is an old country, you can’t change it from one day to the next.  It was easy for us to say…it corresponds with our convictions.

NP: Is the Islamic Army against it the same way you are? 

M: They did the questioning, we just answered their questions.  [laughs].  I think they were more anti-American…  Once we asked them what they would do with an American or English journalist and they said journalists usually reflect the politics of their country…so…an American journalist…  Another time we asked them why they wouldn’t negotiate if they had a British or an American.  They said, “No…[sign of slitting throat.]

NP: I don’t think they’ve kidnapped American journalists.

M: They kidnap what they can kidnap.

NP: At the beginning, it looked like they’d made a mistake…you are French…you’re going to be liberated.  Your first interrogator said he was in contact with the French embassy.  Do you think the French government had contact with the right people early on? 

M: Three days after we were captured the hijackers asked us to sign a paper for the French embassy saying we were OK.

NP: But there was an article in Le Monde that said it took until mid-November. 

M: Naaaah. 

NP: I’ve been reading different versions…I wonder why they say the DGSE [secret service] had so many different intermediaries.  Do you think they were negotiating directly--or through one single intermediary--the whole time?

M: In Iraq…with reliable sources of mediation.

NP: I understand…you don’t want to belittle your colleagues but…Le Monde quotes an anonymous DGSE source saying you were in Falluja.  Are sure you were in Baghdad? 

M: We were not in Baghdad.  At the beginning we were on the farm, then maybe near Abu Ghraib, then in a Baghdad suburb, after that we were in the north around Samara, then back to the Baghdad suburb and then…before we were released, near Abu Ghraib.  Never in Falluja.  Le Monde said we were in Falluja?  They’re wrong.

NP: You were kept in several different houses.  Were there families living there too?

M: The second and third houses were empty, in the north we were in a small headquarters of the Islamic Army…those jihadists…for logistics…

NP: And you could hear their conversations?

M: No not really.  We could hear bits of Al Jazeera, the news sometimes…not often.  When they had a meeting in their headquarters, they would tell us we have a meeting…of military experts, of sheiks…so be quiet, don’t make any noise, don’t walk.

NP: Were you heavily guarded?  Did you ever think of escaping? 

M: No.  To escape you have to find the right window of opportunity, there wasn’t any.  Just once I thought that American soldiers could save us if they wanted to.  It was Wednesday, November 10th .  The night before there was bombing…no, it was automatic weapons fire from the Americans.  And the Iraqis riposted.  So they transferred us.  We got a flat tire on the way, and I thought, if an American patrol went by…

NP: Oh, I read that, but I misunderstood.  I thought you were afraid you would be captured by the Americans. 

M: No, not at all, it was like a prayer: if only the Americans would come by.  But if they ever did, our jailers would have taken us as human shields.  So I said “wait and see.”

NP: Were the interrogations always in English?

M: English or Arabic. 

NP: And you could understand well enough [in Arabic], you felt sure you understood the questions, sure how you were answering?  Their English was good?

M: Only one guy was speaking English… 

NP: The one from Saddam’s secret service? 

M: We weren’t sure, but this guy was the mustir ester rabath, in Arabic that means Chief of Internal Security, and we guessed he might have been in Saddam’s secret police.  He spoke English quite well.  He used to be a computer engineer.  He was quite professional; he would always tell us one thing that was true and five or ten lies.  And another thing…when we were caught, our driver had a picture of his son with [US military spokesman] Kimmit.  We said the photo was a montage, Abu Ayman and his son are not pro-American.  His son was offered a scholarship to an American university, he turned it down.  The Chief said, “this picture could kill you.”  We know Abu Ayman, he’s trustworthy.  The interrogator said Abu Ayman was recruited by the Americans to spy on us.  He was in a tight spot.  But finally they didn’t kill him.  The interrogator did a professional job, he questioned him, he was convinced he was telling the truth.  Even though he was a fearsome interrogator, he stood up for us, especially for Abu Ayman, he saved his life, because if he’d said he was an American spy, schhtt [throat-slitting gesture].

NP: He’s been in Iraq for a long time? [Al Jundi is Syrian] 

M: Thirty years. 

NP: Why do you call him Abu Ayman? 

M: Because in Arabic a man is called by Abu, father, of his eldest son, Ayman. 

NP: How did his son get the offer of a scholarship…he didn’t apply for it? 

M: His son is crazy about computers.  He’s very intelligent, speaks perfect English.  He won a contest in his high school, I think the American government offered 3 scholarships.  I told him, “Go ahead, what the hell, you don’t like Bush but there are lots of good Americans.”  But he didn’t want to go.  So we told our kidnappers he is really not pro-American.  And he made the photo-montage of himself with Kimmit. 

NP: Oh?  Playing around with computer graphics?  And how did the kidnappers get it? 

M: The picture was in the car.  We could have killed them…the father and the son!  We asked him why he didn’t check the car, why he left it there…

NP: In any case they were very much more unkind to him than to you.

M: Of course, because they suspected him from the beginning.  But after it was OK. 

NP: I saw a man on French TV during your captivity--they said he was Al Jundi’s uncle…  They showed him with your family--I don’t know how much you’ve heard about that--they took your family to the mosque, they celebrated the end of Ramadan at the Institut du Monde Arabe

M: It’s his brother in law.  He’s lived in France for 15 years.

NP: I was in the US during the Falluja offensive and I remember seeing a man they found in a slaughterhouse in Falluja.  He had marks from shackles, he was in terrible shape.  It seems to me he had dark hair.  But when Mohamed Al Jundi greeted you last week, I saw he has gray hair.  How old is he?

M: He’s fifty.

NP: I can’t be sure the prisoner I saw on TV is the same one who was later identified as Al Jundi.  Maybe you haven’t had time to hear about that.

M: No, I haven’t.  But I know that he wasn’t treated very well by the Americans, they sort of abandoned him…  He was lucky.

NP: …I meant the kidnappers…  He was very badly treated by…

M: Yes, they left him in Falluja.  He was very lucky to not be killed by the kidnappers or by…

NP: Were they still accusing him of being a spy?

M: No, I think they were waiting for our release.  When we were separated on September 2nd I thought Abu Ayman would be released because he was not part of the deal…  I mean, if you look at it cynically, he had no commercial value.  What government would pay?  But the French government did look after him…  I thought he was going to be liberated but…

NP: But they kept him in a Falluja slaughterhouse?

M: Yeah.

NP: Is it true that he was a member of the Bath party?  

M: Before, yes.

NP: He’s quoted as saying that the Islamic Army in Iraq is a résistance  He doesn’t think they are terrorists?

M: I think he didn’t want to endanger our lives. 

NP: He is going to live in France with his family?

M: Yes, France took very good care of him.

NP: He doesn’t speak French? 

M: No. 

NP: Why did they call him your interpreter?  He speaks English? 

M: No, he was not our interpreter.  He was our friend, and driver. 

NP: You’ve known him for years? 

M: We met him just after the war.  He had good contacts with the previous regime.  So he helped us to cover the Sunni resistance. 

NP: He was somebody?

M: Somebody?  He was nothing but he had friends. 

NP: He was living well.  His son was a student.

M: Yes.  And he loves France, and he’s very honest.  We didn’t pay him much, he was a friend, we’d call him, we want to go to someplace in the Sunni region… Falluja…he had contacts.…

NP: And it’s true you got a bit lost on the way to Falluja that day? 

M: No.  We stopped…I had to field a phone call, we had to stop to use the Thuraya. They have lookouts.  We were followed, and forty minutes later we were arrested.  But not a shot was fired.  We were lucky.  Not like the Macedonians…  We said [in Arabic] Fransis, French journalists.

NP: There were cases of French journalists held for just a few days…

M: Yes.  I thought it would be two or three days.

NP: Do you know Radio Méditerranée? [“Yeah.”]  Did you know that they spoke very badly about you?  A Iraqi Christian called in, I think her name was Kami. They made fun of you, they said you don’t speak good Arabic, they said you’re a racist because you described the people who kidnapped you as wearing djelabas and they laughed at you for not knowing Iraqis don’t wear djelaba.  I didn’t expect to hear them talking about you on that talk show but I thought you’d be amused.

M: Radio Méditerranée from Tanger?

NP: No, from Paris.  It’s a local station.

M: From Tanger.  Radio Méditerranée Numéro Un.  Arabic news.

NP: No, not from Tanger.  It’s 88.5 FM.  It belongs to Tawfik Mathlouti, you know, the Mecca Cola man.  Check it out.  It’s very extreme.  You said you were going to cool it a bit, and do your work from here in France.  So you can get on their case.  It’s a sort of jihadi station.  Try it sometime…it’s pure rage…from noon to two p.m. on Sundays.  [pause]  Were you able to figure out anything about the negotiations? 

M: No.  They told us about the headscarf.

NP: That wasn’t very convincing?

M: They didn’t convince us at first…  They had nothing to hold against France, we have no troops or contractors in Iraq, we were against the war, against the occupation, they had nothing to hold against the French…  So we thought they had to find something…maybe the thing about the headscarf was a decoy, a smokescreen to hide something else.  We don’t know if the headscarf was a subject of negotiation, bargaining…

NP: After the first 48-hour ultimatum, another long text of grievances was published on the Net.  It wasn’t authenticated or discredited.  And it seemed to be written by someone with extensive knowledge of French society.  Have you ever heard about that?

M: Around the 14th of September?  “Criminal acts…”

NP: Right…going back several centuries.

M: No we didn’t hear about it at the time.  But what surprises me is that four days later they told us we were going to be released.  They said they had an encouraging reaction from France about the headscarves. 

NP: It must have helped that they were often saying you were going to be released?

M: Not exactly.  You get all excited, and then the disappointment is terrible.  What reassured us is that we were not mistreated.  They weren’t going to kill us.  But the false liberations, no, that didn’t help.

NP: Did you have any reading material?  At the beginning you had your book with you…

M: The first 2 weeks I had my book.  I read it five times.  Then they took it away and we didn’t have anything.  Except once, near the end, they gave us Al Hayam, a Saudi monthly close to the Salafist current published in London.  Just by coincidence the cover was torn off and the editorial was about the headscarf and just by coincidence the editorial denounced Islamophobia in the French media and just by coincidence that week Le Figaro published an article on the Muslim community in France, and the headline was “The Islamist Peril”  That was a lot of coincidences.  Then we had a little book “The hand and God” a little thing about the Qur’an.  The last thing they gave us was a level 8 English manual.

NP: Were you able to remember things you had read and recite them by heart?  Or did you just have conversation to keep your minds occupied?

M: Just conversation.

NP: You said that you were on the Bin Laden planet.  Did it change your feelings about the insurgency?  Would you call the people who were holding you insurgents or résistants? 

M: For us it is clear: People who combat an illegal occupation that results from an illegal war are résistants.  Résistance is a sacred right, whether you are Islamist or nationalist, you are résistants.  However, when you capture people from a country that has nothing to do with the situation, then your methods have nothing to do with the résistance.  Those methods are…uh…different. 

NP: When they take hostages from countries who have troops in Iraq, would that be résistance?  Nick Berg?

M: Would that be résistance?  [long silence]  That…that…  They can capture them to negotiate…yes…  But not kill them.  [pause]  Taking hostages is a measure…it’s…it’s a method of terrorists.

NP: Whether or not?  Occupation or no occupation?

M: Still it’s all the more reprehensible when it hits people who have nothing to do with the war.  

NP: Perhaps.  I mean that’s what we’d like to get to.  As you realized that they were Bin Laden…Al Qaeda, did you still feel that being French was a safety feature?

M: Yeah.

NP: You still thought Al Qaeda has nothing against France?

M: We talked to the jihadist [the one who had been in Afghanistan, Chechnya, etc.]…We asked him what’s Al Qaeda’s problem with France.  He said, “We have old problems, Algeria.”  We said, “Okay, old problems, and now we have the headscarf—the hijab—French troops in Afghanistan, and also the French in Darfur, through Chad.  These are the three…”

NP: You don’t think that Al Qaeda is against France as well?

M: Oh yes.  For them, France belongs to the Western world.  These people…  You know on 15 October we asked them who do you want, Bush or Kerry.  They said “we want Bush, with Bush we’ll have American troops in Iraq for many years, so we’ll grow stronger.  By intervening in Afghanistan Bush did us a favor.  We’ve spread all over the world…we’re implanted in sixty countries.”  You see, they both have that kind of vision…  For Bush the world is divided into good and evil; for them it’s Muslims and infidels-–kufars.

NP: You think that’s the same kind of a category?  You and I also have categories of good and evil, right?

M: What I mean is…  Of course I don’t put Bush on the same level as the terrorists.  But they’re happy to have Bush facing them because each in a way is playing on the shock of cultures.  They feed each other this Manichean vision, for Bush, there is good and evil.  For them, there is the umma--the Muslim community--and the rest of the world, kufars.  The French are kufars too, but there’s still a big difference between France and the US 

NP: That has roots that go way back before Bush.  It has its own self-generating mechanism. 

M: Yeah.  [we are interrupted by a phone call].  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Bush is on the same level…

NP: Osama has declared that Zarqawi is his man in Iraq.  So that makes this an Al Qaeda operation…

M: Yes.

NP: Since Al Qaeda attacked the United States, is the war still illegal in your opinion?  Was there any connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq before the war?

M: We’re still waiting for proof.  But they were not close.  One contact…

NP: Ansar al Islam was in Iraq

M: Yes but not under Saddam’s control…

NP: How about the Palestinian terrorists who were operating…

M: There’s no proof.  Powell…  What I mean is, the war in Iraq is illegal because the United Nations was not…

NP: Al Qaeda came in because the Americans came in?

M: No, these people who kidnapped us were Salafists…Islamists under Saddam.  They lived under a ferocious dictator, and kept their mouths shut.  Now they can do whatever they want.  The Americans should have thought of that.  Dictatorship is not good.  But the Islamists were under control.  Now there are more Al Qaeda people than before.

NP: Would you say that is was better before?

M: On this issue, for sure.

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