What's driving the kidnappings in Iraq

Three videos highlight the latest spike in kidnapping Westerners.

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A wave of abductions is sweeping through Iraq - as evidenced this week by three videotaped demands by groups holding Western hostages.

Since last fall the number of foreigners seized has spiked, following a prolonged lull. Meanwhile, Iraqis themselves are being kidnapped in large numbers - some months, more than 30 per day.

These crimes occur for many reasons in a society that is still struggling with basic governance and security. But the political kidnappings that have received the most attention in the West - such as the case of American reporter Jill Carroll - may be terrorism of a particularly pure sort, say experts.

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In today's wired age, it's easier than ever to affect viewers around the world with powerful images of powerless hostages. And that may be the point of these terrible acts: to frighten the West, intimidate moderate Iraqis, and rally supporters.

"The goal of terrorism has nothing to do with killing innocent victims, or the victims themselves," says Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. "The goal is to have an impact on outside audiences."

Ms. Carroll was taken hostage on Jan. 7 in Baghdad. On Jan. 17 her captors - self-described as the "Brigades of Vengeance" - released a video in which they implied they would kill her within 72 hours if US forces and the Iraqi Interior Ministry did not release Iraqi women in their custody. On Monday, Al Jazeera broadcast a second video of the apparently distraught Carroll who was again calling for the release of female prisoners.

Unfortunately, Carroll is not alone. Four Christian peace activists - two Canadians, an American, and a Briton - who had disappeared on Nov. 26, were shown in a new video on Al Jazeera this week. A statement from the "Swords of Righteousness Brigades" read with the video said that they would be killed unless the US released all prisoners.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was "shocked" by a video of two captive German engineers that aired on Al Jazeera Tuesday. Their kidnappers have demanded that Germany close its Baghdad embassy and cut ties with Iraq in exchange for the hostages' lives, said Al Jazeera.

A Jordanian embassy driver, who was abducted in Iraq on Dec. 20 while going to work, appeared in a Jan. 22 video. His kidnappers want to trade him for Sajida al-Rishawi, a would-be suicide bomber whose belt failed to explode in the Nov. 9 attack on an Amman hotel. Two Kenyan truck drivers abducted in Baghdad on Jan. 18 have not been heard from. Ten Iraqis escorting the Kenyans' convoy were killed in the incident.

Since May 2003, 268 foreigners have been kidnapped in Baghdad, according to an index maintained by the Brookings Institution in Washington. Of these, 135 were released, three escaped, three were rescued, and 44 were killed, according to Brookings. The fate of 81 hostages remains unknown.

The rate of these abductions has increased in recent months, following a lull through early 2005. Twenty-four Westerners were seized in August 2005, followed by 11 in November, and 13 in December, according to Brookings.

The number for January 2006 was five.

Meanwhile, Iraqis continue to be seized in great numbers, to settle scores, make political points, and gain ransoms. In December 2005, there were 30 domestic kidnappings a day across the country, according to Brookings.

In some areas, such as Baghdad, Iraqis can be in such danger that they consider Westerners who venture out on the streets to be foolhardy.

"Many Iraqis are too afraid of kidnappings to take their children to school or to go to work," says Zaki Chehab, author of "Iraq Ablaze - Inside the Insurgency." "If Iraqis are too afraid to go out on the streets than how can a Westerner do it?"

Small criminal gangs generally do the actual kidnappings, including those of foreigners.

"There are many, many low level criminal groups operating in Iraq," says David Brannan, a terror speciallist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

These groups are in it for the money, and they either ransom hostages directly, or sell them upwards to larger groups.

These large groups then might use the hostages to pursue their own political agendas. The kidnappers holding Carroll, for instance, may actually be keen to obtain the release of Iraqi women hostages, seeing it as an Islamic issue.

"This is not just about trying to get popular support," says Mr. Chehab, the London bureau chief of Arabic language newspaper Al-Hayat.

Sometimes it is about money. Several European countries, France and Germany among them, have reportedly paid large ransoms to retrieve citizens of their countries who have been kidnapped in Iraq.

But directly or indirectly, most of the groups now holding Westerners are also trying to affect the thinking of multiple groups, say other experts.

They want to frighten the US, and the West in general. Thus, whoever is holding Carroll likely made sure she was crying on her latest video as a means of heightening its drama and achieving greater visual impact.

The terrorists may also want to appeal to moderate Muslims who may sympathize with their cause. Repetitive airing of hostage videos makes the terror groups appear powerful, and rising.

Lastly, core adherents are rallied by evidence of action on the part of radicals they see as their champions against the infidel and an oppressing West.

"It's a way to demonstrate not just their power and capabilities ... but a way of bolstering their reputation as the meanest, baddest fighters out there," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at the RAND Corp. in Washington.

With the Internet, the risks of obtaining publicity in this manner have fallen, notes Mr. Hoffman. No longer must terror groups run the risk of delivering tapes by hand, or posting by mail. They can simply download them.

"It makes you far more important ... than you could ever have hoped to be had you not resorted to this heinous act of kidnapping," says Hoffman.

One variable in the case of Carroll is the possible effect that the seizure of a media representative may have on future news coverage. In the past, insurgent groups in Iraq have targeted specific groups, such as judges, that they wish to intimidate.

"Other journalists are starting to wonder, should I accept this assignment," says Post.

Charles Levinson in Baghdad and James Brandon in London contributed.

[Editor's note: The original version listed Faye Bowers as a contributor rather than co-author.]

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