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Evidence points to one ring for five abductions in Iraq

Carroll's captors say they kidnapped other Western women.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2006


Jill Carroll's captors appear to be involved in some of the most high-profile kidnappings of Westerners in Iraq during the past two years.

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A Monitor investigation – including interviews with other kidnap victims, US, Iraqi, and Italian investigators, as well as court testimony in Iraq – ties her abductors, or others close to them, to at least five kidnapping incidents, including Ms. Carroll:

• The Oct. 19, 2004 abduction and subsequent murder of Irish aid worker Margaret Hassan.

• The abduction of French journalist Florence Aubenas on Jan. 5, 2005.

• The abduction of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena on Feb. 4, 2005.

• The Nov. 26, 2005 abduction of four members of the Christian Peacemakers Team and the subsequent murder of American Tom Fox.

While the investigation yielded corroboration of key details, it couldn't conclusively prove that the leader of the ring that kidnapped Ms. Carroll also orchestrated the other four abductions. Iraq's insurgent groups operate in small cells. They often collaborate on the basis of overlapping interests, family and tribal ties, but don't have the direct command and control of a regular army.

Evan Kohlmann, a US terrorism consultant, also notes that Iraqi insurgents typically use misdirection in their propaganda – sometimes disavowing attacks for which they are responsible, at other times claiming attacks in which they were not involved.

Still, the strongest evidence suggests that the same group that took Carroll also abducted Ms. Sgrena, the Italian journalist. In early March, Abu Rasha, the leader of one of the three cells handling Carroll's kidnapping, went into great detail about Sgrena's captivity. Since Carroll's release, Sgrena has corroborated some of those details, although with some discrepancies.

For example, Abu Rasha told Carroll that Sgrena had shouted at them that they shouldn't be kidnapping her when their stated goal was to attack soldiers and police, not journalists. In his version of that shouting match, Sgrena ultimately obeyed orders to be quiet and gave an apology.

In a phone interview from Rome, Sgrena confirms that she did yell at them just as Abu Rasha described. But she says she never apologized to her kidnappers.

Abu Rasha described Sgrena as "like a mother" to her captors and that because of that they didn't harm her. Sgrena says she told them they shouldn't harm her because she was old enough to be their mother.

Abu Rasha said they gave her a gold necklace shortly before her release, something Sgrena confirmed. Carroll was also given a gold necklace when she was released.

There were other similarities in how the captors behaved and treated the two Western women. Each was held in Iraqi homes, in dark rooms. Their captors pretended to be Shiite, when they were devout Sunnis. They encouraged the women to convert to Islam. In the final videos of Sgrena and Carroll, made just before their release, their captors ordered them to say they were well treated, and voiced their support for journalists.

Though Carroll and Sgrena discussed the appearance and demeanor of their captors, neither could be certain if the men were the same. Nevertheless, the many similarities in their experiences convinced Carroll that the same men were involved.

Sgrena and Ms. Hassan were the only hostages Carroll's captors referred to by name, but they alluded to Ms. Aubenas and Mr. Fox.

On the third day of Carroll's captivity, for example, Abu Nour, the leader of Carroll's kidnappers, told her that he had also kidnapped a female French journalist almost exactly one year earlier. Aubenas was kidnapped Jan. 5, 2005 and held for more than five months.