Hostage: The Jill Carroll Story – Part 5: Mujahideen movies

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

One afternoon in the first week after I'd been taken – and been moved to yet another house near Abu Ghraib – Abu Ali called me into a big sitting room with green velveteen couches. On the far wall, above the TV, was a gigantic poster of waterfalls and rocks and trees.

It was beautiful. I could stare at it and get lost. I thought, I wish I was there, I wish I was there.

But my captors wanted me to look at something very different: DVDs of them waging war.

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By their count, they were killing dozens or even hundreds of soldiers a day. They estimated that Al Qaeda in Iraq had killed at least 40,000 US soldiers. They could prove it, they said, with videos of their operations showing Humvees and tanks blowing up and snipers shooting soldiers.

So Abu Ali – the captor with a stubbly beard – sat me down and showed me the videos. They were in Arabic and were stamped with the symbols of various insurgent groups, and included audio overlays of mujahideen chanting in low, somber tones.

One video showed all these men who were going to be suicide car bombers. They interviewed them, and then showed a field, with cars lined up, and each man getting into a car – waving, just euphoric – and then driving off.

Others had pictures of an American Humvee driving along – and then it would blow up, and they'd cut to a graphic of a lightning flash, and thunder clapping.

Abu Ali would glance over at me as I watched the videos, asking me what I thought of them. I couldn't say anything good, but I tried to say things that were true, like "Oh, this is the first time I've ever seen this. I didn't know this was out there."

To Abu Ali, though, this was their mission, a righteous path; this was their work for God.

While I sat there watching them, I felt the insurgents were sending me a message: They hate Americans so much, they're proud of these attacks. It's normal to them.

Surely they were going to kill me. How could they not?

***

The first set of phone-recording equipment that the FBI brought to Jim Carroll's North Carolina home didn't work. A second set, shipped in from the Charlotte office, didn't work either. Eventually, agents assigned to the Jill Carroll case got the standard wiretap electronics in place.

From the beginning, the FBI identified Jim as someone who could handle hostage negotiations. He received rudimentary training in what to do if contacted: Keep talking, keep them on the phone, try to set a time for a call back.

But no one was sure which numbers Jill would remember and pass along to her jailers. So taps were readied for a number of phones. If the kidnappers called, the FBI would use the recording to try to identify them and their location.

In Baghdad, Monitor staff writer Scott Peterson put a piece of climbing tape on one of his phones, and drew on it a green eye, to remind him which line the government was watching. He and staff writer Dan Murphy were pursuing their own leads with Iraqi sources and seeking the help of Sunni politicians known to have insurgent contacts.

Between them, Messrs. Peterson and Murphy could draw on decades of experience working in dangerous environments. As a reporter and photographer, Peterson's hot-spot assignments stretched from Angola to Afghanistan. In 1993, he took a machete blow to the head from a mob that killed four journalists in Somalia. Later, he was one of the very few correspondents to enter the Rwandan capital, Kigali, when the genocide began.

Murphy lived for 10 years in Indonesia, where he covered sectarian violence and became one of the world's experts on Al Qaeda's operations in Southeast Asia. In Baghdad, he'd been one of Jill's mentors.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the Monitor enlisted the help of Faye Bowers, a recently retired Washington correspondent with extensive contacts in the dark world of intelligence. She had been instrumental in the negotiations to release Monitor reporter David Rohde, who was jailed by Bosnian Serbs for 10 days in 1995 and won a Pulitzer for stories revealing the first evidence of the Srebrenica massacre.

At Ms. Bowers's request, US officials also contacted important Sunnis in Iraq, and pushed them to do all they could to secure Jill's release. Jordanian and European officials, particularly the Germans, provided context about their own efforts to free hostages in Iraq. And an army of Bowers's contacts, many of them ex-spies, scrolled through their memories, searching for old friends and contacts in the Arab world who might help.

P.G.

***

At the beginning of my ordeal, I had hoped my kidnappers were amateurs who wouldn't really know what to do with me and would start to get very nervous after a few days. Then they'd let me go.

I knew they were Iraqis, which was good. It was the foreign-born insurgents – such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who beheaded hostages.

They seemed a small group, and they told me they had come together and forged their identity fighting the US military for control of the restive city of Fallujah in a Sunni- dominated area west of Baghdad.

But after about a week in captivity – about the time of the showing of the jihadi videos – it became increasingly clear to me that they were the real deal.

During the precious few hours when the electricity worked, they would sometimes plug in a cassette player, and an angry voice would blare in classical Arabic from the room across the hall, where the guards slept.

I usually only understood a few words, like "America," "Israel," and "occupation," but the point was clear.

"Do you know who that is?" one of the guards asked me at one point. "That is Sheikh Abu Musab. Is he a good man? What is your opinion of Zarqawi?"

I dodged the question. But inside, I felt the fear welling up. These were Zarqawi people! I was an American. I thought again, there was no way I was getting out of this alive.

***

Perhaps the knowledge of what would happen to Khalid if he disappeared into the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior was what did it. Sitting on a bed in the Monitor's Baghdad apartment, he finally broke down.

"I knew you wouldn't believe me if I told you the truth!" he sobbed.

By this point, Khalid (not his real name) had worked for the Monitor and other media organizations as an interpreter, on and off, for a year-and-a-half. He was a gentle soul, thin and nervous in a birdlike way. He'd come via recommendation from someone in the Coalition Provisional Authority, back when that still existed, and Murphy liked working with him. He was interested in the way that religion and politics fit together, as was Murphy himself.

And for days now, Khalid had said he had a source – two separate sources, actually – who knew where Jill was.

The information – revealed in dribs and drabs over time – was detailed in a way that made it sound credible. It even jibed with other leads coming in. She was being held, allegedly, in Al Adl – the same neighborhood where she was kidnapped and a part of the city known to be rife with insurgents. There were two teams that took turns guarding her, each composed of three men. The house was detached, and the opening in its surrounding wall was a white metal gate – sheet metal, not bars, and streaked with dirt. Behind the gate sat the Monitor driver's maroon Toyota with a broken window and bullet holes in the side.

The Monitor's Baghdad team had passed this information along, and the Hereford, England-based security firm hired by the newspaper sent an Iraqi employee into the neighborhood to eyeball possible houses. He found four or five.

But then one of Khalid's sources went out of town. And his story began to change. Maybe the gate was ... black.

What was going on? Late one night, a colonel from the Iraqi Interior Ministry arrived to interview Khalid in Arabic. The colonel was a busy man; he talked to the interpreter a bit, then left on other business. But he made himself clear: At this point, if Khalid didn't name his source, Khalid would have to come in to the ministry.

He didn't have to say that bad things happened at the ministry, even to good people.

Khalid was shaken. Murphy, too, was concerned. He sat beside him, and gently asked, again, for the real story. And finally it came out.

His wife had visions, said Khalid. They're painful and difficult for her, he said, but it's a gift. She'd warned him not to get involved, but he'd wanted to help. He'd given his wife one of Jill's cherry-tinted hairs from a hair band which he'd secretly taken from the office. She'd been the one who "saw" where Jill was. Khalid believed her. But he knew Murphy and Peterson wouldn't.

The reporters were stunned. For weeks now, they'd been pursuing this lead. Now, it seemed, they had been sending people into dangerous neighborhoods based on the musings of a clairvoyant.

From the beginning, investigative tracks dealing with Jill's possible whereabouts gave the family and her employers a sense of hope and momentum.

What they didn't provide, in the end, was Jill. Leads dried up. Sources disappeared. Demands for ransom turned out to be attempts at extortion.

The curious case of the clairvoyant was perhaps the most extreme example of where tracks went. But it wasn't unique. Other sources claimed to have a video taken on a cellphone – and described her in detail.

Notes scribbled daily on legal pads by managing editor Marshall Ingwerson give a sense of the rise and fall of these efforts.

From 1/11/06: "New lead. HWG [the US Embassy's Hostage Working Group] onworking. Source is someone we've worked with before ... contradictory to [The New York Times's Dexter] Filkins lead...."

From 1/14/06: "2 tracks still in play. Filkins update: By chance his sources – guard at racetrack saw her Thursday while she was being transferred...."

From 1/19/06: "No more on Dexter's track. Contradictory info on [Scott Peterson's] track."

From 1/20/06: "Dexter track definitely dead...."

One morning, the British security man under contract to the Monitor told Murphy and Peterson that the body of a Western woman had been found in Baghdad. Police were checking the morgue. The two reporters kept the information to themselves, tensely awaiting verification. The report proved untrue.

While the leads were thin, the public support poured in. The Monitor would post on its website a daily selection of e-mails and letters from Jill Carroll supporters of all faiths, and all walks of life. During some of the darkest nights, Mary Beth Carroll would go to her computer and draw some comfort from the strangers' missives.

P.G.

... The only right thing to do for any true Muslim or any human being is to release her unharmed. Our prayers are with her and her family.
– Tilmann Deutschbein, Auxerre, France

Dear [Jill],

...Your innocence is stronger than all the cruelty. Stay strong and return quickly to us.
– Mohammed Ahmed, Islamabad, Pakistan

I am joining with my family, friends, and church to say we are all praying every moment ... to see this beautiful, dedicated young woman free.... We pray for the captors, that they will act with wisdom and free her immediately, and then we will listen to their concerns and support their needs.

Our love surrounds Jill and her family. We will not stop this vigil until Jill is returned.
– Judith Stump, Aliso Viejo, Calif.

We've been praying for you. We also tried folding 1,000 paper cranes. (Did you know in Japan, if a sick person folds 1,000 paper cranes, the gods will make them better?) I also like the Army.
– Andy Banner, fourth-grader, St. Anthony's School, Florence, S.C.

Next part: Reciting Koranic verses.

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