Evidence points to one ring for five abductions in Iraq

Carroll's captors say they kidnapped other Western women.

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.

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.

Aubenas declined to give the Monitor details about her captivity, saying she had spoken enough at the time of her release and wants to put the experience behind her. The public descriptions she has given of her captivity are starkly different from the conditions under which Carroll was held. Aubenas was frequently bound and blindfolded in a basement, while Sgrena's and Carroll's environment in captivity was generally less threatening.

But there is other evidence that ties Aubenas to Sgrena's and Hassan's abductions.

Aubenas was kidnapped after interviewing refugees at a tent camp for Sunni refugees from Fallujah on the grounds of the Mustafa Mosque on the Baghdad University campus. A month later, on Feb. 4, 2005, Sgrena was taken from the same location.

Proximity alone wouldn't be enough to link the two. But US, Iraqi, and Italian investigators say that the man that ran that mosque, Sheikh Hussein al-Zubayi, is the prime suspect in the abductions of Sgrena, Aubenas, and Hassan, the deceased director of Care International in Iraq.

Sheikh Zubayi is a wealthy Baghdad cleric. Until last year, he was also a member of the Muslim Scholars Association, a hard-line Sunni group that was involved in both successful and unsuccessful ransom negotiations for foreign hostages in 2004. He's been in hiding since shortly after the Sgrena kidnapping.

Iraqi police investigators and prosecutors, as well as the Italian government, say captured insurgents have told them that Zubayi was involved in the Aubenas and Sgrena abductions, as well as with the kidnapping and murder of Hassan. Hassan was murdered by her kidnappers near Fallujah in 2004, who were apparently angry over an ongoing US offensive in Fallujah.

In early June, a minor figure in the Hassan kidnapping, Mustafa Salman al-Jibouri, was sentenced to life in prison by a Baghdad court. At his trial, Mr. Jibouri said that Zubayi gave him a bag containing Hassan's purse and ID cards for safekeeping. Jibouri said in his defense that he didn't know they were Hassan's at the time.

Jibouri's court statements, and an interview with the Iraqi prosecutor in the case, paint Zubayi's role as that of a ruthless and mercurial individual, determined to squeeze as much propaganda value as possible out of his kidnapping operations.

Jibouri also said in court that Zubayi was involved in Aubenas's and Sgrena's kidnapping.

Italian and Iraqi intelligence also tie Zubayi to Sgrena. Just before her release in a Baghdad neighborhood, Sgrena's captors' last words to her were to "be careful: the Americans don't want you to return to Italy alive," according to "Friendly Fire," Sgrena's own book about her abduction.

Her captors also gave the same warning to Nicola Calipari, the Italian intelligence officer who negotiated her release, according to a Western intelligence official and an Iraqi investigator. The Italians rushed directly to the Baghdad airport. US soldiers manning a checkpoint mistook the car for a suicide car bomb and opened fire, killing Mr. Calipari and wounding Sgrena.

Investigators say that Zubayi effectively orchestrated the shooting. He called a US tip hotline shortly after Sgrena and Calipari drove off and said a car matching the description of their sedan, carrying a bomb, would soon be on the airport road, according to Jibouri's court testimony. This was also confirmed by an Iraqi investigator contacted by the Monitor, and an Italian police report leaked to Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper.

The 42-page US report on the shooting incident says an intelligence warning that both a black car and a white car were likely to be carrying bombs on the airport road at the time of the incident was passed to the soldiers who opened fire. Sgrena's car, a Toyota Corolla, was white.

Carroll was also told by her captors at the time of her release that the US military would try to kill her.

Iraqi investigators, who asked not to be identified, say Zubayi kidnapped women because they made for good propaganda videos and were seen as an opportunity to raise money for Sunni Arab fighters.

European and Iraqi officials say that multimillion-dollar ransoms were paid in both the Sgrena and Aubenas cases. In Hassan's case, a $10 million ransom was sought by Abdel Salam al-Qubaisy, a senior leader of the Muslim Scholars Association, according to Italian police wiretaps, transcripts of which were leaked to Italy's La Repubblica newspaper in January. Monitor editors and the Carroll family say they paid no money to secure her release.

What role, if any, Zubayi played in Carroll's kidnapping isn't known. He has been on the run from the authorities for more than a year.

Christian Peacemaker links, too

Jill Carroll is persuaded that her captors had close ties, if not direct involvement, with the kidnappers of the Christian Peacemakers Team.

"Since my captors viewed all mujahideen as part of the same worldwide movement... it is unclear how many of these kidnappings were carried out by the same individuals who took me, and how many were carried out by separate but allied groups," she says.

It seems likely that Ms. Carroll's captors and those holding the Christian Peacemakers, including American Tom Fox, were at least communicating with one another.

On or around Feb. 27, Carroll's captors made a video of her pleading for the release of a Jordanian prisoner. Later the same day, her chief captor, Abu Nour, told her: "We killed an American today." He said the hostage was killed because the US government failed to meet a 48-hour deadline to release Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric serving a life sentence in the US for organizing the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

At the time, Carroll had no idea who the victim might be.

But about two weeks later, she saw a television news report saying that the body of Mr. Fox, the American member of the Christian Peacemakers Team, was found in Baghdad. The Iraqi police say he was killed within 24 hours of his body being recovered on March 9.

While the discrepancy in the date of Fox's murder is odd, it may just point to the fact that Abu Nour had infrequent contact with the cell that held the Christian Peacemakers and didn't know they'd changed their plans.

In a phone interview from his home in Canada, CPT member James Loney says that he and the other CPT hostages were told on March 7 that their captors were demanding the release of a blind man in a US prison, and mentioned Omar Abdul-Rahman.

The demand for Mr. Rahman's release in exchange for Fox's life has never been made public before. Unless they were in close communication, how did Carroll's captors know what Mr. Loney's captors were demanding?

Carroll's captors often talked openly around her in Arabic. While her Arabic is not fluent, she understood much of what was said. After about a month in captivity, her guards complained to their leader about having to guard her. He replied: "She isn't the only one."

After that, she heard them mention on multiple occasions something about the Canadians and British. At the time, Carroll didn't know the nationalities (two Canadians, a Brit, and an American) of the Christian Peacemakers Team. At one point, Abu Rasha told her: "We have another Jill."

But Carroll didn't know what that meant. Another woman? Another journalist? Another American?

Later one of her guards claimed the mujahideen had released the Christian Peacemaker Team. "Three days ago they paid [a ransom] to let them go," he told Carroll, quoting his boss and countering a TV news report he was watching that said the three men had been rescued by coalition forces on March 23.

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