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How Islamic State commanders squeeze their hostages for every penny

The dirty business of kidnapping, and other IS money-making schemes

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

 Turkish/Syrian border

It was Abouday’s heavy metal T-shirt that started the trouble. Two jihadis at a checkpoint said the fire-breathing dragon showed he was a devil worshipper. In fact, he worshipped only Metallica, but he did not realise the danger he was in. People had scarcely heard of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria back then.

His mother, Faten, sat weeping at her kitchen table as she told me how she had begged him not to travel at night. After being seized at the checkpoint, Abouday was interrogated by a 20-year-old ‘emir’, or commander, a man the same age as him. Faten was told he would be sentenced to memorising the Koran. But that was 18 months ago. She has had no certain news of her son since.

‘Then the suffering started, the pain, the agony,’ she said, describing her waking nightmare. ‘He was moved. They did not say where. We kept sending people to ask for him. Every minute of every day, I wonder: what is Abouday doing now? What is he eating? Is he tied up? Is he able to sleep? Did they blindfold him? Are they torturing him? Does he think everyone has abandoned him?’

The real problem, Faten thought, was his video camera. It identified him as a ‘citizen journalist’, a democracy activist. Another citizen journalist told me about being held for months for ‘making statements about IS’ and ‘meeting foreign media’. He was starved, hung by his arms, and given electric shocks. One of his jailers, a Moroccan, delighted in beatings. He was lucky to get out. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of activists have vanished in IS jails.

At the start of her ordeal, Faten received a farcically large ransom demand, $10 million. The messenger seemed to be from the Islamic State but she couldn’t be sure. The negotiations did not proceed. On the whole, Syrians detained by IS are not held for ransom, but for other reasons, because after three years of war, families cannot pay. Foreigners are the main target of IS kidnapping for money.

‘Abu Mohammed’ has conducted several negotiations with IS kidnappers for western hostages. A small, neat man, he is a schoolteacher, a Muslim cleric and, improbably, commanded his own band of rebels. The second and third of these jobs, if not the first, gave him the credibility to talk to the jihadis.

We met in his family’s cramped flat above a beauty parlour in a Turkish border town. Though we were outside Syria, he would not use his real name to talk about the sheer venality of IS’s kidnapping operation. He was afraid of what they might do. Another rebel commander’s son had just been abducted from the town, his body found in a well.

In the negotiations, everything cost money. An emir had to travel from one town to another to meet him: $10,000. Proof of life video: $100,000. ‘They asked for $5,000 or $10,000 for every move they made. The emirs are making a living by such means.’ Talks were usually conducted by a broker, who might or might not be an IS member. ‘Everyone takes a cut,’ he told me. ‘The emir takes part of the ransom but the brokers ask for anything from $100,000 to $300,000.’

These were the sums involved when it was a western hostage, the total ransom being several million dollars. Abu Mohammed negotiated for two European journalists detained as spies. ‘IS didn’t believe that for a second,’ he said. ‘All they talked about was price. They didn’t care whether they were spies or not.’

He continued: ‘Whenever the broker agreed a figure, he’d say, “I need to consult with the emir.” Then he’d come back to me for more. They manipulated us, and they didn’t even trust each other. This game is very dangerous for the hostages and has a terrible effect on their families.’

Brokers asked for the ransom to be divided into several bags for easier skimming. One emir planned to cash out and leave for Europe. Abu Mohammed viewed IS as the cynical creation of former officials in Iraq. ‘The origin of the Islamic State is not Islamic at all,’ he said. ‘They adopted jihad as a means to restore the lost glory of the Ba’ath party.’ Now, in Syria, the group was dominated by opportunists who wanted to make money.

If so, the Syrian jihadi blend of criminality and fanaticism is perfectly represented by one of the most senior IS commanders, Saddam Jamal. I met his former bodyguard, ‘Abu Abdullah’ — another assumed name — who was furtive and terrified, having left the group and gone into hiding in Turkey. He spoke about Jamal’s widely known history as a drug smuggler before the uprising. Then he became the Free Syrian Army’s commander for eastern Syria before popping up in an Islamic State video, sporting a new beard and repudiating his former comrades.

‘He doesn’t really care if Islam spreads or not,’ said Abu Abdullah. ‘All he cares about is becoming more powerful. If an organisation stronger than IS emerges, he will join that. There are a lot like him.’ Jamal was still capable of extreme violence, he went on. He was one of those in charge during a notorious massacre of hundreds of the Shaitat tribe in Syria, in August.

The tribe stood in the way of the Islamic State acquiring a lucrative oil pipeline. Jamal ordered an elder to bring out his sons, said Abu Abdullah. ‘Starting with a 13-year-old boy, they lined up them according to height and beheaded them in that order. Then, they hung the boys’ heads on the gate outside.’

And Abu Abdullah said that was not the worst thing he saw while in the service of IS. ‘Another emir put a knife in his eight-year-old son’s hand and made him cut off a prisoner’s head… He said the son of an emir should learn early.’

IS, then, has its true believers. Another true believer was Abu Sumayyah al Britani, who proved his sincerity at the weekend by becoming the first British IS suicide bomber in Iraq. Real name Kabir Ahmed, he left a wife and three children behind in Derby to join the Islamic State. He drove a truck bomb into an Iraqi police convoy, killing a general and, as IS triumphantly announced, a number of Shia.

I wrote about him in The Spectator in July, ‘Everybody’s asking the emir to push their name up the list for martyrdom,’ he told me then. ‘We wish to leave this world and meet our lord.’ In that interview, Abu Sumayyah also warned Britain and the US not to interfere in the ‘Caliphate’: ‘9/11 was a warning shot… If you support our enemies against us, then you can expect these attacks. If the British government commits terror against our people… then you can expect attacks on your soil.’


That was a statement of al-Qa’eda’s traditional doctrine. There is a near enemy — the ‘godless’ regimes the jihadis are trying to overthrow, and a far enemy — the US and its allies, who support those regimes. If this is the Islamic State’s world view too, then the beheadings of American and British hostages are meant to deter the bombing now taking place. The alternative is that they are an attempt to goad the US and its allies into an intervention the jihadis believe would fail.

What, then, is the proportion of true believers to opportunists in the Islamic State? Are IS using religion as a cover for crime — or trying to pay for jihad through kidnapping? For hostages’ families, such distinctions matter little. For governments these are crucial questions. It is much easier to allow payments to simple criminals. Britain and the US, which both refuse to ‘fund terrorism’, have seen their hostages killed. France, Italy and Spain have paid up — and managed to bring people home.

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The debate over payments for hostages is, though, being overtaken by events. Kidnapping is certainly big business for the Islamic State, bringing in about $200 million last year, according to an Iraqi intelligence official. But the official described that as ‘baksheesh’ — a tip — compared with jihadis’ income from oil. They got $180 million a year from their biggest oil field, $150 million from the next most profitable, he said, as well as hundreds of millions in tax on the territory they controlled. They charged fees to mobile phone companies. They were even selling antiquities. Whoever IS are — Ba’athists, criminals, fanatics — and whatever the jihadis’ aims, they are not short of money to achieve them.

Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent covering Syria.

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