War reporters know that covering conflict can come at a price

As debate rages over US ban on ransom payments, kidnappings of journalists are only expected to rise

Goran Tomasevic, right, a Reuters photojournalist, with M23 rebels near the town of Sake in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012. He has had his share of near misses, but, he says, “I love my job.”
Phil Moore

He cooperated in the video that his captors forced him to make. He bent his head, feigned tears, tried to show duress; off camera, a gun was pointed at his face. He thought to leave clues for his family: He put on a Southern accent because he was being held somewhere in the south. “At the end of the tape I changed my voice to normal when I said to my family, ‘I love you,’” he later said.

After 62 days in captivity, Charles Glass worked free of his chains and slipped out a window onto a balcony. He was stuck seven stories up, so he sneaked through another door and tiptoed through the kitchen. He managed to lock the front door on his kidnappers, who he believed were Iranian-backed Shia militiamen, and, barefoot, walked free.

This was not Syria or southern Turkey, where groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, hold sway, or Iraq, where Al-Qaeda affiliates dominate terrain in the west. It was Beirut. Nor was it 2014 but 1987, the midway point of a decade in which nearly 100 foreigners, including Americans and Europeans, were kidnapped and held, with some escaping, some killed, during the war in Lebanon.

The phenomenon of journalists being held hostage during war is not new. Before ISIL there was Hezbollah, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Kosovo Liberation Army and many other groups that used their captives to demand exorbitant sums of cash and changes in countries’ foreign policies. But with the recent spike in deaths in the war in Syria, the spotlight once again is on war correspondents and the risks they take.

Glass, a journalist and author, continues to travel to the Middle East. His most recent assignment took him into the heart of the latest large-scale conflict, to Damascus, where he reported under the watchful eye of surreptitious Syrian intelligence officers. But he won’t go into rebel-held areas where groups like ISIL have been seizing foreigners for ransom.

“I go to Syria and Lebanon because I like the countries and I like the people,” he said in a telephone interview from France, where he is working on a book about the Syrian civil war. “I think there are some places that are seriously dangerous then and now that should be avoided. But there are many places you can go and work on stories and not be tortured or beheaded.”

Glass is one of a shrinking number of correspondents who continue to cover the conflict from Syria even as the risks mount. Most major news organizations are refusing to accept freelance photos and stories from the war zone that might encourage greater risk taking by willing freelancers.

During the past three years, more than 100 professional and citizen journalists have been killed covering the war in Syria, more than a dozen have been kidnapped by ISIL and other groups, and at least four have been beheaded. The FBI has warned journalists to steer clear of not only Syria but also the border areas around it and southern Turkey, saying the bureau has received intelligence indicating journalists are being targeted for kidnapping.

The executions have also impelled Barack Obama’s administration to review its policies on what happens when an American is taken hostage. The review will delve into how the White House, the FBI and the Pentagon communicate with families of the victims and how the agencies coordinate their intelligence efforts. It will not, however, include a reassessment of the government’s refusal to pay ransoms. The U.S. government policy strongly discourages any private company or individual to do so. 

While debate on those issues continues to rage in the wake of executions of American and British hostages, the families of James Foley and Steven Sotloff have been forced to defend their sons’ presence in Syria. Foley and Sotloff, both journalists killed by ISIL, weren’t cowboys who willingly courted danger, they said.

“He was no war junkie. He did not want to be a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia,” Sotloff’s family said in a statement after he was executed. “He merely wanted to give voice to those who had none.”

On Saturday, ISIL said it beheaded a Japanese journalist, Kenji Goto. His government did not accede to the group’s demands for a ransom.

‘Whistling in the dark’

War reporters have always tested the boundaries of what is safe and what isn’t. It’s called risk minimization. That can also be something you tell yourself as reassurance when the stakes are too high and the near misses too close.

“Somebody said to me, ‘If you go and get your story, you’re a hero. If you go and get your story and get killed, you’re an idiot.’ And the line between those two things is really, really close,” said Deborah Amos, a correspondent for NPR who continues to cover the Syrian conflict.

Deborah Amos, an NPR correspondent who continues to cover the Syrian conflict.

“All journalists, when one of us gets killed, all of us go, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have done that. I could see the mistake right from here, and it’s whistling in the dark,’” she said. “You always do it because it makes you feel better, and I’m guilty of it too. And then sometimes I say, ‘Yes, you would have. You would have gotten yourself right into that fix and gotten yourself killed.’”

Amos has been reporting from conflict zones for decades. She has been a fixture at refugee camps, funeral scenes and dodgy neighborhoods across the Middle East, the Balkans and Afghanistan. Her first foray was to Beirut in 1982 — not dangerous at the time but a place that could turn on a dime.

“That’s the problem with war zones — You don’t know when a place becomes one and it gets really dangerous,” she said. She remembered traveling to the tribal areas in Pakistan where reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded by Al-Qaeda in 2002. “I look back and think, ‘Are you insane? What were you thinking that you would go and do that and after Danny Pearl was killed?’ It’s like, ‘You knew better.’ And that’s always been the danger of this kind of journalism. You’re not a cowboy, because you’re not going and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to risk my life today. That’s my job.’ It’s that sometimes you don’t see it coming.”

Even the most experienced reporters don’t always see it coming. Anthony Loyd, a veteran war correspondent for The Times of London, made his last journey into Syria in 2013. As he was driving out of the country, he was abducted by people connected to a commander he developed a friendship with over two years. They were freed after a rebel commander from a different group intervened on their behalf.

“I think what changed in Syria specifically and made it so specifically dangerous was that we lost the consent of the majority of the people,” he said, speaking from London. “When the Syrian revolution started, the consent was there. A huge number in the Sunni community thought we would reveal their plight and that would lead to some reaction and intervention, which would serve the interest of the Sunni rebels at the time.”

But that intervention never came, even when Obama accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons on his own people in 2013, something Obama a year earlier declared a “red line” that would lead to military intervention in Syria.

When precautions don’t matter

By the time Foley and John Cantlie, a British photographer, were abducted a mere 40 minutes from the Syria-Turkey border on Nov. 22, 2012, the ground had shifted, said Loyd. The Sunni rebels were ceding territory to the growing movement of radical ISIL fighters, who abhorred Western journalists and aid workers. The two men were essentially the canary in the coal mine.

“When James and John went missing, and the rest went missing too, the rest of the world seemed very slow in realizing that ISIL was a really potent and extreme force that was getting bigger,” Loyd said. “And it was only a matter of time before, inevitably, they were going to be bombed by the West because they were anathema to everything the West stood for.”

The captives could be used as deterrents, in prisoner swaps or for ransom. And if nothing else, they could be used as propaganda, as in the cases of the execution videos of Foley and Sotloff.

Loyd took precautions while in Syria: He had regular check-in calls with risk consultants contracted by his organization; 15 minutes before being kidnapped, he called to say he was traveling down a certain road. He had a satellite tracking device that would trigger a distress signal and locator in the U.K. The device malfunctioned when he needed it, but he made other contingency plans to alert people of his movements. Foley had a GPS tracker too, said his friend Nicole Tung, a photographer. “He also had a satellite phone and an iPhone,” she said. “I shared all this information with all these people, and it’s a question to me why they couldn’t track him.”

James Foley at work in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012. He was executed by an ISIL fighter in August 2014.
Nicole Tung / AP

Others, like Danish photographer Daniel Rye, who was held by ISIL for 13 months before being released, discussed their plans with security consultants. His preparations allowed people outside Syria to spring into action soon after he was abducted. Rye is now struggling to pay back the ransom (reported to be more than $1 million) his family cobbled together to free him. 

“We had that contact established pretty quickly. I think we had the first solid proof of life 10 to 12 days into the case,” said one person who was close to the process of freeing Rye who asked for anonymity because “I want to be able to do this again for somebody.”

“The short version is we managed to raise the amount they would make a deal for the trade, and they kept their promise. He was moved to the Syria-Turkey border, and I picked him up.”

The consultant is convinced ISIL had a different agenda with the American and British hostages from those from France and other countries that are known to pay kidnappers. “It was no coincidence they started with the French [hostages, who were among the first to be freed]. They knew they would have a better way in the dialogue.”

Foley was executed in August 2014. Cantlie has appeared in several ISIL videos, purporting to report for the armed group by touring territories it holds and reading from scripted messages. His last dispatch, aired in January of this year, was filmed in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, some 320 miles from the Syrian town of Kobani, where his previous broadcast, released in November, was recorded.

Smaller budget, greater risk

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the world have declared their intention to focus on kidnapping Westerners from countries with governments that will pay as a key way to raise money for their operations.

Recent investigations show that the different groups are knowledgeable about how much money they can expect to receive for certain hostages. The New York Times reported last year that the groups have managed to collect more than $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008. The U.S. and U.K. have aired their frustration with other governments for acquiescing to ransom demands.

The Spanish, French and Italian governments have regularly denied paying ransoms, but, according to The New York Times, the money to free hostages often reaches groups through proxies, masked as development aid, and by other methods. Meanwhile, as groups operating in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Mali and Turkey seek hostages, the paying of ransoms will likely continue.

“If you don’t want to get kidnapped, don’t go,” said another hostage negotiator, who has worked to free people in Yemen, Iraq, Kenya and India and from pirates in Somalia. (He too agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.)

He has worked with companies to rescue businessmen, oil-rig workers, aid workers and occasionally journalists. “Fifty percent of the people we dealt with were sleepwalking into their own kidnap,” he said. “Through ignorance or bravado, their kidnapping was utterly predictable.”

It is in the war reporter’s job description to take risks, he said. “They’re on a knife edge. If they don’t, they won’t get a good story.” He said freelancers continue to be the least risk averse in the years he has worked in this industry and across the regions he’s deployed to.

“They’re trying to make their name, but that’s a really high risk. A lot of those people end up getting taken in Syria and Somalia. They don’t have a support system because they can’t afford it. They do everything on a shoestring.”

“There’s no shortage of people saying they were adrenaline junkies,” said Anthony Loyd, about Foley and Sotloff. “Most people fuck up in war when they do something stupid, but war is about making mistakes. War is ruled by the dynamic of chaos.”

Loyd was shot twice in the foot when he attempted to escape his captors, by a man he had considered a friend. He later wrote about the experience, saying he thought he might one day be shot in the course of his career and is amazed when he’s asked if he would continue his work. “Do they suppose that I was stupid enough never to have expected this in war? Did they imagine that whenever I saw other people wounded and dying I believed it would never happen to me?”

The adrenaline gene

Loyd published a memoir in 1999, “My War Gone By, I Miss It So,” in which he documents the rush of covering the brutality of the war in Yugoslavia. In one chapter he describes how a Swedish major and his U.N troops planned to free prisoners held by Bosnian Croat soldiers solely because a television crew was present. When the BBC correspondent said he and his crew were leaving because the confrontation was unnecessary and would lead to everyone’s death, Loyd became fascinated by the sway the media held in the conflict.

“I could not believe my ears … Not only did he [the major] want us in on the action, the action was dependent on our presence. It was fantastic,” he wrote. “I felt almost angry with the BBC.”

For some there is nothing like the pulse of adrenaline that comes from covering war — the whisper a bullet makes as it glides over a person’s hairline, the excitement and surprise that comes from walking away unharmed when a Humvee is struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. The near misses are often enough to not only subdue any concerns one might have about safety but also to compel a person to venture to places others are desperate to flee.

Anthony Loyd has covered conflicts for years.
Ben Gurr / The Times / AP

“The bottom line is this: You have to have a biological disposition that makes you want to seek out novelty, a new experience,” said Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a psychologist who specializes in combat-journalism trauma. His studies have found that war correspondents exhibit the same biological disposition as extreme sportsmen, firefighters or people in the military.

“I really have to choose my words very carefully because when I use words like ‘adrenaline junkie’ or … ‘sensation seekers’ … Many journalists got upset with that and said, ‘We are not sensation seekers. We want to do this work because we feel the need to relay history to people.’ Which I’m sure is correct,” he told C-SPAN. “At the same time, there is also this underlying buzz that many of them get from it, but I don’t think that comes from the adrenaline. It comes from a different neurotransmitter called dopamine.”

He said there was “good hard evidence from neuroscience that people with higher levels of dopamine want the adventurous life.”

While some may first be drawn to war zones out of curiosity or adventure or a compulsion to bear witness, over time many journalists continue to return out of a sense of personal obligation, deep understanding of a region and its people and the ability to carry out the assignment with a greater understanding of the possible dangers.

“Yes, I was very gung-ho. I wrote that book,” said Loyd. The conflict in Syria, he said, is too important to ignore, but he is more careful now than he was all those years ago. “I’m married now. I’ve got children. My risk parameters are completely different.”

More experience, less thrill

Goran Tomasevic, who has photographed some of the deadliest conflicts over the past 20 years, agreed. A Serb who began his career shooting the conflict in his country, he had his share of near misses; one of the earliest included being thrown into a ditch and having a pistol stuck in his mouth by a soldier from the Kosovo Liberation Army.

“It’s changed with time. It was much more exciting when I was younger, to be honest. When I go in now, it’s all about the execution. Less excitement, less adrenaline, more thinking what is the best way to get the pictures,” he said from his home base in Nairobi, Kenya. “I was less experienced, I knew less, but I work with the same passion, then as now. Things change; I’m doing less stupid things than I used to.”

Tomasevic, a staff photographer for Reuters, was last in Syria in 2013, around the time most news organizations began pulling out their news teams and stopped accepting freelance assignments. He wishes he could still go. “I love my job. My job is to take pictures and to inform people to show them what’s going on. I still believe I can maybe make some change. Sometimes they say the pictures are brutal, but we shouldn’t hide brutality.”

Tomasevic heading to an M23 base in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012.
Phil Moore

In spite of the risks, journalists will never give up covering war as long as conflict persists in the world, Tomasevic said. It was that spirit that carried Foley to Syria after he spent 44 days in captivity in Libya during the Arab Spring in 2011.

“Going to Syria, even though he didn’t go on assignment for us, was, I would have to say, inevitable for Jim, and it’s what he wanted to do, and I understand it,” said Phil Balboni, the chief executive officer and a co-founder of GlobalPost, where Foley worked as a freelancer. “You’re probably more alive when you’re in a war, ironically, because you’re close to death, but you’re also close to a lot of other things. That, in a strange way, is a noble life that makes you realize truths you wouldn’t otherwise.”

Balboni and GlobalPost worked closely with Foley’s parents and security consultants to free the him from captivity, collecting information, trying to track his movements “with little or no assistance from the U.S. government,” he said. It was a year after Foley went missing before they received any word from his kidnappers. The price for his freedom was sky high: $110 million or a prisoner swap. “There was never any serious negotiation to arrive at an actual price,” Balboni recalled. “That never took place in our case or in any other of an American or British hostage.” The Foleys would have been open to the possibility to negotiate a ransom with ISIL, he said. “Unfortunately we never got the opportunity.”

Balboni said he spent the 20 months Foley was missing convinced the former schoolteacher would eventually be released.

“There were only three ways Jim would be coming back from Syria. One was by payment of a ransom, which clearly seems the most likely, given what was happening with the European hostages,” he noted. “No. 2 was a rescue mission, which we never believed would take place because of the degree of danger and difficulty, and we were, along with everyone, shocked when President Obama told the Foleys of this, on the Friday after Jim’s death.” Obama had authorized a special-operations forces rescue effort targeting a location in Raqqa in northern Syria in July nearly six weeks before Foley was killed, but after landing, the commandos discovered the hostages had been moved.

“The third possibility was that the war would end at some point,” said Balboni. “And if Jim was still alive, that he would walk across that Turkish border a free man.”

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