Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How to Get Captured by ISIS

By Ben Taub

Just before American journalist Steven Sotloff was abducted in Syria, his fixer’s identity may have been compromised.

When pro-regime and anti-government factions started killing each other in the 8,000-year-old Syrian city of Aleppo, a little town in Turkey called Kilis blossomed into relevance at their expense. Located just four miles north of the Syrian border, Kilis became a vital crossing point in and out of a rapidly devolving war.

If you were to wander into the decrepit Hotel Istanbul in the center of Kilis last summer and sit in the lobby for a few hours, you’d trade wary glances with bomb-chasing photographers, ragged aid workers, desperate Syrian refugees, war tourists, and a couple of European Muslims looking to join what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. From the hotel’s upper floors, you could see smoke billow on the horizon from airstrikes and shelling light up the sky at night. If you entered a guest room, the pungent odor of the air freshener dangling from the grimy mirror might lead you to discover that it was, in fact, a urinal cake. A German magazine called it the “Hotel of Madness,” and at times, the place really did better resemble an asylum than professional lodging.

Steven Sotloff checked into Room 303 at the Hotel Istanbul on August 1, 2013. It was a dodgy time to be at the Turkish-Syrian border. Jihadist fighters had recently snatched several Western journalists and aid workers on the road connecting Kilis to Aleppo, and rumors were flying that Westerners might even be under surveillance in Kilis. It was said that spies on the Turkish side could be tipping off jihadis and criminal gangs on the Syrian side. Those groups were eager to get their hands on anyone who could be used for ransom or political sway.

By the time Sotloff arrived in town, the flow of journalists in and out of Aleppo had diminished to less than a trickle. Local fixers were hurting for business, especially those whose clients had been previously targeted for kidnapping attempts. Many of them started taking some of the odd jobs in town just to stay afloat.

One fixer, whom I’ll call Mahmoud (not his real name), even took the mother of a dead Italian jihadist to Aleppo’s front lines so that she could see her son’s corpse decaying in the street, irretrievable and surrounded by government snipers. Other fixers had taken in various war tourists and crazies, but were growing increasingly nervous that a fool might take out a camera at the wrong checkpoint and get them both in trouble with the Islamic State.

Sotloff had been to Kilis before. He’d been to Syria in wartime, too. And in the recent years leading up to the date of his abduction, he’d also reported courageously in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. He was experienced. He could speak Arabic. He was careful. And he told me he had had enough.

Read the rest here.

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