Four Months on Planet bin Laden

By Jody K. Biehl 

01/23/05 "Spiegel"
-- French journalist George Malbrunot spent 124 days as a hostage of Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq. The experience nearly broke him, but it also offered him stunning insights into the way jihadist groups operate. He returned convinced of one thing: America's policy is doomed. 

The two Mercedes came out of nowhere. Within seconds, the car carrying French reporters Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot and their driver skidded to a halt, caged in along the perilous road heading south from Baghdad to Najaf. The men knew this was a dangerous road. They had even warned colleagues not to take it. Now, they were pawns in Iraq's most dangerous game -- abduction.

Immediately, eight men in white hooded robes ripped open the car doors, tied the reporters up and threw them into the Mercedes. Luckily, both speak Arabic, Chesnot more fluently than Malbrunot, so they could talk to their assailants and plead their innocence. Right away, they declared themselves as French, as reporters, and as men who understood the resistance. 

"We immediately distanced ourselves from the Americans and stuck to the French position," Malbrunot said Wednesday from his family's home in Paris. The two were taken to a small cell and interrogated for hours by masked men holding guns. "We told them we were French journalists and that we were there to do our work and show the realities of the resistance." 

They thought being French would be the equivalent of a white flag, a "get out of jail free card" or at least a means of assuring a timely release. France has long believed that it has a special relation with the Arab world and that it wields more leverage than other nations. Yet not even their Syrian driver was let go until November. And to the shock of French leaders, hostage negotiators and the public, the two also remained in captivity. French news organizations ran the men's photos every day after their Aug. 20 kidnapping and banners with their faces went up all over Paris. The government sent several teams to negotiate clandestinely. Yet, still, the men remained captives for close to four months. Malbrunot is convinced that their "Frenchness" kept them alive. 

"If we had been American or British or Italian they would have killed us," he said. "Being French was the best card we had." If so, then the second best was being well-known. "We had the feeling that our captors were quite proud to negotiate with France, such a big country. And I think it did help that our names were in the news. A dead hostage has no value." 

Planet bin Laden

Now, safely returned to the arms of his Parisian family, he says over the months of their captivity, he and Chesnot slowly began to realize that they were "living on planet bin Laden." References to chief Osama abounded, he said, and there was much talk of living by Muslim law. Resilient, tough-minded and good-looking, Malbrunot, 41, became an instant celebrity in France the minute he and Chesnot, 38, disappeared. Now, a month after his release, he offers a curt assessment of where America's Iraq policy is headed: "Straight into a wall." He also has some blunt advice for journalists planning to cover the war. "Don't go to Iraq," he said. "You will be killed. No story is worth your life."

Such skepticism toward the US presence in Iraq is not surprising coming from a Frenchman. After all, France opposed the Iraq war from the start. Yet, Malbrunot speaks from a slightly different perspective, one nuanced by over four months on the inside. For 124 days, Malbrunot lived his kidnappers' anger and mercilessness, and his life balanced on their fanaticism and on their ever-changing reasoning. 

The two were imprisoned in a cramped cell, and Malbrunot admits that his vision was somewhat limited. Still, he says, his abduction brought him closer to the extremist underbelly of Iraq, closer to "these people who are extremely cruel" and for whom violence is an integral part of daily life. Free since Dec. 21, he still has trouble sleeping. 

"They have weapons and money"

"These people will not surrender," he said, referring not only to the what he estimated to be the 15,000-17,000 member strong Islamic Army in Iraq which kidnapped him and Chesnot, but also to the dozens of other Islamic fundamentalist groups fighting in the country. "They have time, they have weapons, they have money. And, they are fighting at home. I am afraid it will only get worse, that they will get more and more power. It frightens me." What's worse, he said, is that in US President George W. Bush, "they have a great partner." Neither side is willing to budge. 

During their captivity, Malbrunot, a free-lance reporter for the conservative French daily Le Figaro, and Chesnot, of Radio France Internationale, were moved six times, mainly shuffled about in the trunks of cars. For two weeks, he and Chesnot lived in a mosquito-infested cell with a corner hole serving as a toilet. Later, their conditions improved to one room with a toilet. The men never saw the faces of their captors -- all wore balaclavas. They were often handcuffed, blindfolded, interrogated, and subjected to odd demands -- including that they convert to Islam. At one point, they were told they would be killed unless France revoked a law banning Muslim head scarves from being worn in public schools.

Although he kept telling himself he would live, Malbrunot admits, a few times, he broke down in anguish and tears, convinced he would die. Yet often, he acted like a clear-headed Cartesian, cozying up to guards, trying to be friendly and extract bits of information about where he was, what was happening in the world and to whom the men were reporting. Four other prisoners with whom he briefly shared a cell were beheaded. 

What do the kidnappers want?

Malbrunot is still trying to sort out his disjointed impressions. Before his abduction, he had never heard of the Islamic Army in Iraq, an extremely fundamentalist group with close ties to Osama bin Laden. Now he knows a lot. They are, for example, better organized and wealthier than he ever imagined -- even more so now than a mere six months ago, he said. Also, he says, they are adamant jihadists, convinced that they are waging war to defend the Muslim faith against the West. "There was a lot of talk about chief Osama (bin Laden), references to Chechnya and how the Muslim world is fighting the Western world in Chechnya, Pakistan and Afghanistan." Some of the men had been Saddam Hussein loyals -- including one who claimed he was Saddam's personal secretary. 

The Islamist cells are also very compartmentalized, and they divide their work carefully. Some do the kidnapping, others the interrogating, others the judging, others the guarding and -- he assumes -- others the killing. They also have surprisingly strong contacts in Europe. And although they operate separately, they sometimes coordinate with other insurgent groups -- including that run by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted insurgent in Iraq for whose capture the US has offered a $25 million reward. Malbrunot says that these fighters will not give up until the last of them is dead. As such, he sees little hope in upcoming elections on Jan. 30.

"One of our jailers told us they have four enemies," he said. "American soldiers and other coalition members, collaborators, which meant businessmen -- Italian, American or even French -- who are working there, the Iraqi police and spies." Any new Iraqi government, he said, will be viewed as an enemy, just as the Americans -- and even secular Arab leaders -- are viewed. The group's main goals are far from modest. They want to defeat America in Iraq, drive a wedge between Europe and America and "overthrow the Arab leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and return to the caliphate (Islamic rule) from Andalusia (Spain) to China." 

Staying alive in the hands of extremists

Compared to what Malbrunot has read about hostages in Lebanon and other places, he says they were well fed and cared for. Aside from one slap on the face, they experienced no violence. Their captors served them regular, if repetitive, meals of beans, chicken, rice, dates and tea. Still, each lost one to two kilos per week. Their jailers told them how to sleep in the proper Muslim way, prohibited them from smoking as it is against Muslim practices and said they were allowed to pray, but only in the Muslim manner. 

One of the hostages' strategies was to get to know their guards, who always stood at the door holding a Kalashnikov. They asked the guards about their children, their families, anything they could think of. "My obsession was to drag things out. The longer we lasted, the surer we were that we would be released. But we were scared," he said. The guards were friendly, but "we also knew they could get an order and kill us the next day." 

At one point in their captivity, they talked to the jailers about journalists, why they were targets and what they generally did with them. "They told us that with journalists they respect the position of their countries. We asked them why they don't bargain for journalists. They said journalists are enemies and we kill them."

On Jan. 5, two weeks after Malbrunot and Chesnot's release, another French journalist, Florence Aubenas who works for the liberal daily Liberation disappeared while on assignment in northern Iraq. No sign of her has yet appeared and no group has taken responsibility for her kidnapping. It could mean, said Malbrunot, that she is not the victim of a political group, but that of criminals.

Land of war

The cruelest moment of their captivity came on Nov. 8, when their guards made them believe that one of them was to be killed. The waiting was excruciating. Each time the door opened, they thought one of them would be taken. Huddling together, the men held hands and made oral wills. They asked the other to deliver messages to their families. They cried. They prayed. Ironically, they both reconnected with their Christianity. 

And then, suddenly, about a week later, the mood lightened and they began to hope again. In early December they were even given shampoo and allowed to look in a mirror for the first time. On December 21, they were thrown into the trunk of a car and delivered to French officials at the side of a road. For the first time in four months, the men saw the sky. One French paper, the Canard Enchaine claims France spent 15 million to free them. The government denies it, but nonetheless is embroiled in a bitter, backstabbing debate about what went on behind the scenes to secure their release. Malbrunot says he has no idea whether Paris paid a ransome.

Malbrunot and Chesnot -- who is currently in Jordan preparing to move from the Middle East back to France -- are now writing a book about their experiences. Neither plans to return to Iraq any time soon. One of the last things their captors said to them was, "Don't come back here. We don't want you. Iraq is a land of war." 


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