Monday, June 13, 2005

More Euros for Terror?

Having gone missing in Iraq in early January and later confirmed to be detained by an unidentified group of hostage-takers, the reporter for the French leftist daily Libération, Florence Aubenas, and her Iraqi guide and translator, Hussein Hanoun, were yesterday released. The former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, who is being credited with having obtained their release, says [link in French] that the hostage-takers made no particular demands: "The liberation of Florence and Hussein has been the result of a work of dialogue". Well, as the example of Barnier's predecessor in office and the current French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, makes clear, French officials are known to be good talkers. But Barnier's claim would seem more plausible if he let the rest of the world in on just what he has been talking about with the Baathist forces who are presumed to have been responsible for Ms. Aubenas's abduction. A pattern of recent abductions – markedly different from the earlier round of abductions in Iraq in that the hostages generally emerge from their presumed ordeals with heads still attached to their bodies – makes clear that the hostage-taking industry has become a major source of financing for the so-called Iraqi "insurgency". I discussed this pattern in my post last month on "Schadenfreude and Realpolitik: France and Iraqi Violence":

The last several months has seen a disturbing pattern emerge, according to which overtly anti-American, “pro-resistance” journalists and aide workers are taken hostage and then, following secret negotiations with their home governments, set free: the “two Simonas”, Giuliana Sgrena, and the two French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. A journalist from the French lefty paper, Libération, Florence Aubenas – who, oddly, disappeared just days after Chesnot and Malbrunot were set free – is still being held hostage. When Chesnot and Malbrunot were set free and repatriated to France in December, French authorities denied having paid any ransom, but admitted to having conducted negotiations – euphemistically described as a “political dialogue” by [then] current French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier – with the hostage takers. On what points exactly did the French negotiators satisfy the demands of the latter? We do not know. Given the large affinity between France's Iraq policy and the objectives of the Jihadi/Baathist alliance in Iraq, there was indeed virtually nothing in the way of political concessions that France could have offered, and on the one point on which France could have made a concession to the Islamists - namely, on the issue of the headscarf ban - it did not do so.

Just before the release of Aubenas, the Director General of the NGO Reporters Without Borders, Robert Ménard claimed [link in French] that her abductors had demanded a ransom of some $15 million. “There is no release of hostages unless something is given in return,” he noted, “and ... there is necessarily a demand for money. One prefers to refer to these sums of money as ‘lodging costs’, but when the sums are large obviously we are talking about ransom.” The French Foreign Ministry immediately denied Ménard’s claim about the ransom demand and Ménard politely offered that he had “misspoken”.

The three Romanian hostages who were released in late May after two months captivity in Iraq have claimed that they shared quarters with Aubenas and have even gone into great detail about their admiration for her strength under duress. Oddly, upon her arrival in France at the military base of Villacoublay, Florence Aubenas denied the Romanians’ claim. In the meanwhile, however, Michel Barnier has conceded [link in French] that Florence Aubenas and the three Romanian were indeed held in captivity together. Remarks made by the Romanian President Traian Basescu in a long interview he gave on Romanian television last Monday [6 June] regarding the conditions of the Romanian hostages’ release might help to explain this odd hesitation. Reports in the European press at the time of the Romanians’ release suggested that appeals from Romania’s virtually non-existent “Muslim community” had managed to soften the hardened hearts of the hostage takers. Without going into details, Basescu, as cited by the daily Evenimentul Zilei [link in Romanian], offered a less sentimental account of how their release was obtained: “We gave something in exchange to obtain their liberation. But we are not going to make public what it was, since another state is implicated in the affair.”

Another odd detail in the Aubenas affair gives further cause to ponder the possibility of a certain complicity between the hostage takers and at least some of their supposed victims. Several reports in the European press have speculated that the abduction of Malbrunot and Chesnot and that of Aubenas are somehow connected. In a short article in today’s Le Figaro, Malbrunot himself notes that Aubenas’s fellow hostage Hussein Hanoun “played a role at the beginning of our abduction: it was he who accompanied to the French Embassy in Baghdad an intermediary bearing a piece of paper on which was to be found our names, our signatures, and the remark ‘okay’. This was 23 August, three days after our capture.” “But Hussein’s role was minor,” Malbrunot adds reassuringly. He also notes a further continuity between the two affairs: “According to several sources, the abductors of Florence Aubenas are tied to the deposed Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, as were some of ours.” This is a particularly interesting observation on the part of Malbrunot, since officially he and Chesnot were abducted by a radical Islamist group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq. So much for the assumption that Islamists and Baathists cannot work together....

In an interview in today’s Le Monde, Hussein Hanoun speaks warmly of his captors, describing them as “Sunni and Salafist – rather moderate, I think”: “They were very, very nice to me during the whole time we were held captive. You understand: they are Islamist Iraqi patriots....”

(Note: As Eric Svane at "No Pasaran" has discussed, Malbrunot's and Chesnot's own "guide" in Iraq - the Syrian Baath Party member Mohammed Al-Joundi - has likewise expressed sympathy for the hostage-takers who are supposed to have held him captive along with his French employers.)