MIDDLE EAST

Iraq

18 January The US Embassy in Iraq confirmed that “several” of its citizens had gone missing in the country. This followed media reports that three American males had been kidnapped in the Dora, a mixed Shia and Sunni, neighbourhood in the south of Baghdad. An Iraqi intelligence officer said the victims were kidnapped from their interpreter’s house and taken to Sadr City, a vast and densely populated Shi’ite district to the east, where all communications ceased. The identities of the victims were not released but unconfirmed reports claimed they were contractors employed by a small company that is doing work for General Dynamics Corp under a larger contract with the US Army. Witnesses reported men in uniform carried out the kidnapping in broad daylight, 100 yards from a police station. A shop keeper down the street from the three storey apartment block said: “Gunmen in military uniforms came in five or six SUVs, they entered the building and then left almost immediately”. Baghdad authorities said in a statement that the three Americans were kidnapped from a “suspicious house” without elaborating while a police major general described the apartment as a “brothel”. However, many people in the region refer to any building that accepts foreigners as a “brothel” and the Iraqi military denied that was the apartment’s use. In a further development, a spokesman for Baghdad’s Joint Operations Command said that the three men were Iraqis who had acquired US citizenship and a Baghdad police official said they worked at Baghdad International Airport but did not say for which country. On 21 January, an Iraqi police commander and a Western security official in Baghdad named two powerful militias, Asaib Ahl al Haq (League of the Righteous) and Saraya al Salam (Peace Brigades), as top suspects in the kidnapping. US sources said Washington had no reason to believe Tehran was involved in the kidnapping. A State Department source told CBS News that the US Embassy in Baghdad had received threat information the previous week that an Iranian backed Shi’ite militia group wanted to kidnap an American or an American contractor. Later, Iraqi and US intelligence sources stated that it is suspected the Iran-backed militia, League of the Righteous, responsible for the kidnapping and killing of four British hostages in 2007, is behind the kidnapping.

On 27 January, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, raised the issue of the kidnapping of the three Americans with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Lebanon

23 January Mohammed Mahmoud al Hujairi, a Lebanese national who used to work at a petrol station owned by his father in Arsal, was released in the northeastern border town of Arsal without a ransom being paid. The National News Agency (NNA) said the victim had been kidnapped on 21 January and the kidnappers demanded USD250,000 for his release. According to NNA, a group known as Abou el Foz had coordinated with another Islamic State group of Abou Bakr, Abou Abdul Salam and Ahmed Ammoun in Arsal to kidnap the victim.

Syria

4 January The Custody of the Holy Land, the Franciscan authority of the Holy Land, released a statement confirming Father Dhiya Aziz, an Iraqi Franciscan priest, had been released by his kidnappers. Fr. Aziz was kidnapped on 23 December 2015 after leaving the Syrian city of Lattakia for his parish at Yacoubieh, Idlib province. The Custody of the Holy Land “thanked all those who helped us to liberate him” and added that “due to confidentiality reasons” no further details could be given. Another report said that Fr. Aziz was released in a state of severe exhaustion due to the severe cold he suffered in captivity. This was the second time the priest had been kidnapped in Syria. He was kidnapped by Islamic militants in Yacoubieh on 4 July 2015 and released five days later.

10 January The Opposition radio station, Radio Fresh, posted on its social media pages that Raed Fares and Hadi Abdullah, prominent media activists, were kidnapped by extremists from the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, during an early morning raid in Kafranbel, northern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British based group that tracks the civil war, said Fares, who runs the radio station, was kidnapped because he had criticised the group.

17 January Militants from Islamic State (IS) kidnapped at least 400 civilians during an attack on a town in Deir al Zor. Some 300 people were killed during the attack. All those kidnapped were Sunnis and included families of pro-government fighters. On 20 January, Rami Abdurrahman, director for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that IS had released 270 of the victims among whom were women, children under the age of 14 years and men over the age of 55 years.

20 January According to newly leaked internal documents from Islamic State (IS) that were obtained and translated by Aymenn Jawad al Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum who studies IS, the jihadist group has allegedly cut its fighters’ salaries by as much as 50%. The documents showed the salaries were halved at the end of 2015. The document reads:

“So on account of the exceptional circumstances the Islamic State is facing, it has been decided to reduce the salaries that are paid to all mujahideen by half, and it is not allowed for anyone to be exempted from this decision, whatever his position. Let it be known that work will continue to distribute provisions twice every month as usual”.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the cuts were directed primarily at fighters in the city of Raqqa. The Observatory added on its website that the decision had apparently stirred feelings of resentment among Syrian militants who believe their salaries have been cut in order to increase foreign fighters’ salaries who are already paid double. IS soldiers earn between USD400.00 and USD1200.00 per month plus a USD50.00 stipend for their wives and USD25.00 for each child according to the Congressional Research Service. The salary cuts mean Syrian fighters would receive USD200.00 per month and foreign fighters USD400.00 per month. IS approved a USD2 billion budget early in 2015 including a projected USD250 million surplus designed to cover the costs of operations in Syria and Iraq. It is hard to know if IS had the budget. In addition to cost of military operations, IS also provides salaries, infrastructure and social services including schools and hospitals. A 2014 UN report estimated IS collected USD35-45 million in ransoms alone with most of the victims being local residents. Reported ransom amounts varied last year. IS reportedly demanded 100 million euros (USD132.5 million) from the family of US journalist James Foley who was eventually executed and demanded the same amount from the families of two other American hostages. According to the Congressional Research Service, locals are said to be ransomed for anything between USD500.00 and USD200,000.00 each.

Turkey

27 January The Russian Federal Tourism Agency issued a warning stating: “According to competent agencies, leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group plan to take hostages from among Russian citizens in Turkey. Hostages can be transferred on to territories controlled by militants to hold public executions and to be held as human shields in combat with Syrian government and coalition forces. Therefore we draw the attention of all independent tourists departing for Turkey to the necessity of taking all possible measures to ensure personal security.”

Yemen

16 January Two Saudi teachers, Abdulrahman bin Maqbul al Aharari and Salem bin Misfr al Ghamdi, arrived back in Saudi Arabia after being released by their kidnappers, Houthi rebels. In March 2015 they were flying from the Comoros Islands via Sana’a to Riyad when their flight was cancelled due to Operation Decisive Storm. In Sana’a, they were looked after by the United Nations but were kidnapped by Houthi rebels from the UN compound and taken to an unknown destination. They were held hostage until being released on 14 January to the UN’s envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

16 January According to a report from Safer Yemen, kidnappings in the country have risen drastically since 2011. Generally there are three types of kidnapping: tribal, political and criminal. Kidnappings mainly happen in rural areas or tourist attractions when groups are trying to make a political statement by kidnapping foreign nationals. Tribal kidnappings are often the result of tribal disputes which tend to be rooted in social and historical issues or even result from a business deal going wrong. Generally, victims are treated well. Political and criminal kidnappings are harsher and less likely to have a specific target. A tourist could be randomly kidnapped as a means of pressurising the government. In political or tribal kidnappings, it would have been rare for women to be harmed or threatened but this culture has been changed by the Houthis who have caused kidnappings to rise conducting some to make a political statement, some to force children to fight and others have targeted social justice activists.

18 January Hamdi al Bokari and Abdulaziz al Sabri, correspondents with Al Jazeera, and their driver, Munir al Subaie, were kidnapped near the central city of Taez. The loyalist militia, Popular Resistance, accused Houthi rebels of being responsible for the kidnappings. The hostages’ abandoned car was found near Hurriya Square in the city. A friend of one of the victims who worked as a photographer, said on the condition of anonymity, that the three men were kidnapped at about 10:00pm after having dinner at the house of Abdulstar al Shamiri, a leader in the Resistance. The friend claimed that this indicated that the Houthis were innocent of involvement in the kidnapping and the Resistance were responsible. He added that there are more than 10 groups fighting with the Resistance, including Salafi fighters and alleged members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the leadership of the Resistance are not able to control all the groups. The three victims were later released.

30 January Nabil al Sharabi, a journalist, and five activists were kidnapped from an apartment in Sana’a by Iranian backed Houthi militants. The gunmen raided the apartment at dawn and kidnapped the journalist and the activists. The journalist had worked for the local daily newspaper, Akhbar al Youm, which the Houthis closed down after taking control of Sana’a in 2014. The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate said the Houthis have been holding 12 other journalists for several months after accusing them of acting against the movement and supporting the legitimate government of Yemen.

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