Iraq: The Real Foreign-Hostage Count

Just how many foreigners are being held hostage in Iraq? The numbers are higher than most people realize—partly because victims’ relatives and employees don’t publicize disappearances for fear of jeopardizing negotiations for their release. NEWSWEEK’s calculations, however, show that at least 43 kidnapped foreigners , including 14 Americans, are still missing inside the country.

These are at best minimum figures, compiled by NEWSWEEK from both published accounts and data from U.S. officials in Baghdad, where the State Department has a high-level Hostage Working Group actively investigating the cases of the Americans, and assisting in the inquiries about other missing foreigners. While those kidnapped as far back as October 2003 may well have been killed by now, there's no evidence of that one way or another in most cases. And in many cases, there has been little or no public acknowledgement by either families or kidnappers that the hostages have gone missing.

The ones we do hear about come in fits and starts, marked by the release of another video of one of the captives, accompanied by implausible demands and bloodthirsty threats. The latest images, released March 7, showed three of the four Christian Peacemaker Team members kidnapped by insurgents last Nov. 26: Canadians Harmeet Sooden and James Loney and Briton Norman Kember, but not the fourth hostage, American Tom Fox . Three days later, Fox's body was found outside Baghdad, his throat savagely slit and with a gunshot wound to the head. There has been no word on the fate of the others. The Christian Peacemaker Team is a Quaker pacifist group that has worked in Iraq since early in the war. The four were kidnapped in Baghdad on Nov. 26--and after their disappearance they were quickly replaced by others, including several Americans. "Despite the risks that have driven most foreigners in Iraq into heavily guarded enclaves, we still live in a neighborhood in Baghdad," says Beth Pyles, a West Virginian who has been here since January. "It's not that we're brave, we're just in love with some amazing people who are here. We are people who eschew guns and violence in all its forms," she said, adding that this belief precluded them from hiring guards. "[Fox] was very aware of the risks and he took these knowingly," says Maxine Nash, an Iowan among the team that replaced Fox. "He felt very strongly that the value of the work made it worth being here."

Many more hostages quietly disappear from the streets of Baghdad and for a variety of reasons, no one discloses what happens to them—until they show up either dead, or as sometimes happens, rescued or released. Foreign contractors working in Iraq routinely suppress news of hostage-takings, both to discourage other opportunists from targeting their people, and to allow for secret negotiations for their release. When there's hope of paying a ransom for their loved ones' return, many families also don't go public—and in many cases don't go to authorities either. Of the 14 Americans kidnapped in Iraq and still missing, only six have been publicly identified—including journalist Jill Carroll. Nine of the 14 are Americans with dual Iraqi-U.S. citizenship. In such instances, there's good reason for secrecy, in the hopes that the kidnappers won't learn they're holding American citizens—which at best would vastly increase the ransoms demanded, and at worst might guarantee they were killed by Islamic extremists. So far, at least 40 Americans have been kidnapped in all, with at least seven known to have been killed. About half were freed or released.

Since the beginning of the war, according to U.S. government figures, 430 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq. And although U.S. officials do not release names except when families ask them to do so, press accounts have identified at least 43 foreigners from 12 different countries who are apparently still being held. That is almost certainly an incomplete tally and would not necessarily account for many who have been quietly ransomed out of captivity or who died and whose bodies have not been found. In addition, not all foreigners who go missing are reported to officials. Of those 430, at least 54 have been executed by their captors, according to a tally by Reuters. Fox would be the 55th.

These numbers are small in comparison to the kidnappings of Iraqis, which take place at the rate of 10-30 per day, mainly for purposes of ransom. The average ransom paid by Iraqi families is now $30,000, according to a U.S. official. Thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped since the war began, some by common criminals and some by terrorists. The most outrageous example was this week’s mass kidnapping of 33 security guards from the Al Rafidah Company, a private Iraqi security company in eastern Baghdad; they were taken captive by 10 truckloads of men disguised as Iraqi policemen. Official sources say the kidnappings are believed to be for ransom. "Kidnappings have become a bank for terrorists to fund their operations," says Muahad Saleh, who is in charge of kidnapping investigations at the Ministry of Interior. In addition, many criminals are believed to have sold their foreign captives to Al Qaeda or other extremist groups, which are believed to pay high bounties for Westerners—especially Americans. After Carroll, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, was kidnapped Jan. 7, she was initially shown in a video wearing her normal street clothes. In subsequent videos, she was shown in full hijab ¸ the headdress and long gown normally worn by conservative Iraqi women, suggesting that she might have been traded by her initial captors, who had identified themselves as belonging to a previously unknown group.

The Monitor has waged an active campaign for Carroll's release, and many Iraqi leaders have spoken up for her, as well. Most recently, the newspaper's Baghdad staff, assisted by CNN, produced and disseminated 60- and 90-second video spots about Carroll, which have been airing recently on both Shia and Sunni television channels in Iraq and elsewhere. In Arabic, the spots say, "Kidnapped American journalist Jill Carroll loves Iraq, and now she needs your help. It is time for Jill Carroll to come home safely." Carroll, 28, was kidnapped while on her way to interview a prominent hard-line Sunni leader, Adnan al-Duleimi; her Iraqi translator, Allan Enwiyah, was shot to death on the spot. Carroll was last seen in a third video aired Feb. 10 on the Kuwaiti TV station Al-Rai appealing for the release of Iraqi women captives. "I'm here. I'm fine," she said, appearing calmer than when she was shown weeping in an earlier video. "Please, just do whatever they want. Give them whatever they want as quickly as possible. There is very short time. Please do it fast." Her kidnappers set a Feb. 26 deadline for their demands to be met, and while the Iraqi government did release several women prisoners—insisting the timing was a coincidence—others were still being held when the deadline passed. There has been no word since.

The other identified Americans have been held for much longer periods. On Nov. 5, 2005, Dean Sadek, from Charlotte, N.C., a Lebanese-American dual citizen who worked for Skylink, which provides services at Baghdad's international airport, was kidnapped from his home in the Mansour district of Baghdad. He was shown in one video that month but hasn't been heard from since. On April 11 last year, Jeffrey Ake, a civilian contractor from LaPorte, Ind., who headed a water-bottle manufacturing company, was kidnapped from a water treatment plant in Baghdad. A video was broadcast immediately afterward, then silence ever since.

Still other kidnapped Americans have gone unheralded for even longer periods of time. Aban Elias, 41, an Iraqi-American engineer from Denver, went missing in May 2004. He also appeared once in a video, with no news since. Timothy Bell disappeared April 2004 along with a contractor, William Bradley, later found dead, and an American soldier, Sgt. Keith Maupin, whose captors claimed they had killed him (the U.S. military still lists Maupin as missing). But there was no word on Bell. Kirk von Ackerman, a military contractor, disappeared Oct. 9, 2003, from the Tikrit area, although whether he was actually kidnapped is unclear; the U.S. military has been investigating his disappearance, as well as the murder of a colleague of his shortly later.

Official American policy has encouraged Americans to come to Iraq if they have a good reason, including, of course, working on reconstruction projects and the like—but only if they have the means to adequately provide for their own security. That is so expensive that many contractors spend 25 percent or more of their budgets on protecting their staffs. Many smaller groups, especially aid workers and news media, are unable to spend the sort of money security requires—or choose not to do so for professional reasons. The amounts paid in ransom for foreigners, though, in some cases have made high security budgets seem a bargain. The Italian press reported that its government paid millions of dollars in ransoms to free two aid workers and, later, journalist Giuliana Sgrena.

There is some evidence that the hostage-takers are becoming less inclined toward the public executions of their victims. Only 13 foreign hostages were executed in 2005, compared to 41 in 2004, according to the Reuters tally. And none of the hostages killed in recent months have been publicly beheaded, as happened during 2004. The last known videotaped murder of a hostage involved security consultant Ronald Schulz, an American, whose tormentors shot him in the head. Last summer, a letter purportedly from Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri to Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, warned that beheadings were alienating followers. That may just be a coincidence, however; certainly many of the victims in their video appearances appeared to have been mistreated.

On March 8, the Web site of Al-Arabiya satellite news channel published an interview with Abu Hafs, described as a Zarqawi aide, explaining his group’s treatment of hostages: “We are in a war zone, and we have four ways to deal with hostages: killing the hostages and beheading them when we can't find a religious reason to preserve their lives, which is decided by religious courts that we founded. Sometimes we resort to the second option, which is trading hostages for our own prisoners; there's a third option that we don't like but is followed out of necessity, which is demanding a ransom; the fourth is release of the prisoners if the court finds them innocent."

Abu Hafs left little hope that Al Qaeda was likely to find its captives innocent in its self-appointed "courts." "We target everyone no matter what their citizenship or work, if it is proven that they deal, support, work with or finance the occupation or the government that it brought to Iraq, practically or verbally; we don't have a middle zone between what's right and what's wrong; between heaven and hell. Most of those who people are crying about, are spies who came under the cover of media or humanitarian work." For the loved ones of Iraq's many hostages, it's a brutally discouraging viewpoint .

Editor's note: This report was updated after its initial publication on March 10 to reflect the news of Fox's death and to remove references to a Reuters report that two Koreans were included among the foreign hostages. "[T]he Ministry of Foreign Affair and Trade of the Republic of Korea state[s] there are currently no hostages from South Korea in Iraq," Suk Woo Kang, South Korea's consul in New York, wrote to NEWSWEEK.

The updated report also removed a headline describing executed hostage Fox as a missionary. Spokesmen from the Christian Peacemaker Teams have contacted NEWSWEEK to say that group members are not missionaries but rather human rights workers inspired by their Christian faith. "CPT is not a missionary group, and we do not proselytize, nor do we 'spread the gospel' or any such other typical missionary activity," said a spokesman. "We place violence-reduction teams in crisis situations at the invitation of local peace and human rights workers."

Al Rai TV-Reuters