BEIRUT: Hard-line Islamist groups active in Syria are holding hundreds of people captive, largely for financial gain or to stoke fear within the Syrian populace.
The fate of those captives, who range from religious figures and foreign journalists to local media activists, is largely unknown.
However, the unexpected release of two prominent Spanish reporters late last month has fueled hope that the Al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) may be willing to negotiate for high-value hostages, although the fate of Syrian captives is less clear.
The Violations and Documentation Center, a Damascus-based group which closely monitors death tolls, detainees and the long-term missing in Syria, says that over 1,000 people are being held by ISIS and the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The vast majority of those currently held were kidnapped in the northern governorates of Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib.
A number of non-jihadist rebel militias have also been involved in kidnappings, but ISIS is believed to be responsible for the majority.
Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, both veteran war reporters, were held by ISIS for six months. Their unanticipated release indicates a change in strategy by the group, those with knowledge of kidnap and ransom practices say.
“For a long time there was compete silence [on Espinosa and Vilanova]. The kidnappers did not want to negotiate, there was a complete information blackout. But in the last few months, the situation has clearly changed,” said Ayman Mhanna, director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, an organization that campaigns on behalf of missing journalists in the Middle East.
“What we see is that the motivation of those holding people in the north [of Syria] is that they are mainly driven by financial greed.”
A Syrian activist based in Turkey who helped pass along details of the reporters’ location to Spanish authorities said it was evident a “substantial” amount of money had been paid for their freedom.
The activist, who declined to be identified, said the reporters had initially been kept at an ISIS headquarters in an Aleppo children’s hospital. But when a number of rebel groups attacked ISIS fighters in the city at the beginning of January, it forced the group to move its most valuable prisoners to Raqqa, the activist said.
Without divulging the specifics of any cases in order to protect the hostages, the activist said negotiations for other foreigners held by ISIS were ongoing. “It is certainly becoming more common that ISIS will accept ransom money for foreigners,” he added.
Mhanna said this apparent shift in tactics by ISIS offers renewed hope about other missing journalists, such as Austin Tice, who was one of the first Western reporters to disappear during the conflict. Abducted in the Damascus suburb of Daraya in August 2012, his whereabouts remain a mystery.
“Their release definitely gives us hope for others ... The only journalists taken by ISIS and freed were the Spaniards. This is significant as it suggests perhaps more effective communications on behalf of the Spanish authorities [than other countries]. We hope they can share their tips.”
More than a dozen Lebanese and Syrian nuns and their lay helpers were turned over by the Nusra Front last month in exchange for the release of detainees held by the Syrian regime. Two Syrian Orthodox bishops are also believed to be in the hands of an Islamist militia. In both cases, Lebanon’s General Security and government officials from other countries have been involved in efforts to free them.
But for Syrian detainees who do not have government or international security firms negotiating on their behalf, the prospects of release are relatively bleak.
Speaking to The Daily Star, an activist with the Aleppo Media Center said that ISIS ranks the importance of its captives, deeming foreign journalists to be the most useful assets, followed by fighters from rival groups, and finally local activists and campaigners.
“Foreigners are very valuable to ISIS. They can be exchanged for money. After them, there are fighters from Nusra who are kidnapped for prisoner swaps with ISIS men,” said Adnan, who asked that only his first name be reported.
Their value to ISIS can help people in both these groups stay alive, he said. However, it is not in ISIS’ interest to release activists, many of whom have been involved in informing the public about the brutality of extremist groups.
Of the several hundred people believed to be detained by ISIS, the vast majority are local activists, the VDC’s spokesperson Bassam al-Ahmad told The Daily Star.
“Syrian detainees are in a very difficult situation. Activists have criticized ISIS, led demonstrations against them ... Kidnapping silences them. It creates fear in neighborhoods that this could happen to others. Why would ISIS release them?” Adnan said.
In November, Adnan’s AMC colleague Abdel-Wahab al-Malla was snatched by ISIS in Aleppo after helping to create a popular radio and Web series entitled “Three Star Revolution,” which focused on the war’s devastating impact on his city, and criticized the dogmatic behavior of religious extremists.
Malla is believed to be alive and held near a dam on the Euphrates River with other Aleppine activists. A former detainee confirmed that Malla and other activists were in fact alive, although fears continue to run high that ISIS may execute them. Last week, the news circulated that Malla’s colleague, Abu Mariam, famous for organizing and leading protests in Aleppo, was killed by his captors for “apostasy.”
Adnan said that the AMC had campaigned for activists to be included in prisoner swaps alongside fighters, but their requests had so far been rejected.
However, a media spokesperson in Raqqa, the only city to be fully held by ISIS, contested the accepted version of why activists and foreigners were kidnapped. “Hostages are not taken for money,” Abu Mohammad al-Raqqawi said.
“ISIS takes foreigners if they suspect they are affiliated with some kind of intelligence group. For example an American journalist was taking photos of ISIS bases in [the Aleppo town of ] Azaz last year. He was suspected of being a U.S. agent. There was an investigation and he was cleared and released,” Raqqawi added.
“This is probably what happened with the Spaniards. There was an investigation, but they were released for lack of evidence ... No money changed hands,” he said.
He said it was unlikely that if rebel groups overran ISIS positions in Raqqa, the bodies of activists would be discovered in mass graves left behind by the group.
“ISIS carries out its punishments in public. There are no hidden bodies,” he added.
Raqqawi also said he had no knowledge about the whereabouts of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian priest who had lived in Syria for three decades before his disappearance. An outspoken critic of the government, Dall’Oglio – widely known as Father Paolo – was expelled from the country in November 2012.
He was last seen in Raqqa in July 2013, where he had reportedly gone to meet ISIS officials to demand the release of prisoners, and negotiate an end to clashes between Islamist and Kurdish fighters.
Around a month later rumors began to circulate that he had been executed by the group. The Italian government and the Vatican have never confirmed this.
Similar to Father Paolo, a virtual information blackout persists in the case of Razan Zeitouneh, the director of the VDC, who also helped set up the Local Coordination Committees activist group.
A key figure in the early days of the revolt, Zeitouneh was abducted from her office in the Damascus suburb of Douma along with her husband and two colleagues in December 2013. A human rights lawyer and campaigner, her work had rattled both the government and the Islam Army, the rebel group that controls Douma.
Ahmad, the VDC spokesperson, said the group has no new information about Zeitouneh.
However, her family issued a statement this week slamming the role of Zahran Alloush, the head of the Islam Army militia, in her disappearance. Alloush has denied any role in the incident.
“We hold him [Alloush] fully responsible in case any harm comes to her or to any of her companions because the kidnapping took place in the area under his authority,” the family said.
Ahmad said Zeitouneh had received threatening letters from an Islamist group before she went missing and that “relations with the local rebels were very bad,” but he would not confirm the Islam Army had kidnapped her without firm evidence.