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Islamic State’s beheading of an American aid worker in Syria highlights the terrible risks – and fatal attraction – of humanitarian and journalistic work in war-torn regions. By Lauren Williams.

International aid workers in harm’s way

Until two weeks ago, friends and family of Abdul-Rahman Kassig, formerly known as Peter Kassig, the American aid worker and former US army ranger captured by the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, held some hope an appeal to his captors based on his recent conversion to Islam might save his life. Calls for mercy came from Muslim scholars, colleagues and even a high-profile member from al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda branch and rival to IS, but to no avail.

I knew Peter, 26, from briefly living with him in Beirut. A video emerged from the IS on November 16 showing his severed head. He was the fifth Westerner to be beheaded by the IS in Syria. Kassig was a victim in war driving people to extremes and madness in a variety of ways.

Kassig’s death devastated the tight-knit community of aid workers and journalists working on the Syria crisis from Lebanon, where he had worked tirelessly on humanitarian relief projects. He was mourned among the Islamic community as shaheed, or martyr. In life, Kassig had been regarded by some as muhajireen, a migrant Muslim, and mujahideen, one performing a jihad.

“IS fighters basically consider themselves as the real muhajireen, or immigrants,” a Syrian friend of Kassig’s familiar with the ideology tells me. “They migrated for Allah and to help the Syrians from all over the world. But I think Peter has some of the same features of muhajireen. I consider him muhajireen for humanity.”

“I think [the IS] suspected him for his US Army background.”

In what was to be his last letter to his parents from captivity, Kassig discussed his feelings about death and his faith, echoing concepts of martyrdom and struggle.

“I am obviously pretty scared to die but the hardest part is not knowing, wondering,” he wrote. “Hoping and wondering if I should even hope at all. I am very sad that all this has happened and for what all of you back home are going through. If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.

“In terms of my faith, I pray every day and I am not angry about my situation in that sense. I am in a dogmatically complicated situation here, but I am at peace with my belief.”

Peter’s Western friends in Beirut considered him the ultimate altruist, who died for what many of them had heard him describe as his “calling”. Writing for The Telegraph in Britain, friend and freelance journalist Michael Downey paid tribute to Kassig’s work, speaking of his ability “to eliminate self-interest, disregard all petty vices and dedicate his life to alleviate suffering, to stand up for others and continue when all the odds seem stacked against”.

I first met Peter when he showed up unexpectedly at the apartment I shared with two other girls who were doing aid work in Lebanon. He surprised me as I returned home late and tipsy; my flatmates had forgotten to tell me they had offered him a place to crash – drop-ins were not unusual – and I came across him shirtless in the unlit kitchen, his skinny frame covered in tattoos. After a startled introduction, he cornered me on our tiny balcony, smoking, telling me about his work at a Palestinian refugee camp.

He spoke without appearing to draw breath, his blue eyes were still under an earnest frown as he described how, having done some volunteer aid work in Beirut during his spring break, he had abandoned his studies in the US to return. After his army service in Iraq, he explained, he had found a drive to do what he could to make a positive contribution in the region. He made me nervous, as well as feeling slightly inadequate in my meagre attempts to draw world attention to the unfolding tragedy in Syria as a journalist.

Later, Peter would move his work in Lebanon closer to the Syrian border, where his training as a medic proved useful as thousands of Syrians, injured in government attacks or battles between the government and the opposition rebels, flooded across the border. Lebanon was struggling to cope with the influx and he worked inexhaustibly.

His desire to help was immediately obvious and sincere, but Peter was also a troubled soul. His need to contribute went far beyond the normal range of empathy of foreigners working in the conflict. He was frenzied, and at times became very depressed. I returned to the apartment one night to find Peter being consoled by a friend as he howled at the injustice of the suffering of those he worked with.

In 2012 Peter founded the Special Emergency Response and Assistance (SERA) medical emergency relief organisation, and in the spring of the following year relocated his operations to Gaziantep in southern Turkey, on the border with northern Syria, which is mostly held by Islamist rebels. From there he began to take regular trips inside Syria to deliver aid and train medics on the ground. We watched his activities through Facebook updates with awe, a degree of envy, and increasing alarm as
al-Qaeda Islamists began to cement control of territory.

“In the face of uncertainty and a situation which will continue to outpace my ability to respond to it adequately, I only know that the harder it becomes, the greater the danger, the greater the risk, the greater the odds stacked against us all, the harder I will fight, until the very bitter end,” he wrote on his Facebook page in July 2013. “Let the soles of my shoes be worn bare, my pockets be emptied, and my strength exhausted. And always, even then, once more unto the breach.”

There had been quiet concern among friends in Beirut that Peter was getting too close to his work. The last time we spoke, just before his capture in October 2013, I chatted online with him, offering small pieces of happy news from Beirut and passing on a wedding invitation. I noted his increasingly pessimistic tone. Shortly afterwards another message went unanswered. Against advice from security firms and pleas from his friends not to keep returning to Syria, Peter appeared unstoppable. He didn’t need to go, one Syrian friend argued, when he could train medics on the ground in Turkey or Lebanon. Some have since wondered whether there was more they could have done to stop him.

“You can’t feel guilt,” said a friend, journalist Olivia Alabaster. “We didn’t encourage him to go in. We told him not to. He would have done it regardless of what any of us said.”

Beirut is a crucible for the thousands of foreign aid workers, journalists, activists and researchers working on the Syria conflict. It’s a turbulent city where decadence, libertarianism and pomposity jam against extreme poverty, religious conservatism and post-civil war depression. Among the hard-drinking and hard-working crowd of do-gooders, political junkies, adrenaline addicts, the battle-scarred and the glory-seekers, Peter was a star. He was as tireless in his social life as he was in his work ethic, and his stories of hope and bravery were toasted. In this community, a culture of bravado and one-upmanship pervades – the work attracts extreme personalities. Risk is rewarded with front-page bylines as well as tangible humanitarian results.

The war itself, a brutal and hopelessly dark conflagration, also has a maddening effect. Post-traumatic stress disorder and other related conditions are certainly underacknowledged, at times treated like a recognition of service. It sucks you in, the culture and camaraderie, reinforcing itself and making a return to a “normal life” seem unlikely, even undesirable.

By the time Peter took his last, fateful trip into Syria, five of my friends –
foreigners and Syrian – had been kidnapped. The country had become a sponge for foreign militant jihadists fighting first the government, and then increasingly for an Islamic caliphate. The threat from the shockingly brutal IS was growing as the numbers of foreign jihadis swelled. Foreign governments, perplexed and at loggerheads for four years over what to do about the crisis in the country, created a vacuum for IS and the flow of foreigners leaving home to fight in Syria seemed unstoppable. They came from Europe, central Asia, the Caucasus, Australia and the Middle East, and while the motivation for joining IS is most likely a complex set of religious, economic and social personal agendas, the campaign for Sunni Muslims to perform jihad in Syria is working. With deep funding resources, IS circulates professionally produced propaganda and recruitment videos. On Twitter and other social media, jihadists address potential new recruits, broadcasting exploits in battle, and extolling the charm of a new exciting life and the virtue of martyrdom.

At some point Peter Kassig converted to Islam, and his parents referred to him as Abdul-Rahman, even after his execution. Friends and colleagues have declined to comment on his faith. It achieves little to speculate whether his decision to go in to Syria was motivated by Islam, altruism, humanism, trauma, a personal need to validate himself, or a combination of all those things.

The video the IS released of his severed head, edited to accompany the decapitation of 17 Syrian army soldiers, includes no statement from Peter such as that which preceded the beheadings of the four other Westerners before him, prompting speculation that he may have challenged his captors on their Islamic credentials. We will never know.

In Beirut, journalistic enthusiasm has been replaced with pronounced pessimism and aversion to the story. We try to reconcile images of a young and brilliant man – the chatterbox on the balcony, Thanksgiving dinner and late-night bar hopping, smiling while doling out boxes of medical aid – with the images of a headless corpse in a Syrian desert, in an attempt to reach some sort of conclusion. We fail. We avoid speculating about his state of mind before he was killed and can only hope his faith and work provided him the solace and comfort he needed. The only thing we know is the maddening ferment of the war, and the certainty it will claim many more lives.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "In harm’s way". Subscribe here.

Lauren Williams
is a freelance journalist.