News

When armed insurgents kidnapped the author in Iraq, they interrogated him on building a propaganda machine. A decade later, they became Daesh. By John Martinkus.

John Martinkus: ‘What my captors wanted to know’

John Martinkus arrives at Amman airport, Jordan, on October 18, 2004, after being released by kidnappers in Iraq.
Credit: REUTERS / ALI JAREKJI AJ/AA

When I was kidnapped by Muslim insurgents in Iraq in 2004, they wanted one thing. They wanted to know how the Western media worked. 

It was a carjacking. Just outside my hotel in Baghdad. One car in front, one behind the vehicle in which I was travelling. They waited until we were out of sight of the Australian-manned checkpoint across the road. Then they struck.

The car in front stopped, blocking our way forward; the car behind blocked our way back. Armed men leapt out of both vehicles. They were dressed like normal Iraqi civilians. Bad shirts, short beards. But they had guns.

I tried to hold the door shut but as they wrenched it open the handle broke off in my hand. Then they were in the car, putting guns to my head. I had one thought at that moment: I am dead

I fought the guy who got in the back seat. I had his pistol in a grip with both hands and forced it into his groin. He was strong and I remember yelling at my driver to reverse and ram the car blocking the road behind us. He couldn’t; another insurgent was holding a gun to his head and he drove forward as they told him.

I was trying to get my finger on the trigger, to shoot the insurgent beside me in the groin. As we started to drive, I yelled out the window at an Iraqi police checkpoint. I lost my grip on the handgun and that was it. 

An American convoy went past as we drove out to insurgent-controlled western Baghdad. The man next to me saw my eyes and clamped his arm across me. He knew what I was thinking. But the calculus was this: If I run now will the Yanks shoot me before these guys do? The moment passed. I was in their control.

The men who kidnapped me did not want to kill me, although I didn’t know that yet. What they wanted to know was how to pierce the Western news cycle.

Tied up and blindfolded, I explained to them my role as a freelancer, working for SBS. I explained my previous role as a reporter for wire services including Associated Press. I had a reasonably good understanding of how the international press were operating in Iraq then. Even though the war was a big story by 2004, only the big news organisations had permanent staff there – Time, CNN, Fox, The New York Times, AP, Reuters, AFP. Everybody else either rode on the backs of the majors or sent in single correspondents for short periods. 

My captors asked very specific questions about how my reports were distributed. They were particularly interested in the roles of wire services: in how news reports, photos and video were circulated to the international media.

They wanted to know how a photo, or a piece of video, could be disseminated so quickly. They wanted to know how to purchase a satellite phone to get internet access. They wanted to know how to hook that up to a computer to post digitised images to the internet.

I couldn’t answer a lot of their questions. They were too technical for me. They were the kind of questions I would ask the tech guys at the office when I was trying to get something done.

The questioning lasted for 24 hours. A series of different guards, leaders and visitors cycled through. I was held, along with my translator and driver, in two houses in the western suburbs of Baghdad. On the highways beyond the room I could hear fighting with American troops.

In the morning they forced me to make a video telling then prime minister John Howard to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq. I thought they were going to kill me. A few days earlier, I had watched insurgent tapes of three Western hostages being beheaded. The footage was horrible. I couldn’t watch the whole thing through.

In retrospect, 11 years later, I can see what this all meant. This was about propaganda, about a new and savvy insurgence that would in part go on to become Daesh.

The insurgents who held me were trying to understand how to get their message into the international media. So far as I could tell from talking to them – blindfolded and bound at the hands, a gun pointed to my head – that message was pretty simple: Fuck off and leave us alone.

This is probably not the most politically correct sentence I have ever written. But it is true. 

Saddam’s fall

Daesh is a movement that was nurtured and fostered by the Sunni elite displaced by the fall of Saddam, among others.

The Americans and their allies invaded and suddenly a whole class of people were disenfranchised. No jobs, no pensions, no income. They held protests outside the new United States seat of the administration in Baghdad, the Green Zone. The demonstrations got them nowhere, save for a few warning shots overhead, fired by the scared young American troops manning .50-calibre machineguns in the watchtowers above. They were given no response from the new rulers of Iraq, the administration of Paul Bremer.

So what did they do next, this entire class of former civil servants and military and police officers? Many fled, the only way they could, to Jordan, then on to Dubai, Malaysia, Indonesia, the only countries they could get visas on arrival. The others stayed and fought the occupation. Bombs, mortar attacks, suicide bombings. It is not like these guys didn’t know what they were doing. They were former military and had fought not just America in the first Gulf War but also had been conscripted to fight Iran for years before that in a conflict that rivalled the ferocity of World War I.

Now these same men, radicalised by the collapse of their privileged lives under Saddam, a collapse enforced by the new order of Shia domination put in place by the US administration as it left, began fighting again. 

These men, and their recruits, of which there are thousands, are obsessed with revenge. Willing to die to avenge their fall from elitism and their perceived, and real, humiliation under the American occupation and the subsequent US-supported Shia-led government of Iraq. 

I tried to report this in 2004. People such as Andrew Bolt, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and John Laws derided me at the time as an anti-American, terrorist-loving jihadist. But they simply didn’t understand what was going on.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Sunni elite tried to reinsert themselves into the political process. When it didn’t work, they went back to fighting. And fight they did. In Toyota LandCruisers with heavy machineguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They occupied the vacuum of authority left by the retreating US forces. There were no police, no military. Out beyond the Green Zone, it was no-man’s-land. I remember back in 2007, in the province of Diyala, US military shelling. It was deafening, big 150-millimetre rounds going out from the base we were in. They were hammering the road we were about to travel down to go on a raid. There were people living there under those shells. I remember thinking, Oh my god. Is this really happening?

That was 2007 and the mainstream media was reporting that everything was going well. Correspondents flew in and out, never leaving the bubble of military bases and secured compounds. More troops, more bombing, more heavily armoured patrols. Politicians came and went, accompanied by blinkered journalists, proclaiming success. On November 2 that year, Andrew Bolt offered this analysis: “The battle is actually over. Iraq has been won.” And later, in the same piece: “Add it all up. Iraq not only remains a democracy, but shows no sign of collapse. I repeat: the battle for a free Iraq has been won.” Meanwhile, the situation deteriorated. The lack of clean water led to outbreaks of cholera, the oldest disease in the world. The Americans declared victory and left. 

There were a few correspondents who tried to tell the truth. I remember one report by Michael Ware for CNN. He simply went to the morgue in Baghdad and documented the mutilated and unidentified bodies coming in every day. There were many. It was heartbreaking to see how many people were being killed. Journalism 101. Track the dead. Count the bodies. It was awful.

And all this time you had commentators in the Australian and US media saying the surge was working, we were winning. On the ground, Sunnis fled or became radicalised. 

A battle of propaganda

In some respects, this is a story about media. In the West, it is a media that declared a war won and promptly ignored the foment it left behind. For Daesh, for the men who kidnapped me, it became about another battlefield. A battle of propaganda.

These men learnt very quickly how to get their message across. Their violence was performative, operatic, designed to be seen. They determined that there was no point blowing something up – a US humvee, a hotel, a shopping centre – unless the world saw it. They started filming things. There was no point beheading a foreigner unless the world saw it. Each act like a thunderclap, the terror heard in its reverberations. 

Back then you had to get your Iraqi driver or translator to go down to the market and find this stuff on DVD. Now it is there on the internet. It is sensational and news organisations pick it up. It is cheap, risk-free and it attracts consumers. Daesh know this. They have been very successful in propagating their message.

As they go from beheadings to drownings to the destruction of historic monuments with hostages strapped to them, they are pushing the pornographic limits of their violence. It is about maintaining the attention of the West. It is cynical. It is obscene. And it is effective.

I was lucky. I was kidnapped before things had gone so far, by people who had not radicalised to the point they would kill any foreigner for the most marginal gain. But those of us working in Iraq could see where it was going. It was a coming hell.

In 2004, no one was really interested. Neither the media nor the government was too concerned about what was happening. When Saddam fell, we entered a state of contented denial.

But here were the new foundations of the world in which we now live. We picked this fight, and like a drunk in a bar it would come back to us. And it has.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2015 as "‘What my captors wanted to know’". Subscribe here.

John Martinkus
is a foreign correspondent and author.