Syria is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. More than 60 have been killed there since the war began, and many others have been kidnapped, becoming pawns in the conflict. The author picks up the trail of two colleagues, Austin Tice and Jim Foley, who vanished in 2012.
On May 23, 2012, a 30-year-old Georgetown University law student and former Marine captain, adapting to his newly reduced circumstances as a freelance journalist, crawled under a fence from southern Turkey into northern Syria. Austin Tice had not yet published a single article, but it didn’t matter. Since mass demonstrations had spilled over into a full-scale armed insurgency against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad six months before, Syria was the story that everyone wanted—all the more so because, with the Syrian government keeping a tight lid on visas, hardly any journalists were in the country. Just about the only way inside was to smuggle yourself under the protection of armed rebels, which suited Tice just fine. As a soldier, he already had tours in Afghanistan and Iraq under his belt. Now his ambition was to go back to the region with a fresh pair of eyes and launch a new career as a journalist.
His guide was a bespectacled Syrian-American in his early 50s named Mahmoud—wiry and stubborn, a bit like an older, shorter, Syrian version of Tice himself. After I met him, Mahmoud would show me training videos he had made, one revealing a pro-regime militiaman lying dead at his feet. Tice and Mahmoud bonded quickly, as people do in war zones; Tice would poke fun at Arab procrastination and Mahmoud would call him “White Boy.” Until a few months before, Mahmoud had been leasing out heavy equipment in Atlanta; now he was a soldier in the new Free Syrian Army and on his way to becoming a brigade commander. Things were changing fast, and it was possible to believe that before long the rebels would be in Damascus, and Syria’s creaking Ba’thist regime would be history. Within two days, Tice and Mahmoud had made it to a rebel base in the province of Hama, where Mahmoud had contacts. “Writing like a maniac,” Tice wrote on Twitter, “taking photos, working like crazy.”
Tice turned out to be a gifted journalist. Laid out in scattershot bursts on Flickr and Twitter, mixing descriptions of field maneuvers with the Free Syrian Army and references to country pop, Tice’s information trail made for a thrilling, hard-charging alternative to the flak-jacketed puppetry of much war-zone reporting. He bantered about soccer with rebels in the central Syrian province of Homs, drew on his military background to analyze the weapons and strategy of both sides, and ribbed The New York Times and the rest of the international media for their inability to put a journalist on the ground. (“Srsly guys if any of y’all wanna come down here, I would love some company,” he wrote on Twitter.) Tice’s headstrong, impudent side wasn’t to everyone’s taste—on at least one occasion his rebel hosts had to put him under house arrest for his own safety—but he had the merit of being funny. “Tonight made a good-faith effort to explain gay rights to a fun and well-meaning group of Syrian guys,” he wrote at one point. “Yeah, not the time, not the place.”
In Homs, Mahmoud left to go back north, after which Tice was passed from tiny battalion to tiny battalion, making friends quickly and trusting those he met with his life. By July he had made it to Yabroud, a city north of Damascus, and was writing for The Washington Post. It was around this time, too, that he composed a kind of mission statement as a defense of what he was trying to achieve.
“So that’s why I came here to Syria,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “and it’s why I like being here now, right now, right in the middle of a brutal and still uncertain civil war. Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment. They accept that reality as the price of freedom…. They’re alive in a way that almost no Americans today even know how to be.”
In late July, Tice made it through to Damascus, where for two weeks he fell in with another hospitable group of rebels in the suburb of Darayya. But he couldn’t help worrying about the growing number of attacks on journalists, and worrying as well that his reports on human-rights abuses by the rebels, not just by the regime, might put him in harm’s way. “I don’t want to get murdered in Syria,” he’d written to Mahmoud. He was in Darayya for his 31st birthday, and he was characteristically gung-ho: “Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever.” That would be his final tweet. Two days later, on August 13, Tice apparently left for the Lebanese border and a much-needed vacation. With the exception of a single, deeply ambiguous video which popped up on the Internet six weeks later, nothing has been heard from him since.
Syria is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. In the last three years at least 60 of them have been killed while covering the conflict there, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Missing from the statistics is anything about the kind of journalist who goes to Syria and why. After the death of Marie Colvin, in a blizzard of Syrian Army shells in Homs in February 2012, much of the Western media drew back from covering the country. Meanwhile, a lightly resourced, laughably paid, almost wholly uninsured cadre of freelancers, often armed with little more than a notebook and a mobile phone, infiltrated Syria anyway. A few were crazy narcissists or war-zone tourists, but most were serious reporters. Four-fifths of all journalists working in Syria, according to one estimate, are freelance and answering to no one but themselves.
Austin Tice was one of these. So was I. Our paths had even crossed. Three weeks before he disappeared, while cooling my heels in the Turkish border town of Antakya, waiting for someone to take me into Syria, I’d asked my hosts at a Free Syrian Army safe house whether any Western journalists had passed this way before. Just one, they said—an American named Austin who had stayed with them for a week. They kept in touch with him on Facebook—he was still inside.
Among the small band of Syria journalists, everyone quickly learns about everyone else. The week before, on another foray into northern Syria, I’d rolled up at a disused soccer field to interview a local rebel commander. I ran into two glazed-looking European journalists sunning themselves outside an impromptu media office. The journalists were Balint Szlanko, a Hungarian, and Vedat Xhymshiti, an Albanian Kosovar. The media office had been heavily shot up by a regime helicopter; that hadn’t stopped Balint and Vedat from sleeping on its roof. The pair had recently shared the roof with another freelancer—an affable, devil-may-care video journalist named Jim Foley, whom one of them had known when reporting in Libya. Foley was a seasoned reporter, and this was his second trip to rebel-held Syria. A month earlier, stranded in the suburbs of Homs, he’d run into Austin Tice. For over a week, according to a Syrian who was with them, the two stayed up late into the night talking about anything and everything. Tice spent much of the time shooting off his mouth about the amateurism of the Free Syrian Army, and Foley had to quiet him down.
All these men would soon be kidnapped. Balint Szlanko thinks he was arrested by a security team working for a powerful rebel militia; Vedat Xhymshiti was taken twice by different groups he believes were Islamic extremists—during the past year and a half, hard-core Islamists under the thin umbrella of al-Qaeda have become a growing presence in the fight against the regime. On each occasion, the men were freed within 24 hours. Jim Foley would not be so lucky. On November 22, he was returning from Syria to the Turkish border with another Western journalist and a Syrian fixer when they stopped off at an Internet café in Binnish, a town in Idlib province that they had been using as their base. It was Thanksgiving and the journalists went online, filing work and chatting with friends. After an hour or so they left the café and flagged down a taxi to take them to the border. Somewhere along the way the taxi was intercepted and the journalists were extracted at gunpoint and driven away. Like Austin Tice, Jim Foley and his companions simply vanished. Despite immense efforts by their families and friends, there has been no real news of them since.
I first got the details of Jim Foley’s kidnapping, a month after it happened, by way of a Syrian who goes by “Yasser.” I had known Yasser before the uprising, and he has been involved with the revolt from the beginning. He and his Free Syrian Army colleagues were working on the assumption that Foley had been driven to a nearby Shiite village, called Fua, by pro-regime shabiha—the ruthless militias who do so much of Assad’s dirty work—and then dispatched hundreds of kilometers south to Damascus. Some while later, in May 2013, GlobalPost, one of the news organizations Foley had worked for, advanced much the same scenario. Relying on “multiple independent reports from very credible confidential sources,” GlobalPost reported that Foley was being held in a Damascus prison run by Syrian Air Force Intelligence, the most feared arm of the shadowy Syrian security state, along with at least one other Western journalist, probably another American—possibly Austin Tice. The investigation was the work of Kroll, a firm of private security contractors that GlobalPost had hired at considerable expense.
Besides Tice and Foley, at least two other American journalists have been kidnapped and are missing in Syria. So are two journalists from Spain, four from France, two from Sweden, one from Britain, one from Denmark. Most of them are freelancers. All told, more than 30 journalists are missing in Syria. Add in foreign-aid workers and assorted adventurers and the figure climbs even higher. Some of the families, including that of the journalist who was traveling with Foley, have been persuaded by their advisers and governments that the best course of action is to keep quiet (and I will say nothing about those journalists here). The dangers in Syria are increasingly acute. In the summer of 2013, I phoned a Syrian fixer in rebel-held Aleppo who sounded scared out of his wits. He’d just been released from two weeks in a jihadi prison, and the journalist he had ferried across the border was still being held captive; he himself was only at his desk to advise journalists against coming to Aleppo. “Don’t come to Aleppo” was all he kept saying. “Do not come.”
Around the same time, I was talking to a Spanish freelance journalist, Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, who’d spent a few days with Foley and Tice in the suburbs of Homs and had been arrested by Islamic militants before, when he surprised me with the news that he was shortly heading back inside. Two weeks later he was again in the custody of the same group; at the time of this writing, he still is.
The Business of Kidnapping
This is how it goes. Blindfolded, with your hands tied behind your back, you’re manhandled into the backseat of a car. With your head forced down into the brace position, a burly shabiha on each side, you can’t see a thing. But hearing is enough. What you can hear is the screeching of the vehicle and the thumping militaristic pop music as your captors sing along to “God, Syria and Bashar” on the radio. After what seems like hours, you’re pushed out of the car at a military airport. You can hear the whir of helicopter blades. A few hours later you’re in Damascus and being driven at full throttle to a security compound, where you’re deposited in your own tiny concrete cell deep underground.
That’s if you’ve been kidnapped by the regime. I’ve spoken to over a dozen journalists who have been arrested or kidnapped in Syria and later released either because a ransom was paid or for some inexplicable reason of the captors’. The description above was furnished by a European who, several weeks before Jim Foley went missing, was given safe passage into the pro-regime village of Fua by a gang of shabiha before being betrayed into the hands of another gang of shabiha, and thus falling into the custody of the Syrian authorities. (In return for his release his employer undertook not to speak about the case and must remain unnamed.) A month later, in December 2012, the NBC correspondent Richard Engel had just crossed the Turkish border into Syria when he was held captive for five days by suspected pro-regime paramilitaries. Around the same time, a German freelance journalist named Billy Six was driving through the countryside of northern Syria when he was taken at a checkpoint by the Syrian Army. The Syrian regime, according to Billy Six, claimed to know nothing of his detention until, thanks to a random encounter with another prisoner, his government got definitive wind of where he was, and eventually won his release.
Austin Tice had told Mahmoud that he wanted to be the first American journalist to get all the way from rebel areas in the north to Damascus. Mahmoud replied, “Dead or alive?” If Tice is alive, he is likely being held in the capital itself and he likely has the company of other foreigners—even if he doesn’t know they’re there. For the first two weeks of his detention, the European journalist arrested in Fua was held in what he now takes to be a “foreigners’ complex” in Damascus—a prison within a prison—specially designed to hold prisoners like him. The Syrians I have spoken with agree. Foreign captives are very valuable to the regime, said one veteran of Damascus political prisons, and are always held separately. They might even function as an internal currency within the Syrian security state. “There are a vast array of different intelligence agencies all jockeying for position,” said the European journalist kidnapped in Fua. “They can use high-profile prisoners as leverage among themselves, as well as for their dealings with the outside world.”
I traveled to Damascus on a rare journalist’s visa in September 2013. Army or shabiha checkpoints had been thrown up on almost every corner; men with leather jackets and gray, regulation Ba’thist beards hung around at intersections, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. In the center of the city I came to Umawiyeen Square, with its stunning view of Mount Qasioun. Most journalists stay in this area when they’re in town, in a clutch of luxury hotels dotted around the square. Ironically, if Austin Tice is in the custody of the Syrian government, he’s probably in this neighborhood, too. Within a short walk of the square you will find the headquarters buildings of the various components of Syria’s security state, plus the headquarters of the army and air force. The whole area is laced with security compounds. Almost all contain prisons, most of them deep underground. At some of the side entrances are the beginnings of underground carriageways; on nearby mounds of grass, men pop up from camouflaged manholes and keep walking.
A month and a half after Tice went missing, a 47-second video appeared which seemed to show him in the custody not of the regime but of Islamic militants. The production values, the freshly laundered, Afghan-style clothes of the supposed Islamists, even the way they chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), seemed wildly off-kilter, as if its producers were engaged in a deliberate parody. As soon as I saw it, I got in touch with a young man named Amjad Siofy, one of the rebels Tice had befriended in Antakya; by then Siofy was back in the suburbs of Damascus working for the Free Syrian Army and, in his spare time, trying to work out what had become of Tice. “Faked,” he wrote to me on Facebook. “Now we know he is with the regime.”
Two sources close to the case told me that it appears Tice or his computer was at a prison facility under the control of the Syrian regime at some point early in his detention. Someone is still taking a close interest; the last Facebook message Mahmoud sent Tice on August 12, 2012, was only accessed on October 29 the following year. The theory that Jim Foley was abducted by pro-regime shabiha, however, a theory propounded by Yasser and endorsed by the GlobalPost, makes very little sense. Foley was traveling from the rebel stronghold of Binnish en route to a rebel border crossing called Bab al-Hawa; the whole point of that circuitous route was to avoid the regime-held outpost of Fua and the attentions of the shabiha. Six months earlier the area would have been thick with regime agents, but now both Fua and Taftanaz airport were under siege by Syrian rebels and wild-eyed foreign jihadis. In extensive interviews with journalists who have worked the area and know it well, I talked to no one who had any enthusiasm for the theory that Foley could have been spirited away to Fua. (The Assad regime has denied having Foley in its custody.)
The truth is that there are shabiha-like gangs on both sides of Syria’s conflict. The term is nearly 30 years old and originally referred to gangs of smugglers along Syria’s borders whose regime connections gave them license to do as they pleased. Since the outbreak of the uprising, many have simply transferred their loyalties to the fledgling Free Syrian Army and set about smuggling arms. For some of these gangs, kidnapping for ransom is a way of life; war-ravaged Syria has made it a flourishing business. In March 2013 the BBC’s well-known world-affairs correspondent, Paul Wood, was traveling in Syria with a group of rebel-friendly smugglers when he and three colleagues were abducted by masked gunmen at a checkpoint. They were held for 10 days in a tiny concrete cell under one of the smugglers’ homes; it ended only when they overpowered a guard and forced their way out. The kidnappers had started by claiming they were regime-affiliated shabiha; it soon became clear that they were a criminal gang flying the flag of the Free Syrian Army and working closely with Islamic extremists.
In the early stages of the conflict, Syria’s rebel armies had been happy to protect visiting journalists with their lives; if the world could only see the iniquities of the Syrian regime, the rebels thought, the Western powers would be shamed into large-scale military intervention on their behalf. When that didn’t happen, some of them found a more creative use for the journalists slipping into Syria—as commodities to be traded for cash. The pseudonymous French filmmaker Mani, whose freelance work from rebel-held Syria has won him awards, was in no doubt that journalists had become a fund-raising tool. “This war has been going on for almost three years,” he told me. “Resources are low, and military groups need money.”
A month after Paul Wood’s kidnapping, an Italian reporter named Domenico Quirico and a Belgian teacher named Pierre Piccinin da Prata were traveling together near the city of Al-Qusayr when they were taken by bandits working for a large rebel militia called the Farouq Brigade; it took five months and a considerable ransom to get them out. (In an interview on the Syrian-Turkish border, a well-connected rebel from Al-Qusayr told me that the ransom for the pair was around $5 million, $4 million of which seems to have come from the Italian government.) Two weeks after that a French-American photographer named Jonathan Alpeyrie was likely betrayed by a fixer soon after he crossed the Lebanese border into Syria; nearly three months and several mock executions later, he was released after $450,000 was paid by a pro-regime businessman to his Free Syrian Army kidnappers.
No convincing ransom demand has ever been forthcoming in the case of Jim Foley or most of the others kidnapped after him in rebel-held northern Syria. One explanation is that whoever is holding them thinks they’re dealing with spies. Every Syrian journalist I’ve ever met has been accused of being a spy. When Austin Tice’s Free Syrian Army friends in Antakya found none of his journalism online but lots of information about the Marines, they drew the conclusion that he was an American agent. Tice was canny enough to be aware of this suspicion; in one of the tweets he left behind, he complained that “a lot of ppl assume I’m CIA, in a sort of sad, ‘America DOES care!’ kind of way.” As the sense of betrayal by the West deepened among the rebels, however, feelings of vague hope were supplanted by outright suspicion and contempt. A rebel commander I’ve been in touch with for more than a year—when I phoned him, he was in Libya buying weapons—assured me that the Free Syrian Army had very good reason to interrogate embedded foreign journalists: “Some of them are working with the regime.” BBC rules don’t allow Paul Wood to speak about his kidnapping, but he told me he’s weary of the spy allegation. He wonders what the rebels can be thinking: “You want to say, ‘You fucking idiot. You’ve got one donkey and a Kalashnikov. Why would I be spying on you?’ ”
Independent newsgathering does represent a direct threat to one group, however—the Islamist zealots whose power grab over northern Syria has been swift and brutal, and coincides with the spike in mysterious kidnappings. When, a year ago, a series of influential clerics declared it to be the duty of every Sunni Muslim to wage war on the Syrian regime—whose higher echelons are dominated by Alawi Muslims, an offshoot of Shia Islam—the north of the country became a magnet for foreign jihadis, who quickly elbowed out weaker and sometimes corrupt local rebel groups. So attractive did the area become for puritanical Islamists that two different groups—the largely homegrown al-Nusra Front and the battle-hardened arrivals from the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS)—were soon squabbling over the rights to the local al-Qaeda franchise.
The Italian journalist Susan Dabbous, whose kidnappers announced their allegiance to ISIS midway through her 11 days in captivity, told me that her captors looked through every single image on her cameras, erasing them one by one. “I will cut your hands, so you can’t write,” their leader told her. Taking too close a journalistic interest in foreign jihadis would soon be grounds enough for detention; so would possession of an American passport, or even one from a European country that supports the U.S. One freelance European journalist was informed that since he came from a pro-American country he must be a spy and deserved to be beheaded. Handcuffed to a chair in front of a yelling, sword-wielding Somalian who spoke perfect American English, he was saved only by the intervention of friendly rebels who stormed the building and killed his kidnappers.
The Taxi Driver
Ashort drive from the border, the Turkish city of Antakya used to be part of Syria. It might as well be now—to the chagrin of some of the locals, it has become a huge support base for Syrian rebels and the diaspora of foreign jihadis who have come from all over the world to help with their cause. Anyone here who is not a spy or a soldier is a deal-maker. The place has become a sprawling bazaar dedicated to buying guns, loyalties, and, occasionally, journalists. Free Syrian Army generals, Polish intelligence agents, al-Qaeda recruiters, Scandinavian hostage negotiators, American medics, Canadian security professionals, and fitfully employed freelance journalists—they all rub shoulders in Antakya, sometimes in the same hotel.
Across the border from Antakya is Idlib, where Austin Tice stopped off on the road to Damascus and where Jim Foley disappeared. Its rolling fields of wild vegetation and its sites of rugged archaeological beauty make it look like some unspoiled, antiquarian golf course.
Much of the business in Antakya gets done at Özsüt, a coffee bar overlooking Ataturk Square with an excellent view of the surrounding mountains. Over several weeks in the city I got to know a genial member of the rebel coordinating committee in Binnish who travels back and forth between there and the Turkish border. Like everyone else from the area I spoke to, he assumed that Foley had been taken by Islamists working with or alongside the al-Nusra Front. But since rebel battalions form and dissolve on a monthly basis, and many of al-Nusra’s more militant battalions have deserted it for the viciously puritanical ISIS, it wasn’t clear who might be holding Foley now—or whether he was alive or dead. Was there any chance that he’d been abducted by shabiha? “No,” the rebel said. The fact that the area where he was taken was full of jihadi checkpoints, that at least one of the kidnappers was wearing a mask, that there’d been no demand for money—all, he said, pointed to the involvement of Islamist militants.
In the bar of an Antakya hotel a reporter from the rebel Shaam News Network, whom I’d been introduced to by a Syrian friend, even gave me a name. One of the men who’d stopped Foley, he said, was called Tahan; at the time, he was working alongside al-Nusra but was now the commander of another rebel Islamist brigade. Three months after he was kidnapped, the Shaam journalist told me, Foley was alive and being held close to where he was taken; mainstream rebel groups even sponsored a mission to find him, but came back empty-handed. It was to be the first of many half-cocked and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get him out. Another effort, in the spring of 2013, followed a possibly spurious tip that he’d been seen chained to a wall with others at an “execution camp” in Idlib. The investigating rebels quickly thought better of their rescue plan; they didn’t have the manpower to take on al-Qaeda.
In Beirut, after months of trying to track him down, I finally caught up with the taxi driver who had driven Foley and the others from Binnish on the day of the kidnapping. Many people interested in the case thought he was the key to solving it; some were convinced he was involved. But the gangly, punky 28-year-old who showed up five hours late on a Beirut street corner—because he’d been taking paying fares around northern Lebanon—looked nothing like a kidnapper. He’d left in a hurry shortly after the kidnapping, he admitted, but that wasn’t unusual amid regime air strikes and the growing chaos of northern Syria. In any case, he’d been hailed on the spur of the moment outside an Internet café because another driver had let the journalists down. He would hardly have had time to hatch a kidnapping plan. He ferried the journalists and their trusted fixer to the house they’d been staying at in Binnish, he told me, to collect all their stuff; then they’d driven back to the café, because the fixer had forgotten his mobile phone. Only after that did they set off properly. Six kilometers into their journey, along the old Aleppo road, the driver looked in the mirror and saw a Hyundai van racing up the road behind him.
On the edge of Taftanaz, the van overtook him and forced him to a halt. Three men jumped out. All had guns, but only one was wearing a mask. The journalists initially refused to open the door, but the men kept screaming in Arabic and shooting crazily in the air until they did. They were then ordered to sit down on the ground and were securely tied. The man wearing the mask looked a little darker than a Syrian and was very likely a Bedouin or a Gulf Arab—even his Arabic when he barked “Igaad” (Sit down) at the journalists was that of a Bedouin or someone from the Gulf, and not at all the way shabiha from Fua would pronounce it. The kidnappers said to the driver, “Have these men paid you? Did you get your money?” It’s exactly the kind of thing puritanical Islamists say when they move into an area—their reputation is that, unlike some other rebel militias, they don’t steal from the people and are concerned for their welfare. It is not the kind of question a member of the shabiha would ask. The driver was sure of one thing. “These men were on a mission to take the journalists. It was not by chance.” They must have been tipped off, either via people who knew they were in town—everyone knows everyone in Binnish—or by someone in the Internet café.
If a hostile al-Qaeda group was behind the kidnapping of Jim Foley, Antakya’s cottage industry of hostage negotiators and middlemen will not get very far. “There’s been a complete radio silence,” the partner of one missing journalist told me. “These people don’t want anything from us.” In informal conversations I’ve had with rebels, the Islamists of ISIS have admitted to holding a few Western journalists but say they’re unaware of the fate of others. Since many kidnappings seem likely to be the work of volatile subgroups operating under the general banner of ISIS, they may even be telling the truth.
“The giant question,” one search-and-rescue specialist who has worked on Syria cases told me, “is why won’t they talk to us? My theory? It’s like an internal stock market. They’re trading amongst themselves instead of doing the big buyout: ‘Instead of reaching out to families or governments, maybe I should pass the potato around first.’ ” Another reason to pass the potato around is that kidnapping is a labor-intensive business; the spike in abductions in Syria suggests a level of expertise imported from Iraq. The picture is of underground cells full of abused, terrified captives, held in conditions more appropriate for farmyard animals. Dotted around northern Syria’s verdant countryside is an ancient cave network of Roman catacombs and burial grounds and many remote industrial facilities. In places like these, far from prying eyes and inaccessible to regime air strikes, the rebels store much of their weaponry and equipment. These places also make ideal prisons.
Regime agents posing as Islamists, rebels affecting to be shabiha: the more you dig for information on missing journalists, the more it’s like wading through quicksand. When guns and money are the only currencies that matter, informants say one thing one day, another thing the next. Or they die. Not long after my conversation with Tice’s young friend Amjad Siofy, Siofy was killed while trying to defuse a bomb. “Evaporated,” someone who knew him told me. What is clear is that journalists in Syria have become pawns in a paranoid new game in which the kidnappers are often not who they seem to be—and meanwhile keep changing places with one another.
Peter Bouckaert, from Human Rights Watch, likens what’s happening to the glut of open-ended, industrial-scale foreign-hostage taking in 1980s Beirut. Back then, however, the U.S. and other governments knew exactly whom to deal with and what they wanted. In Syria, the former C.I.A. field officer Robert Baer told me, “there are just too many groups. The Saudis and the Qataris are doing everything through intermediaries. People are being handed out money and told to ‘go blow shit up.’ I don’t see a figurehead, any one person who has control.”
It’s not just the journalists but the armed extremists who are freelancers in Syria. It’s another thing that makes the conflict there different, and so complicated to report. It must be galling for Syria’s freelance journalists to think that they’re worth more as cash cows and captives than for any of the reporting they went there to do. These men and women crossed a dangerous border to plug the gaps in our understanding of a many-layered conflict. When the hunting season came, they made easy prey. But here is something else that is true: they have a natural ability to bond with anyone and see the world through any point of view. They are some of the most cunning and resourceful people you’ll ever meet. If anyone can make it back, they can.
Originally Published at http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/2014/05/journalists-missing-in-syria#