Military analyst and award-winning journalist Scott Taylor is well-known for his “unembedded” tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. And he knows more about what can go wrong than he’d like to. Kidnapped in northern Iraq in 2004, he spent five chilling days in the custody of Ansar al-Islam militants. Assistant Editor Chris Selley spoke with him about the kidnapping of CBC’s Mellissa Fung, the wisdom of “negotiating with terrorists,” and the perils of reporting outside the wire in Afghanistan.
Q: Based on what you’ve heard and your own experiences in Afghanistan, do you find anything unusual about the way Mellissa Fung’s kidnapping was pulled off? Or was this a pretty standard scenario?
A: I don’t know if there’s anything really standard about any of these things. There’s certainly categories [of kidnappings]. If it’s motivated for propaganda purposes to drive foreigners out, it’s a separate set of circumstances from those that are looking at this as purely a way of raising cash. [Fung’s kidnappers] didn’t use it for propaganda purposes. At no time did they make this public. So it would seem, from every source we’ve heard, including from Prime Minister Harper’s statements, that it was driven by the desire for ransom right off the bat.
Q: Are you surprised that the media blackout on Fung’s situation held as long as it did?
A: Pleasantly surprised, because all it would take is one guy to go and everybody would have jumped after him. And that would have forced our government’s hand, because [of] this whole position that they’ve taken—they’re still saying we don’t negotiate [with terrorists]. Well, all of us know that they were negotiating at all levels, [doing] every possible thing that they could do, getting all the assurances they could get and cooperation from the Afghan government. If they’d had to come out and make a public statement that they will not pay any money, we would all understand that that’s part of the gamesmanship that gets played for domestic politics. [But the kidnappers] wouldn’t, necessarily. [With a media blackout], there can be quiet assurances to the family: “Look, we’re still talking.” But that might not play out so well in a country when your word is your word.
Q: So does the official story—that there was no ransom and no prisoner exchange—ring true to you?
A: Not really, not given the level of the negotiations that were put into play, and the length of time that it took. She was unharmed. Normally in a case where the [kidnappers] didn’t think that talks were moving the way they wanted them to, they would up the ante—put her on the phone, screaming; release a videotape; send a finger; that sort of thing—unless they felt they were getting assurances the whole way along.
Everyone can claim a lot of things, and they’re difficult to refute or to confirm. I don’t know how much we could rely on the Afghan National Director of Security to [help us] pinpoint [Fung's location]. [But] I think having them play a lead role in this was probably why we were successful. They wouldn’t necessarily operate within the same bounds that we would here in Canada. By that I mean, [any] people who were exchanged may not have been, in fact, in captivity when this thing first began. [Afghan forces] may have picked up the suspected relatives of the people they thought were holding [Fung]. A Crown prosecutor’s not going to go out and pick up somebody’s relatives and say, “you turn them over or [else].” They play by different rules, and they know the players.
[Update: In an interview with CBC's Anna-Maria Tremonti on Wednesday, Fung confirmed her understanding was that Afghan security forces apprehended the relatives of the alleged kidnappers, and that their release was traded for her safety.]
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