September 29, 2004

The Liberation 

Again, important events on the international scene come across when I'd like to write about technology.

However, this is important indeed: the two Italian women, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, who were kidnapped in Iraq three weeks ago, have been freed!

The two women were questioned by italian judiciary, and they told that they have been treated well (for someone who was kidnapped and helt against their will, I add), but were blindfolded almost all of the time and thus could not see their captors.

Things seemed to take a very bad turn on 23 September, when communicates on the Internet reported the killing of the two hostages. Someone went into wild spin about how they were brutally beheaded after multiple gang-rape, but as we see that was just speculation.

What did Italy do to accomplish this? Almost surely, a ransom was paid.
One million dollars, half before the liberation (but only when the captors produced proof that the two women were alive and well), and the other half when the "Simonas" were finally released. It is not clear who paid the ransom - maybe Secret Service agents, but one of the mediators was Maurizio Scelli, Commissar of the Italian Red Cross, who also acted with (and basically for) the Italian secret services and government. According to Il Foglio, the four hostages - also two Iraqis were kidnapped along with the Italians - were realeased to Sismi (Italian Military Intelligence agency) operatives and then they turned them to Scelli.

There is a curious detail about the release: an al-Jazira operator was already there, ready to film the episode to quickly broadcast the video on his network. The Red Cross also agreed to transfer to Italy 15 people who could not have the proper medical treatment in Iraq. However, Scelli refused to talk about the eventual ransom with the journalists, and the judiciary decided to secret the transcripts of his interrogation.

The kidnappers apparently were a baathist, nationalist group, and not religious fanatics. Initially, they requests were the usual ones: withdrawal of the Italian force from Iraq, and the liberation of all the "female prisoners". This last requests sounds quite absurd, because those prisoners are in American custody, and moreover there are only two women prisoners, two high-profile scientists who worked in Hussein's WMD programs. The Italian government's envoy basically told them to forget about it: Italy was not going to accept any political demand - no retreat of the troops, no pressure on the USA. The kidnappers then resurfaced three days later, dropped the political requests and asked for only five million dollars. Italy lowered the offer, and finally it was settled for one million.

Why this gang decided for a tradeoff, instead of making another beheading snuff movie?
The first reason is that that group was not an Islamist (not the savage murderers of al-Zarqawi) one, but baathists looking for self-financing above all - and this can mean that the baathist opposition is slipping into common banditism.
Also, Italy did not split up politically: majority and opposition worked more or less together, and even many of the Left started to despise the kidnappers, there were no violent manifestations. The jihadis grossly missed their political objectives.

Then we have that Italian sercret service has deeply infiltrated Iraq, and has strong ties with Kuwaiti, Jordanian and Quatari secret services. All this put pressure on the kidnappers. Finally, this particular kidnapping was "condemned" by a large number of islamic organizations both in Iraq and abroad, and thus the gang saw itself in an uncomfortable situation, and settled for the bottom line. Make no mistake here, it's not that the islamists (and various ulema and such) are getting good. They did it out of sheer utilitarian considerations: hurting lefty humanitarian volunteers is not good propaganda.
While they can't care less about Americans, Jews and even Nepalese. In these cases, no-one stood up to even temperate the homicidal frenzy of their savage captors. The Ulema are part of the enemy, even if they can mask it sometimes.

Apparently, at one point the it was considered to storm the kidnapper's house, but this plan died soon. The Italian left asked for a "peaceful solution". Stuff that: we don't owe any peace to criminals. More realistically, it was concluded that the intelligence was not detailed enough to safely carry out the operation. If I were in a power position, I think I would have pushed for a raid instead, but I'm just speculating.

So, what's the final score of this ordeal? Does it mean that Italy caved in like Spain and the Philippines did? I don't really think so: the Italian force is still in Iraq, and set to stay.
The kidnappers did not achieve a single political objective (except maybe medical care for some, but that's a small thing indeed), and ended up to open someone's eyes on the true nature if Iraqi insurgency and terrorism: not a fight for freedom, but the bloody deeds of thugs set to restore tiranny. It is true that a gang of jihadis now has one million dollars to finance its hostile activities, but the game is not over yet: I suppose we gathered a good deal of intelligence about them, and thus those men might end up killed or captured soon. Italy 3 - Jihadis 1.

While the French hostages are still in the hands of their captors. France accepted even the shameful, blood-soaked help of Hamas... to no avail. I think there is a lesson to be learnt here.

Update: New details to the story? This article from La Repubblica is basically almost a propaganda communicate for Sheikh Ali al-Dulemi and the "Iraqi Tribal Council", which is called "a shadow government" and expression of the "moderate wing of the Iraqi guerrilla", but also says that the kidnappers believed the two women were Secret Service agents (the usual arab conspirational mind at work), and it was decided to release them after interrogation demonstrated that they really were humanitarian operators. Oh so nice of them, right? No. The initial requests of the Council were to help some Fallujan children; an involvement of Italy in the rebuilding of Fallujah and Ramadi; pressure on the USA to halt bombing raids* in the Sunni triangle (a laugahble request, if there ever was one) and time on the Italian media for some members of the Council to denounce the "thousands of innocent victims" of the war, but absolutely no ransom. Then, the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai al-Aarn reported about the ransom and the negotiation seemed near to collapse, a few hours before the release. But everything turned out well.

This story conflicts with another story, by which an envoy of the Italian government contacted the guerrilla group (relatively secular sunnis in desperate need of financing) thorugh a high-ranking Ulema, and once the italian envoy turned down the kidnapper's political requests, they settled for money.

What really happened? Hard to tell. It is possible that the Secret Service tried two channels at the same time, to find the best one. Or maybe the Tribal Council channel was a red-herring to distract attention from the real negotiations. Or maybe another third party was involved. Or was it the gueerillas trying to get the best of both worlds? Perhaps we'll know, with time. Now, it is in the best interest of anyone that Secret Service operations remain secret.

* Hard to tell what this expression means, because often journalists use "bombing raids" to indicate any kind of military operations.


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