The ISIS Hostage (2016)
The Elite Gymnast from Hedegård
Daniel clapped his hands at the audience from the stage of the Ocean theme park in Hong Kong. It was 15 July 2011 and he was dressed in a seahorse costume on a light-blue stage decorated with painted coral. Below him, he could see people with umbrellas shading themselves from the sun. Techno rhythms were booming so loudly from the speakers that parents had to shout to their children, who sat in folding chairs eating ice cream.
He looked up to where he could just make out a platform against the sky, which was at a height of twenty-five metres. He had to climb up there, jump off - and land in a three-metre deep pool. It was the climax of the show.
He pulled off the costume that fitted his body like a wetsuit and threw it away from him. The audience was enthusiastically cheering the blond, fit, tanned twenty-two-year-old Dane in his black bathing trunks, who was now beginning to climb up to the platform. Every muscle in his body was tense. This was the moment for which he had been rehearsing and waiting.
After a few weeks of performing, he had become tired of being a bouncing seahorse turning somersaults on a trampoline. He would rather be the cool, bare-chested diver, who jumped off the tower in a high dive. Daniel was a perfectionist and, even though this was just a holiday job in a Hong Kong arena, he had insisted on learning how to dive.
When he reached the platform, there was barely room for his feet. He stood on the small square, leaning against the metal behind him and clapped to get the audience going. Then he turned around and jumped out in a backward somersault.
The landing had to be precise − legs first, side by side. If he hit the surface askew or his legs were too spread out at the moment of landing, then, because of the entry speed, water would be forced up his rear end. Afterwards, it would be like he was pissing out of his backside, which he felt would be inelegant when he should be taking the applause from the audience.
The dive took him out of his comfort zone. But Daniel was an elite gymnast who had competed internationally, so it was the simplest thing in the world for him to perform moves like an Arabian Whip Double or a Stretched Whip Flick Double or a Stretched Whip Double Hip with a perfect landing.
Daniel had been competing for years in European and world championships in power tumbling, a branch of gymnastics in which gymnasts perform eight different elements on a fibre track. The dive in Hong Kong added a new height element to his physical abilities. It was frightening at first, but he soon got used to it.
During the six weeks he was working in the theme park, his attention began to be drawn towards the Middle East. In his breaks he read about the revolutions in Syria and Libya in the local English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post. He cut out pictures of demonstrations from Syria and hung them up in the shipping container where the artists rested between shows.
The Syrians were demanding reform and these demands were being met with live ammunition and police violence. When President Bashar al-Assad refused to listen and instead deployed the military and the police against peaceful demonstrators, the protesters demanded the removal of his regime.
The seeds of the war in Syria had been sown.
· * ·
Daniel was born in Brøns, in south-west Jutland on 10 March 1989, the younger brother of Anita, who was seven years older. The family lived in a detached house where Daniel’s mother Susanne also ran a hair salon. His father was a fisherman. Susanne was meticulous with her customer’s hair, a trait which was also reflected in her insistence upon order and tidiness in the home. Daniel was just a year old when his father was diagnosed with brain cancer. One morning in early May 1992 he passed away on the sofa in the living room. His last wish was that Susanne would find a new man who could be a father to Daniel and Anita.
A few months later - and with that thought in mind - Susanne put her grief and obligations on hold for a night and went to a widows’ ball in a nearby town, where she met Kjeld, a tall, handsome man. They were married exactly one year after their first meeting on 11 September 1993 - a date which became a day of happiness in Susanne’s life. She and the children soon moved into Kjeld’s red-brick house in the village of Hedegård, close to Billund in south-central Jutland. Their new home was twenty brisk steps from the yellow house where Kjeld’s parents lived and where he himself had grown up. The couple had a daughter, whom they named Christina. Although Daniel had never known his biological father, he got a new one in Kjeld, who adopted him and Anita.
The family’s single-storey house was surrounded by fields and woodland and had a lawn covered with molehills. There were horses and cows on the neighbouring land and just up the road was the local village hall. Behind Susanne and Kjeld’s house was the big garage where Kjeld’s lorry was parked and where they celebrated special birthdays. The couple added a bay window on to the house and turned the bedroom into a hairdressing salon, where Susanne cut her customers’ hair during the day, while Kjeld made a living as a lorry driver.
Daniel passed his grandmother’s yellow-brick house on his way to Hedegård Free School, where Kjeld had also been a pupil many years earlier. It was on a narrow asphalt road with no street lights. Motorists drove fast out in the country, so Susanne sewed reflectors on to Daniel’s clothes. The neighbours smiled when he walked by and said that he looked like a Christmas tree. Susanne shushed them. If her son heard their jokes, he would rip off the reflectors.
As a youngster, Daniel loved to do somersaults and handstands. Susanne thought it was a healthy hobby and sent him to gymnastics in the neighbouring town of Give. From the floor of the hall, he soared through the air with extraordinary power and it was obvious to everyone that he had elite potential. When he got older, he dedicated himself to developing his gymnastic skills for two years at the Vesterlund sports boarding school, where he lived the disciplined life of an athlete and where, for the first time, he experienced a strange and unsettling sensation over a girl.
Her name was Signe and he loved her freckles, her reddish hair and her round, pale-blue eyes. She was the most talented girl in the school. She did the same jumps and somersaults as the boys, and Daniel noticed that she didn’t doll herself up with make-up and nail polish like the other girls. While in school they were sweethearts, but the relationship petered out afterwards when Daniel became busy with his apprenticeship as a carpenter and training with the national gymnastic team.
It became commonplace for him to be laying a roof on a house with a pain in his back and having to make regular appointments with a chiropractor, until he eventually decided to drop his apprenticeship.
‘I can always find time to become a carpenter. I can’t always be on the national team,’ was Daniel’s answer to his mother when she admonished him about not finishing what he had begun.
Instead, he made unsolicited applications to all the gymnastics schools in Denmark for a position as an instructor. A school in Vejstrup in the province of Funen snapped him up. He taught gymnastics for a year, while also building stairs and mowing lawns, between participating in competitions. He took up photography, too, inspired by the photos his coach took of him as he soared and rotated through the air. There was something in those frozen nanoseconds that fascinated him. They captured the tension in the muscles or concentration in the eyes. So he borrowed Kjeld’s SLR camera, which he took along in his bag when he went to compete in the World Championship in power tumbling in Canada in 2008. He photographed the gymnastics halls and hotel rooms; the bodies in their tight suits and the successes, sweat, somersaults and setbacks that shone out from the faces of the gymnasts. He photographed the gymnastics bubble in which he travelled around the world, and discovered that the camera was a tool he could use to explore people’s lives.
He soon took ownership of Kjeld’s camera, carrying it around with him to every competition. Later, he got in touch with his grandfather’s friend, whose son was a photojournalist. Hans Christian Jacobsen invited him to Aarhus, where he patiently looked at Daniel’s photographs of flowers and gymnastics. Afterwards, Hans Christian showed him his own photographs, which he had taken in some of the world’s most troubled regions. Daniel stared at a photo of a boy who was jumping into a lake somewhere in Kabul - shadows, light, a boy in a ray of sunshine. Hans Christian’s images sparked something in him and all Daniel could think about was getting out into the world and capturing it all with his camera. When he was twenty-one he bought his own camera, packed it in his rucksack and went off with his childhood friend Ebbe on his first trip outside the security of the gymnastics world. It was a journey that turned him upside down in a way that somersaults and back handsprings had never done.
Daniel sat several feet above the ground between the humps of a camel, looking at an expanse of sand in north-west India. The camel-driver was making the journey on foot in his long blue kurta, wearing a broad smile on his chubby face.
When they took a break during their five-day camel safari, Daniel couldn’t take his eyes off the camel-driver. The man would fetch his leather pouch from the animal and take out a few potatoes, a little fruit, some rice and spices, which he would then cook in a pot over a small fire.
‘He can make so much out of so little,’ thought Daniel and he took photos of this simple, quiet life and of the camel-driver, who was at one with the sand and the four-legged animal.
At night they slept out in the open. The stars had never shone clearer. The wild dogs howled and, during that summer of 2010, the sky seemed unusually high.
In India’s big cities the waste floated in the gutters and Daniel couldn’t always get to where he wanted, because of the cows and goats that wandered around freely and shat everywhere. The tuk-tuks sped by close to him and the air was heavy - even on the beach where the boys played football. Daniel struggled with the contrasts, as well as the overwhelming feeling that he couldn’t just escape into a gym. His travel guides were Lonely Planet and his friend Ebbe, who led him through a world of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
Back in Denmark, Susanne could have won a world title in worrying as she followed Daniel and Ebbe’s accounts of their travels on Facebook. One mentioned that twenty Indians had been involved in a mob-fight that they had watched on a beach.
‘Mum, we’re fine! Nothing happened to us, except that we’re an experience richer,’ they wrote, while uploading regular videos from their journey. In one, Susanne and Kjeld watched Daniel do handstands on a beach, while gaping Indians stared at the unbelievably flexible white man. With a red shirt slung across his bare back, he declared casually on the video: ‘Three days ago, we arrived at Kovalam in Kerala, South India’s answer to Goa. We’ve been playing beach football and having a really, really good time.’
What they couldn’t see on the video were the changes inside Daniel. He had suddenly been torn away from his disciplined lifestyle. Now he was more often than not sleeping late, drinking beer at all times of the day and doing exactly as he pleased.
When he came home, he imagined he was back in Asia as he went through his photos and videos from the journey. He really wanted to learn the craft of photography properly, so he called Hans Christian, who suggested a photography course at the Grundtvig College in Hillerød, north of Copenhagen. Two days before the course began in January 2011, Daniel called the school.
‘How much time do you allocate to the actual photography?’ he asked. The answer was that they spent a lot of time on it.
‘Many people have followed their dreams here,’ was the message. Daniel no longer had any doubts.
The classroom door flew open. ‘What’s up, arseholes?’ shouted a loud, teasing voice.
The experienced war photographer and photojournalist Jan Grarup plodded across the floor, wearing desert boots, a white shirt and tight jeans, his fingers heavy with rings. While Jan was lecturing, Daniel stared at his role model, who had won countless international photo awards and followed his own wild path. Jan showed photos from his reporting trips and answered every question with the same answer: ‘It doesn’t matter.’
Nothing mattered - which camera you used, how to compose your pictures, how to trim them and edit them.
‘It doesn’t matter. It’s about taking your hearts and personality with you into whatever you’re doing and photographing,’ said Jan.
After the lecture, Daniel, in awe and with his heart pounding, went out on the terrace to find Jan. While they drank a cup of coffee, they discussed Daniel’s ideas about undertaking long-term photo projects - for example, following some young people in their development through a whole year of boarding school.
Daniel discovered at the college how little he knew about what was happening in the world. He would absorb as much information as possible from people who shared their love of their chosen field when they came and gave lectures. In the beginning he was unsure of himself and hid behind his camera; the praise he had become used to for his somersaults and rotations was absent from his photography teachers. He would often sit in his room, staring at his work, which he thought completely lacked talent, until one day his teacher, the art photographer Tina Enghoff, praised him for his cheerfulness, energy - and talent. In particular, she thought that Daniel inspired confidence, which would be crucial for him as a photographer to be able to get close to the people he wanted to photograph. While attending the college, Daniel became more self-assured, developed his photography skills and learned to talk to people who had interests other than gymnastics.
After finishing his photography degree Daniel started a higher education course in Aarhus, but he kept missing classes. He was spending most of his time taking photographs for The Gymnast magazine and was also in training for the 2012 World Team tryouts. He was practising the jumps and rhythmic sequences that the jury would be looking for when he and about ninety other young men gathered, hoping to be included among the chosen few. After a weekend with series, track jumps and exercises on the trampoline, the selection committee invited Daniel in for a talk with the eight judges. He was among the remaining twenty young men chosen to compete for fourteen places. The decision was long in coming, but it appeared in his inbox one day while he stared indifferently at his computer during a class.
‘Congratulations! You have been selected for the Danish Gymnastics and Athletics Association’s ninth World Team.’
Fourteen young men and fourteen young women were selected. Daniel packed his bag and took time off from his courses in order to tour with the World Team. But a chance event would change everything.
At one training session, Daniel stood contemplating the long black and white track in front of him before starting his run. As he set off, he sensed he would have difficulty making the height he needed. He tensed up in his hips and buttocks to squeeze himself through the full rotation before landing. When he landed in ‘The Grave’, as the landing spot was called, his hips were tense, where normally they should be more relaxed. The only place his body could counter the imbalance was in his legs.
Daniel jumped out of the landing and grabbed his knee. His friends shouted from the other end of the hall.
‘Oh, shit! We thought it was bad!’
‘Yes, something went,’ said Daniel, ‘but I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.’ He drove himself home to Aarhus, put ice on his knee and booked an appointment with a doctor.
‘You’ve damaged a collateral ligament and a cruciate ligament,’ the doctor said.
Daniel stared at him. ‘Does that mean that I can’t train and go on tour with the World Team?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid it does.’
Daniel burst into tears on the sofa. Then he rang Susanne and cried down the phone.
It was his final farewell to elite gymnastics.
Daniel was turned down for a course in photojournalism at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus, but he was accepted by the University of South Wales in the United Kingdom, which had an undergraduate course in documentary photography. However, it would cost 250,000 kroner (about £26,000) for four years, which he couldn’t afford. Then he learned that Jan Grarup was looking for an assistant to help him with his photo archives - and to accompany him on a reporting trip to Somalia.
They wrote to each other over Messenger and Daniel sent some photos, including one of his high-dive in Hong Kong.
‘Do you have your passport ready?’ Jan asked.
Daniel sold his apple-green car to his parents and took the train to Copenhagen, where he alternately slept on friends’ sofas and at Jan Grarup’s place. Jan’s small office was filled with thousands of stock files, which Daniel was allowed to see. Going through the photographic records from Jan’s many years as a photographer in Africa, the Middle East and Asia was a journey of discovery into famine, disasters and conflicts, but the foreign faces came alive through his lens. Daniel gained insight into how to take photographs so that they captured a moment that stood out and told a story. He could feel Jan’s soul in the photos and how he moved with his camera.
Daniel began to look forward to the trip to Somalia.
Daniel sped through the streets of Mogadishu on the back seat of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, followed by a pickup with eight guards. They towered over the bed of the truck in their camouflage shirts, tall and thin and carrying machine guns. Daniel was travelling without Jan, who had gone off on a job and hadn’t allowed Daniel to join him. Through the car window, he saw skeletal houses that had collapsed due to bombs or were deserted and riddled by gunfire. Suddenly, in the middle of this spectral neighbourhood, he saw a football goal.
‘Stop! Can we stop here?’ he asked.
‘You’ve got fifteen minutes, max twenty,’ said the driver and Daniel jumped out with his camera over his shoulder. He knew that the Islamist militant al-Shabaab group would be able to sniff them out if they stayed too long in one place.
Children and elders in worn-out sandals were running around on the sand after a football, and when the kids saw Daniel, they ran over and passed him the ball, which he slammed into the goal. He squatted for a while with his camera in his lap to get them used to his presence. To the left of the makeshift football pitch, a bombed roof sloped down to the ground at a forty-five-degree angle and now served as a kind of viewing terrace from which people were watching the game. Daniel took photos, moving around between the players and loving the life-affirming fact that they were running about in their football jerseys amid such destruction. When his time was up, he returned to the car as agreed and they drove back to their guarded accommodation.
The photos from the football match in a bombed-out Mogadishu were part of a black-and-white series called ‘Born in War’, which he was documenting on this trip. It revealed what an incredible amount of hope he had seen in the war-torn city.
It didn’t occur to him how dangerous it was to travel around Somalia until he was back home, processing his time there. The far more experienced Jan Grarup had been responsible for their security, so Daniel hadn’t paid much attention. But it didn’t deter him. He knew more than ever that he wanted to be a photojournalist.
· * ·
Daniel had been travelling in the aftermath of a civil war in Somalia, but in the autumn of 2012 it was the Syrians who were at war with themselves. A popular revolution demanding reform had turned into a full-scale battle between armed rebels and a brutal regime. Daniel read articles and searched for images on the Internet that could give him greater insight into the conflict. He looked at photographs of bombed-out houses, lifeless babies covered in dust who had been dug out of ruins, camouflaged snipers lying in wait with Kalashnikovs, ambulances unloading the wounded at hospitals.
He couldn’t find anything to compare with his football pictures from Somalia in the coverage of the Syrian conflict. The faces in the images merged into one another and he wondered what he should photograph to make Danes more aware of the war. How could he focus people’s attention on a bloody conflict far away, where President Assad was sending bombers over Aleppo, the country’s second largest city and industrial centre, in an attempt to put down the rebellion?
The sound of the bombers had become an everyday occurrence for Syrians, just like the cluster bombs and Scud missiles that rained down on civilian areas. The rebels were fighting in different factions under the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the opposition couldn’t agree on a common goal and infighting had arisen between several of the rebel groups, who were also committing more war crimes in response to the hardening effect of their environment.
New groups were springing up each week - some of them with a more Islamist identity than had been seen in the war thus far. One of the largest and most powerful Islamist groups was Jabhat al-Nusra, which later turned out to be the Syrian branch of the terrorist organization, al-Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra was growing rapidly, with the goal of ousting the Assad regime and creating a more Islamist government. The group operated under the leadership of a Syrian war veteran, who, like hundreds of other jihadists, had crossed the border between Syria and Iraq with Assad’s approval to fight the Americans in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. The self-proclaimed Emir of Jabhat al-Nusra, who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, was a man the world knew very little about and who had for a long time kept the group from being directly associated with al-Qaeda. Instead, it had been created as a Syrian organization that looked after the interests of Syrians.
Jolani had been held at the US base Camp Bucca in the Basra province of southern Iraq. He had also been imprisoned for a while by the Assad regime and rumour had it that he had been crammed in with hundreds of other Islamists in Syria’s notorious torture prison in Sednaya, near Damascus.
At the beginning of the revolution in May and June 2011, President Assad granted amnesty to numerous political prisoners from Sednaya - most of them with a pronounced Islamist profile. The president was aware that the prisoners were likely to join the rebellion once they were released and would Islamicize it. This would benefit the Assad regime by supporting its narrative that the revolutionaries were ‘terrorists’, dangerous to Syria and the region as a whole. The plan worked as intended and the threat from the Islamists became a self-fulfilling prophecy, not least because the Assad regime was primarily attacking the moderate factions. As had been seen so often before in the Middle East, corrupt totalitarian regimes and militants kept each other busy and used each other in an almost symbiotic relationship.
Some of the prisoners released from Sednaya joined Jabhat al-Nusra, and in the autumn of 2012 fighters from the weaker and more secular factions of the Free Syrian Army also began to switch to the more successful Jabhat al-Nusra, where they had access to better weapons and stood in a stronger position alongside more fearless, experienced soldiers. In December 2012 Jabhat al-Nusra was added to the US list of terrorist organizations, because of the movement’s links to al-Qaeda in Iraq, but that didn’t stop its momentum in the Syrian Civil War.
In March 2013 Jabhat al-Nusra and another Islamist movement, Ahrar al-Sham, announced an offensive called ‘The Raid of the Almighty’ against the city of Raqqa in north-east Syria. Raqqa was the first provincial capital to fall quickly to the rebels. The black Jabhat al-Nusra flags flew over the city and the rebels captured the government’s administrative headquarters, where they recorded a video of the captive governor which was broadcast on the opposition-friendly channel Orient Television. The Assad regime had lost its grip on Raqqa to groups with an Islamist profile.
Meanwhile, the civilians were caught in the middle. In Aleppo wide pieces of fabric were hung across streets and alleyways to block the snipers’ view into people’s apartments. Schools were either closed or destroyed and it had become difficult to find food. The lines of fire, the battle fronts, and the regime and rebel checkpoints constantly moved around residential neighbourhoods. Those who could packed a couple of blankets, some clothes and fled.
While the civilians were fleeing, several thousand foreigners from Arab and western countries came to join the fight in Syria.
One of them was the Belgian Jejoen Bontinck.
· * ·
Jejoen’s friends had already gone to Syria. They had been recruited through the network Sharia4Belgium, which regularly contacted Jejoen to persuade him to take part in the war. He had just turned eighteen and had no girlfriend, no job and wasn’t in school, so there was nothing to prevent him from seeking adventure. In February 2013 he packed his father’s sleeping bag and told him he was going to Amsterdam with some friends.
It took less than a week for the young Belgian-Nigerian man to arrange the trip from Belgium through Turkey to the Syrian governorate of Idlib. Friends from Sharia4Belgium who were already in Syria described the route for him. Like many other fighters in Syria, he travelled through the official border crossing at Bab al-Hawa and, on 22 February, after a short drive, he arrived at a large villa in the Kafr Hamra neighbourhood, a well-to-do suburb of Aleppo, just north of the city. He didn’t know which faction he was actually joining, but he had been reunited with his friends.
The water in the villa’s pool was dark green and shallow, while the lawn around it looked like a park where the flowers and shrubs hadn’t been attended to for a long time. Jejoen was far from being the only foreigner. The grounds were huge and teeming with Dutch, Belgian and French men. When he first arrived, he worked out that there were at least sixty of them and eventually some had to be moved to another villa, because there wasn’t enough room.
Jejoen was welcomed by a man who bore the nom de guerre Abu Athir. Several of Jejoen’s friends just called him ‘sheikh’, as he was the leader of the Mujahideen Shura Council faction. Abu Athir had been hit in the leg by shrapnel and hobbled about the villa on crutches, surrounded by guards. He never carried a weapon, but left it to the European fighters to guard him as he drove around the area, either in a Jeep or a Mercedes.
There was a hierarchy in the organization and the new recruits had to work their way up and win Abu Athir’s trust before being sent to fight on the front lines. Abu Athir and his men had developed an elaborate vetting process, so recruits went to the front only when they had been tested and were clearly not working for foreign intelligence services. Newcomers were initially given the task of guarding either the villa in Kafr Hamra or Abu Athir himself when he was in meetings or sleeping.
The fighters whom Jejoen met were roughly the same age as him. Some had left their jobs or studies to fight in Syria; others were like him, with nothing to lose. When they arrived, they responded only to the warrior names they had chosen for themselves. Some of the foreign fighters already spoke Arabic and many of them established themselves in Syria by marrying locally or bringing their wives into the country. They wanted to live their life in the coming Islamic state.
Jejoen stayed at Abu Athir’s villa only for a short time before being sent to one of the Syrian regime’s old military bases half an hour’s drive away. Abu Athir’s men had seized control of the base and now used it as a training camp for new recruits.
There were more than fifty people at the base, most of them Europeans from France, Holland, Belgium and Germany. They received military training - physical exercises, target practice, strategic warfare and Islamic teachings. Jejoen thought the training was very professional, which wasn’t a coincidence. His trainer told him that he had previously been an officer in the Egyptian army. Now and then, Abu Athir came by in his Mercedes to watch the recruits at work. Jejoen received not only food and shelter, but also access to a special brotherhood, something he had never experienced before. He ate, slept and trained with other men who had come to join the war. It was easy to feel he belonged.
Some months later, Jejoen’s path in Syria would cross with those of Daniel and James Foley. It all began with a landmark event that took place on 8 April 2013 and quickly changed Syria and the organization led by Abu Athir.
On that day, a long audio recording of 21 minutes and 30 seconds was posted on jihadist Internet forums. On the recording could be heard the voice of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader for several years of al-Qaeda in Iraq (ISI). He confirmed what many observers had suspected: that ISI was operating in Syria through the Jabhat al-Nusra faction.
‘It is now time to declare before the people of the Levant and the world that the al-Nusra Front is an extension of Islamic State in Iraq and a part of us,’ Baghdadi said. He continued, ‘We worked out the plans for them and set the framework and supported them financially every month and gave them men who know the theatre of war, from immigrants to locals.’
Baghdadi then announced that his organization would now be renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In Arabic ‘al-Sham’ means ‘the Levant’, so from that moment on both acronyms ISIL and ISIS were used. Baghdadi stated that ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra were now unified under the new name ISIS, which reflected significantly greater cross-border ambitions for an undivided Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
At that moment, the world didn’t know what consequences the audio recording would have for the region. Baghdadi wasn’t yet a well-known name in American and European living rooms. There was only limited information about him and a few photographs.
Behind the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi hid Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri. He was apparently born near the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971 and was awarded a master’s degree and a doctorate in Islamic studies by the Islamic University in Adhamiya, a suburb of Baghdad. People who knew Baghdadi in his childhood described him in several media sources as a quiet type who liked football. At the turn of the millennium, he had an education, a wife and a son.
In March 2003 US and UK forces invaded Iraq. Six months later Baghdadi had formed his own Islamist movement called Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah, which, loosely translated, means ‘Army of People of the Sunni Muslim Community’. On 31 January 2004 Baghdadi was arrested by US military intelligence while visiting a friend in the city of Fallujah in the so-called Sunni Triangle north-west of Baghdad, where a rebellion had broken out after the ousting of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Baghdadi was imprisoned until December 2004 in Camp Bucca, the American prison near the border with Kuwait, where he developed relationships and friendships with other inmates. Jolani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, was in the prison at the same time, but the two men didn’t meet. Baghdadi was released after almost a year because the Americans regarded him as a low-level prisoner who did not pose a significant threat to US forces in Iraq.
In 2007 he joined al-Qaeda’s Shura Council and in May 2010 Baghdadi was chosen to be the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq (ISI). Under his leadership, ISI conducted a wide range of well-planned and spectacular suicide attacks in Iraq. In March and April 2011 alone, the group accepted responsibility for twenty-three attacks south of Baghdad.
Baghdadi’s audio recording of 8 April 2013 was the beginning of an ideological and political power struggle between Jolani from Jabhat al-Nusra, who didn’t recognize the merger with ISI, and Baghdadi - a struggle that would lead to ISIS breaking with al-Qaeda.
From that day on, Arab and western jihadists had to choose between two variants of extreme Islamism. Many of the rebel leaders chose Baghdadi’s ISIS and thereby took many foreign fighters over to ISIS, among them the Belgian jihadist Jejoen, whose group, the Mujahideen Shura Council led by Abu Athir, swore fidelity to ISIS.
This declaration was the beginning of ISIS’s aggressive expansion into the Syrian Civil War.
· * ·
Daniel began his preparations for a reporting trip to Syria in the midst of these political manoeuvrings between Islamist factions. He wanted to portray the Syrians who could not or would not flee, to find out how they were living in a state of emergency.
At the same time, he began seeing his school sweetheart Signe again. They had kept in touch for a long time after splitting up and wished each other happy birthday every year. One night in October they were out drinking beer at a bar in Copenhagen until 4 a.m. and, after several months of orbiting each other, they got back together. Daniel was happy to once again be with the woman with the most beautiful eyes in the world.
In early April 2013 he travelled to Gaziantep in southern Turkey to investigate the situation. He came into contact with a so-called ‘fixer’, a person who knows the local area and on whom journalists rely. The fixer, Mahmoud, drove him along the border to the official crossing in the town of Kilis, which led to the Syrian town of Azaz.
‘You can also go to Syria now. We can just enter,’ said Mahmoud.
‘No, thanks - I’m only here to get a feel for the atmosphere,’ said Daniel.
He spoke with Syrian refugees to get an idea of the situation in their homeland. He sought out journalists and NGO workers who described how the war had been moving in new directions. And when he returned to Denmark, he called a man named Arthur, who would later turn out to have a great impact on his life.
· * ·
The boats were sloshing around in the water along the quayside in Copenhagen’s Nordhavn neighbourhood. Daniel was walking beside a tall, pipe-smoking man and his black dog, which ran around them, off the leash, sniffing here and there. Daniel had called Arthur because he had heard that he was a walking encyclopedia of practical and safety-related advice for journalists travelling in Syria. Arthur had immediately invited him out for coffee.
It was 24 April 2013 and Arthur happened to be home in Denmark on a stopover between his many trips to Turkey and Lebanon. As the owner of a consulting firm specializing in security, he had many years of practical experience as a negotiator and investigator in kidnapping cases around the world - from Nigeria and Somalia to Syria, Poland and Egypt. When he met Daniel, he was working on a remarkable kidnapping case in Syria, which he couldn’t talk about openly.
Daniel later learned that in late November 2012 Arthur had received a call from an acquaintance in the United States who was working as a hostage negotiator. He told him that the American freelance journalist James Foley had disappeared in Syria on 22 November. Arthur was assigned to the case and immediately flew to Turkey, where James’s friends and acquaintances had already started searching for him. Arthur’s first task was to separate rumour from fact, which turned out not to be so straightforward. No one had any real information about who had taken James. Although Arthur knew from James’s driver and fixer exactly where and how James had been kidnapped, no one recognized the perpetrators. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack of contradictory information that Arthur had collected from his network of local informants. Some reported that Foley had been seen in Aleppo; others that he was in Saraqeb.
Reports also came in that someone had seen his body. After long deliberations, James’s family and one of the newspapers he worked for, the Global Post, launched a public campaign in January 2013, entitled ‘Free James Foley’, but it was a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, the campaign focused on James’s personality and therefore spoke to the kidnappers’ compassion. It also helped to spread the news that someone was looking for him. On the other hand, no one knew who had taken James, and Arthur feared that a sustained media campaign could backfire, because it would focus attention on a case that the kidnappers might think should have been ‘run under the radar’.
‘We risk damaging the negotiating environment,’ Arthur pointed out to the family and the Global Post. In fact, the campaign only led to more misleading information. However, in the spring of 2013 the hunt for James turned south towards the Syrian capital of Damascus. The investigation changed course, spurred on by at least two other kidnapping cases in which the hostage had ended up in the hands of Assad’s informal militias, the Shabiha. James had been taken within a radius of about six miles from a place where it was known the Shabiha were operating, so, in the FBI’s opinion, Arthur had to consider that scenario as a possibility.
It was a matter of determining who had the means and the motivation to hold someone secretly captive for months on end without making any demands. The Assad regime seemed like an obvious choice, but the question was whether the insurgency also had the capability to make people disappear.
It was with the James Foley affair and the critical situation in Syria in mind that Arthur was now walking along the waterfront, giving the young photographer advice.
‘It isn’t the best place in the world to go right now,’ said Arthur, as they strolled along the harbour and looked out over the water.
Daniel looked up at the tall man, who, seriously but also with a twinkle in his eye, gave him his four-hour ‘stump speech’ of the most important things to remember if he went to Syria. As a starting point, Arthur advised against making the trip, because the risk of kidnapping had grown since the end of 2012. The mood towards journalists had changed, especially among some of the Islamist rebel groups. Arthur told Daniel that he should beware of Islamists from Jabhat al-Nusra. They were operating in northern Syria and were behind the kidnappings of several journalists.
‘Most cases, however, were resolved fairly easily in a few days or months,’ said Arthur, who mentioned the kidnapping of James as the most dramatic and still unresolved.
Daniel listened intently and wrote down all the information Arthur gave him.
‘I have all the prerequisites for being an idiot,’ said Daniel, who had never been to the Middle East. ‘My greatest fear is that I’ll end up on the front page of the tabloids as the idiot who hadn’t thought about the risks involved.’
Arthur went through a series of basic safety precautions. First, Daniel had to make sure not to be seen by too many people or walk around with people he didn’t know.
‘It’s a jungle where you don’t know who you can trust,’ he continued.
In addition, Daniel should take out insurance, give his family written information about his trip and constantly send messages home about where he was. Arthur thought to himself that it was the last two measures that James hadn’t taken into account, which had made it difficult to locate him.
If Daniel were kidnapped, the golden piece of advice was: never tell a lie, create a routine for yourself and play the game. Arthur recommended that Daniel take only a brief trip to Syria and not to stay too long in one place.
‘Stay close to the border, so you can cross back again before it closes around five p.m. Don’t stay there overnight,’ said Arthur finally.
When they parted, Daniel felt well equipped, even though he was taking a risk by travelling into a war zone, especially for the first time.
He compared going on this trip with learning a new gymnastics routine. The chances of landing on his head and breaking his neck was highest the first few times, when he was still a beginner. He vowed to himself that he would follow Arthur’s advice. He would take care not to travel too far into Syria and make it just a short trip to get a feel for the atmosphere.
But in Syria all the rules, statistics and know-how dissolved and there was one unknown that no one could avoid: no matter how experienced and prepared a journalist is, they can end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Syria was no longer the place to take a risk or try one’s luck. The kidnapping of James Foley was proof of that.
· * ·
Daniel bought a ticket to Turkey, departing on 14 May 2013. He spent the weekend before at home with his parents, where he packed a bulletproof vest and a first-aid kit borrowed from Arthur.
Susanne and Kjeld were well aware that there was a war in Syria, but they had given up trying to follow what was happening. Susanne was focused on her new job as an assistant in a clothing shop at the Legoland amusement park and Kjeld transported grain around Denmark.
Susanne was in the kitchen while Daniel was packing. ‘What are you going to do down there?’ she asked.
‘So many people are being killed or fleeing,’ said Daniel. ‘I want to photograph the people who are staying and trying to create a daily life in the midst of war.’
They talked through his trip in detail. Daniel would be travelling to the border town of Azaz, a few miles inside Syria. He would stay there for a couple of days so he could get out quickly if the war came closer.
The situation in Azaz at the time was more peaceful than elsewhere. Rebels from the Free Syrian Army had taken control of the town and the border post after heavy fighting with regime forces in August 2012. This had opened up new paths into Syria for jihadists and journalists. Since then, the rebellion had changed and had become more Islamist; new factions and power struggles had arisen. The Assad regime did bomb Azaz now and then, but Daniel wouldn’t be going directly to the front line.
‘It’s the equivalent of going to Tønder, while the war is being waged in Copenhagen,’ explained Daniel soothingly, referring to a town 200 miles from the capital.
Susanne decided that, for once, she wasn’t going to worry. In addition, Daniel had left a document for her in which all the information about his trip was described in detail. It lay on the kitchen table, written a little messily with a blue ballpoint:
Fly to Gaziantep on Tuesday the 14th, 14:20. Spend the night at a hotel in Kilis. On Wednesday morning I cross the Syrian border at the Kilis border post. Being picked up by Mahmoud (Skype name), the fixer. We drive to Azaz and stay there for three days. On the 18th I’ll be driven back to the border, take a taxi to the airport and fly home to Denmark at 22:50.
The time of the flight from Turkey was crossed out and changed to 19.55.
Arthur’s telephone number was also on the note; they should call him if Daniel didn’t get in touch.
Susanne drove Daniel to Give Station. She had to be at work at Legoland at 11.30 and was wearing her work clothes - red shirt and blue trousers, Lego’s cheerful colours. She waved goodbye from the driver’s seat and didn’t get out of the car to give him her standard warnings and advice like she usually did. Normally, she would stand there at the station sobbing and Daniel would laugh. It was also the first time she didn’t give him a farewell hug.
‘See you in a week’s time,’ said Daniel and jumped on the train to Copenhagen to visit his girlfriend.
He told Signe about the list of numbers his parents had and said that Kjeld was his main contact. He would try to give her updates while he was out there. She told him to take care of himself.
‘I don’t think I can cope with finding a new boyfriend,’ she laughed.
On the morning of Tuesday, 14 May they kissed goodbye and Daniel drove to the college room he had sublet when it had become too complicated to keep sleeping on different friends’ sofas. He vacuumed, so that the person he had sublet from could come home to a clean room.
Then he drove to Copenhagen Airport.