In Orange with a View of the World - The ISIS Hostage (2016)

The ISIS Hostage (2016)

In Orange with a View of the World

The hostages looked at each other and laughed. Yet another British guard, whom none of them had met before, had just shown up in the Five-Star Hotel. He asked if they needed anything. They asked for extra blankets, after which he disappeared again. Even though he had nothing to do with the other three Brits, the hostages joked that he was the fourth and final member of the prison’s Beatles.

It was also Paul who gave them Koran lessons.

‘You can turn around and face me,’ he announced to their great surprise. They sat in a circle, while he went through various verses from the Koran in Arabic and encouraged them to ask questions. He was dressed in a hoodie and gloves and wore thick socks in his sandals.

Paul made greater demands on the converts than on the others. He told them which verse the Emir wanted them to be able to recite by heart and ended all his sentences with inshallah, God willing. His speech was neither political nor inflammatory, unlike the atmosphere that was created when the rest of the Beatles were there. They would suddenly enter the cell shouting ‘Takbir!’ to which the prisoners had to answer ‘Allahu akhbar!’ as loud as they could.

The Brits had also composed a verse to the melody of The Eagles’s 1977 hit ‘Hotel California’ and ordered the hostages to learn the verses by heart, so that they could sing the chorus:

Welcome to Osama’s lovely hotel,

Such a lovely place,

Such a lovely place.

You will never leave Osama’s lovely hotel,

And if you try, you will die, Mr Bigley-style.

Daniel sang along as best he could and James said he had sung it earlier in his captivity. But the reference to Mr Bigley was anything but funny. Kenneth John Bigley was a British civil engineer. In the autumn of 2004 he had been kidnapped in Baghdad, while working for a Kuwaiti construction company. The group that took him and two American colleagues was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later became the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq - the group that preceded ISIS.

A video put online on Islamist forums in 2004 showed the Islamists’ murder of Bigley. He sat in an orange prison uniform and was forced to read a manifesto out loud - after which his throat was cut. As a finale to the execution, the executioners placed his severed head on top of his body.

The video of the murder was so gory that it backfired among some of al-Qaeda’s supporters, who felt it went too far. Bigley’s body was never found.

Daniel was slowly regaining his strength. The Spanish Chef brought the prisoners food three times a day and Daniel was feeling full for once, and he was training more often. In true five-star-hotel-style, he was also given a toothbrush, toothpaste and lotion. It was the first time in more than six months that he had brushed his teeth and he let the Spanish Chef cut his hair with a shaver. Thin wisps that looked like wool lay on the floor afterwards and his scalp was nothing but dead skin that sprinkled down on to his shoulders when he touched the top of his head.

During the day on New Year’s Eve, the guards switched two hostages around, so Edouard and Sergei swapped cells. The Russian had new information for the prisoners in Daniel’s group. In the cell where he had been sitting, three more hostages had been brought in: two Spanish reporters, journalist Javier Espinosa and photographer Ricardo Vilanova, and an American aid worker, Peter Kassig. This meant that there were now a total of sixteen foreign hostages divided between the two rooms.

When New Year’s Eve arrived Daniel could hear what sounded like Syrian fireworks in the form of bombardments in the distance. They all went to bed early.

· * ·

On 27 December welcome news came to the Rye family. In the midst of the winter darkness, Daniel’s cousin had given birth to a little miracle - almost 9 lbs in weight and 20 inches long.

‘We’re still waiting,’ wrote Susanne in her diary about the absence of any sign of life from Daniel. ‘We find the waiting long and difficult, but when we think of how you must be experiencing the waiting, we realize we shouldn’t be complaining.’

Three days into the New Year, Susanne and Kjeld were sitting on the sofa watching television. Kjeld’s finger slid around on his iPad, when he suddenly exclaimed, ‘A Dane has been kidnapped in northern Syria, one from Médecins Sans Frontières, along with four of his colleagues!’

They switched over to the news channel, which was broadcasting a long report on the kidnapping. The names of the captives were not mentioned and it was unclear - at least publicly - who had taken the five representatives from Médecins Sans Frontières (known as MSF).

The organization, which was made up of doctors and nurses who treated people in the most dangerous places in the world, was a highly experienced one. No matter where they worked, MSF always cooperated with the local population, regardless of tribe, ethnicity or community. It was part of the job that anyone sent into the field had to be able to work in difficult areas, and something must have gone seriously wrong if, after several years’ presence throughout Syria, MSF had now had five employees kidnapped. It was a testament to the fact that no foreigners in Syria could feel assured of their safety, not even emissaries from a charitable organization that gave medical assistance to everyone.

Kjeld and Susanne feared what the media’s focus on the capture of a Danish aid worker in Syria might mean for the secrecy surrounding Daniel’s kidnapping. Kidnapping cases involving westerners were generally kept out of the news through a so-called media blackout. Most of the Danish newspapers and television stations knew about the kidnapping, but had agreed not to write about the case in the interest of Daniel’s safety.

Now and then, the international press published stories about ISIS keeping at least ten western hostages, and James Foley’s family had been running a public campaign to rescue him since January 2013, while the rest of the hostages remained anonymous.

It was usually up to the individual families if they wanted to break the silence. The media blackout didn’t necessarily help the situation, but it was often seen as a sensible precaution, since no one knew how the kidnappers would respond to international publicity. It allowed those trying to get the hostages released to work in peace, and ensured that news articles didn’t motivate the kidnappers to raise the ransom money or make the hostages’ conditions worse.

Kjeld and Susanne were divided about the right thing to do. Susanne felt some relief at the thought that she would no longer have to tell lies to keep it a secret. If she spotted someone she knew out of the corner of her eye while shopping in the supermarket, she often had to flee in order to avoid a conversation.

Conversely, she and Kjeld were waiting for the kidnappers to contact them by email and they didn’t dare take the risk that Daniel’s possible release might be thwarted by the Danish and international media writing about the case, so together with Arthur, they decided to wait and see. To be on the safe side, Susanne drafted an email to be sent out to family, friends and neighbours in case the media chose to write about Daniel.

‘We don’t know what the newspapers will come out with,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘so it’s important they get the true story.’

That same day in Syria, a large-scale offensive began against ISIS.

· * ·

Daniel was sitting in the cell, listening to the enormous blasts from the falling bombs. The building shook and exchanges of gunfire echoed in the air. The prisoners were also feeling the physical effects of the attacks coming closer. Meals were sporadic and one morning they didn’t get any bread.

‘The fighting is too fierce,’ the guards explained. ‘We can’t get out to pick up food.’

Daniel wondered if ISIS was on the defensive. If so, he had no idea who was doing the attacking and what the situation was on the ground above his head. But it turned out he was right: other Syrian rebel groups had launched an offensive against ISIS around Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa. Fighters of the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra were all launching a war against ISIS.

According to several reports, the Islamic Front, a gathering of various more or less moderate Syrian rebels, had so many fighters that they were rapidly advancing, especially in some districts of Aleppo and in areas around the town, where they took over control. At the same time, Assad regime troops were taking advantage of the internal struggle between the Syrian rebels and ISIS. Other reports described how the regime’s forces were advancing and trying to recapture parts of Aleppo’s industrial district, Sheikh Najjar, where the hostages were imprisoned.

The moderate insurgents had for a long time regarded ISIS as an enemy of their original revolution, which first and foremost was about overthrowing the Assad regime and stopping its oppression of the Sunni majority in Syria.

When ISIS made gains, they captured areas from other rebels, partly with the help of the Assad regime, which mainly attacked the moderate rebel positions rather than ISIS, and partly with help from the rebels’ own ranks, as some fighters joined the more powerful ISIS.

But patience was running out among the moderates and Daniel sensed some panic among their kidnappers when, one morning just one and a half weeks into January 2014, the hostages were blindfolded, handcuffed, thrown into the back of a truck and driven away.

There could no longer be any doubt that ISIS was facing pressure in the area where the hostages were being held, so they were hurriedly moving them.

They rumbled along some gravel roads for about fifteen minutes. When they arrived, they were allowed to take off their blindfolds and found themselves in an urban area none of them recogized. For once the cell wasn’t in a basement. There were windows out to a corridor and to the outside world, but the panes were covered. The hostages could see a tower on the horizon through a small hole in the cardboard.

Eighteen hostages were now assembled, among them the newly arrived Spanish journalists, the American aid worker and two others that Daniel hadn’t heard of or met before. A voice suddenly spoke Danish to him.

‘Hi, I’m Dan. I’m from Denmark.’

‘Hi Dan, I’m also from Denmark,’ said Daniel in English, caught off-guard after so many months and unable to find the Danish words.

‘You can just speak Danish,’ laughed Dan with his deep voice.

He had been kidnapped a few days earlier, along with four colleagues from MSF. Daniel stared in amazement at the Dane, who looked like a big teddy bear with his round cheeks, his bushy beard and long hair. He and his Belgian colleague were dressed in orange jumpsuits like the other hostages and Daniel felt that Dan, who was both broad and tall, was twice as big as him.

Dan told him that three of his female colleagues had been captured with them and were in the cell next door.

‘What’s happening in Denmark?’ asked Daniel.

‘Nothing in particular,’ said Dan.

Daniel had previously experienced how a new hostage could be in a state of shock, so he held back until Dan was ready to talk. But it wasn’t long before he and Dan were having long conversations together in Danish about both of them having been Scouts in the same Christian organization and how much fun it was to go out in Aarhus. Dan had been a volunteer at an annual music festival and they agreed that when they got out, they would go to the festival together.

Having an extra Dane in the group expanded Daniel’s mental space. They could speak freely about the other hostages and air their frustrations. Daniel had been listening to the French for months, while they spoke confidentially in their mother tongue about their fellow prisoners.

Oh boy, this is great, he thought, feeling closer to Denmark when chatting with Dan.

The cell looked like an office: it had a desk, shelves and parts of the floor were carpeted. Posters for household appliances were stuck up on the walls - one showed a picture of a piece of roast meat in an oven, while a woman stood to one side, smiling. The guards had tried to cover her face with a piece of cardboard, but it constantly fell down, so her smile came into view.

The Beatles were still part of their everyday life and eternal constant reminder that anything could happen. One day Daniel was sitting on the windowsill, while the others were arranging the blankets in the limited space. A guard saw him sitting by the covered window and thundered, ‘Why are you sitting on the windowsill? Are you about to escape? You’ve tried that before.’

The following evening the Beatles came in, led by John.

‘Squat in the middle of the floor,’ he ordered Daniel.

John had brought a sabre with him, of the type that Muslim armies had used in the Middle Ages. It was almost three foot long and had a silver handle. Daniel felt its sharp edge when the sabre was placed against his neck.

‘Have you tried to escape?’ shouted John threateningly.

Daniel explained that he had simply been sitting on the windowsill.

‘Do you want to lose your head?’

‘No,’ answered Daniel clearly.

‘You were lucky,’ said John, after the Beatles turned their attention to two other hostages, John and Peter.

They accused the two hostages of planning an escape, even though they had just been playing a quiz in which they had to name films that began with different letters. They were instructed to sit at opposite ends of the room.

The psychological torture was beginning to lose its effect. Mentally, Daniel had donned an iron vest, which tightened his emotions into an unwavering line. If he didn’t get too happy when the food came, too scared when a sabre was put to his neck and too sad when the proof-of-life pictures came to nothing, the whole situation became endurable. His mind had turned into a comfortable, grey mass, even when Paul was cramming verses from the Koran and the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) into the hostages to - as he put it - prepare them for death. Daniel numbly repeated the short phrases that formed the shahada: ‘I bear witness that there is no other god than Allah. He has no partners. And I bear witness that Muhammad is His slave and messenger.’

On 19 January 2014 the cell received its nineteenth hostage, the British taxi driver Alan Henning from Manchester. Just after Christmas he had been taken by masked and armed men in the Syrian city of Adana outside Aleppo, when he was working as a voluntary aid worker.

It was the third time he had travelled in Syria as a volunteer for Aid for Syria and he had worked hard in his taxi to save enough money and earn time off to drive a relief convoy all the way down through Europe to Syria. His commitment to the war-torn country was kindled after he had held a Syrian baby in his arms in a refugee camp.

‘The way she looked at me. I felt terrible,’ explained Alan, who had ‘Aid for Syria’ tattooed on the inside of his wrist, while a carp graced one of his shoulders. He told Daniel that he loved to fish for carp and had taken his wife on a fishing trip on their honeymoon.

‘If we continue sitting here, it’ll become a bloody goldfish,’ he joked about the tattoo.

Alan had barely arrived before the hostages were chained together in groups. Daniel was tied together with the Belgian from MSF and the Russian Sergei. They collected all the blankets they could carry and Daniel dragged a small mattress up on to the back of a pickup, where the hostages were covered by the blankets, so that no one could see them. After a short drive, they were separated into two trucks and began a journey of several days to the ISIS stronghold.

Daniel crawled over some boxes and further into the back of the truck. With his blindfold on, he arranged the blankets and the mattress so that he sat fairly softly against the metal skeleton of the cargo hold.

When the truck set off, he pulled the blindfold down around his neck. Beside him sat Pierre and in the light that penetrated through the cracks in the tarpaulin over the hold, Daniel and Pierre could see the Spanish Chef wearing a suicide vest. Pierre was annoyed that the guard was sitting with the prisoners. It precluded an escape attempt and Pierre left the piece of aluminium from a can of hummus, which he often used to unlock his handcuffs, in his pocket.

Then Pierre noticed that the cartons which surrounded them in the cargo hold resembled those the prisoners had previously been served dates from. Pierre leaned towards Daniel.

‘Look in the boxes,’ he urged.

They were indeed sat among boxes of dates and, when it was dark and the Spanish Chef was sleeping, Pierre took out a bag from one of the boxes. Should they open it? If they were caught eating the dates, the guards would regard it as theft, which in the caliphate’s book was punishable by chopping off a hand. Their hunger won and they sneakily ate from the bag, which they afterwards hid at the bottom of the box.

There weren’t only dates in the cargo hold. There were also some wooden boxes with the word ‘explosives’ printed along the sides. Daniel could feel his insides contracting as it dawned on him what this meant: he was being transported next to explosives, probably roadside bombs, which were one of ISIS’s trademark weapons. When enemy forces advanced into ISIS territories, they were often met by mines that ISIS buried in roads, in gardens and in doorways.

After their meal of dates Daniel lay down to sleep, while Pierre made use of the silence of the night to look out from under the tarpaulin to get an idea of where they were going. Far into the night, the truck stopped and, after several requests, the prisoners were finally allowed to get out and pee. Daniel walked a few metres off into the roadside to urinate. It was the first time in over eight months that he had been able look around outside.

There was a frosty mist, but an otherwise clear sky. The moonlight penetrated the greyish-white, dusty air, which was illuminated by the headlights of a long convoy of trucks waiting in queues in both directions. He could see vehicles for as far his poor eyesight could stretch. Pierre noticed a huge truck loaded with military vehicles, while on the back of a small pickup sat women and children. Other vehicles were loaded with goods and cargo that were apparently being transported to and from the ISIS areas.

When the convoy set off again, a whispered rumour spread in the back of the truck. Pierre and the Spanish hostages wanted to try and escape. They would cut a hole in the tarpaulin and jump out when they reached a desert landscape like the one in which they had just stopped. Pierre imagined that it would be impossible to see them if they quickly got away from the road. They would run in the direction of the border and avoid towns along the way.

Daniel shuddered at the thought. His own failed escape attempt fresh in his mind, he thought the plan being drawn up by Pierre and the other prisoners would be impossible to execute. There were at least ten of them in the back of the truck, all dressed in orange prison suits and barefoot. They had no idea where they were or what lay hidden in the surrounding area. Their orange clothing would shine like spotlights in the dark and they would be dependent on meeting someone willing to help them. Moreover, those who were left in the truck would probably be punished when the guards discovered that some of the hostages had escaped. Those hostages who had experienced torture didn’t want to try to escape, including Daniel. He would rather die than escape, then be captured and tortured again. It was different for Pierre. He hadn’t experienced the worst of the torture.

It was still dark when the truck stopped at a farm along a country lane. They were thrown into a concrete shed with frosted windows, where the hostages from the other truck were already waiting for them. None of them had been given any food.

There was a washing machine and an iron bed in the shed. Blankets and mattresses were scattered over the floor. Pierre and one of the Spaniards found a pair of scissors, which they could use to cut a hole in the tarpaulin. Someone put the scissors in his pocket, after which they went searching in a pile of clothes that were scattered about. There were used trousers and shirts for men, which they could wrap around their feet and use as shoes. Pierre told Daniel about the escape plan in detail and he briefly considered escaping with them, because he couldn’t handle being left alone.

Just before dawn all nineteen hostages were pushed into the back of the truck. One of them asked if they might eat the dates.

‘As many as you want,’ came the reply.

It became a date feast. Daniel opened different bags. Some were dry and tough, others juicy and soft. As they assuaged their hunger with the dates, their thirst increased; and then there was the next challenge: a toilet visit. Some of them got diarrhoea from the dates. They found a plastic bag, which they stuffed into a cardboard box to form a makeshift toilet. But it wasn’t an easy target to hit in the twilight, while in a moving vehicle. When one of them tried to use the box, he didn’t aim straight. The others got angry and asked where they were supposed to sit in the cramped space when people were crapping all over the place. Some of them howled with laughter and tried to cover the faeces with a blanket. It stank. It was a madhouse, with nineteen hostages in a few square metres.

Meanwhile, Pierre sat preoccupied, looking out through the tarpaulin. They had stopped in a convoy, as if permission wasn’t being given to drive any further. Besides that, it was beginning to get light out and he saw for himself how the grand escape plan was crumbling.

The truck made several stopovers during the journey, when the hostages were temporarily stored in rooms and cellars. After they had been travelling for several days, Pierre observed through the tarpaulin how the desert landscape was coming closer and they sensed they were heading northwards.

They drove past some ancient Roman walls in what looked like Sergiopolis, south-west of Raqqa. Between the old ruins, Pierre caught sight of oil that was flowing out into the sand and the warriors raised their guns and shouted ‘Allahu akhbar!’ while firing into the air. It made Daniel jump, because he was sitting next to a box of explosives.

Later they drove past some green fields, which could indicate they were close to the Euphrates River, which runs through Raqqa province. When they stopped in a small town, the Spanish Chef got off. Before he left them, he stuck his head into the cargo hold and gave the hostages a final piece of advice:

‘Find another job; stop being journalists.’

It was a relief when the truck finally reached its destination and they were led into a room with uncovered windows. They weren’t allowed to bring their blankets, but were given new ones and some pizza, which they shared among themselves.

Daniel could hear the three women from MSF complaining loudly in the room next door.

After only a couple of hours’ break, they were fetched again and led back to the pickups.

‘Look down between your legs,’ they were ordered.

After a short drive, they entered a courtyard, and when Daniel raised his head, he saw a large mansion in front of them. In the doorway stood the three women from MSF, wearing headscarves and arranged like a welcoming committee.

The hostages were led up a flight of stairs to the top floor and into a small bedroom. There were mattresses spread out ready on the floor and there was a toilet with a bathtub. A door led out to an enclosed terrace, where there were sofas and tables. A couple of young, clean-shaven, well-dressed guys in jeans and leather jackets asked what they would like to eat. Daniel thought he had misheard. He didn’t know what he wanted. He had forgotten what it was like to decide for himself.

‘Just chicken and fries,’ said someone.

To everyone’s surprise, their hosts brought them barbecued chicken and French fries.

The next morning, the obliging, clean-shaven hosts from the night before invited the hostages to breakfast on the terrace. The sun was still low and the morning mist lay across the Euphrates. Daniel shaped some binoculars with his forefinger and thumb and could just make out a small boat on the river. In the distance, he could see fields and the city of Raqqa, and on the other side of the river was a water treatment facility. On the neighbouring property, a satellite dish pointed east.

He drank a cup of tea, while quietly enjoying the view of the world and the Euphrates. They were between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, where some of the greatest civilizations in the history of the world first flourished: Babylon and Assyria. According to the Bible, the Euphrates sprang out of the river of Eden, along with three other streams. Daniel thought more than six months back to the time when he had tried to hang himself. He was still a hostage, yet it felt as if that had happened in a completely different world to the one he was in now.

‘This is the Islamic State,’ said their host. Daniel nodded.

The latest civilization to be found here was known for darkness and violence, except for their host who fussed over them and seemed interested in treating his western ‘guests’ well.

Breakfast consisted of tinned tuna and sardines, hummus and plenty of bread.

The first four days in the mansion-prison, which the hostages called Riverside, proceeded quietly. During the day, when the guards were present, they could walk around freely. In the evening, they sat chained together in pairs, while the women were made to cook dinner. Fully covered, they rummaged around in the kitchen, but one evening no food arrived. One of the prisoners knocked impatiently on the door to get an explanation and a female hostage came into the cell and said that there was apparently no more money for food.

Daniel tried to distract his hunger by playing games. He had hidden some cardboard in his trousers, which he took out from its hiding place. On one side he drew a chessboard and on the other, a backgammon game. Although he was still chained to the Belgian, they found a lighter in a drawer and made two chunks from a piece of candle, which they melted into cubes. They shaped the eyes on the dice with a warmed up nail and then filled them with ink.

The Belgian and Daniel also made two sets of playing cards from the bottoms of some cardboard boxes that had contained Laughing Cow cheese and some flyers with Arabic script, which they had found somewhere in the room. They didn’t think for a moment about what was on the flyers until a guard spotted the cards.

‘What’s that?’ he asked.

‘It’s a card game we made,’ Daniel replied.

The guard took the cards from them. They had committed a great sin, because they had made playing cards out of what were apparently Jabhat al-Nusra’s recruitment flyers. They had thoughtlessly torn into pieces the Prophet’s words and verses from the Koran and turned the holy scriptures into a game with infidel kings and queens.

Daniel expected they would be punished, but life as a hostage with ISIS was unpredictable. To his great relief, nothing more happened.

Card games, tea and sardines couldn’t numb Daniel’s longing to escape. This was further encouraged by the large windows in their cell. Right out there on the other side of the glass stretched freedom. The hostages began to conduct a sort of public hearing on the topic of ‘golf’, a code name for their escape attempt. Everyone had something to say. Would it actually be possible to ‘play golf’?

Daniel shared his own experiences. He showed the scars on his wrists and throat. That was why he had tried to escape, but there was a high risk of failure - also, they were in the middle of ISIS’s stronghold in winter, when it would be possible to see them for miles in their orange jumpsuits.

‘It isn’t enough just to be out on the other side of the window,’ he said.

Some of the hostages argued that it was better to die free than to rot in captivity. Pierre would rather flee than allow ISIS to get money for him, if indeed that ever became an issue.

David, who had experience from the British military, strongly advised that they reflect on the matter, because statistically the vast majority of hostages are released through successful negotiations. An escape would have to be arranged and planned down to the smallest detail, he said, because escape attempts often ended in death. It might well have been an escape attempt that had cost Kenneth Bigley his life. According to the Sunday Times, Bigley had managed to escape from his captors with the help of a Syrian and an Iraqi, who had infiltrated the group. But after a short time on the run, Bigley had been recognized at a checkpoint, even though he had been disguised. This example was one of several that supported the notion that escape attempts often ended up going wrong - even if one had outside help.

‘I know the odds,’ David insisted. ‘I’m betting on coming out through negotiations.’

Even so, Daniel whispered in Pierre’s ear that he would join him if he planned to escape.

Despite the grim statistics, there was agreement among the hostages that they could at least explore the possibilities. They delegated tasks to each other. Some of them had to keep an eye on what was happening outside the windows, so that they could understand when the guards came and went, what weapons they carried, who replaced whom, how many guards were in and around the mansion, and how to attack a guard and steal his car.

The hostages created a document in which they noted what they had seen. They were cautious and wrote in code, as if it were player rankings from a card tournament. They were always ready to swallow the most dangerous notes.

David was the voice of pragmatism.

‘You have to convince me it’s possible,’ he said and asked the others to find patterns in the guards’ activities that could be exploited. For example, did the guards sleep before dinner at a certain time or was there a period during the day when there were fewer of them?

They took notes as they watched through the windows and saw cars driving to and from the mansion; when the guards checked the cell and brought food; and where and how many lookouts there were.

The Americans thought that they had to work fast, because it was perhaps the last chance they would get before they were again moved to a basement cell without windows.

They watched the guards for four days, but there was no regularity in their activities. There didn’t seem to be any regular routines.

There is no damn pattern at all! Try finding a pattern in the Middle East, thought Daniel.

Their escape plans were given the final death knell when the Beatles moved into the closed terrace next to their cell. Only a thin curtain and a window pane separated the hostages from their worst guards. At any moment, John or George could pull aside the curtain and monitor every movement the nineteen men were making. It gave Daniel the chills. It was as if the curtain and the side of the room where it hung had become toxic. Now it was just about survival, because the British guards seemed more unpredictable than ever.

‘Peter Kassig!’ shouted George one day to the American.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Do you like to be in the army, Peter?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Do you like to kill Muslims, Peter?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Don’t lie to us.’

Peter was ordered to stand up for several hours on the spot. Another time it was James who had to stand for a whole night. When this happened, the other hostages took turns staying awake and giving them water or bread if they needed it, but the Beatles even put a stop to that outbreak of solidarity. They installed a camera on top of a cupboard in the cell and hooked it up through the door and out to the terrace where they lived.

‘Now we can see every move you make,’ announced John.

Daniel stopped doing his daily sit-ups and the hostages held back from playing and talking together out of fear that it could give the British guards an excuse to punish them. The Beatles watched them through the camera, which Daniel felt pointed straight at him. They could come in at any second. He felt as if he was chained to the radiator again.

‘You’re sitting looking out the window!’ shouted John to Daniel one day.

He had just leaned his head against the cold pane. ‘No, I wasn’t.’

‘Yes, you were. I could see you.’

The mental torture also consisted of Ringo and John standing in the doorway, demanding specific answers to political questions.

‘Do you know Blackwater?’ one asked, to which the hostages would answer that it was the US security company that, among other things, was guilty of killing seventeen civilians during the Iraq War.

At other times they demanded that the hostages ask them questions to which they responded with long, preaching answers. It was a game of ‘ask a question or get beaten up’.

‘Why are you so opposed to women being educated?’ asked one hostage.

‘We don’t say that. Women should be educated in the Koran, because it is they who must raise our children. The more they learn about the Koran, the purer and better the children will be,’ one of the Brits replied and went on to talk about ‘the true path’.

Ringo said that, while living in Britain, he had phoned in to a debate on the radio and said that the western forces would lose in Afghanistan and Iraq, because God was on the Islamists’ side. The host of the show had claimed there was a problem with the connection and had hung up.

‘That is proof that there is no culture of debate in western countries,’ he said.

James asked what was the point of converting to Islam if other Muslims still considered a convert an infidel? The response from the Brits was that only God could cast doubt on the sincerity of one’s belief.

The Beatles also played the hostages off against each other. One day they gave Toni, who had converted to Islam, a whole chicken at one of the meals.

‘Toni is a good Muslim,’ they said.

‘May I share the chicken with two others?’ asked Toni.


Toni suggested giving a little of his chicken to two of the other prisoners who had also converted, James and John.

‘James may not have any,’ they answered. ‘He is evil.’

Daniel tried to make himself as invisible and insignificant to the Beatles as possible; to merge into the wall and hide himself among the others as if he didn’t exist. He didn’t dare to even look at them, unlike Pierre, who was on alert whenever they were in the cell.

One day George, for the first and only time, entered without covering his face. While he stood in front of James and put a plastic cable tie around his tongue, several of the hostages paid close attention to his appearance. He was quite young, maybe in his early twenties, with shoulder-length, wavy hair, a thin beard and full lips. Terror had finally been given a face.

Daniel mostly succeeded in staying under the British guards’ radar - until one day in early February 2014, when they again asked for email addresses for Daniel’s immediate family members.

‘If you give me your girlfriend’s email address again, I’ll beat you to a pulp!’ shouted John.

Daniel gave him his mother’s email address. But he wasn’t sure if he had remembered it correctly.