The ISIS Hostage (2016)
Emails from the Dark
On Saturday, 8 February 2014 Susanne and Kjeld were at a birthday party at the Hedegård Community Hall. Their relative and neighbour Sven Olaf was celebrating his seventieth birthday and the room was buzzing with talkative friends and neighbours dressed up for the occasion. Under normal circumstances, Kjeld and Susanne would have enjoyed being part of this festive gathering, but not on this particular day, because, as usual, the conversation veered towards the subject of how the children were.
‘Where’s Daniel?’ their friends asked.
‘He’s off somewhere taking photos. He lives in Copenhagen,’ lied Susanne, stifling the anguish of betraying her desire to tell the truth.
Susanne and Kjeld were on tenterhooks all evening and took turns going into the bathroom to check their mobiles for any new messages. They thought it would be rude to have their phones sitting out next to the birthday cakes. Later in the evening, they went home exhausted. Kjeld went to bed and Susanne switched on the computer in the office to check her email one last time.
At 9.26 p.m. an email had arrived. She didn’t recognize the sender, loo2tome@Safe-mail.net, but opened it anyway; it was written in English and used a lot of capital letters, making it look at first glance like spam. It began:
This message is to inform you that we have taken the Denmark citizen Daniel Rye Ottosen PRISONER. It’s very simple, a CASH PAYMENT will secure his release.
Susanne held her breath as she read on.
If you want to confirm we are really the ones holding Daniel, then we will except [sic] three questions from his family of a personal nature that only Daniel could possibly be able to answer correctly.
The CONDITIONS OF DANIEL’S SAFE RETURN IS, NO MEDIA INVOLVEMENT, WHATSOEVER, AND A CASH PAYMENT!
Reply FAST, with clearly written email messages, to this email address and NO ATTACHMENTS! Act FAST, so as not to endanger the safety of Daniel.
Susanne flew out of the office and ran to the bedroom. Kjeld was still awake.
‘There’s an email from Syria!’ she shouted.
Finally, after almost nine months, the kidnappers were interested in making contact.
They’re ready to negotiate, thought Kjeld, as they forwarded the email to Arthur and called him. Arthur was on holiday with his family, travelling on some Norwegian road in the middle of nowhere. Since he had started working to find James Foley - and later Daniel - he had hardly stepped foot in Denmark. Having spent more than 275 days travelling in 2013, he had finally taken a couple of days off to spend time with his family.
‘I’ll have a look at it and send you my thoughts as soon as we get to our cabin,’ he said.
When he read the message from the kidnappers, he could see the wording and the use of capital letters were similar to the email that James’s family had received in December 2013.
Susanne and Kjeld couldn’t sleep that night. The words from the email swirled around Susanne’s head, especially the sentence about not speaking to the media. She couldn’t help but worry about what would happen if journalists wrote about Daniel anyway.
The following day they discussed their next move with Arthur and at noon they sent their reply to the kidnappers. They made sure that the proof-of-life questions would make Daniel think of something positive.
‘Assalamu alaikum, greetings,’ they began their message. They went on to explain that for nine months they had been trying to negotiate a ‘practical’ solution that could bring Daniel home, and that they had managed so far to keep the story out of the press.
Then they listed their three carefully selected questions for Daniel: ‘At which family event did Daniel give a speech shortly before his departure to Syria, and where did it take place? Where did Daniel and Signe first meet? With whom did he travel to Nepal?’
The email ended with a heartfelt request: ‘Would you please pass on our best wishes to Daniel from Signe, Anita, Christina, Dad and Mum. Best regards, Susanne and Kjeld Rye Ottosen.’
· * ·
The day after the family had replied to the kidnappers’ email, the hostages were moved to a new location. Had Daniel been able to look at a satellite photograph, he would have seen a square, fenced-in area. It lay south-east of Raqqa in the middle of the deserted, sand-coloured expanse, a short distance from the verdant areas surrounding the Euphrates. The vegetation alongside the building indicated that it was being watered and trees had been planted in long, straight rows. Two iron towers stood high above and the large containers standing close to the building indicated that this could be an oil refinery.
The new cell, where Daniel was to spend the remainder of his captivity, was named the Quarry by the other prisoners.
When the captives’ handcuffs and blindfolds were removed, Peter blurted out: ‘I’ve been here before!’
He reassured the other men, telling them that the last time there had been a nice guard and that he had been given plenty to eat, even though he was served only one meal a day. It was also in this prison that Peter had converted to Islam and taken the Muslim name Abdul Rahman. Pierre recognized the room as being the first one he had stayed in when he was originally captured in June 2013.
The cell was dark and measured about 170 square feet. The only sunlight there was filtered in through a ventilator in a corner of the room. They used the daylight to help them count the days and the guards’ calls to prayer to work out what time it was.
There were storage boxes for clothes and medicine, so they could keep things tidy. They were given a couple of blankets each and, as the weather was becoming milder, they had no difficulty staying warm in the overcrowded cell. New prison suits were also handed out, as the orange ones had become infested with lice. Daniel wore dark-green trousers and a jacket.
They had been in the Quarry only a couple of days when the Beatles banged hard on the cell door. Daniel sat with his hands against the wall, as one of the Brits kicked him in the side.
‘Danish boy … we’ve got some questions for you. Make sure you answer them right. Don’t screw this up!’
The first proof-of-life question was put to him: at which family event had he given a speech just before he travelled to Syria?
He felt a surge of energy rushing through his body. His captors had taken images and videos of him at random, and he had no idea if any of them had ever reached home. Suddenly, he felt as if his family were speaking directly to him.
‘My maternal grandfather’s birthday,’ answered Daniel.
‘Where did you meet your girlfriend, Signe?’ the Brit continued.
‘I met her at Vesterlund Ungdomsskole.’
The Brit burst out laughing.
‘Vester-what? You’ll have to spell that for us!’
Daniel started laughing too, and a warm feeling spread throughout his entire body at the thought that Signe was still waiting for him. She had to be, otherwise he wouldn’t have been given that question.
The Brit ordered him to spell out ‘Vesterlund Ungdomsskole’ using the phonetic alphabet, but he could remember only Alpha, Bravo, Charlie. Instead he found random words that began with the respective letters to dictate the rest.
The answer to the last question was easier: who had he travelled with in Nepal?
‘My friend, Ebbe,’ answered Daniel, who could no longer conceal his enthusiasm and answered a bit too cheerfully. A punishment was promptly issued: one of the Beatles whacked him in the side. His instinct was to contract and draw his body in on itself, but he remained sitting upright. Then kicks began coming at him from all angles, landing on his legs, shoulders, ribs, until he could no longer sit up. He ended up in a foetal position on the floor to protect his stomach and internal organs. He felt a desert boot using his face as a doormat, wiping the sole against his ear, while other boots continued relentlessly kicking his lower back and thighs.
Petrified, Pierre sat in the mandatory position, with his face and hands against the wall, and listened to the merciless beating of his screaming friend. When the Beatles left the cell, everyone looked at Daniel, who was crying. Pierre asked in a concerned voice if he was OK and Dan asked where it hurt most. After a while in captivity, they had learned to protect their internal organs from the beatings; bruising would disappear, but permanent internal injuries would not. Despite the pain, Daniel laughed and cried with relief that he hadn’t been seriously hurt.
‘Signe is waiting for me! Signe is waiting for me!’ he exclaimed.
During this period, the prisoners held proof-of-life parties whenever one of them was asked questions like the ones the guards had asked Daniel. Emails had been sent to the hostages’ families or employers, who hastily sent back questions. The only people who had nothing to celebrate were the six British and American hostages. Nobody asked them proof-of-life questions. The other captives had various theories as to why. Perhaps the silence was part of a political game, perhaps the US and UK were playing hard to get, or maybe the Beatles could manage only a certain number of negotiations at one time.
With impatience and a deep sense of foreboding, the six hostages nevertheless waited for a sign that negotiations for their release would begin soon.
· * ·
Five days passed before Daniel’s family in Hedegård received answers to the questions they had sent the kidnappers; the responses confirmed that they were indeed in contact with those holding Daniel captive.
‘The family event was his maternal grandfather’s 75th birthday that took place in Ribe,’ stated the kidnappers’ email. ‘Daniel met Signe at Vesterlund Ungdomsskole. He travelled to Nepal with his best friend, Ebbe.’
Susanne began to cry. She was communicating with her son for the first time in nine months. It was as if, through his answers, he was speaking directly to her.
A few lines further down in the email came the long-awaited demand for a ransom.
For his release we are demanding a CASH PAYMENT of TWO MILLION EUROS NOW!! You’ve been contacted a while ago, yet you’ve responded very late … We hope for his sake you care about him, because time is now against him. The longer you take the less likely Daniel will live!!
The amount requested by the kidnappers was exorbitant - the equivalent of 15 million Danish kroner (about £1,500,000) - but Kjeld thought that now they had a negotiating position, they would be sure to get Daniel home for much less.
Communicating with kidnappers is a special skill, requiring a thorough knowledge of who the captors are; every single word has to be carefully weighed. Arthur knew that negotiating with ISIS would require a different strategy to dealing with criminal gangs in Nigeria or pirates in Somalia. Moreover, this was the first time ISIS had initiated any actual communication for a ransom for male hostages from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Germany or Belgium.
The captors swore allegiance to an uncompromising Islamist ideology and had a clear political agenda, which was far more important to them than money, the usual motivation behind pirate kidnappings. But the ISIS captors were also extremely strategic. Some months earlier, they had demanded a staggering ransom from James Foley’s family. The United States had categorically refused to negotiate and if the family collected the money itself, it would be in breach of US law against funding terrorism. Now ISIS was negotiating the release of hostages from the European countries that often did pay a ransom (with the exception of Denmark), which demonstrated a clear difference between American and European approaches to hostage situations. Arthur assumed the kidnappers intended to play off the different governments against one another. Undoubtedly this strategy would only increase the pressure on the families of the American and British hostages, whose governments refused to negotiate with terrorists.
Advised by Arthur of the latest details of the proposal from ISIS concerning Daniel’s case, the Danish authorities offered to take over all of the correspondence between the captors and Susanne and Kjeld in order to protect them. But Susanne and Kjeld didn’t want to give up control. They preferred to handle the situation personally in close collaboration with Arthur, whom they trusted - even if no one could predict the kidnappers’ next move. Arthur decided they should continue to communicate as ‘the family’ and not let the correspondence seem too ‘professional’. They must not under any circumstances give the impression that the government was behind their emails, especially since this was not the case. It was important that they separated themselves from the other negotiations that Arthur knew had already been initiated by European authorities for some of Daniel’s fellow prisoners. The captors should understand that in Daniel’s case, they were negotiating directly with an ordinary Danish family who had no way of paying such a high ransom.
They also needed to realize that, unlike Spain, France and some other European nations, the Danish government didn’t generally pay ransoms. Arthur and the family concluded that the best approach would be to try and appeal to the kidnappers with the truth and to speak to them from their emotional and exhausted hearts.
The crucial next step would be to buy time in order to scrape together the money, without putting off the kidnappers, while simultaneously trying to lower the exorbitant ransom of 15 million kroner.
The family were unwilling participants in a race against time, as the captors never failed to remind them. ‘The longer it takes, the less likelihood Daniel has of survival,’ they threatened.
Arthur had no doubt that the captors were capable of murdering Daniel if they didn’t get what they wanted. He wrote to them from the family’s email account, explaining that they hadn’t heard from the captors until this point and that they had repeatedly tried to communicate to find a solution.
‘We are a simple, hard-working family […] The amount you are requesting for Daniel’s release is unrealistic for us to put together,’ he wrote. He stressed that at the beginning of the coming week, they would go to the bank to ascertain how large a sum they could manage to raise towards the ransom. To keep the email personal, he signed off with: ‘We would very much like you to tell Daniel that we are thinking of him and praying for him.’
The following week, Kjeld and Susanne went to the bank to find out exactly how much they could borrow against their house. Kjeld couldn’t stand the thought of going and begging for money from other people and he was confident they could raise the entire amount with a loan from the bank.
On 17 February they requested the maximum sum they could borrow, which came to just over 1,350,000 kroner. They stated their offer to the kidnappers in American dollars, because they thought the sum sounded more impressive than in euros. Once their offer of $251,000 had been dispatched, Kjeld sent Anita a text message: ‘Let’s just hope they’re feeling generous.’
· * ·
‘You have to write some letters,’ ordered the Beatles as they handed out sheets of paper to the hostages in the cell in Raqqa. It was at the end of February and they were told to write home to their families in English. The letters were to contain specific wording and Daniel added no personal feelings to it, as he was ordered to write:
Dear Mum and Dad, I’m so sorry to put you all through this. Please follow the instructions of the group that is holding me. This is all about money. Collect as much money as possible and I will be released. I love you all very much and hope with all my heart to see you all again. Yours, Daniel.
A few days later the Beatles came back to record a video with the Spanish hostage Marc Marginedas. It came as no surprise that Marc was the first to be filmed, since a ransom had already been paid for his release. They knew this, because when the hostages had been kept in the house overlooking the Euphrates, George had told them, ‘It’s looking good for you Spaniards.’
The hostages had cautiously anticipated that the Spaniards would be the first to be released. Daniel felt dismay spread throughout his body that he wasn’t the one on his way home. When Marc had finished thanking them all, the Beatles turned towards Daniel and ordered him to take off his shirt. With open palms, they slapped his chest and rubbed him with the sole of a shoe until his skin looked red and raw. Then he remained bare-chested as they positioned him against the white walls of the cell and ordered him to look directly into the camera. With the marks across his chest clearly visible, he said in staccato sentences: ‘Hi Mum. I heard that you’re going to the bank next week. Please collect all the money that you can get. It’s just about money, so I can get released. Please help me.’
· * ·
On the day Marc was meant to be released, the Beatles banged hard on the door and stood in the doorway calling for him as he stood there with the hand-written letters that he had been told to take away with him.
‘You’re going home now,’ announced the Brits.
‘The rest of you can also get ready. You’re being moved.’
Marc stood in the middle of the room and said nothing. The Beatles went up to James.
‘Look at him closely. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to freedom.’
Marc was told to take a shower and he was allowed to go to the toilet. The electricity had gone out and it was dark in the cell. The Beatles put a flashlight in the corner, while the hostages were allowed to go to the toilet one at a time.
‘Make sure you empty your bladders. You’re going to be travelling a long way. You’re going to Iraq,’ the Beatles told them loudly, stomping around among the hostages, stepping on their arms and legs whenever possible. Then they split them up into smaller groups.
‘Denmark, sit together,’ came the order. ‘France, you too.’
Daniel and Dan moved close together and put their arms round each other’s shoulders.
‘Right then, boys, it’s taking a long time to go to the toilet … We can sing our little song, do you remember it?’ asked George as he held his nose.
One of the Brits found an empty pot, which he put on James’s head.
‘Can you balance it … ?’
When the pot fell off, they turned it over and put it on James’ head like a hat.
‘Have you been practising “Osama’s Lovely Hotel”? America, start singing!’ ordered the Beatles, who walked among the small groups in the dim light from the flashlight and conducted the singing.
While some of them took turns to go to the toilet, the remaining hostages had to sing in rounds about Osama’s lovely hotel, where you would die if you tried to escape.
‘Come on, Denmark!’ shouted the Beatles, randomly pushing and kicking the prisoners. When it was Daniel’s turn to urinate, he was given a light and hurried out to the toilet. As he washed his hands he could hear the hellish singing, a din that wailed in the background like a broken record. Then he returned to the room, sat down, put his arm around Dan and started singing too.
When the song was over, nothing more happened. They weren’t moved, even though the Beatles had made sure they had said it loud enough for Marc to hear. This was presumably so that on Marc’s release he could convey false information to his government’s intelligence service by telling them that the hostages were no longer being held captive at the Quarry in Raqqa.
They never saw Marc again. At some point the Beatles must have sneaked him out. Later that day, Daniel saw Marc’s old clothes in a tub in the bathroom. The first prisoner had left the cell, negotiations were under way for the others, and Daniel prayed that he would be next to leave.
But the threat the Beatles had issued to James just before Marc left the prison hung heavily in the air.
· * ·
There was no news from Syria. Susanne and Kjeld checked their email inbox almost every minute. Susanne even set her mobile phone to beep when an email arrived. On 25 February, eight days after they had sent their ransom offer to the kidnappers, Arthur decided they would follow up. They didn’t receive an answer from the kidnappers until the evening of 3 March. Daniel’s captors maintained their demands for a ransom of €2 million. The tone in the long email was angry.
We also remind you of the millions spent by your country’s newspaper companies to print insults of our beloved messenger and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of ALLAH be upon him) and the millions more spent by your government to protect these companies and ensure the continuation of their blasphemy. Surely they can pay 2,000,000 Euro for the safety of one of their citizens, or is it that your wretched people value attacking Islam more than they value protecting their citizens? Curse be upon you, this will never be forgotten.
The captors described how easily it could be arranged, referring to Marc, the Spanish hostage whose freedom had been bought, and explaining that he would contact them and bring them a personal greeting and a video appeal from Daniel.
We remind you of our conditions: NO MEDIA + QUICK CASH PAYMENT = his safe return home.
The family hurried to reply that they were doing everything within their power to raise the money and that they looked forward to hearing from Marc. However, Arthur wasn’t making any headway in reaching Marc or the Spanish government to obtain the video and the letter. Arthur feared this might mean they were missing some vital information. He therefore proposed on 8 March that Susanne and Kjeld should write to the captors, explaining that they had desperately been trying to make contact with Marc for five days without success, and to ask if they could possibly have any contact details for the Spaniard.
The email ended: ‘In two days, it is Daniel’s 25th birthday. Will you please tell him that we are all thinking of him on this special day and we are praying that he comes home to us soon.’
On Daniel’s twenty-fifth birthday, 10 March 2014, Susanne, Kjeld and Anita were once again invited to have coffee and cake at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Arthur also attended the meeting.
Kjeld was boiling with anger and had difficulty controlling himself in front of the officials. The captors were still sticking to the €2 million ransom, and the family was far from being able to pay that amount. Kjeld was frustrated that the government wasn’t even willing to at least help pay Arthur’s salary. From Kjeld’s point of view, Arthur’s knowledge of the situation in Syria was a huge benefit to other hostages and countries - and to the Danish government as well. But the family was left to pay for Arthur’s work, Daniel’s insurance having long since been depleted. Kjeld felt that more was being done to take care of Danes who had joined ISIS and were now returning home from the war and receiving social security benefits, than for a young, law-abiding citizen from Hedegård.
The Danish authorities held firm in their refusal to help with any kind of expense. Yet the fact remained that everyone at the meeting at the Foreign Ministry agreed that there was no time to lose. The family decided to throw all their energy into a comprehensive fundraising initiative. The risk that this could turn Daniel’s case into a front-page story in the media was a risk they would have to take.
Anita took two weeks’ leave from her job to coordinate the fundraising, which was initially directed at the large network of schools and associations that Daniel had had contact with during his gymnastics career.
The family was busier than ever.
· * ·
Daniel was finally getting plenty to eat. Once a day, outside the cell, a huge flame was lit, which the hostages named Hellfire. Either a huge bowl of lentil soup was carried in for sharing or they were given some potatoes and bread. Daniel gradually increased his training routine by adding jumping squats, regular and oblique sit-ups, and weightlifting. He used jam jars or plastic buckets filled with water as his weights.
The prisoners were also given books and pamphlets to read. They were all about Islam. One of the books was titled The Life, Teachings and Influence of Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab and was published by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Saudi Arabia. Abdul-Wahhab had founded Wahhabism, the fundamentalist sect within Sunni Islam that was embraced by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and became the country’s state religion. Followers of Wahhabism are known as Salafis and they believe in the ultra-conservative interpretation of the Koran that inspired ISIS.
Another small pamphlet from the Ministry was about Useful Ways of Leading a Happy Life. They were also given an English version of the Koran with a dark-blue cover and gold-coloured writing. Daniel threw himself into reading and used the texts to expand his English vocabulary. The only thing he had read until then had been the penicillin label.
The hostages gradually fell into a tolerable everyday routine, until the Beatles once again disrupted it with fear. They had just had their food brought in and Steven was dividing the tomatoes between them. Sergei got angry and made a scene, because he thought he was always given the worst and smallest tomatoes. An argument flared up about tomato distribution, which stopped abruptly when one of the Beatles shouted: ‘Where’s the Russian?’
Sergei stood up on the floor of the cell. One of the Frenchmen stepped in to act as interpreter. In broken Russian, he translated the message to Sergei that he was going to be released, because the Russian authorities had paid a staggering ransom. Then the Beatles took Sergei away.
A feeling of emptiness lingered in the cell. There hadn’t been any proof-of-life questions for Sergei, who hadn’t even been able to give an email address for somebody the kidnappers could write to. Everything indicated that the Russian had no family, no one who would miss him, and his fellow prisoners barely knew who he was. Nobody believed for a minute that he was really going to be released.
The next time George entered the cell, he pinched his nose tightly with his fingers and said in a nasal voice, ‘I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?’
The good news was that Marc had been released and was probably at home with his family. The bad news was that he had gone back on his agreement and spoken to the press. This was why, George announced, they had shot Sergei as a punishment for Marc’s sins.
The hostages sat cross-legged, facing the middle of the cell, as the British handed around a laptop.
One by one they were asked to describe what they saw on the screen.
George, John and Ringo stood in the centre of the room. Daniel didn’t dare look above their sand-coloured desert boots.
‘It’s a picture of Sergei,’ said one of the captives.
‘Yes, but what do you see?’
‘He’s dead,’ answered another.
‘Can you see where the bullet has hit him?’
They were forced to explain in minute detail how the bullet had gone through his eye, about the blood in his beard and the wrinkles in his forehead.
George gave them a technical speech about the type of ammunition used: the bullet was a dumdum bullet, which explodes when it hits the victim and thus creates more damage.
‘It gives a much better effect,’ explained George, holding the computer in front of Daniel’s face.
‘Daniel, what do the colours symbolize?’
Daniel looked at the picture of Sergei’s head. It looked like he was lying in some sand.
‘His face has a blueish tinge to it, which shows that he’s cold … and that he’s dead,’ explained Daniel.
George made it very clear that if any of the other released prisoners spoke to the press when they got home, they would shoot or torture one of the remaining prisoners.
None of them believed that Marc had said too much, which was indeed confirmed later. It seemed more likely that the Beatles had disposed of a prisoner for whom they knew they couldn’t get any money.
On his twenty-fifth birthday Daniel made a makeshift roulade for his fellow prisoners out of bread and jam, which he rolled together. He cut it into seventeen equal slices, which he shared around the cell. The others wished him a happy birthday and Pierre and James gave him an extra-long hug.
The Beatles also thought his birthday should be celebrated.
‘We have a present for you from your parents,’ said Ringo, going over to Daniel, who was sitting with his head facing the wall. A searing pain rose from the pit of his stomach as Ringo slammed his boot into Daniel’s ribs.
‘Your parents think this is some kind of gymnastics camp you’re at, so they’ve asked us to wish you a happy birthday!’ he shouted.
Twenty-five birthday kicks ensued, with short intervals between each one.
Daniel swallowed his screams as he shifted about to protect himself from the blows.
When his hands instinctively moved to protect his torso, Ringo shouted at him to lift his hands up again.
Some hours later something bulged out from Daniel’s ribs that looked like a blue tennis ball.
· * ·
Late at night on 11 March Anita’s mobile rang. Susanne and Kjeld sounded extremely upset at the other end. They had just received an email with an attachment.
‘It’s a dead man’s face,’ said Kjeld.
The man lay with his head in the desert sand and blood in his beard; it looked as if he had been shot in his right eye. They didn’t know who the man was, but the kidnappers wrote that he had ‘shared a cold cell with your son’.
DO NOT WASTE OUR TIME with useless messages that will not benefit you or your son the slightest way! You mention nothing about our 2,000,000 EURO demand and yet you’re asking about written messages/videos and sending birthday wishes!! You are digging your son’s shallow grave with your STUPIDITY!
They also mentioned Marc’s email address, together with a warning that Daniel could come home in a body bag, because ‘our lions are hungry to let Danish blood flow in revenge for the Mohammed cartoons’.
Kjeld tried to reassure himself with the thought that so many people were killed in Syria that it could be a picture of anyone. But he still stayed home from work the next day and Susanne agreed to give Arthur her password so that in the future the family wouldn’t open any attachments before Arthur had checked them.
Anita drove to Hedegård the next morning to kick off the fundraising.
It was time for the family to make a higher ransom offer.