Behind the hostage crisis

How the Iraqi kidnappers captured Britain's attention.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Nobody could fail to be moved by Lil Bigley’s televised plea to Iraqi militants to have mercy on her son Ken, the 62-year-old British contractor who has been held by the Tawhid and Jihad Group for the past week.

The hostage-takers, believed to be led by al-Qaeda suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have already decapitated two American hostages and posted video footage of their grisly executions on an Islamist website. Bigley will be next, they threaten, unless two high-profile female prisoners are released from coalition custody. In a grainy video Bigley is shown begging Tony Blair ‘to be compassionate…. I don’t want to die’ (1).

But the most striking thing is the impact that the hostage-taking, horrendous as it is, has had beyond the Bigley household. Images of a distressed Ken have dominated the front pages of the papers. The hostage-takers’ demands have, in the words of one report, caused a ‘profound political crisis’ for Blair, and spats between British and American officials after the Bigleys accused the US State Department of ‘sabotaging’ Ken’s release by refusing to free the two Iraqi women (2). A Times reporter found that most people in Liverpool, where the Bigleys live, ‘blame Blair’ for the Bigleys’ predicament and expressed anger at ‘the war no one wants’ (3). Other commentators have called for British troops to be withdrawn (4).

It is understandable that the Bigleys should plead for mercy from the terrorists; it is quite another thing for the whole of Britain to beg for pity. This seemingly defeatist response to the Bigley hostage crisis suggests that kidnappings in Iraq derive their impact, not from the strength or demands of the hostage-takers, but from doubt and divisions within the coalition itself. These kidnappings, filmed and photographed by the hostage-takers for the West’s consumption, are stunts that implicitly feed off uncertainty about the war at home – and to this end, they have been a success.

Al-Zarqawi, or whoever is behind this and other kidnappings, is in no political or military position to challenge the coalition. He may have been talked up by US and UK officials as The Most Dangerous Man In Iraq but, according to experts, he has little support on the ground and few armed men (5). Indeed, it is testament to these groups’ isolation that they have to kidnap soft targets like British construction workers or Italian aid workers or Japanese journalists. Unable to challenge American or British forces (not only because such forces are too powerful but also because they seem to spend much of the time behind barrack walls), small-time groups go for largely unarmed civilians instead, spiriting them away to secret hideouts in the middle of the night.

Yet these small-scale operations can have a disproportionate impact, by playing off the coalition’s own trepidation. It seems clear that the real aim of the Bigley kidnapping is not to get two of Saddam’s former henchwomen, Dr Germ and Mrs Anthrax, as they’re known, released from jail. Coalition officials have already said that the women are of little use to them, and it is even less clear what use these has-been chemists would be to al-Zarqawi and co (who are religious fundamentalists where Germ and Anthrax are Baathist socialists). Rather, the kidnapping is targeted at the perceived weak spots of the coalition, designed to cause a stink rather than win prisoner releases or any other kind of concession.

Even the demand for the release of female prisoners seems to tap into homegrown disgruntlement about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by coalition forces – a topic that has dominated debate in America and Britain since the publication of the Abu Ghraib torture snaps six months ago. In the hostage-takers’ homemade video, Bigley says directly to Blair: ‘I need you to be compassionate as you always said you were and to help me to live.’ Here the hostage video plays off Blair’s claim to be a humanitarian, and seems designed to cause a rift between Britain and its American allies; the kidnappers swiftly dispatched their American hostages, but held on to Briton Bigley in order to issue a direct challenge to Blair (6).

This shows how the prime minister’s style of ‘emotional politics’ can come back to haunt him. Blair has talked himself up as being open and emotionally in-touch; his response to the Bigley hostage crisis was to tell Bigley’s brother, ‘Trust me, I’m a family man as well’. Having presented himself as a politician who cares, Blair now finds himself being held hostage for proof of such compassion, by demands that he exercise some of his emotionalism in relation to Iraq.

The recent spate of kidnappings and killings derive their power to shock and disturb by standing in contrast to the coalition’s own lack of stomach over Iraq. Where the coalition has emphasised minimising risks to its soldiers and civilian workers (US officials recently revealed that President Bush is ‘praying for American casualties to ebb in Iraq’), the kidnappers make a great display of issuing death threats and carrying them out. The method of execution, where hostages are crudely beheaded rather than simply shot, in killings that are filmed and then distributed via the web, seems especially designed to outrage observers of what we were told would be a casualty-lite war of liberation. Hostage-taking, holding coalition nationals against their will, has become the perfect method of attack on a coalition that lacks the will to stay in Iraq, but can’t quite withdraw either.

Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw are said to be holding a hard line on the Bigley hostage crisis, by refusing to give in to the terrorists’ demands. Yet the kidnapping has already had its desired impact, by cynically exploiting disagreements within the coalition and distaste at home for the war and occupation in Iraq.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) ‘Mr Blair, I don’t want to die’, Guardian, 23 September 2004

(2) Hostage brother slams US ‘sabotage’, Scotsman, 23 September 2004

(3) From the public anger of Liverpool to the private torment of Tony Blair, The Times (London), 24 September 2004

(4) Hostage’s family in Baghdad leaflet appeal, Guardian, 24 September 2004

(5) Iraq held hostage to terror, Asia Times, 25 September 2004

(6) ‘Mr Blair, I don’t want to die’, Guardian, 23 September 2004

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Topics Politics


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