Nation & World

Remember the 3 Americans kidnapped in Iraq? Here’s the real story

January 15 was a relatively quiet day for Baghdad, the bomb-battered capital where Waiel El-Maadawy, an Army veteran and former Florida sheriff’s deputy, had spent years as a contractor for the U.S.-led effort to train Iraqi security forces.

El-Maadawy was feeling relieved. He’d just hired an Iraqi he knew, a man nicknamed Abu Marina, as an interpreter to help with the urgent task of training Iraqi commandos to fight Islamic State jihadists. He and two fellow contractors – his cousin, Amr Mohamed, of Bullhead City, Arizona, and Russell Frost, of Wichita, Kansas, sealed the deal over tea at Abu Marina’s apartment in southeastern Baghdad.

About half an hour into their visit, the commander of a Shiite Muslim militia showed up, demanding to know who the Americans were and ordering them to stay put. At first, the contractors scoffed at the intrusion – they had pistols on their hips and Iraqi Special Forces authorization in their pockets.

“We walk outside and he was right – we can’t leave. There were 40 guys there with heavy weapons,” El-Maadawy recalled. “That’s when everything went downhill. We realized we were going to be taken.”

That was the beginning of a 31-day ordeal the Obama administration has never explained, and which is described in detail here for the first time, through a series of interviews with El-Maadawy, a phone interview with Frost, and with the cooperation of Mohamed, who is currently out of the country.

After weeks of shackles and beatings, the Americans were released Feb. 16, only to find that Iraqi officials had stained their reputations by saying that they’d been detained from a brothel. There was more dismay when El-Maadawy and Mohamed, Egyptian-American cousins, learned that some U.S. officials initially suspected that they’d been radicalized and perhaps were complicit in the incident.

Even the elation of their release was dampened when the U.S. forces that retrieved the men from Iraqi interlocutors draped an American flag over Frost, who is white, and told him, “Welcome home!” There was no such gesture for the two Arab-American veterans, who’d been singled out for extra torment by their captors because they were Muslims working for the U.S. government.

“I’ve served my country as a soldier, a contractor and as a policeman and we’re still second-class citizens,” said El-Maadawy, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale and now lives in Boca Raton. “Regardless of what we do, we’re never going to be seen by the mainstream as Americans.”

Frost recalled that he wept with joy when presented with the flag. “I felt bad that Waiel and Amr did not get to experience that same welcome,” he said.

The three men, who work for a subcontractor of the defense behemoth General Dynamics, were the first Americans kidnapped in Iraq since 2011. Their capture, on a Friday afternoon and far from Islamic State territory, was a reminder of the weakness of the Iraqi government when it comes to powerful Shiite Muslim militias backed by Iran. Known collectively as popular mobilization units, the militias have filled the void since the collapse of the Iraqi military two years ago, becoming de facto partners for the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.

El-Maadawy and Frost say Iraqi officials spread the false story that they were grabbed while visiting a brothel to cloud the fact that it took a month for the Baghdad government to win the release of foreign allies from gunmen who are critical to the Iraqi government but operate outside of Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s control.

The contractors say their captors belonged to the latest incarnation of the old Mahdi Army militia led by longtime U.S. enemy Muqtada al Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric who protests Abadi’s policies but also has pledged to help government forces retake the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State. The former captives are incensed that the brothel narrative endures, allowing Iraqi authorities to avoid holding anyone accountable for the abduction.

El-Maadawy said he’s decided to break his silence for three reasons: to refute the brothel story, to highlight the defense contributions of American Muslims, and to urge U.S. officials to seek compensation on their behalf from an Iraqi government that, despite millions of dollars in U.S. training efforts, still has only tenuous control over its security forces.

“They were supporting the Iraqi government, augmenting the Iraqi forces,” El-Maadawy said of his captors. “In essence, we were kidnapped by the Iraqi government.”

In the first confusing moments of their capture, El-Maadawy said, he and his colleagues assumed their abductors were Sunni Muslim extremists from the dreaded Islamic State. Westerners seldom make it out of Islamic State custody alive, and a trio of U.S. defense contractors wouldn’t stand a chance.

Figuring they were going to die anyway, El-Maadawy said, the men exchanged silent looks that telegraphed a plan: shoot it out rather than be taken hostage for beheading later on camera.

Just then the militia commander answered his cell phone, and the Americans noticed that the screen bore the photo of Sadr, unmistakable with his signature black turban and scruffy beard. A decade ago, when Sadr’s militiamen were killing dozens of American forces, that face might’ve meant a death sentence. In the complexities of today’s Iraq, however, with the Obama administration working in tandem with the reconstituted militias to defeat the Islamic State, Sadr looked like a godsend.

“We knew we had a chance,” El-Maadawy said.

The two Arabic-speaking Americans asked their captors whether they were part of the Iraqi government. They replied that the Iraqi government “paid them to be in charge of this neighborhood,” El-Maadawy said. The Americans reluctantly surrendered their weapons and, along with Abu Marina, were taken by van to a villa where two new SUVs sitting outside bore Iraqi government insignia. The men were reassured, thinking government forces would clear up the matter and send them on their way.

“Didn’t happen,” Frost said.

Instead, the men were led into a room dotted with portraits of Sadr and lined with crates of AK-47 rounds and rocket-propelled grenades. They were interrogated and accused of drinking whiskey at Abu Marina’s apartment. They were stripped of their cell phones and bundled back into the van, which rolled through Baghdad in broad daylight, en route to the sprawling Shiite enclave of Sadr City.

“That’s when we knew,” El-Maadawy said. “We’re officially f****ed.”

The Americans recalled the sound of the gate clanging shut behind them as they entered a compound in Sadr City. They were pushed into a room adorned with prayer carpets and cushions. Up until then, the militants had been menacing but not really violent. That was about to change.

“There was this elevated area, like a stage, and the whole wall behind it had a huge mural of Muqtada al Sadr,” Frost recalled. “They pull Waiel over and they kicked his knees out from under him.”

The captors repeated the same routine with all three Americans and Abu Marina: kick out the knees, force them to kneel, and cover their eyes with filthy rags that were plastered to their heads with packing tape. Their hands and feet were bound with a combination of metal handcuffs and plastic cuffs; they immediately went numb from the lack of circulation.

“They pulled the tape so tight they smashed my nose and I couldn’t even breathe, so I sat there, gasping for air,” Frost said. “Waiel whispered to me, ‘Russ, be calm, just concentrate on your breathing.’ I said, OK, OK. But I began thinking, oh my God, are we going to see daylight again? Are we going to see our families?”

The next three weeks brought ’round-the-clock horror: excruciating pain and utter darkness. They were kept blindfolded and shackled in stress positions, didn’t get much food and learned to urinate in empty water bottles to avoid the beatings that accompanied bathroom visits, the men said. One captor patted El-Maadawy’s muscular build and told him it was a shame that “all that was about to be worm food.”

Other times, El-Maadawy said, his captors put an unloaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Click. He felt blades pressed against his throat and fingers. The kidnappers would hiss that he’s not a real Muslim, that he was a traitor, a two-faced Sunni. In interrogation sessions, they’d hit him so hard he’d fly off the chair.

Both Frost and El-Maadawy said they also endured psychological trauma, such as repeated threats of beheading, or mind games in which they were encouraged to out one another as CIA operatives. El-Maadawy and Mohamed, his cousin, were held separately for most of the time; Frost typically was jailed with the interpreter Abu Marina so that the captors could communicate with him.

“You go somewhere else in your head,” El-Maadawy said, describing how he coped. “I would imagine that I was back home. I’d wake up, have breakfast, do a little reading, watch ESPN, go work out, come back home, shower, hang out with the kids, chat with my wife, plan my meal, go to lunch. I would do this all in my head, constantly.”

Their treatment improved slightly in their last week in custody, the men recalled. They were allowed to shower and to remove their blindfolds. They got more food and could eat together. They were told that they’d be freed, thanks to Sadr.

Just before their release, the Americans were spruced up, forced into military uniforms and made to film a video thanking the radical cleric. They were flanked by gunmen in balaclavas and positioned in front of a portrait of Sadr.

“They told us what to say. They wanted us to talk about him being a great leader and having the knowledge and ability to lead Iraq into the future and how his gallantry and courage to intervene is the reason we’re alive and get to go back and see our families,” El-Maadawy said. “They also wanted us to send a warning to our country, the United States, to say that the Iraqis are ready. That the militias are ready to fight, they’re better armed, better prepared, better trained, and if the U.S. invades their country again, it wouldn’t be easy.”

Shortly after filming the video, the men were released to Iraqi middlemen who took them to the Green Zone, the government complex where the U.S. Embassy is housed. That day, Feb. 16, was the last the Americans saw of Abu Marina, the Iraqi held captive with them. Attempts to reach him via his Facebook account failed; his whereabouts are unknown.

Coverage of the kidnapping is a case study in the unreliability of newsgathering in Baghdad, where fear and sectarian agendas shape how incidents are reported, especially given the difficulties of Western journalists to move freely around the city.

Every news organization that covered the case reported inaccurate information, typically focusing on the brothel angle based on the accounts of unnamed “Iraqi security officials.” Virtually everything else in the reports was wrong, too: the men’s names, nationalities, genders, employer and time of capture.

The contractors said misrepresentations of their backgrounds and the circumstances of their capture played a large part in the whole ordeal being “swept under the rug,” as Frost put it.

“Me and my wife have been married for 21 years. She knows there’s no way in hell I’d be in some foreign country involved in some brothel. It was ridiculous,” Frost said. “It was what they said so that nobody was blamed – not the Iraqi government, not Muqtada al Sadr.”

Even when anonymous Iraqi officials updated the story, telling news agencies the Americans were taken from the home of their interpreter, outlets found the brothel angle too good to abandon. A Fox News story had “brothel” in the headline, even though the first line of the report cited “multiple sources” saying the men were taken from an interpreter’s home.

“Even my mom said, `Were you really? You can tell me.’ I said, `Mom! No!’ “ El-Maadawy recalled. “Why would you believe that when they didn’t have any of the other facts?”

Two Iraqi government officials defended Baghdad’s handling of the case, but wouldn’t say which group is suspected in the kidnapping and did not address the Americans’ accounts of abuse. They also stuck to the brothel line, saying that the contractors were seized from a place known for illicit activities.

“They left their compound without permission from the Iraqi government and didn’t report where they were going. They went to a suspicious home where they were kidnapped, and then they were released by the Iraqi government,” said Yahya al-Zubaidi, spokesman of the Joint Operation Command in Baghdad.

Dhiaa al Asadi, head of the Sadr-aligned bloc in Parliament, twice agreed to discuss the case and then did not answer his phone at the appointed times.

The Obama administration did little or nothing to clear up what happened to the contractors, according to transcripts of government briefings from the time.

Upon the men’s release, the State Department issued a statement praising Iraq’s “whole-of-government effort” and thanking Iraqi defense officials and the intelligence service “for their role in achieving this outcome.” When asked for comment this week, the State Department again credited the Iraqi government for the Americans’ release but said no further information would be provided due to unspecified “privacy considerations.”

Six months since their release, the men remain on long-term disability, struggling with physical and mental problems stemming from their captivity. They said that U.S. officials attached to a “fusion cell,” a new interagency approach toward handling the cases of U.S. captives, check on them but can’t do much more.

Unable to work, the contractors are also losing thousands of dollars a month in pay and are forced to stop or delay some medical attention because they can’t afford it. Frost said he’d already undergone two surgeries for nerve damage where he was cuffed; he’s had to postpone a third. The toll on their wives and children is immeasurable.

Healing will take years, the contractors said, but the first step is setting the record straight.

“Thirty-one days. We were beaten and tortured for 31 days,” El-Maadawy said. “We want the Iraqi government to take responsibility for a crime that was unjustified and unwarranted.”

hallam@mcclatchydc.com

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