Book Review: Hunting Season by James Harkin

“By the time it was rolled out, ISIS wasn’t so much a meeting of jihadi minds- one buttressed by networks of recruits that had already been established in Europe.” (p.94)

Such are the kinds of insights that pepper Harkin’s work on the wave of kidnappings of foreigners in Syria in the first two years of the war in Syria. By tracing a series of kidnappings of journalists and the mystery that followed, Harkin is able to follow an important, if largely ignored thread of the story about Daesh. Yet it is just that: a thread. Readers looking for a work that explores the history and development of Daesh in the manner of works by Gerges or Weiss and Hassan have come to the wrong place.  Harkin’s work succeeds inside its circumscribed limits:

“{B}ased on his reporting for Vanity Fair, James Harkin’s groundbreaking book investigates the abduction, captivity, and execution of American journalist James Foley and the fate of 23 other ISIS hostages.”

Through interviews with some of the released hostages, Harkin is able to provide descriptions about the treatment of hostages by the ISIS captors, details about how they were moved multiple times, and details about the coping strategies the different hostages used. With the lens focused on the captives, Harkin brings in details from the broader war that help illuminate the context surrounding their captivity. He also mentions something I have repeatedly pointed to in this blog, prison radicalization for  jihadis:

“When he taught Arabic in a prison near Antwerp, Pieter Van Ostaeyen saw petty criminals morph over the space of a few months into zealous Islamists under the influence of powerful Salafi preachers. The way he sees it, puritanical Islamism has become just another prison gang culture, just like the Aryan Nation in the United States.” (p.101, emphasis mine)

Harkin’s work, while definitely journalistic and not academic, nonetheless is able to tie in useful details about changes in ISIS as an organization. He barely touches upon it, but read alongside a recent work about ISIS “Emni” branch, a very clear picture comes together.

This lens  Harkin uses also becomes a very interesting one in relation to international dynamics and intervention in the conflict in Syria. All of the journalists kidnapped by ISIS had varying chances of ever being released, largely if not completely determined by the government’s willingness to pay ransoms in kidnapping cases. Italy, France, Spain and others all were willing to pay ransoms albeit as secretly as possible. The United States and the UK, however, refuse to pay ransoms as policy, which they claim takes away the financial motive to kidnap their citizens. It’s highly controversial, and families of the kidnapped understandably don’t like it.

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Harkin and others ran headlong into these issues at the beginning of the wave of kidnappings. The only clue to the abnormal nature of the kidnappings was the absence- of clues, of demands, of any info. Indeed, for some time, many were convinced that the Shabiha (regime thugs- literally “ghosts”) had kidnapped them as no traces of them were found among rebel groups. Only later, some time after many had already disappeared for some time, did it become clear that all the kidnappings were by the same people.

Harkin argues there was “an effective conspiracy of silence” even among governments who do pay ransoms as it was thought that higher profile cases would command higher ransoms. ISIS, unlike others, didn’t even announce it had the hostages or make any demands publicly, so Harkin argues the silence about their kidnappings- by the families, governments, and ISIS didn’t help the situation (p.78). Harkin argues it failed to notify other journalists about the situation and those who went in later were in greater danger.

This kidnapping industry, or K&R (kidnapping and ransom) that emerged in Syria from 2012 on also supported a whole range of shady actors. Given the instability of the war, it was not possible for families to easily reach Syria to investigate and a small industry of individuals popped up who attempted to fill this need. Many, as Harkin demonstrates, had no real leads or info and were out to scam the families looking desperately for traces of their loved ones.

recent report by FT corroborates Harkin’s account that as the war has shifted, so has the K&R industry in Syria. Whereas Harkin shows how ISIS began kidnapping foreigners before it gained larger notoriety, FT’s report shows that ISIS defectors have become common kidnap victims by other rebel militias in Syria. FT interviewed a rebel commander named Abu Yazan, who insisted that every rebel faction trades in ISIS fighters. Once these men and women flee ISIS, they’re on their own, and the K&R industry actually ransoms some of them back to their nation of origin.

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FT 1/9/17

In equally clear yet depressing fashion, Harkin’s work details John Cantlie’s time in captivity, his bond and quarrels with James Foley, all leading up to him being the very last remaining captive. Since 2014, Cantlie has been known to the outside world as the man who appears in ISIS propaganda from time to time, describing how things in Mosul were not as western media portrayed them, among other things. It sparked questions, did he have Stockholm Syndrome, was he pretending for his own survival, or something else? For this reader, Harkin’s book gave a backstory to Cantlie’s survival, how he avoided being beheaded alongside Foley and others, yet remains trapped.

Finally, Harkin’s work is an easy read given his journalistic approach and good editing overall. As I said in the beginning, it’s not academically rigorous and there are better works to learn a comprehensive picture of ISIS, but it doesn’t need to be. Read alongside those, this book is an interesting and easy to read supplement. On those terms, I recommend it.

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