Hunting Season

James Foley, ISIS, and the Kidnapping Campaign that Started a War


By James Harkin

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Based on his groundbreaking reporting for Vanity Fair, Hunting Season is award-winning journalist James Harkin’s harrowing investigation into the abduction, captivity, and execution of James Foley, at the hands of the masked militant known as “Jihadi John” (Mohammed Emwazi), and the fate of more than two-dozen other ISIS hostages.

On August 19, 2014, the jihadist rebel group known as ISIS uploaded a video to YouTube. Entitled “Message to America,” the clip depicted the final moments of American journalist James Foley’s life–and the gruesome aftermath of his beheading at the hands of a masked executioner. Foley’s murder–and the choreographed killings that would follow–captured the world’s attention, and the Islamic State’s kidnapping campaign exploded into war. Hunting Season is a riveting account of how the world’s newest and most powerful terror franchise came to target Western hostages, who was behind it, and why almost no one knew about it until it was too late.


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Open Season

In the late afternoon of July 19, 2012 the British freelance photojournalist John Cantlie paced the lobby of his hotel in Antakya, Turkey, twenty kilometers from the border, and made urgent noises into his mobile phone. Together with a Dutch photographer friend Jeroen Oerlemans, he was planning to sneak into rebel-held Northern Syria via the country's long, porous boundary with Turkey. The journey would involve bouncing along in a pick-up truck to a safe house near the border, waiting until word came that the coast was clear, then racing up and down a series of rocky hills as fast as their equipment would allow. Everything had to be done in the dark, and in perfect silence, to avoid a beating at the hands of the Turkish border police.

This was to be Cantlie's second trip inside. On his first, earlier that year, he'd gone with his friend Jim Foley who knew the area well. This time Foley was already in Northern Syria, and getting great stuff. Events on the ground were changing fast. Since Foley and Cantlie's previous visit, Syria's civilian uprising had entirely given way to an armed rebellion led by a loose franchise called the Free Syrian Army. As Syria's regular army leaked men and morale, the rebels had grown in confidence, and their guerilla campaign was now moving out of the countryside and into the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, the twin citadels that the regime could not afford to lose.

The previous day, they'd received a breathtaking morale boost: three of President Bashar al-Assad's closest military advisers had been killed in a bomb attack inside the National Security headquarters in Damascus. Now attention had moved north to Aleppo, where a shifting tapestry of Islamist militias was preparing for an ambitious assault on Syria's second city. If Cantlie and Oerlemans didn't get in soon, they were in danger of being left behind.

At the last minute, however, they encountered a hitch. Mustafa, the Syrian guide Jim Foley and John Cantlie had used the last time, couldn't make it to the border, but had sent his young cousin, a shy ex-solider in the Syrian army called Durgham, to meet them instead. It was while Cantlie phoned these logistical changes around that I saw him in the foyer of the hotel. We'd chosen the same musty, mid-priced Antakya dive, the Mozaik, and the same route into Syria—only I was on my way out. That morning, at a magnificent stone mansion overlooking a tomato garden on the Syrian side of the border, I'd interviewed the rebel commander of the whole region, a mustachioed, former colonel in the Syrian army.

Just a stone's throw from where we were sitting, the rebels were battling to take control of the strategically important border crossing of Bab al-Hawa. The previous evening, the son of my Syrian host, a thin, pious-looking man in his early twenties, had fetched me dinner, a brand-new assault rifle slung over his shoulder, and then driven off with his friends to have another crack at the border post. When I asked the commander whether he'd seen any foreign jihadis in the area, however, he told me he hadn't encountered a single one. He couldn't have been looking very hard. Later that day the rebels did indeed take the crossing at Bab al-Hawa, but only in an operation led by an obscure new battalion heavy with foreign jihadis who'd come fight the Syrian regime, called Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, or the Mujahideen Shura Council; sometimes they simply called themselves Dawla Islamiya—Islamic State. Flush with victory, and in footage which still exists on YouTube, their emir struts along the checkpoint tarmac declaring "the establishment of an Islamic State" flanked by a few non-Syrian Arabs; one carries the white-circle-on-black flag which would later become famous as the logo of ISIS.

At almost exactly the same time, a few kilometers away, it was John Cantlie and Jeroen Oerlemans's bad luck to stumble into their base camp. As the men picked along the boulders on their way into Northern Syria they could hear bullets and the whirring of regime helicopters as the rebels advanced on the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa. A row of rebel tents looked like the perfect place to break their journey, and Durgham suggested they ask for a cup of tea. It was a mistake; within thirty seconds bearded, dark-skinned men were all around them, toting guns and haranguing them for being spies. When Durgham tried to speak on their behalf in Arabic, Cantlie was astonished to hear a voice booming out of the darkness in perfect London-accented English: "I'm going to kill this guy if he doesn't shut up."

The Brits, of whom there were at least half a dozen, soon proved to be the biggest threat to Cantlie and Oerlemans. They were much more brutal than the others and kept insisting that the two journalists deserved imminent execution. One, whom the journalists named the Preacher, suggested that they "Prepare for the afterlife. Are you ready to meet Allah?"

From under his blindfold Oerlemans could make out another tall British man wearing trainers and a shiny tracksuit. He reminded Oerlemans of the young Arabs he'd seen smoking shisha on the streets of west London's Edgware Road. "Someone with the manners of a city boy, and who thinks he knows it all." He was also sadistic, forcing the journalists to sit with their hands cuffed behind their backs for long periods, and generally manhandling and humiliating them for his own satisfaction. "He was clearly frustrated; he immediately hated us. He was from Britain, and therefore he hated Britons. I don't know why but he must have felt alienated—envious. He was talking about our rotten society in general; it was all about us being kafirs, or unbelievers, who don't know what we're talking about. And that we're going to be for it now."

By day two, thoroughly spooked by the fervor of their captors, the journalists decided to make a run for it. In a vivid dispatch he wrote afterward for the Sunday Times, John Cantlie recounted what happened next: "I ended up running for my life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists—young men with south London accents—shot to kill. They were aiming their Kalashnikovs at a British journalist, Londoner against Londoner in a rocky landscape that looked like the Scottish Highlands. Bullets kicking up dirt as I ran. A bullet through my arm, another grazing my ear. And not a Syrian in sight." Shot and wounded, Oerlemans and Cantlie were dragged back to the camp to be tormented even more. At one point Cantlie heard the sharpening of knives. When news came that the pair might be ransomed rather than killed, they took it as a relief.

At the time, John Cantlie's first encounter with British jihadis in Syria was thought by some Syria journalists to be an unfortunate hiccup in the course of a conflict about other things. The one thing everyone could agree upon was that it wasn't really a kidnapping at all. "They were as surprised as we were," Jeroen Oerlemans told me. "We walked into their camp, and maybe they saw an opportunity." In retrospect there was something amateurish about the whole thing—Cantlie would later dub it "an adventure course for disenchanted twenty-year-olds"—but it was also evolving into something else. The reason they'd made a run for it, according to Oerlemans, was that "we didn't want to end up in orange jumpsuits": the fate of some Western hostages of al-Qaeda during the early years of the Iraq war, shortly before their grisly execution. The journalists' ordeal only ended when friendly local rebels barged into the camp and demanded their release.

"They were so fucking religious," remembers Oerlemans. "All the talk was about what heaven would look like. You'd be taken to Paradise, where Allah would preside on a huge throne—your family would already be there, and there'd be lots of girls." Before that, however, there was work to be done. The foreign jihadis, as those who rescued the journalists explained, badly wanted to take the border crossing so they could use it as a bridgehead to bring more of their comrades into Syria. "First we have to fight the regime in Syria," is how Oerlemans remembers their plan of attack, "then there will be something much bigger; we will have to fight the Western crusaders. It will be the war to end all wars, the final reckoning and the last battleground." It was the British guys who were saying this. When he read the first issue of Dābiq, the Islamic State's magazine, two years later, it felt to Oerlemans that it had been written by the same people.

The abduction of friendly foreign journalists like John Cantlie was a surprise to everyone. A year earlier, Syria had been a country reborn. Riding the wave of hope that was the Arab Spring, thousands took to the streets to demand greater freedoms and an end of pervasive corruption. Fear fell away: as the protests gathered momentum, it looked like Syria might finally break the iron rod with which the Assad family and its Ba'athist regime had ruled the country for more than forty years. The rush of adrenaline—that sense of history in the making—was infectious, and made ordinary people take risks they wouldn't otherwise have considered.

Journalists, too. While John Cantlie was being kicked and threatened with death by British jihadis, Jim Foley, who worked mainly for GlobalPost and the French news agency AFP, was being spirited into regime-held Aleppo by some of its university students. It was dangerous work. Foley and his photographer friend Nicole Tung had to pass through Syrian army checkpoints, keeping their mouths firmly shut to not draw attention in the back of the car. Their hosts were taking enormous risks to protect them, and in return they trusted them with their lives. "These people knew what they were doing," Tung remembers. "They knew what to do to get us through."

My own first encounter with Syria's youthful revolutionaries had taken place earlier that year. I'd gone back to Syria in February 2012 to catch up with a dissident I'd met on a previous visit to the country. Let's call him Yasser. When I first met him Yasser was a cynical chain-smoker and a loosely employed politico who was hostile to the Syrian regime, but who laughed off the idea that the civil unrest then brewing in Iran could ever make its way to his country. But the Arab Spring had transformed him, and now he organized an interview for me with two fledgling members of the rebel Free Syrian Army in the heart of Damascus's Old City. We needed to be careful. Four months earlier my friend Sean McAllister, who was working as a journalist in Damascus without permission, had been dragged off the street by Syrian state security; he'd been deported after a few days in prison, but some of the activists he'd been working with were still in prison.

Unfailingly polite, yet grim-faced—they risked summary execution if apprehended by the authorities—the men I met from the Free Syrian Army explained their defection as the direct result of observing the brutal military response to civilian demonstrations at the beginning of the Syrian uprising the previous March. These soldiers had no appetite for killing civilians, and they'd broken away from the army, like Mustafa's cousin Durgham. They made contact with other groups of defectors and together sought to protect their communities from the security forces and shabiha, their gun-toting paramilitary allies. As their numbers grew, their operations grew bolder and the regular army retreated. Now, under the nose of the authorities and in the total darkness of a power outage, they were here to ask the outside world for guns—it was, interrupted Yasser on their behalf, all they needed to finish the job.

Elsewhere in Damascus demos were being organized almost every day, always on the hoof and often by young activists who'd already been arrested and brutalized for their efforts. At one, I tagged along with legions of young people between the ages of ten and twenty-five, following a funeral procession for a boy who'd apparently been shot by the security forces. Walking through the narrow streets of Kafr Sousa with his body held aloft, surrounded on all sides by walls of shabiha and the acrid smell of tear gas, the energy and discipline of the protesters was breathtaking; this was the most impressive display of people power I'd ever seen.

It didn't last long. As the crowd pushed forward, the shabiha charged and everyone dashed for cover into the surrounding side streets. I followed a young Syrian man, both of us pelting down a dusty alleyway for about a hundred yards before we looked behind and saw no one was coming. As our sprint gave way to a stroll I asked him whether he resented the country's religious minorities, many of whom didn't seem to be taking any interest in the uprising or were quietly taking the government's side. "Our revolution isn't a sprint, it's more like a marathon," he'd answered, imitating the labored jogging of a long-distance runner. "Some people are there from the beginning, and many others join only halfway through. But by the finish line we're all going to be moving at the same pace, and running along together."

It didn't happen. One reason why Syria's revolt spiraled out of control is that some of its revolutionaries spent too much time soliciting foreign support and not enough convincing their fellow citizens to turn their back on the devil they knew. Another was that, on its fringes, there was a festering sense of resentment among the country's impoverished Sunni Muslim majority.

A few days after the demo I accompanied Yasser and a taxi driver on a whistle-stop tour of another area of Damascus, where thousands had turned out for a demo a few days earlier only to be fired upon by plain-clothes security men. We'd sped through the nest of alleys from which the protesters had emerged and a rough-looking security man appeared from nowhere wielding a club, like a low-resolution thug from some ancient computer game. There'd been almost no one on the streets, but the graffiti was still visible. In among the usual injunctions to freedom was the assertion that "Aroor is praying for us." Adnan al-Aroor, an exiled Syrian preacher living in Saudi Arabia, had been using his cable-TV pulpit to preach a message of Sunni extremism, and threatening that Muslims from the Alawi sect, who formed the bedrock of support for the regime of President Assad, would be "turned into mincemeat and fed to the dogs" if they fought back. Syria's revolt wasn't all peace and love, and while it was hard for visiting journalists to see—most were banned by the Syrian regime, and the few who were allowed to work did so under constant supervision—the country was becoming a magnet and a new cause célèbre for Islamic extremism.

Even before anyone was kidnapped, Syria was the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Scores had been killed. One of the most high profile was Marie Colvin, an American reporter who was killed in a blizzard of shells on February 22, 2012, after the Syrian army launched a full-scale assault on rebel areas of the city of Homs.

I was in Syria when it happened, and had co-written one of her last articles for the Sunday Times. Six days after Colvin's death I traveled to Homs to find out what was going on, and was briefly arrested by the Syrian army. After her death, the foreign media, already hampered by dwindling budgets, drew back from covering the conflict. It didn't stop a lightly resourced, risibly paid, almost wholly uninsured brigade of freelancers, often armed with little more than a notebook and a mobile phone, from charging across the Turkish border anyway. A few were crazy narcissists or war-zone tourists, but most were real reporters moved to find out more about a conflict that their professional curiosity or overwhelming ambition wouldn't allow them to ignore.

Two of them were Jim Foley and John Cantlie. I was another. In the lonely band of Syria journalists, like BASE jumpers or high-wire walkers, everyone quickly became familiar with everyone else. The necessity to stick together often ran far ahead of the instinct for competition. On a foray into Northern Syria the week before John Cantlie's first abduction in July 2012, I'd rolled up at a disused football pitch only to find two glazed-looking Eastern European journalists sunning themselves outside an impromptu media office. One was heavily bearded, and it looked like both had been living there for months. The building they were sitting outside had been shot up by a helicopter from a nearby regime airbase; it looked like a scene from Apocalypse Now. All the same, they'd been sleeping on its roof. A day or two after I got there two more freelancers would arrive to share the roof—Jim Foley and Nicole Tung. One of the Eastern Europeans, a Hungarian reporter called Balint Szlanko, knew Jim from Afghanistan and Libya; they'd met at airports and military camps, "in the small spaces between war, the bubbles of peace amid all the mayhem." Now they were with two others on a random roof, talking about war and ice cream.

A month earlier, stranded in the suburbs of Homs, Jim Foley had run into another American, Austin Tice. On May 23, this intrepid thirty-year-old freelancer had crawled under a fence into Northern Syria. Tice hadn't published a single article, but it didn't matter. He'd spent time in Egypt, and been hugely inspired by the revolution against President Hosni Mubarak, which saw hundreds of thousands of people congregate in and around Cairo's Tahrir Square. Now Syria was the story that everyone wanted—all the more so because, with the Syrian government keeping a tight rein on visas, hardly anyone was there. Tice was a former Marine captain with tours of Afghanistan and Iraq under his belt, but now his ambition was to go back to the region with a fresh pair of eyes and force open a new career as a photojournalist. Most of his favorite books were by war reporters—in particular For Whom the Bell Tolls. He'd even brought a few of them to read along the way.

The next three months would surpass Tice's wildest fantasies of Ernest Hemingway. His companion and guide for most of it, Mahmoud, was a bespectacled Syrian in his early fifties—wiry and stubborn, a bit like an older, shorter, Syrian version of Austin himself. The two met via mutual friends and bonded quickly, as people in war zones are prone to do. Tice would poke fun at Arab procrastination and Mahmoud would call him "White Boy."

Until a few months earlier, Mahmoud had been in the U.S., leasing out industrial equipment in Atlanta; now he was a soldier in the newly minted Free Syrian Army and well on his way to becoming a brigade commander. Things were changing fast, and it was possible to believe that before long the rebels would be in Damascus and Syria's creaking Ba'athist regime would go the same way as Muammar Gaddafi's had in Libya. Two days in, Austin and Mahmoud cut a swathe through the dangerous terrain of Northern Syria and made it to a rebel base in Hama: "Writing like a maniac" wrote Tice on Twitter, "taking photos, working like crazy."

Tice turned out to be a gifted journalist. Laid out in scattershot bursts on Flickr and on Twitter, mixing field maneuvers with the Free Syrian Army with references to country pop, Tice's social media trail made for a thrilling, hard-charging alternative to the flak-jacketed puppetry of much war-zone reporting—an exhilarating gonzo ride through the Syrian rebellion as it gathered confidence and momentum. He bantered about football with rebels from Homs, drew on his military background to produce a forensic analysis of the weapons and strategy of both sides, and ribbed the New York Times along with the rest of the international media for its inability to put a journalist on the ground ("Srsly guys if any of y'all wanna come down here, I would love some company").

Then there was the time he made it through a Syrian army checkpoint wearing an ill-fitting burqa that was supposed to reach the ground but which, on his lanky six foot three frame, did not come close to covering his hands and feet. The soldiers he strolled past weren't impressed either, and began shooting at him as he zigzagged down the street. His headstrong, impudent side wasn't to everyone's taste—on at least one occasion his rebel hosts had to put him under house arrest for his own safety. "Tonight made a good-faith effort to explain gay rights to a fun and well-meaning group of Syrian guys," he wrote at one point. "Yeah, not the time, not the place." When a young rebel, struggling for a cultural referent, kept following him around singing "Jingle Bells," Tice had to tell him to shut the fuck up.

Mahmoud left the central Syrian province of Homs to go back to the fighting in Northern Syria, after which Tice was passed from tiny battalion to tiny battalion, making friends quickly and trusting those he met with his life. It was at this time that he'd met Jim Foley. For ten days, according to two Syrians who were with them, the two stayed up late into the night talking about anything and everything. Tice spent much of it shooting his mouth off about the amateurism of the Free Syrian Army, and Foley had to calm him down.

In July, Tice made it to Yabroud, a city north of Damascus, and his cocky adventurism reached new heights. "Not to be arrogant," he wrote to Mahmoud on Facebook, "but lots of women love me here." Yabroud was where he learned how to drink Syria-style, where he landed his first article in the Washington Post and where, according to Mahmoud, he fell in love. Tice dated a Syrian woman for several weeks, but she already had a fiancé and Mahmoud wrote to warn him that "they are going to kick your ass." It was around this time, too, that Tice penned a kind of mission statement, setting out what he was trying to achieve on his Facebook page:

We kill ourselves every day with McDonald's and alcohol and a thousand other drugs, but we've lost the sense that there actually are things out there worth dying for. We've given away our freedoms piecemeal to robber barons, but we're too complacent to do much but criticize those few who try to point out the obvious. Americans have lost their sense of vision, mistaking asinine partisan squabbles for principles. When we do venture into space—the part of space we've gotten comfortable with, mind you—now we pay the Russians to give us a ride. That's humiliating. I can't believe we let that happen.

So that's why I came here to Syria, and it's why I like being here now, right now, right in the middle of a brutal and still uncertain civil war. Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment. They accept that reality as the price of freedom [… ] They're alive in a way that almost no Americans today even know how to be. They live with greater passion and dream with greater ambition because they are not afraid of death.

The threats were coming in more regularly now, and from peculiar new directions. Tice made it through to Damascus in late July, where for two weeks he fell in with another hospitable group of rebels in the suburb of Darraya. All the same, he couldn't help worrying about the growing attacks on journalists; on hearing what had happened John Cantlie and Jeroen Oerlemans he tweeted that, "for obvious reasons, I find this recent trend of attacks against media targets to be troubling, to say the least." At one point he bugged his hosts to take him to an adjoining but more contested area called Jdeidat Artouz, which was thick with spies and paranoia. Islamists may have tried to arrest him there, but his rebel friends apparently kept him safe; even so the experience clearly freaked him out. "Pervasive fear of spies," he wrote in one of the tweets he left behind. "Unlike any other place I've visited. Creepy." Tice made it back to Darraya on August 11, in time for his thirty-first birthday, where his final tweet was characteristically upbeat: "Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever." Two days later, he disappeared.

Six weeks after Tice went missing, a forty-seven-second video popped up on the internet, apparently showing him on a mountainside, blindfolded and being taunted by Islamic extremists. The production values, the freshly laundered, Afghan-style clothes of the supposed Islamists, even the way they chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great), all seemed out of kilter, as if its producers were engaged in a deliberate parody. Just about every independent analyst smelled a rat; since the Syrian regime's central propaganda claim was that it was battling al-Qaeda, its agents had every reason to show an American in jihadi captivity. I buzzed one of the young rebels on the Turkish–Syrian border who'd spent time with Austin while he was there; by the time the video appeared he was back in the suburbs of Damascus and, in his spare time, trying to figure out what had happened. "Faked," was the verdict on the video. "Now we know he is with the regime."

This is how it goes. Blindfolded, with your hands tied behind your back, you're manhandled into the backseat of a car. With your head forced down into the brace position, burly shabiha pressing into your flesh on either side, you can't see a thing. But hearing is enough. What you can hear is the vehicle being driven scarily fast to avoid the attentions of rebels, and thumping militaristic pop as your captors sing along to "God, Syria and Bashar" on the radio. In the sinister revelry you attract a few slaps on the back of the head. After what seems like some hours you're pushed out of the car at a military airport amid the whirring of helicopter blades. A few hours later you're in Damascus and being driven at full throttle to a security compound in the center of the city, where you're deposited in your own tiny concrete cell deep underground. By now it's dawned on you that you're booty. For the first few days your interrogators toy with you, affecting to think you're a spy. Soon, however, you realize it's more an exercise in form-filling and you learn to bide your time. It's easier said than done; since you're blindfolded or in your cell at all times you have no idea whether it's day or night.

That's if you've been taken by the Syrian regime at all. The truth is that there are shabiha on both sides of Syria's conflict. The term is thirty years old, and originally referred to gangs of smugglers along Syria's borders whose excellent regime connections gave them license to do as they pleased. Since the outbreak of the uprising many simply transferred their loyalties to the Free Syrian Army and began running arms instead. In the many relationships that grease palms along Syria's traditional smuggling routes, it wasn't always clear what the allegiances of armed men really were, or if they had any loyalties at all. For some of these gangs, kidnapping for ransom was already a way of life; war-ravaged Syria made it a flourishing business.


On Sale
Nov 10, 2015
Page Count
256 pages
Hachette Books

James Harkin

About the Author

James Harkin is an author of three previous books and a journalist who has written for Vanity Fair, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Newsweek, and The Nation. He is an analyst of new social, political, and technological trends and is the director of Flockwatching — a think tank that looks at the relationship between new media and social change. He lives in London.

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