Saturday, September 18, 2004
Australian kidnapping update II
I probably should have posted this follow-up to the story of the reported Australian abductions yesterday, but I continued to hope that some new information would emerge. I believe now that that is unlikely to happen.
The Hope of a hoax
If you read the Australian newspaper headlines yesterday—and I did, your first impression would be that the reported kidnappings had turned out to be a hoax. The earliest headlines that I spotted on this were foreign (to Australia). The first was from Singapore, but from an Australian news organization: "Hope grows that Australia hostage claim may be a hoax." Then The Scotsman said "Australia Upbeat over Iraq 'Hoax' Kidnap." So by Thursday many Australian papers were running the same headline: "Howard hopeful of kidnap hoax."
The New Zealand Herald went all the way—
It now appears the second abduction, allegedly by a group of confirmed killers calling themselves the Horror Brigades of the Secret Islamic Army, was a hoax. The group had threatened to decapitate their prisoners if Canberra did not take its troops home, but no Australians have been reported missing.
Let me say at the outset that I have no way of knowing whether the reported kidnappings of the Australian security personnel and the two East Asians was or was not a hoax. What I am going to tell you, however, are the reasons for being skeptical.
The idea that a hoax has occurred is based on three assertions:
- that other fake kidnappings have occurred
- that no pictures or passports were shown of the Australians
- that the Australian embassy in Baghdad can account for all Australians known to be in Iraq.
As for the kidnapping, for several days DFAT [Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Trade] seemed anxious to assure the public that all Australians had been accounted for. However, early in the week Time magazine reporter Michael Ware, formerly a journalist with The Courier-Mail, explained on television that although he was on the department's list of Australians working in Iraq, DFAT had not been in contact with him. It emerged that the list was incomplete (and then that it was three times larger than at first suggested) and officials in Iraq were having difficulty tracking everyone down. [emphasis added]
The Australian government was again reporting that no Australians were missing in Iraq when up popped the tale of an important Muslim cleric from Sydney who had just been released the previous week for a ransom of $25,000. The Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he knew nothing about that. And while he was trying, no doubt, to acquaint himself with those facts, yet another story emerged.
According to SBS World News,
Australian-Iraqi community leader Mohamed Al-Jabir says it's not the first time an Iraqi-Australian has been kidnapped and then freed.
He told ABC television that other people with Australian travel documents have been intercepted in the Sunni Triangle near Fallujah.
They were beaten but freed after their family paid $US50,000 to the kidnappers.
But let's go back to the editorial comment above that "DFAT seemed anxious to assure the public that all Australians had been accounted for." In this case, I will go beyond the editorialist and say that DFAT seemed anxious to suggest to all Australians that the kidnapping was a hoax.2
Why would they do that?
Well, one thing is certain. In the midst of the election campaign, the government wants anything negative associated with John Howard's invasion and occupation of Iraq to fall off the radar screen as quickly as possible.
But aside from that obvious truth, there is another possibility—that either the Australians or the Asian nationals who were with them are "sensitive"—i.e., they don't want anything in the news about them.
Since the original report of hostage-taking by Agence-France Press, the Australian government has wanted to appear to be doing everything possible. But I noted in my original post that no Asian country appears to be doing likewise and that we don't know the Asians' country of origin.
I did ask the question of whether the Asians were in fact being protected by the Australians. I have since found one Australian paper that seems either to have made that assumption or to have other information. The Herald Sun wrote, based on accounts by AFP and Australian AP,
Both were thought to be security guards and were allegedly being held along with their two Asian clients.
As I stated in the beginning, other than my third eye and my tea leaves I have no way of determining whether a hoax occurred or not. And in fact I hope it is a hoax, but my feeling is that it isn't.
The group claiming to have kidnapped the Australians, the Horror Brigades of the Islamic Secret Army, is the same group that murdered the twelve Nepalese security personnel. If it is indeed the same group, they don't strike me as the sort who go in for hoaxes.
At the level of rational proof, of course, it's impossible to prove it didn't happen—that would be to "prove a negative." But it is possible to prove that the kidnapping did occur—if, say, the bodies of one or two Australians should turn up and be identified.
As many of you may know, either from the news or from the comment that was left on my previous post, the body of a blond "Westerner" has turned up in the area of the alleged kidnapping. And the Australian government has said that it is having its embassy in Baghdad investigate.
I will save that for a later post.
One thing is for sure: This story has been allowed to drop from the headlines.
Follow-up post: Australian kidnapping update III: The body in the Tigris
Related post: About those Nepalese workers killed in Iraq...
IF SECURITY issues tend to boost the electoral standing of the Coalition, last week's bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta and this week's alleged kidnapping of two Australians in Iraq should have given Prime Minister John Howard a significant advantage. However fumbling by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and/or by Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer dissipated that prospect.[back]
First Mr Howard and Mr Downer were caught out providing misleading (or downright wrong) information about a 45-minute warning the Indonesian police were supposed to have received about the bombing. The Indonesians denied having received any such message. It emerged that Mr Howard and Mr Downer had relied on a rumour passed on by an Australian businessman that wasn't checked out before it was accepted by them as fact and made public. Shades of children overboard. As for the kidnapping, for several days DFAT seemed anxious to assure the public that all Australians had been accounted for. However, early in the week Time magazine reporter Michael Ware, formerly a journalist with The Courier-Mail, explained on television that although he was on the department's list of Australians working in Iraq, DFAT had not been in contact with him. It emerged that the list was incomplete (and then that it was three times larger than at first suggested) and officials in Iraq were having difficulty tracking everyone down.
The hostage crisis also provoked a political storm over the extent to which the Opposition should have been briefed on the implementation of contingency plans to free the men using SAS troops or other means. [emphasis added]
But Prime Minister John Howard said today that with each passing hour he was growing more hopeful that the reports were a hoax.[back]
He said the fact no one in Australia had reported a missing loved one seemed to indicate the kidnapping may be false.
"I grow more hopeful every hour," Mr Howard told radio 3AW.
"You never know with these things but one would think that the absence of a phone call to a loved one back in Australia would have sounded the alarm by now.