New book by former Fellow links kidnapping campaign to rise of ISIS
James Harkin’s new book, Hunting Season, investigates the industrial-scale kidnappings of journalists and aid workers in Syria by ISIS, and uncovers a very modern form of warfare.
On August 19, 2014, a video clip was released on YouTube called A Message to America.
Uploaded by a member of the militant group ISIS, it showed the beheading of American journalist James Foley, who had been kidnapped by the jihadist rebel group two years earlier.
Shockingly gruesome in detail, the video marked the first of a series of carefully choreographed and recorded executions, a stage-managed propaganda piece that turned the world’s attentions to ISIS’s kidnapping campaign, sparking regional war.
In a new book, Hunting Season, former Reuters Institute Fellow James Harkin explores the links between the high-profile kidnappings and the rise of ISIS.
“Like many other journalists, I became concerned that many of my colleagues were very quietly going missing, beginning a couple of years ago,” says James, as he explains the original events behind the book’s conception.
“At the same time I was becoming aware that things were changing in Northern Syria and something very strange was happening in terms of the growth of Islamic groups. I became concerned there was a link between the rise of ISIS and the disappearance of many of my colleagues, and that turned out to be the case.
“I was interested in why they built this industrial scale kidnapping, and why we failed to understand it until it was too late.”
James reported extensively on the subject for Vanity Fair, and the investigations became the basis for the book, which focuses on the harrowing details around the kidnapping, treatment and execution of Foley and 23 other foreign ISIS hostages.
An unflinching and absorbing study of a very modern form of warfare, the book includes in-depth interviews with a range of subjects, including Foley’s parents, four released ISIS-held foreign hostages, members of the security teams who negotiated their safety and Syrian eye-witnesses to Foley and Cantlie’s kidnappings. It also includes an exclusive interview with a young Belgian jihadist who shared a cell in Aleppo with Foley, a visit to an important prison where the hostage were kept in the suburbs of Aleppo and interviews with the two young Yazidi women who were held, for several months in the Autumn of 2014, with the American hostage Kayla Mueller.
As well as unveiling the complex network of mercenaries, middlemen and extremists, Harkin says that the book also acts to highlight the importance of the work of freelance journalists, who risk their lives attempting to uncover the truth in extremely perilous situations.
“No one’s paying for journalism anymore,” he says. “These journalists were some of the few people actually trying to investigate what was happening.
“Most of the people captured were freelance journalists; they didn’t even have a salary to look forward to while they were captured.
“It was entirely proper for these men and women to try and investigate what was happening in North Syria. Because if journalists aren’t properly resourced, then the voices we hear in the news all have their own interests – whether it’s the security industry, the human rights industry or governments.
“Journalism is important, otherwise we get our information from risible, flag-waving sources on Twitter, and become hostage both to ISIS propaganda and to people who hate ISIS but have their own axes to grind.
James Harkin was a Thompson Reuters Foundation Fellow at the Reuters Institute, Michaelmas 2013.