Veteran Canadian war reporter Scott Taylor has to be one of the luckiest men
alive right now. Although his long experience in war zones in the Balkans and
Iraq has been marked by many narrow escapes, last week's kidnapping and torture
by one of the world's most notorious Islamic mujahedin groups, in the middle
of a pitched battle in lawless Iraq, tops them all.
This interview, conducted by phone on Friday, should be read in conjunction with the narrative Taylor himself has penned describing his imprisonment and release. It builds on the testimony he provides therein – while also including previously unreported vital information regarding the event.
Deliso: Scott, I'm very glad that you survived this ordeal and that we're
able to be speaking with you today. How are you feeling?
Scott Taylor: Well, I'm still pretty banged up and exhausted, but I'll pull through.
CD: Glad to hear that. Now, I know you're tired, so we don't need to go through the entire narrative again of what happened to you – readers can check it on your site – but I do want to expand on some intriguing points, and first of all get some background. So first of all, how long were you in Iraq before being kidnapped?
ST: Well, we arrived in Iraq earlier on the day – the 7th of September – that I was kidnapped. I came together with a Turkish journalist, Zeynep Tugrul, who works for the big daily newspaper Sabah. The whole thing was supposed to have been arranged by the Iraqi Turkmen Front, whose representatives I've known for a long time.
Since I was in Ankara already, I saw this as our window of opportunity. I knew
that the Turkmen north, and especially Tal Afar, are almost unknown to Western
reporters. No one had really been there, and now the U.S. was on the verge of
a major action there. I had a local contact and a place to stay, and I was also
going to present a new book I've just completed on the history of the Turkmen
population in Iraq.
The Unknown Tal Afar
CD: What is this area like? I have never heard news reports mentioning any fighting there until now.
ST: Tal Afar is an amazing place – when I visited in June to do research
for the book, I found there were no hotels. Imagine, a city of 400,000 people,
with not one hotel! It's a closed little corner of northern Iraq, the place
that time forgot. I kept thinking that National Geographic should send
in a team and do a story on this place. You have people living in houses that
are 400, 500 years old, mud-bricked … I seriously felt like I was back in Biblical
times being there.
CD: Sounds lovely. When did this idyllic little backwater start to pose
a problem for the U.S. war effort?
ST: The U.S. had had serious problems in Tal Afar back in June 2003,
when the building that was originally a CPA facility was destroyed by a massive
car bomb. It was so big that it took 12 helicopters just to remove all the casualties
… but there had been no report on this. A year later, they walked me through
the rubble. At that time [June 2004], I heard that the resistance was already
active. They were bragging about killing three Americans a week, though I can't
verify that claim.
The Plan Goes Awry
CD: So you entered Iraq from Turkey?
CD: And the Iraqi Turkmen Front was escorting you?
ST: Well, the plan was that we would be met at the border by a car and driver from the ITF, with a small armed escort. But when these failed to materialize, we had to take a taxi all the way to Mosul.
CD: How far was that?
ST: It's about 1.5 hours to Mosul. When we got there, we stopped in
for lunch at the U.S. Air Base where I have a Canadian contractor buddy. I learned
from him that all the U.S. second line repair mechanics had been sent to Tal
Afar in advance, in anticipation of possible fighting. So we knew the push was
imminent, and in fact some people we talked to were saying that the town had
already been closed. I was told that the Americans intended to "clean house"
in Tal Afar in the very near future.
So we tried to call the ITF guys in Mosul to arrange a quick ride up to Tal
Afar, but lost time because of the usual phone problems you encounter in Iraq
… so it was starting to get dark. We had enough time, but only just. I was thinking
if we could just get there we'll be OK, even if the U.S. did attack, I would
be in a safe place and film the battle from there.
CD: Why did you think that? Did you not get a sense that tensions have increased since your last trip?
ST: Actually, all things considered, I thought this would be the safest
of all possible options in Iraq, Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf, etc. ... I had a
good, trustworthy contact, who lived in a relatively quiet suburb of the town.
I'd stayed with him in June and was accepted with open arms. I figured I'd be
The Fatal Mistake
CD: At that time, in June, were there any signs that Tal Afar might someday boil over? Was there much of a resistance established in the area back then?
ST: Sure, I sensed a lot of tension in the air. I had been told by Jashar that I'd be safe with him. But even walking around, I could see the hatred on the streets; the locals would look at me, and think I was an American. But being with him, I felt safe.
As for the resistance, they were already stockpiling arms at that point. I mean, they had to be – the size and scope of munitions sources that I saw when kidnapped last week indicated to me that this resistance campaign had to have been planned for months. I don't know, perhaps I'm the only Western journalist with military background and training to have seen how their operation works, how extensive it is.
CD: But you didn't get the sense of a qualitative difference at the beginning of this trip compared to previous ones, i.e., in terms of danger or the way you were treated by locals?
ST: The fatal mistake was in not knowing that the U.S.-trained Iraqi
police were in collusion with the resistance.
When we got to the outskirts of Tal Afar, it was about quarter past 7:00 on
Tuesday night [7 September]. There were around a dozen Iraqi policemen monitoring
the checkpoint on the road going into the town. Scared civilians were trying
to get out, because everyone knew that the big battle with U.S. forces was imminent.
The city had basically been given over to heavily armed resistance fighters.
Assuming that the U.S.-trained police would help us, we asked them to help
us get in touch with Jashar. They seemed happy to do so, and told us to get
into a waiting car filled with masked gunmen. One of them said, "we will
take you to Doctor Jashar – please do not be afraid."
CD: Masked gunmen? Didn't that set off alarm bells for you?
ST: Well, at first I thought that these men belonged to a special police force or something, and didn't worry too much. But then, further inside the city, we saw that the streets were lined with other heavily armed masked fighters – the fabled resistance.
We were taken to a resistance safe house, where they accused us of being spies and confiscated everything we had – cameras, equipment, identifying documents, etc.
There they fed us, nearly executed me for being a "Jewish spy," and then hustled us on to another safe house, where they relieved me of my money and interrogated me at length as to what I was doing in Tal Afar. The leader of the group, who identified himself as the "Emir" (leader), told me to sleep. "I will check your story," he said. "If you are telling the truth, we will release you – if not, you die."
Well, it turned out that our story did check out, but unfortunately for us the emir was liquidated in his Land Cruiser by a Predator missile during the battle that followed. So our release was delayed by several painful days while his men argued over what to do with us.
The American Buildup
CD: Right. We'll get to the rest of that story later. First, can you tell us what had happened to precipitate the battle in the days before your arrival in Tal Afar?
ST: During the previous week, there were bits and pieces in the media
about ongoing attacks. The resistance had destroyed some U.S. armored vehicles,
and after some serious skirmishing they had taken control of the city. Although
the U.S. had an air base 5 km from Tal Afar, inside the city itself they had
And so the U.S. tried to mount a limited operation using what looked like "official"
Iraqi defense forces, but were really just Kurdish peshmergas in new uniforms.
But this strategy failed. The cannon fodder Kurds were defeated by a well organized
Islamic resistance. In fact, the day before I was kidnapped, they had beheaded
30 prisoners, a lot of them Kurds.
The Americans then realized they had bitten off more than the Kurds could chew. A second Stryker armored vehicle battalion was sent up from Mosul, and it was supported by air strikes that began on Wednesday, lasting through Thursday and Friday.
The Scope of the Insurgency
CD: Based on your experiences, what can you say about the composition of the resistance in that part of Iraq? What are their motivations and goals?
ST: The core of the resistance was made up of Islamic religious fundamentalists. Most are Turkmen, but note that they are not Turkmen nationalists. According to the leader, who told me that their group is in fact part of Ansar Al-Islam, Osama and Al-Zarqawi are their brothers. So religion supercedes nationalism.
While many of the fighters may be Turkmen, they are fighting for Allah, and they are cooperating with anyone else, be it Kurd or Arab, similarly motivated by jihad against the Americans.
CD: So after all the American talk about Islamic terrorism thriving in Iraq, this was the real thing, huh?
ST: When I saw the level of organization and apparent troop numbers,
and how everyone is prepared to die – these guys aren't bullshitting. All the
stuff we were told before the war about how the Ba'athists would all gladly
die for Saddam, well that obviously didn't turn out to be the case. But these
guys, these fundamentalists, are fighting to die. This is a very potent weapon.
Worse, the American invasion has actually created this terrorism because it
substantiated over time all the ugliest scenarios that the radical clerics were
warning about. People being crushed by tanks, U.S. soldiers breaking down doors,
violating the sanctity of the home, abusing civilians, etc., seeing all this
go down has an effect. And so the strong anti-American attitude of the clerics
started to seem justified to previously disinterested local people by events
on the ground, and you have religion emerge as the single cause capable of uniting
members of ethnic groups who'd previously been fighting only one another.
CD: So, as you've said many times in the past, the Americans have brought this upon themselves. Did you witness anything to attest to this new cooperation among the resistance?
ST: Everywhere we went, it was obvious that the militants had the full
cooperation of the U.S.-trained Iraqi police. Whenever we transited outside
the city, to the corners of Mosul or the checkpoints, the cops would see us
bound in the back seats – and offer cigarettes to our captors! We'd be flanked
by these gauntlets of teenage boys, cheering and banging on the roofs. It was
clear that there's a lot of cooperation between Arab police and Turkmen fundamentalists.
At one point, our Turkmen captors handed us off to some young and violent Arab
"pupils," so they could go back to Tal Afar for more fighting. There
was coordination with local police, of course, but interestingly enough the
resistance group at that house included Arab fundamentalists and senior Ba'athists.
My co-prisoners, the Turkish journalist and an Iraqi Arab, a driver for UNICEF,
knew the languages being spoken so I learned what was going on.
Homicide at the Hands of the Taxpayer
CD: So if the resistance is so large and diverse, and is at very least
supported by Iraqi police "loyal" to the U.S., what chance do the
Americans actually have?
ST: I learned that the Iraqi police on the checkpoints were contributing part of their salary to the resistance's local leader, the emir. After all, they're whacking the crap out of these police recruits all over the place throughout Iraq, so it's partially protection money.
One guy was laughing at me and saying how ironic it is that the Americans are
being attacked with RPGs purchased with their own money. Sad to say, the U.S.
taxpayer is actually funding the Iraqi resistance. By paying these cops' salaries,
U.S. taxpayers are actually helping to buy the weapons that are killing American
soldiers every day.
CD: Incredible. It can't get worse than that.
ST: I don't know, maybe it can. Consider also that my mujahedin captors
told me in advance the exact time the U.S. air strikes would hit them.
I said, "How the hell you know?" To which the guy laughed and said,
"Don't be stupid, of course we know." They have infiltrated U.S. command
The Mujahedin's Unbeatable Tactic: Death
CD: Now I can understand, hypothetically anyway, this mujahedin ideal of dying for one's religion, and of there being some glory in that after the fact. But on a tactical level, don't they realize just going out to get killed is stupid? What about living to fight another day? I mean, this isn't the way my childhood hero Francis Marion would have done it.
ST: You know why? It's because they want to die. They are not interested in saving lives. And they have a constantly replenished supply of willing martyrs to tap into.
CD: But tactically, if they wanted to inflict maximum damage to the Americans, certainly wouldn't they at least try to learn from their mistakes?
ST: Well, they have been learning from their mistakes to some extent.
The resistance is better organized and more effective than it was before. But
there are many things they could learn that they simply don't. Take the Americans'
night vision goggle advantage … if you read Tommy
Franks' book he talks about how the Apaches were hit in Nasiriyah: the pilots
actually couldn't see anything because they were blinded from too many lights
being on in the town. It interfered with their night vision.
However, the resistance fighters who imprisoned us thought they were being
smart to turn all the lights off – failing to grasp that the U.S. can actually
see better when it's dark out. They could have flooded the place with lights
and done better in the battle.
Yet at the end of the day, the point is that they've got the courage and the will to die in battle. Indeed, at one point when we were being switched from car to car at a desert convoy rendezvous, two of the cars were loaded up with explosives and four aspiring suicide bombers, all set to go back to Tal Afar and wreak carnage on the Americans. And you know what? The ones left behind with us were so sad. It was like they were envious that it wasn't their turn to die yet.
CD: You really can't fight against that, can you.
ST: Not for an army like the American one, whose soldiers are fighting
to live. And the worst thing for the U.S. is that their heavy-handed tactics
have radicalized the population, so that local Turkmen guys who previously had
no strong religious fervor are now willing to die as martyrs. Unlike what the
Pentagon is saying, I saw no foreign fighters there. When we were imprisoned,
we were housed by local people, in their own homes. Their mothers and wives
were doing the cooking and exhorting their sons to go out and die as martyrs.
It's hopeless for the U.S.
CD: Did you find out if the U.S. had taken any casualties during the
Tal Afar battle? Did the mujahedin have anything to cheer about aside from their
newly created martyrs?
ST: I had heard that they downed one helicopter when I got there, and
afterwards they also claimed to have hit three more, though I can't verify that.
A lot of the time we were hooded or blindfolded, after all, and I couldn't see
much of the actual fighting.
The Confusing Human Dimension
CD: Let's get back to your experience as a prisoner. From what I understand, you were transferred to numerous houses between Tuesday and Saturday, threatened with death on several occasions while also told that you'd be freed on others, tortured and interrogated at length before finally being freed on Saturday.
CD: As I understand from your article, the most difficult part of the whole ordeal was not the beatings but the psychological torment, no?
ST: Yes. They played mind games with me by threatening to kill me, and
then saying I would be released, and so on. The mental pressure is incredible,
preparing yourself for death and then getting a reprieve … only to be condemned
again soon thereafter. Some things I understood as a soldier, like the need
to blindfold or handcuff me. I didn't resent that. But it was the excruciating
mental torture that was the worst, even more than the heavy beatings and physical
Perhaps the strangest thing of all was the juxtaposition of brutal terroristic tactics with this sweet Middle Eastern hospitality. In between the beatings they would treat us very well. They never denied me water, and as the guests, we would be served dinner before them. And good dinners too, I might add.
CD: That must have been very disconcerting.
ST: Indeed. I remember on Thursday night, there was a cool breeze coming
in from the window, and I was lying on my side, pretending to sleep. I noticed
the terrorist who had been assigned to guard me get up and walk over toward
me, though I still pretended to be asleep. I was afraid it was time for more
But you know what the guy does? He reaches around and pulls the blanket up on me, as you would for a kid; apparently, he thought I might be cold from the window. So this kind of diametrically opposed behavior was really confusing. Even though they were bloodthirsty militants, they did have a human side to them.
I mean, even when they're threatening, "You're going to die, this is your
last supper," they're beaming because they've given you the best part of
Of course, for them dying is a wonderful thing. So the mindset is like, "I'm giving you the best part of the chicken and I'm going to kill you – what the hell else do you want?"
CD: (Laughing) Yes indeed.
Saved – by the Internet?
CD: I understand that throughout your captivity the mujahedin tried to ascertain your identity, frequently charging you with being an Israeli spy. Why did they always call you an Israeli spy? Could they just not think of anything more damning to accuse a foreigner of?
ST: Pretty much. They didn't know who I was, since all of my gear had been swallowed up in rubble after the American air strikes on Tal Afar. I think it helped them to work up the energy they needed to beat a defenseless, handcuffed prisoner.
CD: But you were able to convince them finally that you were indeed just a Canadian journalist, right?
ST: Well, I guess so. After torturing me, the mujahedin gave me a pen
and paper and told me to write down all the Web sites that might help prove
my case. Even though they told me I had "failed the test" afterwards,
I'm pretty sure from their behavior that they found enough articles there to
A later interrogator who questioned me at length was especially interested in why I hadn't denounced the "imperialist occupation" of Iraq. He was very clear about this word. Come on – of course I have criticized the occupation on numerous occasions.
Thinking fast, I specifically referred them to one of our earlier interviews, "The Empire Strikes Out," as well as the other interviews on Antiwar.com and on your site, besides other articles I've published.
CD: So, do you think that these interviews helped persuade the mujahedin to release you?
ST: I can't prove that, but I've got to think it was probably a big
help. … At very least I think it kept me alive at various points when they easily
could have killed me, and would have.
And technically, it was this last group with the "anti-imperialist"
leader that released me. So the specific articles I gave them, plus what you
doing a search for my name and Iraq, yeah, I got to think that it helped
swing things in my favor. So … thanks.
CD: Wow, that is great – the moment we journalists live for.
The Mysterious Release
CD: Aside from that, do you know how your sudden release was expedited? I know the mujahedin didn't tell you anything about what was going on.
ST: As far as I know, my association with the Iraqi Turkmen Front and their local leader helped get me released, and to get out of the country alive. After all, when the mujahedin threw me into that waiting cab, I was stuck with no documents and almost no money, in a very volatile city in northern Iraq.
CD: Where did the cabbie take you?
ST: The decision had been made that I'd be sent to the main office of the ITF in Mosul. They were in contact with the Turkish government, as was Zeynep, who had been released before me and was trying her best to help me get out too.
CD: But do you think some negotiations between higher powers and your captors had anything to do with it?
ST: I don't know who pulled the strings, if anyone, and I don't want to know. The stakes in this game are so high now. There are all kinds of known and unknown elements involved in Iraq, and it's not even desirable to think about it. If someone put a gun to my head and asked how I was released, I wouldn't know what to say. After all, the Ansar Al-Islam is not known for releasing foreigners. No way would these people, motivated purely by Islam, have done it for a ransom.
CD: When you got to the Turkish border, I understand an officer from the Canadian Embassy was waiting for you. Were you debriefed by the intelligence services? Has the CIA shown an interest in your adventure with the mujahedin?
ST: No, I wasn't debriefed by the CIA. We had to give a statement to the Turkish police, and discuss with my government's embassy staff, of course. But really, all we had was a worm's eye view the whole time, mostly being handcuffed, hooded and blindfolded, with no idea where we were being taken. I wouldn't be much use to any of them.
Reflections and Thoughts on the Future
CD: Scott, what can you predict regarding the situation in northern
Iraq, especially considering the U.S. promise to "pacify" the country
before January elections?
ST: I can tell you, Mosul's about to blow. The resistance can operate
with impunity, and is growing, and the Americans don't have the numbers to cope
… what was once 22,000 soldiers in the area with the 82nd Airborne
has now been whittled down to just 6,000 soldiers with this replacement Stryker
Brigade. So they're stretched too thin to deal with the coming major insurgency.
The Americans are in fact almost invisible – you don't see them on the streets of Mosul. They've ceded the underground control of the city to various factions of rebels, who are all working together, exchanging weapons, intel, hostages, etc.
CD: It doesn't sound good for the Americans. Tell me, after this experience, will you go back to Iraq?
ST: Well, I don't have a passport, so it's irrelevant. But seriously,
no way. At least not in the near future. It's just way too unstable. Even for
me, with all my experience and contacts – after almost 20 trips to the country
– seeing what I did in terms of the organized and fundamentalist-minded resistance,
it's just way too dangerous.
CD: This must have been pretty tough for your family.
ST: Well, yes it was, but fortunately my wife only knew about me being
a prisoner for six hours until I was released. After she herself was released,
Zeynep called my wife and said I was a captive still, but not to worry. Six
hours later I was free, so my wife didn't have time to get too distraught.
And in the end, she took a philosophical view. After all, aside from everything else, I didn't have to pay for transportation, hotels or food during my entire Iraqi vacation.
CD: Scott, you're a brave man – a little crazy, but brave. Now get some rest. We need you back in action.
ST: Thanks – I will.