The Italian Job

Inside the shadowy $4 million ransom payment to release two kidnapped Europeans in Syria.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — As Italian journalist Domenico Quirico drove away from the destroyed streets of the Syrian city of Qusayr in April, he was confronted by two pickup trucks full of masked gunmen blocking his way. The men pulled him from his car and beat him up; then they imprisoned him in a safe house on the city's outskirts. It was the beginning of a hellish 152-day ordeal. Quirico would later describe being held in tiny rooms, fed scraps of leftovers, and forced to endure mock executions. The journalist for the Italian daily La Stampa would write that he had been "betrayed by a revolution that had lost its way and become the property of fanatics and bandits."

Quirico and Pierre Piccinin, a Belgian teacher who was held with him, had fallen victim to the most dangerous conflict for journalists in modern history. The circumstances of their release, however, set them apart from their imprisoned comrades -- and may have even set a dangerous precedent by rewarding the very Islamist gunmen whom they deplore.

Motaz Shaklab, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who served as a negotiator with the kidnappers, said that Italian "authorities" paid $4 million in ransom to secure the freedom of Quirico and Piccinin. The two men were freed in September.

"I have seen the money with my own eyes," Shaklab said. "And I was present as it was handed over to the kidnappers."

The Italian Embassy in Beirut denied that Italy paid a ransom to free Quirico and Piccinin, but directed all further questions to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome. When contacted, the ministry declined to provide any details on the negotiations that led to the two journalists' release.

Shaklab's account of his work as a negotiator between rebels and Italian officials reads like a thriller. But it also shows how dangerous Syria has become for journalists. According to a recent count by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 30 Western and Syrian journalists are currently being held by kidnappers in Syria.

Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said that kidnappers have made ransom demands for only a "small minority" of the journalists being held in the country. The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which is responsible for the bulk of the kidnappings, has made no such demands. While Bouckaert said that paying ransoms could incentivize future kidnappings, he also made the point that outright refusal of paying ransoms could result in execution of hostages.

"I would never advise for or against paying ransom demands," Bouckaert said. "To me, that is a decision for those trying to get their loved one or their employee back, and it can be a life-or-death decision.… At such times, things just aren't black and white."

Shaklab said his involvement in the kidnapping saga began when a friend who was in touch with the Italian authorities asked for his help in locating the two men. Using his extensive network of contacts among opposition fighters, Shaklab discovered that the kidnappers were keeping the duo in the region of Qalamoun, close to the border with Lebanon.

Shaklab said he met the kidnappers in the town of Yabrud, north of Damascus. Although he did not name the group that the kidnappers came from, he said that they were not radical Islamists but belonged to a so-called "moderate" faction of the rebellion. He would meet with the kidnappers five times in the course of the negotiations for Quirico and Piccinin's release.

"They first wanted $10 million for both men," Shaklab said. "I told them kidnapping is wrong and the money they were looking for was way too much. I tried to bring down the amount."

The kidnappers at first tried to justify their act by telling Shaklab that both Europeans were spies. It was only as the negotiations dragged on, Shaklab recalled, that they admitted they kidnapped the pair because their group had financial difficulties.

Shaklab said that he was in almost daily contact with the Italian side, which included Quirico's daughter, the family's lawyer, and officials from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He would meet them in the Turkish city of Antakya, not far from the border with Syria, after conferring with the kidnappers. From the beginning, the negotiations were intended to secure the freedom of both Quirico and Piccinin, though he does not know whether Belgian authorities were involved behind the scenes or contributed some of the ransom money.

Cutting a multimillion-dollar deal with these kidnappers, Shaklab soon discovered, was no easy task. The negotiations dragged on for more than three months, during which Shaklab managed to decrease the ransom demand to $4 million. He successfully arranged to see the hostages during the talks but was not allowed to speak to them. He also noticed that Quirico's health was deteriorating due to his long imprisonment.

"I said to the Italian authorities: The kidnappers are not lowering the amount any further, and the Italian hostage is getting in a bad shape," Shaklab said. "Do you want to make a deal, or shall I stop with the negotiations?"

The Italians told him to cut the deal.

After both sides agreed on the ransom amount, Shaklab flew to Beirut, where he was picked up by an Italian. The pair left the Lebanese capital and drove to a predominantly Sunni town close to the border with Syria. Hidden in their car were two black bags holding $4 million, all in $100 bills.

Shaklab had made his own security arrangements before carrying such a sum into the town, and he used his contacts to meet up with the kidnappers as soon as he arrived. "A masked man checked the money," he said. "He counted every bundle. He also brought some dollars himself. Every time, he compared our dollars with his dollars. He of course wanted to make sure the money was real."

But just as the hostage situation appeared to be nearing its end, Shaklab and his Italian colleague were blindsided by an unexpected change of plans. "While we had taken the money with us, the kidnapper did not bring the two hostages with him," Shaklab said. "This was against the deal."

Instead, the kidnappers told him that Quirico and Piccinin would be released in a different part of Syria. It was the beginning of several nerve-wracking days. Shaklab and the Italian found themselves in a largely lawless part of Lebanon with a huge sum of money, fearing that the kidnappers would rob them and fail to release the hostages. They relied on a Syrian rebel commander as a middleman, handing the money to him and driving back to Beirut before the hostages were released. They authorized the commander to hand the money over to the kidnappers once it was confirmed that the hostages were safely out of Syria.

In the end, the deal did not collapse. Four days after their trip to the town, on Sept. 8, Shaklab received news that Quirico and Piccinin had been dropped off by unknown men close to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, roughly 100 miles to the north of where the middleman was waiting with the money.

"From that moment I knew the deal was done," Shaklab says. "The hostages were released. So we let the kidnappers leave with the $4 million."

Quirico would later write about his ill treatment while imprisoned and describe how the ordeal turned him against the rebellion. Syria, he wrote, "has become the Country of Evil, the land where evil triumphs and thrives like grapes on the vine."

Shaklab, however, says that Quirico's claims are grossly exaggerated. "Of course it is no fun to be kidnapped," he said. "But I know they were not tortured by anybody. They were kept inside an apartment and ate what the kidnappers ate." The two men, the negotiator said, were simply "amateurs who did not know a lot about Syria."

Shaklab claims that he did not receive any money for securing the release of the two men. He did, however, ask the Italian Embassy in Beirut for two things as a reward for his role in the saga. The first request was for a secondhand kidney dialysis machine, which was donated to a Syrian hospital.

The second request was for a Schengen visa. "So I can once visit Italy," he said with a smile.

Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images


'We Want to Move On'

What do Egyptians really care about in their country's constitutional referendum? Not the constitution, for starters.

CAIRO — The first day of a much-hyped constitutional referendum confirmed two things that most Egyptians already knew. First, this third referendum in as many years has little to do with the actual document being voted on. And second, there is virtually no question of what the result will be: The constitution will pass by a landslide.

The two-day referendum, which began Tuesday, Jan. 14, is widely seen as an opportunity to end -- or at least mitigate -- the political debates that have been threatening to rip Egypt apart. The country has been deeply polarized since July 3, 2013, when the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi. The previous constitution was suspended, and a new road map for a political transition, led by a military-appointed government, was established. This government, which has banned the previously ruling Muslim Brotherhood and cracked down on street protesters, wrote the newly proposed constitution. The document incorporates more rights and freedoms than the last constitution, but it also guarantees greater autonomy for the military, still affirms principles of Islamic law as the main sources of legislation, limits the establishment of trade unions to one per profession, and leaves room for civilians to be tried in military courts -- all causes of popular discontent.

Yet in voting, many people I spoke to said their primary interest is not in enacting a particular government charter; rather, it is in finding a way to move the country forward and to bring attention back to the much-needed social and economic reforms that inspired the 2011 revolution. Which is to say, they just want to get past it.

Everyone also seemed to silently acknowledge the elephant sitting in the polling rooms: A no vote is not even an option.

The government's mass-media campaign for the referendum has delivered a clear message. It hasn't been implied -- it has literally been spelled out across the country. Not-so-subtle billboards reading "YES to the referendum, NO to darkness" are echoed by television and radio ads declaring, "YES to the referendum, NO to terrorism." (The transitional government has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.)

Muslim Brotherhood supporters refuse to acknowledge the road map developed after July 3 and thus are boycotting the vote; they adamantly maintain that reinstalling Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, is the only legitimate process for the country to move forward. Meanwhile, for many activists and political parties involved in the 2011 revolution, participating in the referendum was not really a choice. Those who have attempted to advocate a no vote have faced harsh state retaliation. The most cited example to date has been the arrest of several members of the Strong Egypt Party a few days prior to the vote for distributing posters encouraging a vote against the constitution.

The truth of the matter is that such a dramatic crackdown was probably unnecessary. Historically, there has never been a no vote in any of Egypt's referendums. In fact, it has always been ambiguous as to what the implications of a no vote would really be. The July 3 road map does not even account for such a result.

The only resounding "no" consistently heard around Cairo in the lead-up to the vote was when people were asked whether they had read the constitution. From taxi drivers to youth activists, people seemed surprised by the question. For many -- perhaps most -- Egyptians, the document itself is irrelevant. This goes even for those supporting the military: The referendum for them is ultimately a way of solidifying legitimacy for the July 3 road map. Many people in this camp describe a vote of yes as a mark of the end of the "Muslim Brotherhood reign" and a popular verdict on the removal of Morsi.

In the days prior to the referendum, there was much talk about what the level of turnout would be. The 2012 constitution drafted under Morsi passed with a 63.8 percent rate of approval, but only 32.9 percent of the population voted. For many, this was a clear indication of the lack of support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Similarly, the percentage of voter turnout this time around will be seen as an indicator of the relative confidence in Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's leadership, as he plans to run for president.

But even with questions about turnout swirling, the primary emphasis for a yes vote has remained on pushing past this period of unrest.

Indeed, most Egyptians are fully aware of the trade-off they are supporting. Even the staunchest backers of the military will admit that there is worry about a return of the police state -- widespread concern about the lack of permitted dissent and the limits being placed on the freedom of expression, the right to demonstrate, and independent media. Yet there is a conscious decision being made to deal away some basic civil liberties for more stability, something more likely with a yes vote.

A large number of Egyptians I spoke to have become apathetic about the political situation, and an even larger number say they never want to see a protest shutting down their streets ever again. Egyptians are quick to emphasize that the goal of the average citizen is no longer a democratic process. Rather, it is to see a steady, strong government that can lead to tangible improvements in everyday lives.

A 56-year-old homemaker perhaps described it best. "For Tantawi's constitution, we said yes; for Morsi's constitution, we said yes for stability; and now we say yes for June 30 and for stability and security. People are tired. We want to move on," she told Mada Masr, a self-described independent and progressive Egyptian media outlet that has provided direct reporting from the polling stations.

The reality, of course, is that the same trade-off has been made before. The assumption that a quick endorsement of a new constitution will lead to Egypt leaping forward into its next chapter is the same one voters made in previous referenda. And in both cases, the stability so desperately yearned for did not materialize.

Egyptian activists who reject both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are watching from the sidelines with dismay as, they say, history repeats itself. It's the same play, but with different actors or people in new roles. The plot isn't new: public demonization, mass arrests, criminal trials, and a fast-forwarded political process. And though it's too soon to tell, many activists fear that the play will end as it has before -- that a military-led government leaning toward consolidating and maintaining its power will repeat the same mistakes of its predecessors.

If this happens, critics say, there's a risk that Egyptians will just hit the reset button once more. Then, the play will start all over from the beginning.