The Jill Carroll Story, Part 4: Mother as Suicide Bomber
Exhausted, Jim Carroll walked the streets of Washington, headed back to his hotel. He'd hardly eaten all day, so he ducked into a bar for dinner. He hadn't been there long when his cellphone rang. It was the FBI. They wanted to know the family's decision.
The previous day, Jan. 17, a video demanding the release of Iraqi women prisoners had aired on Al Jazeera. A 72-hour deadline was given.
This wasn't going to be pleasant. "We're not going your way," Jim told his FBI contact. "We're going to go with the sympathy statement."
What do you say to your daughter's kidnappers? It was a question Carroll felt woefully unqualified to answer. He was a software person, an entrepreneur, not a hostage negotiator. Insurgents had seized Jill Carroll in Baghdad 11 days ago; it was time for her parents to publicly plead for her life. But how? That was something on which experts -- all well-meaning -- couldn't agree.
The FBI wanted the father -- him -- to shake his fist, in essence; to go on TV and address the men who held Jill as murderers and thugs.
In Baghdad, Jill's colleagues at The Christian Science Monitor thought that would misfire in the Middle East. They said the words should reflect how much Jill's family loved and missed her. And the message should come from Jill's mother, Mary Beth.
Well, Jim and Mary Beth and Katie, Jill's twin sister, had been over this and over this and over it again. They couldn't thrash any more. Katie insisted that they should trust people Jill trusted; so be it. They'd go with the Monitor's Baghdad correspondents, and the softer appeal from her mother.
On the other end of the phone, Jim's FBI contact sounded very unhappy. He was polite, but clear: The bureau did not think this was a good idea. Not a good idea at all.
Jim hung up. He felt he was living in a new world, where you got 1 percent of the data you needed to make a decision, but it didn't matter; you had to decide anyway, you couldn't walk away, and you had to do it now, right now -- and the price of a misstep might be a vibrant young woman's life.
Despair billowed over him.
* * *
As we stood in the small kitchen, Abu Ali, the insurgent with the salt-and-pepper beard who had abducted me, proudly declared that his wife wanted to die.
"Um Ali wants to be a martyr. She wants to drive a car bomb!" he said, beaming.
Of course, she'd have to wait, since she was now four months pregnant. It is forbidden in Islam to kill a fetus at that age, he explained.
"Oh, OK, OK, oh wow," I said. I feigned confusion while I tried to think of what to say.
The chaos of dinner preparation swirled around us. The kitchen was typically Iraqi: a cramped space with thin metal countertops that have no cabinets beneath.
Someone had sewed a skirt for the countertop out of gaudy fabric, but one part had torn away. Next to the refrigerator was a giant freezer, covered all over with stickers advertising Maggi-brand soups.
Three children played around our feet -- all progeny of the would-be bomber.
I was still unused to captivity, still learning the boundaries, both physical and mental, that my kidnappers had imposed. I didn't want to offend. But I was shocked at the talk of a mother's suicide; shocked that Um Ali would blush at her husband's praise of this plan.
"Oh, I didn't know women could be car bombers," was all I could muster.
Later I was told that this was the only way women could be part of the mujahideen. The men could have the glory of fighting in battle. Women got to blow themselves up.
Meanwhile, the big silver platters of food were ready. Men carried them out to the group of insurgents meeting behind the closed door of the sitting room. Based on their comments, this house seemed to be in western Baghdad or near Abu Ghraib.
I talked with Um Ali and other women in the kitchen. Yes, I traveled back and forth between countries for my job, I said. They replied that it was wrong for them to work, that they left school at age 12 to learn to cook and keep house.
Then the dinner platters returned, with the food ravaged -- rice everywhere, bones with the chicken chewed off, nothing left but scraps, really.
And the women sat and began to eat the scraps.
I couldn't believe it! After all the time they'd spent preparing the meal, they got leftovers.
But I sat down with them. And, as I would often do with women over the next three months, I ate from the remains of the communal stew.
* * *
It was a surreal experience. Alone in the Al Jazeera television studio, Jim Carroll stared at the camera, aware that at any moment it would switch on and broadcast his image around the world. He didn't want that image to be him scratching his nose, so he stayed unnaturally still as the minutes ticked away.
A day earlier, Mary Beth had appeared on CNN, making the family's first televised response to the kidnappers' demands. "They've picked the wrong person ... if they're looking for someone who is an enemy of Iraq," she said, adding to her scripted statement.
Now, it was Jim's turn.
Finally, after a quarter of an hour, the light blipped, and, on Jan. 20, Jill Carroll's father made his global TV debut. Live, for the 6:00 a.m. news feed in the Middle East.
"I want to speak directly to the men holding my daughter Jill because they also may be fathers like me...."
When he left the studio after finishing, the woman who had produced the shoot came up to him. Tears were running down her cheeks. "Bingo," thought Jim. His message appeared to have gotten through. Maybe other tears were running down other cheeks right now, in Iraq.
It had been a busy week. Three days ago, the first video of Jill as a hostage had appeared on Al Jazeera; she'd looked tired and stressed.
On the positive side, the video had been followed by an outpouring of statements calling for Jill's release, from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Iraq's Muslim Scholars Association, and Sunni political leader Adnan al-Dulaimi, among others. In Baghdad, Monitor reporter Dan Murphy had been on the phone working his contacts in the Arab world, tapping into a growing disapproval of insurgents taking innocent civilians.
Mr. Dulaimi perhaps was a particularly important catch. Jill had been seeking to interview him just prior to her abduction. Some Westerners in Baghdad suspected that he, or someone who worked in his office, had been involved in the crime.
Jim was worn out by the struggle over family statements. That had been intense. The FBI's position -- that it was best the father talk strongly in a man-to-man manner -- was the considered opinion of bureau counterterror experts, who'd tested it before focus groups of Arabs. Iraq was a male-dominated society, after all.
But the Monitor's correspondents in Baghdad, plus the British security firm there, thought that approach was culturally insensitive. Iraqi men revere their mothers, they insisted, so the first appeal should come from Mary Beth. And it should depict Jill, not as a lone adult, but as the missing piece of a family -- another point they felt would appeal to Iraqi hearts.
In the end the family opted for the mother-first tactics. A day after Mary Beth's appearance, Jim made his own televised appeal, albeit with words watered down from the FBI's language. He appeared on both Al Jazeera, the most popular Arabic network, and its more reserved competitor, Al Arabiya.
Neither Mary Beth nor Jim were afraid of the camera. But they were afraid of saying the wrong thing.
In her first appearance, Mary Beth took a few questions, and in answering one said that Jill was a good "ambassador" for Iraq, since she'd reported the struggles of Iraqis' daily lives. But later someone told her that the word "ambassador," in Arabic, translates as "government official," not "general emissary." And the last thing the family wanted to imply was that Jill worked for any government.
So the family limited media appearances to scripted statements. They asked friends not to speak to the press. Almost without exception, their friends complied, with some even slamming the door on reporters.
But for all their attention to the subject, there was one important thing about their appearances that Jim and Mary Beth didn't know: Would Jill's captors be watching?
* * *
Held against my will, I learned more about Iraqi insurgents than I would have dreamed possible. On one level, I got a firsthand look at the way they live. While I was imprisoned alone in rooms for long periods, I was also allowed to mix with insurgent families in some of the houses where I was held. I even played with their youngest children -- a small joy that helped me endure.
On another level, I heard a lot about what they think, both about themselves and the U.S.. I wanted them to see me as more valuable alive than dead, so I told them that as a reporter I could write their story if I was freed.
They seized on this idea, perhaps to a degree I hadn't anticipated. After dinner, some of the men drew up plastic chairs in a walkway area in the middle of the house and held an impromptu press conference -- minus questions, and with me as the lone member of the press.
They insisted that they weren't terrorists, that they were just defending their country against an occupation. They had nothing against Americans, they said. It was the U.S. government that was their enemy.
"If you come to us as a guest to our country, we will open all of our homes to you and feed you and you are welcome," said one of the men that night. "But if you come to us as an enemy, we will drink your blood and there will not be one of you left standing."
I hoped the little briefing would help establish my persona as a reporter. To placate them, I'd memorized verses in the Koran. But I never seriously considered the idea of converting. As I learned more about this brand of Islam, and the life of women tied by marriage or family to the insurgency, the more convinced I was that I couldn't even pretend to convert. As long as I was seen as a reporter and a Christian woman, I figured they might tolerate my missteps. But if I acquiesced to conversion, even if it was insincere, would a "good Muslim" -- like Um Ali -- also be required to embrace martyrdom?
At moments like this, I thought they were becoming more comfortable with me. Perhaps they wouldn't kill me.
Um Ali's son, Bakr, was 3 years old, cute, and spoiled rotten. He'd jump in my lap, and we'd play a little game: He'd put his nose against mine, his head against my head, and we would whisper really quietly together, him in Arabic, me in English. In the early days of my captivity, we'd do it often, and I'd look in his little eyes, and it really comforted me. It felt so good just to hug somebody.
Still, getting through each hour was an accomplishment. Every day was so long. Um Ali would do something nice, like bring me some tea, and I'd try to react normally. But then I'd remember that they'd killed Alan, my interpreter.
That refrain was constantly in my head: Don't be fooled, Jill. They killed Alan. Don't be fooled.
Next part: Mujahideen movies of attacks.