Behind the Release

The call came on March 12th. “I don’t want to worry you, but Alan Johnston has not been heard from for a couple of hours.” He had not conformed to his regular daily routine of calling his colleagues after he arrived home from leaving work.

It was a routine which had been implemented after the Fox News crew were taken last year. Only a few weeks previously, the Head of High Risk and the World Newsgathering Editor had visited Alan to look at his security in Gaza.

Alan had even written a kidnap plan which contained his express wishes about the involvement of his family, and a duress code – a word which he would use if he had to make a video to show he was being forced to say things.

I wondered about the value of this when Alan’s two videos came out. I felt proud of him for his calmness and composure. But I didn’t suppose that he was voluntarily saying all that stuff about Tony Blair and George Bush being responsible for all the world’s ills.

We also had a Proof of Life question worked out – which we asked the kidnappers to put to Alan. If the correct answer came back, it would have meant they had him and he was alive. Ours was: “What was the name of cat in South Africa.”

We later understood that the Arabic had become somewhat garbled and this had become “What is the national cat of South Africa”. We had visions of Alan desperately wracking his brains – is it a Siamese, or a Persian?

BBC News has dealt with a number of staff crises over the years. A kidnap however was new territory for us, with no blueprint to work from. We sought advice from those who had dealt with kidnaps in the recent past, including the Fox team, who we believed had been taken by the same group.

Three of our team went straight to Gaza in the initial hours and stayed for the next three weeks. They were joined by Fayed Abu Shammala, a Gazan who had been the BBC Arabic Service correspondent and a close friend and colleague of Alan’s. He demonstrated his courage over the course of the weeks in meeting many dangerous characters, at great personal risk to himself.

Fayed was vital in gathering information, quickly establishing who might be holding Alan. But the reasons why, and what it was the  kidnappers wanted, proved maddeningly and frighteningly elusive. A Foreign Office crisis team was formed, they flew staff out from London and we met them  virtually  every day to share information and devise strategies.

Early in the process, it was obvious that this was a more complex kidnapping than had taken place before in Gaza. Alan was the victim of rapidly disintegrating political structures. We had established that it was probably the Dogmoush clan who were responsible.

Those of us previously not well-versed in Palestinian politics rapidly became expert. The Dogmoush is a 9,000-strong clan led by a 29-year-old warlord, Mumtaz Dogmoush.
In the complex Gazan world of clans, blood feuds, killings and the need for retribution, his motive appeared to be attempting to shore up his position against Hamas and Fatah, both of whom he had reportedly fallen out with after conducting military operations for them both.

So began our campaign of trying to exert pressure on Palestinian politicians in the hope they could persuade the gang to surrender their trophy. The Palestinians themselves launched a huge local campaign, led by local journalists, to resolve the case. The problem though, was that we had no way of assessing whether this was actually helping Alan, by putting his case on the map, or making things worse, by pushing his price up to the kidnappers.

After three weeks of silence from the kidnappers, on Good Friday, the case took a more ominous turn. The British government received a set of political demands. They called for the release of prisoners in Jordan and of Abu Qatada – the al-Qaeda cleric in jail in the UK – demands which could never be met. We now began to wonder whether we were in fact dealing with a bunch of criminals or al-Qaeda.

Sections of the Israeli press were keen to push the view that “al-Qaeda Palestine” was now firmly established. Over the course of the four months it was never entirely clear who was in charge in Alan’s kidnapping. In Jerusalem, where the investigation end of the operation was largely being handled, we would gather on the terrace of the Ambassador Hotel, desperately analysing the information, trying to make sense of it.

And when it was all over,  did  any  of what we did actually help Alan? We are still not sure. The press campaign was hugely valuable: to the BBC and its staff – who magnificently threw their whole weight behind it; and to Alan – for the comfort it gave him during those terrible months. But in the end it was probably local politics that brought about Alan’s release. Hamas, having taken Gaza by force, saw a huge prize in attempting to establish themselves as a political movement to be taken seriously.

And what of the wider lessons?

It is clear that assessing risk is no longer about simply watching out for bombs and bullets in conflict zones. Radical Islam has now become one of the major issues facing us. We need to learn a great deal more of these groups and how they operate if we are to keep our people safe.