Iraqi Abductors Find Deep Pockets in U.S. – By Gina Chon and Joel Millman – Wall Street Journal 7/29/06

Iraqi Abductors Find
Deep Pockets in U.S.

Militants and criminals, seeking ransom,
target Iraqi Christians with family overseas.
‘Trust me, I swear I do not have much money’
July 29, 2006; Page A1

One morning in May, Tony Batou stopped for coffee at his family’s gas station in suburban Detroit and learned some dreadful news: A 21-year old cousin, Sandy Gbou, had been kidnapped from his home in Baghdad by five masked gunmen. Mr. Gbou later said his abductors, who were demanding a $130,000 ransom, amused themselves by spraying bullets around his feet.

In a series of phone calls over six days, Mr. Gbou’s parents in Iraq pleaded with the kidnappers to drop the ransom demand. They taped the conversations and later made the recordings available to The Wall Street Journal. In one call, a terrorist using the pseudonym Abu Tariq coaxed the family to raise the sum quickly. Then, he added: “I know you have people living outside the country.”

Kidnapping, a scourge in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, has a new twist: militants and criminals seeking Iraqis with families overseas who can pay a ransom. According to Iraqi-Americans, attorneys and U.S. security officials who have served in Iraq, a substantial number of U.S.-based Iraqi families have been extorted in this way.

Tony and Danny Batou in Shelby Township, Mich., with a picture of their cousin Sandy Gbou, kidnapped in Baghdad in May.

Robert DeKelaita, an Iraqi-American who works as an immigration attorney in Skokie, Ill., says he has represented hundreds of clients in the past two years who have been tapped for ransom payments after relatives have been kidnapped in Iraq.

“Those insurgents know exactly what they are doing,” Mr. DeKelaita says. “They know who has relatives in the U.S., and who can pay, and our people are suffering for it.”

Mr. DeKelaita’s own secretary, Nineveh Isho, says her 20-year-old cousin was grabbed in April 2004 as he was walking down a street in Baghdad. Relatives in the U.S. raised the bulk of a $20,000 ransom, which was sent to a personal bank account of a friend in Iraq. The kidnappers said during phone conversations they knew of the family’s relatives in Arizona and the Chicago area, Ms. Isho says her family told her. Ms. Isho was born in the U.S. and her parents came here in 1976.

Shawn Atto, who owns two hotels in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., said his family has been tapped twice for emergency cash. Mr. Atto’s cousin, 16-year old Nawal Shamo, was kidnapped from his Baghdad home in the middle of the night in March 2004 and again one month later, Mr. Atto says.

According to Mr. Atto, the first time kidnappers demanded $15,000 and a cellphone. Relatives in Michigan sent $14,500 to Iraq and the son was released, Mr. Atto says. The second time, insurgents demanded $5,000, again paid by relatives in the U.S. Afterward, family members fled to Jordan and now are trying to come to the U.S. Mr. Atto has bought the Shamo family a house and is sponsoring the head of the family to work as an accountant in his hotels.

“The terrorists are using our money to kill American soldiers,” Mr. Atto said. “But we have no choice. These people are our family.”


AFTER GRABBING 21-year-old Sandy Gbou from his home in Baghdad, the kidnappers call his family and demand a $130,000 ransom. The family balks and turns to Amir Gbou, Sandy’s uncle, to negotiate. He pretends to be Sandy’s father. Read three translated transcripts and listen to the original Arabic conversations with the kidnappers, recorded by the family’s answering machine in Baghdad.

Many targets of ransom demands are Iraqis living in San Diego and Detroit. They are overwhelmingly Christian, members of a minority that faces increasing isolation and hostility in their homeland, though Iraqis of all ethnic and religious groups have suffered from abductions as security has deteriorated in Iraq. In America, these Iraqi Christians tend to be self-employed, either as professionals or small-business owners. In Detroit, convenience stores tend to be operated by Iraqi expatriates.

Iraqi Christians are known collectively as Assyrians, while Roman Catholics there are known as Chaldeans. In total they make up less than 10% of Iraq’s population. Iraqis and Americans suspect Shiite and Sunni terrorists are deliberately picking Christians with relatives in the U.S. not only for the cash but also to further a broader goal of ethnic cleansing.

Historically, Christians in Iraq even before the fall of Mr. Hussein, “have always been perceived as pro-Western,” says Farouk Gewarges, an insurance broker in the Iraqi enclave of El Cajon, Calif., a San Diego suburb. What’s more, dozens of San Diego-based Iraqis and many more from Detroit have joined the war effort, signing on as translators or serving as advisers and contractors to the U.S. military. Some have even donned U.S. uniforms as soldiers and Marines. “That’s another reason they terrorize us,” Mr. Gewarges says.

In the past Iraqi Christians could apply for asylum in the U.S., but these days that’s an increasingly elusive goal. Based on Mr. Hussein’s record of persecution, Chaldeans and Assyrians seeking asylum once had an acceptance rate that topped 80%, among the highest of all asylum-seeking groups, according to the Department of Homeland Security. U.S. immigration judges are now rejecting between a half and a third of the applicants they review. Some courts argue that Iraq is a free and democratic country. Others have said that since everyone in Iraq is a potential target of violence, Christians can no longer claim they are being singled out for persecution.

“The Iraqi government is committed ‘to equal treatment for all religions and ethnicities’ and has taken significant steps to thwart the terrorists for the benefit of all its citizens, including Assyrian Christians,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said in April, in denying an application for asylum.


In June, Majid Asshak received a call from his sister looking for help after her husband was taken by gunmen from his liquor store in Baghdad. Mr. Asshak sent $10,000 through a friend who was traveling there. Eleven days later, Mr. Asshak, who owns a hair salon in Sterling Heights, Mich., says his brother-in-law was freed after relatives paid a $49,000 ransom to the kidnappers, who said they were part of a Shiite militia. After the kidnapping and the death of two children during the war, the family has sold its liquor business and is getting rid of other items in preparation for a move to Syria.

In the case of Albert Anderious, who has family in San Diego, a $30,000 ransom was raised by relatives overseas, mainly in Vienna, to secure his release. The money was wired to a Western Union office in Amman, Jordan, in the name of a driver who then drove it to Baghdad. That circuitous route dates from the Hussein era when money couldn’t be sent directly to Iraq.

“I just want to leave,” says Mr. Anderious, 46. Reached by phone in Iraq, he confirmed the account of his ordeal. “I’m worried about how I will pay my relatives back and how my family will survive.”

Kidnapping for ransom has been a common tactic in Iraq and was employed by Latin American insurgents in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Colombia. Yet until now, it seldom crossed international boundaries.

Daniel O’Shea, the first coordinator of the U.S. Embassy Hostage Working Group in Iraq, part of the U.S. effort that deals solely with kidnappings, says he often received calls from Iraqis living in the U.S. asking for advice on how to handle the abduction of a relative in Iraq.

“Kidnapping is the No. 1 avenue to get money, make a quick buck,” says Mr. O’Shea, who left Iraq in April and now runs Daniel Risk Mitigation Consulting Services, a security consulting firm based in Tampa, Fla.

It’s legal to send money from the U.S. to Iraq, but under U.S. anti-terrorism regulations, knowingly funding terrorists — including paying a ransom to kidnappers — is a crime. Officials from the Department of Justice and Pentagon declined to comment or said they were unaware of any such cases being prosecuted. Molly Millerwise, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Director of Public Affairs, said mitigating circumstances would be considered.

Families in Iraq say the rarely if ever seek help from Iraqi authorities, either because they think it will accomplish nothing or because they worry militants have infiltrated the police.

Danny Batou first heard the news about his cousin’s kidnapping when he called his wife, who was in Iraq dealing with immigration paperwork. “You never know what they could do to him,” he recalls thinking. “You never think something like this is going to happen to your family.”

His wife told him to keep the news quiet. The Gbou family worried what would happen if word got out. Later that morning, Danny Batou ran into his brother Tony at the family-owned gas station and they decided to do whatever they could to help.

Mr. Batou says his family came to the U.S. to escape oppression under Mr. Hussein. They opened a liquor store in 1995 and then a gas station a few years ago. Although they now consider the U.S. home, the family keeps close watch on news from Iraq and travels there frequently.

Their cousins, the Gbous, are a prosperous family from a town north of Mosul. Mr. Gbou’s father, Jozef, ran a transportation business that hauled construction materials and later took oil to Jordan after sanctions were imposed on Iraq. He was forced to serve in Mr. Hussein’s army.

After the invasion, Jozef Gbou put his trucking company in the employ of the U.S. He was threatened by militants, who told him he would be killed if he continued. One of his oil trucks was blown up.

Danny Batou recalls telling his cousin Mr. Gbou to stop going to Baghdad because it was too dangerous. The pair met up in Iraq when Danny got married there last year. Mr. Gbou told him it was boring living in his small village. Baghdad was more exciting, despite the violence, he said.

Mr. Gbou, one of four children, described his ordeal in a telephone interview. It began after he traveled from northern Iraq to Baghdad to take a high-school exam delayed by the turmoil in his country.

Mr. Gbou recalls being alone in his family’s home in the Iraqi capital on May 1 when he heard a knock on the gate and voices asking for his father. He shouted back that his father wasn’t home. The men outside said they needed to ask a question. Mr. Gbou unlatched the gate. He was hit with the butt of a gun, tied up and put in the trunk of a vehicle by the masked men waiting for him.

“I looked all over for him around the neighborhood,” said Fareal Gbou, Mr. Gbou’s mother. “When I couldn’t find him, I knew he was kidnapped and I just started praying.”

The kidnappers then phoned the family. Each of the taped conversations starts with an exchange of common pleasantries in Arabic. The caller says, “hello” and a family member answers, “how are you?” Soon the talk turns to business. In one early call, the negotiator called Abu Tariq demanded Mr. Gbou’s family buy three $20 phone cards to pay for the ransom calls. The family was told to read the PINs over the phone so the kidnappers could activate the minutes on their cellphones.

A couple of days later, Abu Tariq offered some unsolicited advice to the Gbou family. “Be careful who you surround yourself with,” he told them. “It’s somebody at your work who did this to you, who got your son kidnapped.”

In one tense call, the talk turned to the ransom demand, which started at $130,000 before being whittled down to $13,000. Talking on behalf of the family was Mr. Gbou’s uncle, who was masquerading as Mr. Gbou’s father. Mr. Gbou’s father has an accent that shows he is from a Christian area. The family worried that might encourage the kidnappers to further take advantage of them, given the precarious position of Christians in Iraq.

In the middle of the price negotiations, an unidentified kidnapper asks: “What about the price that we have agreed on?”

“By Almighty God I do not know brother where to start and where to end in my talk,” replies Mr. Gbou’s uncle Amir. “Would you like me to beg you until the morning, to swear to you until the morning, pray for you until the morning? Trust me, I swear I do not have much money. The people who told you stories about me exaggerated it very much.”

“I have nothing to do with other people,” the kidnapper says. “It’s just between me and you.”

Family members in Michigan cobbled together some cash. Danny and Tony Batou say they contributed $1,000 each, as did their father and an aunt. They pooled the money together and wired it to Amman, as has become the custom, where it was picked up by a hired driver.

To that was added $9,000 raised by Mr. Gbou’s father. He used an oil truck as collateral on a loan and is now selling it to pay back the money.

The kidnappers designated a drop-off point for the money near a park. An intermediary would be there and would identify himself by saying, “Abu Ziad sends his regards to you.”

Two days after the money was handed over, Mr. Gbou remained in captivity. He recalls overhearing his captors discussing his “sale” to another group. After being held in the trunk of a car for hours, then beaten in the chest and head. Mr. Gbou says he assumed his end was near.

Finally, one guard who watched over him let him go, taking him to a bus station in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib district. “I always thought I was going to be killed,” Mr. Gbou says.

Once Mr. Gbou was released, he and his family fled to their home in the north, where they are working to get their Iraqi passports. They then plan to enter Syria, from where they will seek asylum or a visa to the U.S.

In Detroit, Tony Batou says he won’t feel at ease until all his relatives are out of Iraq. Another set of cousins still live in Baghdad.

Write to Gina Chon at and Joel Millman at