Nine months ago Mohammed Khalid, a middle aged man with light coloured eyes, was kidnapped. He was snatched from the street in the middle of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk after work. His family eventually paid a ransom of US$50,000 and after a week Khalid was released by the group of men that took him.
“I was leaving the office when a car pulled up beside me. The men inside pointed a gun at me and told me to get in,” Khalid, who has since left Kirkuk, tells NIQASH. “They covered my eyes and drove me to a mud house. There they beat me with sticks and an iron bar; they broke my leg and my hand. Then they took my mobile and called my brother and told him to bring money to a certain place in Hamrin [an area outside of Kirkuk city], within five days. My family did as they were told and I was released.”
Khalid says he still has nightmares about the event and that he was afraid to stay in Kirkuk afterwards. So he left the city and moved to another part of Iraq; he doesn’t want to say exactly where but he and many others like him have moved to areas inside the semi-autonomous and comparatively safe area of Iraqi Kurdistan or to other countries like Turkey and Jordan.
In Iraq Khalid’s story is not a unique one. Kidnapping is common in the country. In Kirkuk his story is even less unique- in fact, these kinds of stories are becoming more and more common: Kirkuk is in line to take the title of Iraq’s capital of kidnapping.
Over the past three years there have been 291 reported cases of kidnapping, a report by Kirkuk’s police says. Most of these incidents have targeted those locals who could afford to pay a ransom – doctors, merchants, businessmen and their family members. The police say all of those kidnapped were released after their families paid ransoms ranging between US$20,000 and US$80,000. And these are just the kidnaps that were reported – many are apparently never even brought to the police’ attention.
According to the latest information among Kirkuk’s security forces, the number of kidnapping cases is rising. The latest incident took place March 8 and the four victims were returned after amounts ranging between US$25,000 and US$100,000 were paid by their families.
“The kidnappers mostly target men and children,” says Jwan Hassan, the head of the local council’s human rights committee. “Although sometimes women are kidnapped too. And most of the kidnappings seem to have financial motives, rather than political.”
In the past Hassan has said that they suspect that officials working in security are behind human trafficking in the area – those same officials are also thought to be behind the rash of kidnappings.
“Armed extremist groups have started kidnapping people because they’re no longer receiving financial support from outside the country,” provincial council member Ahmed al-Askari, who heads Kirkuk’s security committee, told NIQASH. “That’s because the countries that were funding them are in crisis,” al-Askari noted, making an oblique reference to Syria.
Still al-Askari says he can’t rule out the notion that some military or security staff could be part of kidnapping networks in Kirkuk.
However local security forces deny this, explaining that some of the groups of kidnappers are smaller and the only reason they’re doing the kidnapping is to make a living. Other kidnappers are affiliated with larger extremist groups and they use the money from the kidnapping to do things like buy explosives or cars or to fund other terrorist activities.
Sources from inside Kirkuk’s security forces say that, although they have made some progress, it’s not easy to arrest the kidnapping gangs that are plying their trade in the city. Partially this is because a lot of the kidnappings are not reported, or they are only reported afterwards.
“Often the kidnappers threaten their victim if the families tell the police,” explains Sarhad Qadir, Kirkuk’s police chief. “So the families conclude the deals with their kidnappers themselves. We’re constantly arresting kidnappers because of other information but that is one of our main problems: People don’t report the kidnappings.”
Qadir says he doesn’t expect the kidnappings to stop any time soon, and particularly because there are so many different types of groups undertaking this kind of criminal activity. In the meantime, the wealthier locals who used to call Kirkuk home – people like former kidnapping victim Mohammed Khalid who have since moved away - can only hope that they get to return to the city one day.