Amir al-Shammari felt as though he was in some sort of true crime show. He was driving around the city of Mosul in his modest car, with one hand on the driving wheel and the other on his mobile phone. He was speaking to the men who had kidnapped his 11-year-old son and the kidnappers were telling him where they wanted him to leave the ransom money.
This has happened to al-Shammari before He works as an engineer on large construction projects and local gangsters know that he has the cash to pay a ransom; his sons have been kidnapped twice now.
“I can afford to pay them some money. But what if I was a garbage collector? How would I pay the ransom then?” al-Shammari says.
Al-Shammari\'s youngest son was kidnapped on his way home from school. His father spent hours looking for the missing child but when he got a phone call telling him to collect US$20,000 he knew what had happened. The kidnapper on the phone told him the money would be used to “fund the jihad”.
Which is why al-Shammari was driving around – he was awaiting further instructions on where to drop off the ransom money. When his elder son had been kidnapped previously, the kidnappers had instructed him to put the US$10,000 they demanded into an empty vegetable oil tank on the side of the road in one of the neighbourhoods where the gunmen have a lot of influence.
But to his surprise, this time the kidnappers instructed him to bring his identification papers with him along with the cash and to go to one of the many cash handlers in Mosul.
Because Iraq\'s banking system is so notoriously unreliable, most cash transactions are conducted through a system of transfer offices that work in a similar way to Western Union. Basically Iraqis who want to send money to another part of the country, go the office and specify who the recipient is and where they are. The cash office telephones another office in that part of the country and the would-be recipient goes to pick up the money with his identification and an identifying telephone number.
The kidnappers asked al-Shammari to transfer US$20,000 to a man called Mazen Hatem Mohammed, in the Rabia district, north west of Mosul. Rabia is also a border town on the road between Mosul and Qamishli in Syria. Al-Shammari did as he was told and after about an hour he got a phone call from his younger son. He had been released by the kidnappers and was now in an agricultural district west of Mosul city.
Al-Shammari\'s story is not an unusual one. Ali Abdul Razzak says he too was asked by kidnappers to transfer US$15,000 to Rabia, after his 16-year-old brother was kidnapped in the centre of Mosul city.
Abdul Razzak is actually a policeman and he says he is well aware of the methods that kidnappers, who are often affiliated with extremist groups like Al Qaeda, use.
“Usually the ransom money is delivered to a woman wearing a niqab or else it is left in a public place for collection,” Abdul Razzak confirms.
So when he too was asked to transfer cash via one of the city\'s cash handling offices, to a certain person in Rabia, he was also a bit taken aback. But he did as he was told and an hour later, he found out that his younger brother had been released.
After hearing these stories and several others, NIQASH went to visit the cash transfer offices that the kidnapping victims had mentioned. The offices were respectable and well patronised; the transfers they make are all supervised and anyone collecting cash must have their identity papers and the right phone number with them.
“Security services – and especially the counter-terrorism services - are monitoring kidnapping cases and the new developments in the way that ransoms are collected carefully,” says Jassim al-Jibouri, a colonel in one of the counter-terrorism units. “This money is one of the main sources of funding for these extremist groups.”
Gangs affiliated with Daash, the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also extort “protection money” from wealthier citizens in the area, people like doctors, lawyers, company owners and academics and they also collect money from local businesses for the same reason.
Zuhair al-Chalabi, former head of Mosul\'s reconstruction committee who survived an assassination attempt by extremists, estimates that the amount extorted every month totals as much as US$5 million.
“But the process of tracking financial transfers is difficult,” al-Jibouri added. “Even though there is considerable control over the cash handling offices, Daash has a lot of control over everyday activities in Ninawa. The organisation\'s operatives can move around with impunity and they are constantly finding new ways of extorting money and then moving it around.”
One police officer, who wanted to remain anonymous, told NIQASH that many of the owners of cash handling shops and exchange offices had actually been arrested or questioned over the past few years because they were clearly cooperating with extremist gangs. Of course, they may just be the middle men in these situations, the officer noted. And sometimes the cash handlers are just as much victims of the extremists as anyone else, he adds.
Mosul pharmacist Mohammed Nathem tells yet another story. His daughter was kidnapped after armed men halted the car that had been taking her home from school.
“They kidnapped my daughter because I was one day late in paying the US$100 that they collect each month from all the pharmacies in Mosul,” Nathem explains. “The collector came to see me at 9am and I didn\'t have the money with me. I forgot that that was the day he came around.”
After negotiations lasting several hours, the kidnappers said he had to take US$30,000 to a certain transfer office and pay it to a certain person in Dohuk. “They gave me a Kurdish name!” he adds, somewhat shocked – generally Daash tend to be Sunni Muslims.
After he did this, his daughter was released.
Nathem spoke to NIQASH about his ordeal while he was visiting Baghdad. In fact, the pharmacist has since relocated to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is, comparatively speaking, far safer than most other parts of Iraq and certainly safer than Mosul.
“I moved to Erbil to escape the oppression of Daash,” he explains. “I am tired of paying them protection money and I am scared that one day they will simply kill one of my children.”