As violence raged in several Sunni towns west of Baghdad on April 8, Mohammed Rifat steered his green Jeep Cherokee out of the gates of Abu Ghraib prison, where he worked as a construction foreman for a Kellogg Brown & Root subcontractor. Rifat, 41, who returned to Iraq in February after 24 years in Toronto, was heading home to care for his aging mother. He never made it. Somewhere in the night, his family believes, kidnappers stopped his vehicle and spirited him away. This is everyone's worst nightmare in the new Iraq. A bewildering variety of groups--some seeking money, some pushing a terrorist agenda--have kidnapped dozens of foreigners since the end of the war last year. The hostages then become commodities in a deadly human trade that links street gangs to local mafias to insurgents like Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda--linked jihadi thought to be behind many of the recent terrorist attacks in Iraq. Victims are sold up the chain, and each handler scores thousands of dollars, money used to finance gun running, drug smuggling and the insurgency. There are indications that Rifat may have been caught up in such a chain.
There is a science to getting hostages back alive. Although every case is unique, tactics that have worked include broadly disseminating information, exploiting political and religious connections and ponying up cash. Sometimes luck prevails. Above all, it's critical to act quickly. Of the 52 hostages who have been abducted in the past year, 35 have been freed, most in the first days after capture. In Rifat's case, the top Canadian representative in Baghdad could offer little help, so Rifat's brother-in-law Abdullah al-Khazraji has taken charge. Venturing almost daily into the netherworld of Fallujah, the restive Sunni city where many of the hostages end up, al-Khazraji has met an assortment of shadowy informants. Some claim to know Rifat's whereabouts; others say they can deliver him for cash. "I feel like I'm hanging by a thread in this web," says al-Khazraji. "And I am dealing with ghosts."
The West generally is aware of only kidnappings that are politically motivated, like the abduction and subsequent beheading of American businessman Nick Berg. But the practice is far more common, and the kidnappers--the men who initially seize the innocents--are often petty criminals. "Those who take the hostages are not sophisticated," says Andrew White, director of the Iraqi Center for Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace. "They're thugs, gangsters."
The best hope for springing a hostage comes at the initial stage. Groups like White's contact mosques, tribal leaders, militias and even former intelligence agents in search of news about the victim. Because the low-level gangs are after cash, a quick payout might free the hostage before he is "sold up" to groups with less easily deciphered, deadlier agendas. Such deals can be lucrative: prices paid range from $10,000 to $100,000, according to White, with U.S. soldiers fetching the highest rate.