September 24th, 2014 10.15am
He sits on the comfortable sofa and assesses his surroundings. He is in a spartan, minimally furnished room on the second floor of a nondescript Syrian apartment. There is a lamp-shade to his left, and a small coffee table in front of him, on which there is a bowl containing some dates. Somebody has tried to insert some signs of civilization, and he appreciates this. Outside, staccato gunfire is the false fire-cracker sporadically popping in the distance. The automatic bursts have an industrial sound quality, as if the trigger-happy fanatics shouting their devotions are contractors hired to destroy the city incrementally by hosing it with their bullets, and their RPG rounds.
“You want?” asks one of his swarthy captors unable to develop the question any further, because of limited English.
“OK. Thank you”, he replies gently, hoping some gratitude might reduce the probable cruelty coming his way. The guard with the rifle slung around his shoulder picks up the bowl of dates and holds it in front of him. The captive bites into the sweet, rich, mushy flesh of the fruit and the pleasant taste creates a fleeting sense of shelter from the perils of his situation. The other guard standing across from him has a plump face coated in fuzzy stubble. Strands of lank, unwashed hair cascade from under his filthy shemagh. His skin has a sickly, jaundiced pallor and this, combined with a paunch stretching the elastic of his trousers completes the signature of bad health. The prisoner considers the grim irony, and sense of unfairness, that this obese jihadist is probably going to outlive him anyway. As for the other fighter, he just snickers at him like a huge, malevolent walrus.
It has been a six-week course in terror and confusion for Mark Anastopoulos, who is 29 and a native of Los Angeles. His life has become a terrifying, and totally unfamiliar film set with macabre dialogue and unpredictable outcomes. His heart has been pumping, and his pupils dilating, as one scene progresses to the next. However, he is serene just now savouring the date.
Before this room, and these smelly, stereotype gaolers of Middle Eastern conflict, there had been a similar scenery and cast. He had been held in a former government building in what he thinks was Raqqa. It was impossible to get any bearings. Armed men like this, but nastier, had played with their power and arrogantly brandished their guns. The ones with British accents were the worst. They punched him in the face, spat in his food and urinated on him to wake him as he slept with his hands tied behind his back. “All infidels die bruv”, they had said.
He had mentally replayed the abduction many times, bitterly holding his carelessness and tiredness responsible on that sunny, baking hot afternoon when he left his dysfunctional four- star hotel hosting jocular journalists from nations whose governments, he had come to realize, were the secret arsonists burning this country.
August 10th 2014 8.00 am
His regular car and driver had arrived at the hotel to take him to a crumbling, flattened wreck of a building where a defecting, disillusioned foot-soldier of the Free Syrian Army had beans to spill, in return for safe passage to and asylum in America. He had gotten rather jaded with these opportunistic freedom fighter whistle-blower types, and their agendas were usually depressingly clear and demands delusional. However this one, who gave his name as Ayam, was different. He had seen a few samples—a few tasters—of the information Ayam had for sale on a flash drive handed to him covertly as he was hugged by the noisy, zealous young Jordanian when leaving the headquarters of the rebel battalion where he’d been interviewing these ‘liberators of Syria’ for the benefit of Reuters. The paperwork he had read was unbelievable, and the video footage so shocking it had produced parallel sensations of disgust towards his nation’s elected democracy guardians and the thrill of possessing material that would make most Pulitzer Prize winning entries look average for years to come. The deals. The duplicity. The betrayals and complex intelligence deceptions. The contracts in treason making sociopaths in power billions. The sheer audacity and scale of the corporate media horse-shit factory he was a part of. When exposed, this was going to bring governments down and make his name ubiquitous in journalism.
It had been a slick, professional capture which reeked of negotiated betrayal. They’d come out of the crowds when the car stopped at lights. It hadn’t been macho, or Hollywood in style. No AK47 muzzles thrust in face. Just burly masked men opening his passenger door and telling him he had no choice but to come with them ‘for his protection’. He caught the subtle nod to the driver. The confirmation of collusion should not have surprised him: loyalty to a western muckraker can’t have been too expensive to buy in this grim market for survival.
Firstly, there had been the inevitable black hostage hood forced onto his head. It reeked of the previous user’s funky saliva so much that he gagged initially when it was put on. As he sat passively in the first vehicle he rode in—a course he had attended for journalists given by private security consultants had advised they put up no resistance in these situations—he wondered where these menacing garments were actually made and by who, and whether terrorist groups placed bulk orders for them on Amazon or eBay.
Next, the hood came off when they reached what seemed to be a busy hostage processing centre. They were in a building with pristine walls and shiny floors and even the scent of detergent. He was frog-marched through a procession of cross-corridor double doors—had this place been a hospital?—into a windowless room. To his surprise there was signage in English clearly connected to this enterprise. NEW ARRIVALS HOLDING AREA.
The default welcoming committee greeted him. Thick-set men in balaclavas and webbing forced him to sit in front of a table facing a masked man in combat fatigues. Incongruously, there was a pen and some kind of form waiting for his attention on the table-top.
“Hello. How are you my friend?” asked the man with only a minimum Arabic accent.
“OK I guess”, Mark replied. He was searching for bearings and clues of all kinds. Just cooperate, he told himself.
“I am sorry for this—would you like a cigarette?” said the man.
“I don’t smoke”, replied Mark, before adding: “But I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee if that’s OK.”
One of the men let out a spiteful giggle, before the interrogator turned his head to a man standing by the door and said something containing kafe, the Arabic word for coffee. Mark had no confidence the refreshment would arrive however.
“What is your name?” asked the man, and Mark replied.
“What is your nationality?” he asked next.
The redundancy of the questions irritated Mark greatly. Just cut to the chase, he wanted to say. Tell me the rules of the game.
He was told to empty his pockets. Meanwhile, the contents of his shoulder bag were emptied onto the table and most interest was shown in his passport, camera, flash-drives, voice-recorder and notebooks, which were sequestered immediately and placed into a large brown envelope.
The man pushed the form towards him, and the first item he saw was the section asking him to list his family’s approximate financial assets.
“Fill this in please”, said the man.
August 10th 2014 7.45am
The internet announces Mark’s abduction, as he waits in the foyer of the Ambassador Hotel for the fateful taxi to approach. Yahoo positions the news on its homepage horizontal scrolling story bar between an item about a celebrity’s bikini colour and a ‘health’ piece claiming smelly farts are a sign of good digestion. US Journalist Abducted in Syria runs the bland, elliptical headline. When clicked, it leads to the Daily News exclusive that delivers only three of reporting’s five essential Ws because the time and reason for his abduction aren’t known. The story provides a brief resume of his career, including his close scrapes in Iraq, and a photograph of him looking relaxed in a flak-jacket holding a camcorder in front of a wall covered in the graffiti of Arabic numerals. ‘Very credible’ sources claim he has been abducted by the Syrian government.
He is merely isolated first. He is forced to sit in the lotus position in a grubby room with a tiny window for days. He eats from a varied menu of emotions, tasting panic, despair, rage and frustration as typical meals. During the day, when the temperature is highest and the shadows are longest, boredom dominates his senses and he welcomes the routine arrival of scampering cockroaches as entertainment. Digital cold turkey is the most extreme withdrawal pain in this comprehensive privation. He is cast into a vast black ocean of helplessness and ignorance without his Samsung Galaxy, and Google, of course. He starts imagining he is a wireless network, capable of receiving those brief stories of his own capture surrounded by banner ads for day-trading platforms. He conjectures what the hacks are writing about him, and what the black belts in bullshit are saying on the lamestream media channels. He tries to create an imaginary connection to Wikipedia to learn more about the fate of previous ISIS hostages.
The strange visitors were the first sign of more ominous events in his horoscope. First there were the fellow Americans. He assumed they were Americans because the North American English they spoke was native in its fluency and idiom. He was taken to them one day. Three of them with faces covered by balaclavas were waiting behind a table.
“We won’t lie to you bro. You’ve fucked-up big time here”’ says the man in the centre. His voice is young, and judging by his vocabulary Mark estimates he has only recently retired his frat boy personality.
“Who are you?” shouts Mark with fury. “Why are you doing this to me, an American? Why are you holding me against my will?”
The centre man nods to somebody standing behind Mark, and the next thing he feels is the sharp pain of a rifle butt slammed into the top of his arm.
“Shit! Fuck!” He exclaims.
“This isn’t helpful”, says the man sitting on the left in an admonishing tone. “And we want to help you.”
“What did Ayam tell you about programs in Madaba?” demands the retired frat boy.
“What do you mean?” says Mark. His ignorance is fake.
There is another nod, and this time somebody fires a Taser into his back. The pain and muscle spasms send him reeling off the chair.
Next, he is visited by a smug, sinister man with a British accent who ignores requests to identify himself, but tells Mark that he is there to negotiate his release. He states the absurd condition that in return for his freedom, he must share the information about Madaba and he encourages Mark to confide in him. Mark expels a derisive grunt at this lazy, careless abuse of logic. Is this guy for real, he thinks. “I have your best interests at heart”, says the man with the sincerity of a jailed Ponzi scheme coordinator applying for bail. His cold, cunning duplicity reminds him of a fork-tongued, back-stabbing Venetian master of medieval treachery reincarnated to make this dirty war a few increments murkier.
When the filming starts, the black hood becomes his regular companion again. He is trussed up, shoved into vehicles and driven to a building not far away. He is led into a room where there are bright lights, scenery boards, cameras, dollies, tripods and even director’s black ‘action!’ boards with white chevrons. Three men greet him with looks of disdain when the hood is removed. They are Caucasian, unshaved and in grungy clothes. They fit the stereotype of wannabe artistes from the West Coast who have just finished film school perfectly. The educated debt slaves intoxicated with their talent but so desperate for work they’ll shoot porn to pay the rent. The fact that they are not wearing masks worries Mark. However, two armed heavies to their left are.
“Is this the new one?” they ask in American English to one of the heavies.
“Yep, our latest star”, replies the heavy with a chortle. The accent is inner city London, UK.
“We’re going to make you famous”, says the civilian in the centre with a crooked smile. “All you’ve got to do is learn your lines.”
The filming takes a couple of weeks and is a tiring and unpleasant process. There are daily visits to the ‘studio’ where dialogue and acting coaches tell him how to deliver his Message to America. They send him to a corner with coffee to practice placing stress on the words they told him to stress—they are very fussy about this aspect of pronunciation—while his fellow actor playing the role of the menacing executioner is given direction in how to stand, how to grasp Mark’s head, how to wield his knife and how to place the stress on his words for maximum dramatic effect. During filming, he is forced to put on the familiar fluorescent Guantanamo orange and once again this makes him curious about the logistical supply chain behind global terrorist corporations. Furtively, he looks for manufacturers labels on the garments to discover their paternity. An Indonesian sweatshop perhaps? The information on the flash drive had hinted at more outrageous arrangements than that.
Mark’s script is similar to the messages read out by executed hostages having the indignity of their deaths multiplied by the internet. It warns America and Britain to stop their military activities in the Middle East and to cease threatening the caliphate. After he finishes speaking, the masked executioner rebukes President Obama and starts sawing away at his neck with a plastic knife.
There are toilet breaks, and lunch breaks, and re-takes. There are diva outbursts from the director when he or his co-star fluffs their lines. “This is very unprofessional guys. Very uncool,” he growls. There are even visits to a dressing room where make-up is applied by a sultry, dreamily attractive woman not wearing a burka who giggles when he jokingly asks for her number. There are also kicks in the ribs and slaps in the face from the goons back at the holding centre, where he has glimpsed other captives being shouldered through the same doors he was obliged to go through with distressed looks on their faces. He wanted to reach out to them and tell them to relax, because this is just a game.
Over the next two weeks his death in the desert scene is rehearsed obsessively. The production crew also shoots additional scripted one on one interview footage with him.
September 24th 2014 10.00 am
Video of Mark’s beheading is distributed over the internet and saturates the news feeds of global media. The anchors of CNN, FOX and the BBC give the news in sombre tones and interviews with former colleagues and terrorism experts are cued. His character and life are celebrated. His parents appear briefly to convey their sorrow.
September 26th 2014 2.00 pm
He is on the move again as a passenger in a vehicle with noisy transmission he cannot see because of his infernal hood. He can smell the fetid breath of his captors however, and listens to their chat with interest. He misses the two-storey house where he was offered dates: that was a little sanctuary. He speculates as to where he is going, unaware of the tributes being paid to his life that are moving across the media frequencies and the sympathetic memes being shared across Facebook condemning the barbarity of ISIS.
A massive deafening crunch is followed by an agonising burst of heat as fire enters the interior of the car. Mark and his captors die instantly. Ten seconds earlier, a Syrian army tanker had spotted the suspicious vehicle from half a kilometre away and prepared a ninety millimetre dose of devastation.
Mark dies two days and four hours behind schedule, ignorant of the dubious martyr he has become and with the secrets of Madaba buried.