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Veteran War Correspondent Held Hostage in Iraq Describes His “Five Days in Hell”

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We speak with veteran Canadian war correspondent Scott Taylor who was kidnapped in Iraq and held hostage by Ansar-al-Islam for five days in Tal Afar during the bloody U.S. offensive on the city. [includes rush transcript]

Twenty-four hours after the beheading of US contractor Eugene Armstrong in Iraq, the group that killed him says they have beheaded the other American they were holding. The Tawhid and Jihad group said in an Internet statement it had killed Jack Hensley because its demands for the release of female prisoners from prisons in Iraq had not been met. Today, Iraq’s government said one of two women in U.S. custody would be freed, but insisted the move was unrelated to the demands of the kidnappers who still hold a British citizen and are threatening to kill him as well. The two women in US custody are both alleged to have worked on Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.

But as the world reacts in horror to the beheadings and kidnappings that have escalated in recent weeks in Iraq, a Canadian journalist is back home after being taken hostage and threatened with beheading.

Two weeks ago, as Iraq was rocked by one of the bloodiest periods since the beginning of the US invasion, American forces launched an offensive against the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. Scores of people were killed and the attacks sparked a major exodus from the city, which lies not far from the Iraqi border with Syria. Between 150-200,000 people fled their homes as US bombs rained down. At the time, there were no eyewitness reports coming out of Tal Afar. But a Canadian journalist was inside Tal Afar. But he was not delivering reports on the siege; he was being held hostage by militants from Ansar-al-Islam, the resistance group that controls the city. After a five day ordeal, which he described as 5 days in hell, veteran Canadian war correspondent Scott Taylor was released.

  • Scott Taylor, veteran war correspondent and is editor of the Canadian magazine Esprit de Corps, which monitors the Canadian military. He has reported from Iraq, Yugoslavia, Cambodia and other conflict zones. He also is a former soldier.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After a five-day ordeal which he describes as “five days in hell,” veteran Canadian war correspondent, Scott Taylor, was released. He joins us on the telephone right now, a veteran war correspondent, editor of Canadian magazine, Esprit de Corps, which monitors the Canadian military. He has reported from Iraq, Yugoslavia, Cambodia and other conflict zones. He is a former soldier. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Scott.

SCOTT TAYLOR: My pleasure. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you tell us your story. What happened? Where were you kidnapped exactly, and who were you with?

SCOTT TAYLOR: The city you mentioned, Tal Afar, I don’t think any other western journalists had ever actually been up into there. It’s a Turkmen enclave in northwestern Iraq. We haven’t heard many reports over there since the American intervention. I had been there in June researching a book which I just published about the Turkmen of Iraq. When I heard there was an escalation in fighting there, some of the sketchy reports that I was hearing coming back didn’t seem to jibe with what I knew, and what I had seen was from my own experience. I felt I could get in. I knew I had some really good contacts inside Tal Afar and felt that I could be safe. I knew from a Canadian contact working on the base in Mosul, where I had had lunch, that an American attack on the city was imminent. So I felt I could get inside. I was traveling in the company of a Turkish journalist. She speaks Turkish, of course, and understands Turkmen so, could act as my translator, as well as reporting in her own right. We could go in, get inside the city. If the big push came, then, of course, from a very relatively safe environment could then report on such things as collateral damage and from what it was like inside the enclave. So that was the intent. We headed out on Tuesday, the 7th. It was the first day we had entered into Iraq. We set out straight for Tal Afar. The American base had told us it may be difficult to get into the enclave because Americans have is sealed off the city in anticipation for their offensive. But that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t a single American soldier on the road between Mosul and Tal Afar, some 70 kilometer stretch. We arrived around dusk. When I saw there was a main, a major Iraqi police checkpoint, the American-paid Iraqi police force in their blue uniforms were still in control of a checkpoint on the edge of town, I felt it must mean it’s relatively safe, that there’s no real problem there, that the town must still be in American hands, and I approached those police with the name of my contact, asking for directions. His name is Dr. Yashar, he’s a prominent Turkmen politician and well known in that city. I stayed with him before and broke bread with him and lived with his family, so I felt if I could get there, I would be safe. The police understood our request, knew the man and said in order to go there, we had to get into the car next to them which contained four masked gunmen, and even at that point I didn’t feel that getting into a car with masked gunmen at the request of the police was that strange because, of course, in any counter insurgency operation most of our forces — meaning Delta Force, SAS, Canadian, JPF2 — they would wear masks. These guys being Iraqis countering resistance inside Iraq, of course they would want to be keeping their identities a secret. I assumed this was a special unit of the Iraqi police. And that was the mistake. We got inside the car willingly, only to find out, I mean, a few minutes later, that we were being kept as suspected spies, and our equipment was taken away from us.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did they take you to? And again, you were with a Turkish journalist, as well?

SCOTT TAYLOR: That’s right. She’s from the newspaper, SABA, a major Turkish daily. We were taken first to a house where our equipment was taken away from us, and then during the course of the evening, we were taken from there to a second house for interrogation, which lasted most of the night. I believe that the men that had taken us originally, he was known as “the Emir.” He was the leader of the resistance. We had a chance to see just how extensive the resistance holding was in the city Tal Afar. Tal Afar is some 350,000 to 400,000 people. It’s a major urban center in northwestern Iraq, including the villages around there. And the entire center was in the hands of the guerrillas, Mujahedeen, whatever you want to call them. There was, I mean, thousands, not hundreds, of them all over the streets and in these various fortified strong points. So we had been in one of those strong points. We were taken to a second house, I mean, blindfolded and taken to the second place, questioned through the night. At one point, we were told to get some sleep, and I think he believed our story, but he wanted to check things out. At 6:00 a.m., we were taken blindfolded again to another place, which was a workshop and guarded throughout that day by a couple of middle aged men and a young boy about 15. They were obviously second rate fighters. They were not the main Mujahedeen. Nothing was happening. The attack still had not come from the Americans. And then this being on Wednesday night, the Emir, the leader and his cleric came back sometime early evening. They advised the Turkish journalist that our stories had checked out, we were free to go the next day. We would be released. Unfortunately during the air raid that night, it was a massive attack. I mean, for about five or six hours, the apache gun ships attacked the city. The Mujahedeen fought back. Many of them were killed. They admitted that 50 Mujahedeen were killed that night and 120 wounded. It was a big, big attack. The Emir himself was killed early on in the fighting. So the man who had promised our release was killed, not only was he killed, but all of our identification, briefcase, camera equipment, was destroyed in that same raid. So the next morning, the nightmare really began because, of course, now I had no way of proving that I wasn’t an American, I was a Canadian, I was in fact a journalist, and being an ex-soldier with an eagle tattooed on my arm looking like an ex-soldier didn’t bode very well. Luckily — I mean, throughout that process, but several times when I was threatened with death by the Mujahedeen, they knew the Americans were going to come and attack again, and they found it easier to just shoot us than try to take us with them. But some individuals did intervene and our lives were saved. In fact, it ended up being the brother of the Emir who had heard of the promise to set us free, that he became over the next couple of days more or less a protector. He kept the others from killing me.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Scott Taylor, a military correspondent in Tal Afar, right near the Syrian border with Iraq. When we come back from our break, we’ll find out how ultimately he was freed, though while he was held captive, believed that he would be beheaded several times. And we will find out how he is so sure who his captors were. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Scott Taylor, a remarkable story as he tells us what it was like to be hostage in Tal Afar, Iraqi city on the Syrian border, taken hostage by — well, Scott Taylor, how do you know that it was Ansar-al-Islam, the group that President Bush said Saddam Hussein was harboring, one of the reasons he gave for invading Iraq?

SCOTT TAYLOR: Well, actually, I mean, at the time that the convention at the U.N., Ansar-al-Islam was operating pretty much out of the province of Sulaimaniya, which was under the control of the U.N., I mean, at the time I wondered why that was being used. Ansar-al-Islam mostly had connections in the north, which was outside of Saddam Hussein’s control. These guys were a chapter, a Turkmen chapter of Ansar-al-Islam. That came up on a Thursday, it was the third day we were being held by them, it was a relatively relaxed period of time. We were discussing with this Emir’s brother. He was about my age, about 42 years old. Just the various factions at play in northern Iraq. We were just having basically an open discussion, when the words Ansar-al-Islam came up, he went blank and he couldn’t believe that we didn’t know. He said, “We are Ansar-al-Islam,” meaning the group that he was with. So at that point it, was confirmed. Also it was very ominous for me. I believed they said they were Mujahedeen, obviously holy fighters, but I didn’t realize they were from that exact chapter until he told me that on the Thursday.

AMY GOODMAN: What did they know? What kind of information did they have about what was happening outside? You have talked a bit about knowing where bombings would be taking place. How much could you ascertain as hostage?

SCOTT TAYLOR: What was interesting for me, I mean, as obviously a military reporter and being inside their network was to see just how extensive it was, how well stocked they were. I mean, even the place where we were being held for the one day, I thought it was just a workshop, and at that night when they were firing at the helicopters, someone banged on the door, came in and they let them in and they went to another room we hadn’t seen. When we were using the flashlights I could see that that was stocked from floor to ceiling with RPGs and other munitions. This guy came in, like almost like borrowing sugar from your neighbors. He needed a few more rockets, and they outfitted him and he went off. We were sitting on top of one of the ammo caches inside Tal Afar, but there was a number of them throughout. They had been planning this for months. For me to see this and allowed see that, and the collusion with the police I think was the key. Everywhere we went, including the first time when they put me in the car, the American-paid Iraqi police were the ones that were instrumental in working hand in glove with the resistance, allowing us into Mosul. I mean, these guys left Tal Afar, which was supposed to be a sealed city, got out to the north in the desert and then entered Mosul with impunity, even though we were still tied up in the back seat, I mean, clearly visible. The local police were offering cigarettes and banging encouragement on the roofs of the cars as we went through. So, I mean, it was clear to see that this network has infiltrated all the way through, and a very dangerous situation, I mean, for the Americans now, especially in Mosul where they have far too few troops. They scaled back on the last rotation from some 22,000 troops of the 82nd airborne just to about 6,000 troops of the striker brigade trying to hold the line. That means they have been reduced in their presence, and they’re relying much more heavily upon these locally-paid police who are in full collusion, as I said, with the resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Taylor, when you drove into Mosul, there was a prisoner in your trunk?

SCOTT TAYLOR: Yeah. I really felt sorry for the way that they treated that guy. I mean, as bad as I was being treated, he was always being treated worse. This was a local Iraqi guy, the driver for UNICEF. They picked him up. And the reason they suspected him of spying is because his sideburns were too thick. Believe it or not, I mean, that’s how simple it is. They felt his sideburns resembled orthodox Jewish ringlets. And that was enough for them to take him captive and believe that he was a Mossad spy. And I looked at his sideburns and I saw no difference from anybody. He just simply had not had a haircut for about a week. And that was it. The fact that he was not from their town. And he was quite a few times, along with me, threatened with beheading. Whenever we drove, he drove in the trunk. And I marveled at the fact that he was able to survive that as stoically as he did. And I hope to at some point make contact with him again.

AMY GOODMAN: You were tortured on September 11 as you tried to watch what was going on on TV?

SCOTT TAYLOR: On September 10, was the day that I was actually tortured. Then I was turned over to yet another group. The Turkmen Ansar-al-Islam group entered Mosul on Friday, and looking to dump us somewhere, dumped us off to an Arab group that call themselves the pupils or the students. These were fundamentalists, mostly young guys, and a couple of clerics. They were the ones who tortured me the first time. Then after it was decided from the — again from the Emir that, I guess, the main resistance guy, that we were to be set free, some other group intervened and decided that wasn’t the case and I was taken to another place, traded to yet another group and that was very disheartening, I can tell you, especially after being tortured, and I expected more of the same, so.

AMY GOODMAN: What did they do to you?

SCOTT TAYLOR: They blindfolded and gagged me, tied my hands behind my back. This was for the torture. They put me flat on my back and put my legs in the air, tied my feet to a pole, splayed apart, and then started to beat my feet and my legs. And apparently, this is a type of torture, there is a name for it in Arabic, and in Spanish it’s the batanista, type of torture where they go after your legs and feet. It’s painful, very, very painful. I mean, I don’t know how many times or for how long I was in there that I was hit. I know I didn’t cry out for the first 20. I mean, it’s ridiculous, but as an ex-soldier I told them I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of a scream for the first 20. And after that I screamed like a stuck pig. They were still questioning me at that time. And one of them went berserk, which was actually fortuitous. He started to punch my face, and the blindfold absorbed most of it, but he actually managed to lift part of the blindfold off. Which once I could see where the blows were coming from, for some reason that was much easier to take, and as a male I’ve got to say that having my legs splayed apart and people beating with me with batons, the thing that I cringed about most was being hit in the genitals. That didn’t occur, so even though I was almost unable to walk, at the end of it, I was still thanking God that they had spared me that.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the man who promised you would be freed was killed?

SCOTT TAYLOR: He was killed on the Wednesday night. Yeah, that would have been the 8th. And it was only through his brother realizing the promise was made, and it was a Muslim promise and he was now a martyr, that they agreed to turn us over. They didn’t set us free. Ansar-al-Islam did not just release us. They turned us over to another group. I believe there was pressure put on those other groups from the Turkish government. They knew that the Turkish journalist was missing and were looking for her. And of course, we had contacts with the organization known as the Iraqi Turkmen Front. They were expecting us both in Tal Afar and expecting us in Kirkuk, so when we didn’t materialize, they began using their own resources to look for us. So even though it wasn’t news in North America that I was missing, people did know we were gone.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Taylor, how much intelligence did they have about targets, about where the U.S. would bomb?

SCOTT TAYLOR: They seemed to know exactly where the patrol routes were. Where we pulled out in the desert at the one point when the convey had left Tal Afar, we had gone out to the north, driving in the open desert and we had stopped. It was a six car convoy, I mean, of 30 Mujahedeen. They got out to pray, and these cars were full of R.P.G.s and weaponry, I mean, chock-o-block full. They had taken their entire arsenal from that house outside the city, and I was the one that spotted the two Kiowa gunships coming straight at us across the desert. And I panicked because I’m thinking this is a clear target. Obviously, I would be collateral damage, but in that case, 30 Mujahedeen fighters caught in the open with six cars. They approached to within about 800 meters. I could clearly see them, and they must have seen us. And they never even bothered to inspect this small convoy and all of these people out in the desert. They just simply turned, banked and flew off. The Mujahedeen guys sort of laughed, relieved, and said, “You know, we know exactly their patrol routes. They fly a box formation and,” as he said, “they see what they want to see.”

AMY GOODMAN: And how about the targets in Tal Afar when you were being held there?

SCOTT TAYLOR: They knew they were going to be hit at 1:00 p.m. I didn’t know how they could know that, but they emptied out that building that we were in, and they were using fast air, I mean, the fighter jets were coming in that morning. It was pretty terrifying even though we were not allowed outside. I know a fair amount about precision bombing technology. I mean, and knowing that the predators — you could hear the predators above the city for the two days we were being held. The constant droning of those engines. Believe it or not, I had just finished reading General Tommy Franks’s book, American Soldier. I had to do the review for the Globe and Mail up here in Canada. So I had read that, not only did I read it, I still had the copy with me, in my camera bag, which was not very smart, I guess. In those writings, he talked about exactly how much the American command and control can see from those cameras and how they can plot and track right down to individual vehicles. So, I knew that they must have been watching the houses that we were in, and felt very vulnerable as a result when I heard that the jets coming in, knowing that this would be a target. Now, they seemed to know exactly the timing that that building was going to be hit. It was hit, whether it was hit right at 1:00, I don’t know, but they did say it was hit. So, they — when I asked him how can you know it’s 1:00. They said, don’t be stupid, we’re not telling you that.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Scott Taylor, we have a quote from Richard Perle, a year ago today, giving a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He said, a year from now, I’ll be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush. Your response?

SCOTT TAYLOR: He said — obviously, he was off in his predictions, right?

AMY GOODMAN: What do you see happening now that you have been inside? You have seen the level of organization. You have seen the level of anger.

SCOTT TAYLOR: To restore a secure situation in Iraq, it’s going to take probably three times the number of troops that you have got now. The willingness for the Americans to take — I mean, large-scale casualties has to be there. You can’t do this sitting in the green zone relying upon local Kurdish Peshmerga to do your fighting. It won’t be won that way. They need to show the commitment and they have not shown it. What I saw, we had a brief encounter where some Ba’athists were negotiating for taking possession of us with these fundamentalists. So, you have got secular Ba’athists negotiating working together with — I mean, Arab and Turkmen, et cetera. All of these groups coming together and the network, I have to say it, was huge. We saw it in Mosul operating with almost complete impunity. Then of course you have this American bunkered down airfield in a green zone which from which they can see nothing. Almost like a turtle that’s pulled in its head. You may reduce the casualties that way, but in the meantime, you have lost the country. In order to go back out and restore that, you have another war that you need to fight and win if that’s going to ever come true.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Scott Taylor, for joining us. Will you be returning to Iraq?

SCOTT TAYLOR: My wife is saying I’m not going to get a passport again, it will be a while yet. She is just glad to have me home.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Taylor, thank you for being with us. Again, Scott Taylor, held in Iraq as a hostage, threatened with beheading for five days, was taken in Talafar on the Syrian border inside Iraq. He is a Canadian war correspondent. This is Democracy Now!

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