Politics

05.31.13

Who Was That With McCain? Not Syrian Kidnappers, NGOs Say

The senator’s surprise visit to Syria this week stirred reports that he met with the men behind the 2012 abduction of 11 Lebanese religious pilgrims. Not so, Josh Rogin explains.

Sen. John McCain did not meet with any Syrian kidnappers, during his secret visit to Syria this week, despite what you might have read.

The Daily Beast reported exclusively on McCain’s Memorial Day jaunt over the Turkey-Syria border to meet with assembled leaders of the Free Syrian Army and its supreme military command, led by Gen. Salem Idris. On Thursday, The Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, reported that McCain “crossed paths” with Mohammad Nour and Ammar Al-Dadikhi (a.k.a. Abu Ibrahim), two men who were part of a group that kidnapped Lebanese religious pilgrims who were returning from Iran in May 2012. Both are part of Asifat al Shamal, a Syrian rebel group also known as the Northern Storm, which controls a portion of country’s northern border with Turkey.

Northern Storm has been implicated in the alleged kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shia men who were traveling through Syria on the way back from Iran. Relatives of the abducted men were said to have identified the two as the kidnappers from a photo of the McCain visit.

Yet they identified the man in the photo as Abu Ibrahim, who has been listed as missing and presumed dead. The Daily Star reported that a rival rebel group had injured Ibrahim in March, after which he was taken to Turkey, where he died in a hospital. The man said to be Nour by the Lebanese press never identified himself to McCain or to anyone else and that man was not inside McCain’s meeting with the rebels, two American NGO workers who were there on the scene told The Daily Beast on Thursday.

“Nobody self-identified as Nour, and none of the guys who were standing outside were in the meeting with McCain,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American nonprofit that helped organize the McCain trip. Moustafa is in the picture and was also inside McCain’s meeting with the rebel commanders, along with Task Force political director Elizabeth O’Bagy.

A photo from inside the meeting posted on O’Bagy’s Twitter page confirms that the man alleged to be Nour was not in the McCain meeting.

Abu Ibrahim is named in The Daily Star report as the leader of the Northern Storm, but actually he hasn’t been seen for several months and is suspected to have been killed, Moustafa says. The group already has a new commander—Samir Aluan, who did attend the meeting with McCain.

What’s more, the original report was put out not by The Daily Star, but by Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV station, which is viewed as sympathetic to Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that has entered Syria’s civil war, sending thousands of fighters to aid the Assad regime. “Everything is based off a report from a pro-Hezbollah outlet and Hezbollah will do anything to discredit us, just like the regime,” Moustafa said.

“Everything is based off a report from a pro-Hezbollah outlet and Hezbollah will do anything to discredit us, just like the regime,” Moustafa said.

Even the circumstances surrounding the reported kidnapping are in dispute. The Syrian captors have claimed they are associated with Hezbollah. Nine of the 11 hostages remain in rebel custody, and the issue has inflamed Lebanese-Syrian relations.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers told BuzzFeed that if the person in the photos does turn out to be Nour, that would be “regrettable.” But he also said Hezbollah’s promotion of the story undermines its credibility.

“It would be ludicrous to suggest that the senator in any way condones the kidnapping of Lebanese Shia pilgrims or has any communication with those responsible. Senator McCain condemns such heinous actions in the strongest possible terms,” Rogers said. “It’s not surprising that the pro-Hezbollah forces supporting the Assad regime, who originally promoted this distortion, would seek to smear anything and anyone supporting the Syrian opposition."