Europe

Islamic State ex-hostage Henin: Asking for pity is stupid

  • 9 March 2015
  • From the section Europe
Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres, with President Hollande
Image caption Nicolas Henin (centre) and Pierre Torres (right), were greeted by French President Francois Hollande after their release last year

A French hostage, held for 10 months by the British militant known as "Jihadi John", has been speaking to the BBC about his time in captivity, and his interactions with his jailors.

Nicolas Henin was marking the publication of a children's book written in captivity with fellow French journalist Pierre Torres.

The book, Will Daddy Hedgehog Ever Come Home?, was written for Henin's five-year-old daughter, and is published this week. It was written by the two journalists in secret at night, on a scrap of cheese wrapping.

Henin says the story grew out of a game to relieve the boredom of captivity, devised by the British aid worker David Haines, who was later killed by his captors.

"The aim was to say which animal portrays you best," Henin told me. "I spoke about being a hedgehog. I liked the idea of [having] good protection - even though the protection of a hedgehog is totally stupid."

To protect himself in captivity, he says, he used the same "totally stupid" technique: "I would make [myself into] a ball."

But then, in terms of protection, "nothing ever really worked. As a hostage, you're just a puppet."

Image caption Thousands of jihadists from Europe have joined the ranks of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

He also described the discussions between the prisoners and their Islamic State captors.

Such contacts were often important to secure vital food and medicine. But they also revealed jarring details about their captors' backgrounds and interests.

"I noticed that these jihadists have little to do with the local culture - Arab or Muslim culture - they are children of our societies.

"They speak our language, they have the same cultural references we do. They watch the same movies as us, play the same video games our children play. They are products of our culture, our world."

They watched everything, Henin says, "from the Teletubbies to Game of Thrones."

Media captionNicolas Henin: "The recruits are fragile people - once pushed to commit a crime there is no way they can turn back."

'Fragile people'

He refused to talk specifically about Mohammed Emwazi, otherwise known as "Jihadi John", on the grounds that fellow prisoner, British journalist John Cantlie, is still held hostage by the group.

Others, including British aid worker Alan Henning, and Americans James Foley, Stephen Sotloff and Peter Kassig have since been executed by their captors.

A Russian engineer, Sergey Gorbunov, who was killed during Henin's time there, was remembered in a small ceremony by the rest of the prisoners, he says.

"Everyone paid tribute to him. John Cantlie spoke first and then we held a minute's silence."

Talking to some of his captors during his 10 months as a hostage, he says he saw flickers of doubt "and a lot of bad faith, because they had to justify it to themselves, and some of their acts [were] impossible to justify."

Henin said he believed that many jihadists began with a genuine desire to help victims in Syria.

But, he said, "these are fragile people. As soon as they arrive, [their recruiters] hook them and push them to commit a crime, and then there is no way they can turn back."

"I remember with a couple of [the captors], we had discussions that showed their convictions were a bit fragile," he told me, "and that they maybe even had regrets about what they were doing."

Beyond that, connection was very difficult. A bit of chat might help, but "no pity for sure because they are totally closed to pity," he told me.

"[Asking for pity] is the worst thing you can do. It's stupid. Never try it."

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