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Following The Defeat Of ISIS, Iraq Pursues A Campaign Of Revenge


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's been nearly a year since the prime minister of Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State after driving ISIS out of the territory they'd taken over. But our guest, journalist Ben Taub, says there's a dark side to the battlefield success. Iraqi government forces and Shiite militias are engaged in a brutal campaign of vengeance in which hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims are being detained, tortured, executed or cast out of society because of a suspected association with ISIS.

Taub, who recently spent time in Iraq, says many believe the violence and retribution are certain to generate hatred for the government and drive many of its victims into the arms of a resurgent Islamic State. Ben Taub has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2017. Last year, he won a George Polk Award for his reporting from Central Africa. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.


Well, Ben Taub, welcome to FRESH AIR.

In your reporting for this piece, you visited the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad, where men accused of terrorism were being tried. And first of all, you had a look at the holding area where the men were before they were taken into court. What was going on there? What did it look like?

BEN TAUB: So it was a small room, and there were bars in the front. There was a guard standing out front of it, sort of serving a role of both protecting the public from the prisoners, supposedly, and also protecting the prisoners from abuse. A lot of people would walk by and, you know, shout things at the prisoners, and then they would be shooed away.

A lot of the prisoners had signs of having been injured in detention. You could see that their bones had been cracked, their joints twisted. Many of them had scabies and were just wearing these dejected expressions with their heads down, having suffered torture in the course of their interrogations. And those interrogations are designed to induce confessions to the crime of affiliation with the Islamic State, which, because Iraq has a very broad terrorism law, is used as the sole basis for charging people with affiliation with the group and then sentencing them to death.

DAVIES: And you said the public will sometimes shout things at them. Is this holding area kind of exposed to public view?

TAUB: It's exposed to anybody who's made it into the court area. So you'll have lawyers walking back and forth, members of the public who - to be honest, I don't know exactly who was around. The courtroom was crowded when I was there, but I don't know what the makeup of the public viewing area was. What I can say with confidence is that there were few, if any, family members of detainees present, watching the hearings because family members are afraid to attend the trials of their loved ones out of fear that they might themselves be detained on the basis of their relationship to the suspect.

DAVIES: So what were the trials like that you saw?

TAUB: There was a very standard procedure. These trials would last between five and 10 minutes, and it would begin with the judge accusing the suspect, who's standing in a cage before him, of some affiliation with ISIS. And then the suspect would deny the affiliation. The judge would say, but I have your signed and thumb-printed confession before me. And the suspect would say some variation of, it was induced by torture or I was blindfolded when they took my thumbprints or they made me thumbprint a blank piece of paper, and I have no idea what the confession that they've written on it says.

Then the judge would name various supposed jihadi associates of the suspect, to which the suspect would deny any knowledge of having met any of them. And then the prosecutor would step in, between two and five minutes in, and say, enough evidence - I ask for a guilty verdict. It was always the exact same phrase. And then the judges would turn it over to the defense lawyer, if there was one.

Many ISIS suspects don't have a defense lawyer because lawyers are afraid of representing them if they are an ambiguous case. Lawyers are often detained or harassed or threatened by the security services, and so those private lawyers typically take on only clients who they're convinced are innocent, like cases of mistaken identity. So if there's a defense lawyer, he or she will stand up and start to speak. And typically, that will be by analyzing intelligence reports and saying, you know, the police report contradicts the evidence presented here. There's no way that my client did this or clearly, this is a case of mistaken identity. It's the wrong case and name altogether.

But during this time, the judges are talking among themselves, cracking jokes with each other, signing documents and passing folders to their assistants and not even pretending to pay attention to what's being said.

DAVIES: And what were the verdicts that you saw?

TAUB: So 98 percent of terrorism trials in Iraq end with guilty verdicts. And they're typically sentenced on the same day to death or life in prison. Most are sentenced to death.

DAVIES: So these defendants, do we have a sense of who they were, how likely it was that they had actually committed terrorist offenses?

TAUB: It's very hard to know because no one's really charged with specific crimes. Instead, they're tortured into confessing to affiliation, and that's the sole crime. The Iraqi terrorism law is so broad that it conflates or, rather, makes no distinction between those who supposedly assisted a terrorist group in some way and those who carried out violent crimes on its behalf. And so all they have to prove to get a death sentence is that you confessed to being a part of ISIS or helping it in some way. And so a lot of these people are coming in with their bodies broken, saying, I was tortured; I didn't do this. But of course I confessed because they were torturing me. And in fact, if they didn't confess, then they would have just been returned to a cell and then tortured again.

DAVIES: Were a lot of them captured on ISIS battlefields? Or were some of them arrested after tips from informants who may have had a grudge?

TAUB: Many of them were picked up after the battle had ended. These were - I think a lot of ISIS fighters were actually just executed in the streets. There were - as men and women and children escaped from ISIS areas on foot, the men and boys were separated. And a lot of those separations happened on the basis of informants. So you'd have these masked informants at checkpoints just pointing to people and telling the security forces, that guy was in ISIS, that guy supported ISIS - something like that.

And some of these informants were children. But that wouldn't matter in court because the suspect would never know who had denounced them or what was said. So these denunciations have also been - you know, as I've said, there were around 8,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul. But there are now more than 100,000 people on these wanted lists because there have been so many false accusations or cases where the name is very common, and so every single person with that name is considered a suspect.

And you have cases of people threatening denunciation in workplace disputes, denouncing their enemies and getting them put on the list. You have personal disputes, family disputes, tribal disputes - all resulting in false accusations of terrorism, which are then referred to the security services and very, very often ending up with innocent people in court.

DAVIES: Let's talk about the battle for Mosul, the city of 2 million people in northern Iraq that was held for three years by ISIS. It's interesting. You say that it was initially captured, essentially, by mistake by ISIS. What do you mean?

TAUB: So the Islamic State sent a few hundred fighters across the desert from Syria in these mud-caked pickup trucks. And they had guns on the back, and they were planning to take a few neighborhoods on the western bank of Mosul. And they also wanted to - the main mission was to carry out a prison break because one of their ways of swelling their ranks was by freeing all these jihadis who had been detained in the years before.

What they weren't anticipating was that some 60,000 Iraqi soldiers and federal police officers would shed their uniforms and flee the city. And I think a lot of that was driven by a sense that they had been carrying - the Iraqi state had been carrying out abuses on the Sunni population for quite some time in Mosul, and there was a great deal of resentment. And so I think they feared - the soldiers, in many cases, feared that they would not have support from the local population, and they didn't want to die in defense of a Sunni city.

And then you also had ISIS' campaign of propaganda, which was very, very effective in inducing fear. They were broadcasting their crimes online in real time, showing videos of themselves carrying out executions of captive Iraqi soldiers. And to see that on Facebook when ISIS is across the river had a very powerful effect on a lot of the troops. And so they fled the city and essentially gave it up.

DAVIES: You said the battle to retake Mosul was the most intense urban combat since World War II. You want to explain?

TAUB: The Islamic State had very few numbers of fighters compared to those trying to retake the city. There were roughly 8,000 Islamic State fighters versus a force of more than 100,000 Iraqi security forces and members of the international coalition trying to retake the city. But they carried out their campaign with such depraved tactics that it was almost impossible to take back without extraordinary losses. They would send children, as suicide car bombers, down narrow alleyways and blow up cars in crowded civilian areas.

Mosul is a city that's bisected by the Tigris River. And on the eastern side, you have sort of wide alleyways and low buildings. And urban combat was very, very intense and difficult to take back block by block. But it was possible to fit military vehicles down the alleys, down the roads. In western Mosul, there's a neighborhood called the Old City, which is more than 1,300 years old. And it's a warren of alleys and souks with thin, concrete passages and basements through which ISIS fighters had dug tunnels and were passing between. And so it was, essentially, impenetrable. You could not send military vehicles down those alleyways. You could only send people sort of one or two at a time, side by side. And so it worked to the jihadis' advantage.

What that meant, however, was that as ISIS lost its territory, it retreated into the Old City. It trapped civilians in the Old City, and there was no way to take it back except to carry out a campaign of shelling and air strikes that would involve extraordinary numbers of civilian casualties. And so thousands and thousands of people died in the last two weeks of July 2017 when at a certain point, the coalition and the Iraqi security forces were just bombing everything and shooting everyone who moved. And there's been no effort to rebuild.

DAVIES: Right. Did the coalition forces assume that civilians who remained in the Old City at that point were sympathetic to ISIS?

TAUB: Iraqi security forces did - many of them. The coalition knew that there were civilians inside and took many precautions to try to prevent civilian casualties, but it was tactically impossible. There were airstrikes. For example, there was an air strike in March 2017. The coalition had assessed that there were two ISIS snipers on the roof in a building in the Old City. And so they - someone called in the coordinates. They blew up the building. At the time of the actual strike, the ISIS fighters had vanished. And 105 civilians who were sheltering inside the building were killed. And the coalition didn't know they were there. But people had nowhere to go. They - if they tried to flee into liberated areas, they would be killed by ISIS or if they made it to liberated areas, they would be suspected of being ISIS by the Iraqi security forces and would, potentially, be detained and tortured and killed there. So there was really no way out.

DAVIES: Ben Taub is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He has an article in the current edition about Iraq's campaign of revenge against ISIS after it was denied much of its territory. The piece is called "Shallow Graves." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Ben Taub. He has an article in the current edition about what's happening in Iraq in the wake of the defeat of ISIS. It's called "Shallow Graves."

You visited the Old City and talked to people in Mosul. What did you hear?

TAUB: So the Old City is still completely flattened. There's been no effort to rebuild. And it's still filled with unexploded ordnance and dead bodies. But people are going to their former homes and trying to recover what they can. And I met a man named Thenoon Younnes Abdullah who had gone to his house to try to find anything worth recovering. It had all been looted already. Inside, he found dead ISIS fighters and bomb-making materials. He also found his mother-in-law's corpse.

DAVIES: Were you with him when he went to his house?

TAUB: Yes. So I met him as he was winding down a pile of rubble, trying to squeeze a generator into the back of his car. And he described to me how he escaped Mosul in the final days of the battle. The jihadis had occupied his home. There was nowhere to go. If he tried to make it past the frontlines, he might have been shot by either ISIS or by the Iraqi security forces. And so one night, he and his wife gathered their four children. And they - he had spent the day collecting inner tubes and large coolers, like, for beverages. And he raced down to the river in the dead of night with his family. And the children climbed into the coolers, and he and his wife went in the inner tubes. And they just floated down the Tigris, not knowing how to swim, until they made it to liberated territory on the other side.

DAVIES: And so when you went with Thenoon Younnes Abdullah back to his home to see what he could recover, what did you see?

TAUB: We climbed in through a hole in the bathroom wall and ducked under a staircase to get in. The floor was littered with concrete and debris. And I noticed some bomb-making material scattered about. There were ball bearings and transistors. And then he pointed to the dining room where there were three large stains from where ISIS fighters had been killed and their bodies had decomposed. And he had already disposed of the corpses himself.

And then as we were climbing out, I knocked over a concrete block and uncovered an IED. And so I stopped moving, and I pointed to it. And he seemed to be aware of the fact that there were unexploded ordnance in his house already and looked around and saw two other IEDs and four detonators for suicide vests in the vicinity. And at that point, it was obvious that the only thing to do was to leave. And we climbed back through the bathroom wall and down the rubble, past a desiccated ISIS corpse in leather sandals and went back to his car.

DAVIES: You were stopped and questioned at one point.

TAUB: Yes. In fact, about 10 minutes later, as he was leaving, a truck pulled up filled with plainclothes security and intelligence officers from the Hashd al-Shaabi, one of the Iranian-backed paramilitary groups. And they took my passport. They photographed it. They photographed my visa and my face and sent it to, presumably, either to their commanders on the Iraqi security forces or in the Iranian intelligence. And I was held for about three hours. They took me to a place where more Hashd fighters showed up. There were 12 of them at one point, including the commander, Abu Ali, in that neighborhood. And...

DAVIES: The Hashd fighters are the Shiite militia, right?

TAUB: Exactly, yeah. And they held me for three hours and questioned me. And they went through every photograph on my camera. And in the end, once they had determined that we were journalists and not spies, which, I think, was what they were concerned about, having - one of their concerns as they went through my photos was that I had no photographs of any security operations or of checkpoints or anything like that, which, of course, I didn't because I know that when traveling in a conflict zone, you just don't do that. And so they eventually decided to let me go and warned that if I ever came back, I would be arrested.

DAVIES: So the Old City, this 1,300-year-old community of, you know, stone buildings and narrow alleyways, what's it like today?

TAUB: It's completely flattened. It's in ruins. The area is filled with unexploded ordnance and dead bodies. There's been very little cleanup. Apparently - I spoke to journalists who were there much earlier than I. And in previous months, it was far worse. You would see bodies out in the open. Now most of the bodies that are left are ISIS fighters. The local civil defense, which is the rescue organization in West Mosul, retrieves civilian bodies but only when they know exactly who the person is. So the family member will come to them and say, we know my relative is in this building. I have no connection to ISIS whatsoever. Can you help us? And if they're from the Old City, the civil defense knows that they are probably civilians, and they helped them retrieve the corpse. And they carry out a burial. But they refuse to retrieve corpses when they can't identify them. So there's a lot of ISIS corpses left behind.

And I had the sense that this neighborhood has been left in this state as a kind of punishment. It seems to be - you know, this is where ISIS made its final stand. And it was an area that was causing trouble to the Iraqi security forces and to the coalition - you know, the Americans, really, during the invasion, you know, more than a decade ago because al-Qaida, in its previous iteration, used to take refuge in the Old City because it's such a tactically useful area. You can't fight in the Old City, and you can't really go after them once they retreat into it. And so now it's gone, and it seems to be left in the state as a way of saying, you know, you can never have this neighborhood back again. And this will serve as a reminder. And you will never be able to bury your dead.

DAVIES: You know, a couple of years ago, ISIS held huge swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. What are their territorial holdings today?

TAUB: It's been vastly reduced to a small number of towns in the Iraqi-Syrian border areas. But that is the territory that they control. The flaw with this entire approach is that they've been destroyed on the battlefield. But the war is not over because airstrikes cannot kill an idea. And by limiting their territory, the group is unable to gather revenue in the way that it used to, which was mostly from taxation of the local population. It was an entirely predatory state - of people and resources, essentially - extraction of resources from the ground and taxation of the local population.

But the fighters who have escaped detection have essentially gone to ground. The group has laundered an estimated $400 million through legitimate businesses throughout the region, and those investments are growing. They've also buried cash in berms in the desert along with caches of weapons, which will be used at a later date. They've already returned, in Iraq, to carrying out abductions and assassinations of members of the security forces. So the group is already showing signs of its resurgence, and the problem is that the Iraqi state response has been so vengeful that the group still has popular support in certain areas.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with New Yorker staff writer Ben Taub. His latest article is about Iraq's post-ISIS campaign of revenge. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And rock critic Ken Tucker will tell us what's on his top 10 list this year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with New Yorker staff writer Ben Taub. His article in the current issue is about disturbing developments in Iraq following military victories that dislodged the Islamic State from most of its territorial holdings, roughly a third of the country. Taub reports that Iraqi forces and Shiite militias are now engaged in a brutal campaign of revenge. Thousands of men accused of fighting for ISIS have been killed. And hundreds of thousands of civilians are being detained, tortured or cast out of society because of a suspected association with ISIS. Ben Taub's article is called "Shallow Graves."

DAVIES: You did speak to some Iraqis who defended this campaign of retribution. What did they say?

TAUB: Yeah. I spoke to a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice. And he said, listen; human rights groups are focusing on the rights of suspects. But what about the rights of victims and their families? He carried on talking about how Iraq has undergone thousands of terrorist attacks and there's enormous public pressure on the judicial authorities to get results. And so it doesn't really matter to them that they don't have evidence that someone committed a crime on behalf of ISIS. They just need to show that they've executed this many hundreds of ISIS fighters this year in order to not have riots in the streets because so many Iraqis have suffered the effects of terrorism. There are millions of people whose family members have been killed or maimed.

He drew comparisons to 9/11. He said, listen. 9/11 left 3,000 people dead, and the whole world obsessed over the attack. We cried over your innocent deaths. But here in Iraq, we've had a terrorist death toll that exceeds that by a factor of a hundred. Where's the sympathy that we showed the victims of 9/11?

So he's very upset that, essentially, Iraqis are fighting terrorism on behalf of the rest of the world, as he sees it. And the rest of the world is just coming forward and then criticizing them for carrying out abuses in their campaign and collectively punishing large segments of the population. But it seems like this campaign is carried out with absolutely no foresight. And it's not even a question of foresight - it's hindsight, too. They've done this before, and it didn't work. That's how they got ISIS in the first place.

DAVIES: When you say that's how they got ISIS in the first place, what do you mean?

TAUB: So al-Qaida in Iraq in 2006 and '07 was carrying out attacks in Baghdad pretty much every day. There were car bombings. There were thousands of victims every month. Their response was to round up large numbers of Sunnis - and among them, of course, were hardcore jihadis and terrorists - and then essentially prosecute everyone and sentence them all to death. Now, that worked for a moment because a lot of the terrorists were swept up in that campaign. But it didn't work in the long run because so many people were actually innocent.

And of course - you know, I spoke to a CIA officer who was working in Iraq at that time at the height of the surge. The CIA was very, very effectively targeting al-Qaida members. And part of that was because they had managed to recruit people within the Baathist security intelligence apparatus who had joined al-Qaida and were informing on the group. But they were swept out in these raids as well. And so the way he phrased it to me is, of course al-Qaida in Iraq came back. You literally killed everyone's dad.

DAVIES: So it was a matter of revenge.

TAUB: Yeah, revenge breeding revenge.

DAVIES: So there's this campaign of persecution of civilians who survived ISIS' rule. And then many, many thousands are being convicted as terrorists and executed. And there's this bizarre thing you write about, which is a reality show that's centered around people who have been convicted - "In The Grip Of The Law" it's called.

TAUB: Yes. This is the last stop before the gallows for many people who have been sentenced to death. So it runs on Iraqi state television. And every Friday night, they broadcast to millions people a show in which they take people who are convicted of ISIS crimes and humiliate them publicly and force them to confess to things on camera, confess to what they've done, say that they deserve to die and so on. And then often they'll parade them through the scenes of their crimes - or supposed crimes because we don't really know where these confessions came from, whether they were induced by torture.

And so you might have men brought into a crowded area of Baghdad in the dead of night surrounded by members of security forces and forced to show the cameras how they put a detonator in a car bomb or, in the case of an episode that they were making while I was there, they dragged a suspect through the streets of Mosul in a sealed-off street, made him kneel before the host. And there were members of the security forces standing behind him re-enacting, essentially, the scene of an ISIS execution video that his son had apparently participated in.

And the director - there was no shying away from the comparison. The director actually did a split-screen to show the parallels. And it looked like the lead up to a street execution. This guy had been sentenced to death, and it was not at all clear as he sobbed before the host and, you know, said that he deserved to die, that he didn't know he was about to.

DAVIES: So are the executions actually televised or...


DAVIES: ...Just the confessions and...

TAUB: The confessions and the re-enactments of their crimes are televised. And the host and the networks see this as building trust in the security forces and the judicial apparatus. They say, listen, we are showing evidence of these crimes so people know that we don't have innocent people here because we'll sometimes show CCTV footage. We'll show, you know, how car bombs are, you know, are detonated and so forth. And we have the suspects on there saying that they did it. So this is building trust in the security and judicial apparatuses so that Iraqis know that the state is just. That's how they see it.

DAVIES: You had a candid conversation with one - I think it was a senior military official in Iraq who was very troubled by what was going on. And I'm wondering whether he and others see the seeds of the revival of ISIS in this campaign of retribution.

TAUB: He does, and so does pretty much everyone else I spoke to. This was a very senior Iraqi intelligence official who was involved in counterterrorism operations. And he came forward to speak to me because he feels as if they're committing not just an extraordinary number of moral blunders, but also tactical ones. He is in the room at times when his subordinates murder detainees. One of the reasons he described these murders being carried out is that they don't trust their own colleagues in the judicial apparatus.

There's so much corruption in the Iraqi detention process that if you have a rich ISIS fighter in detention, he can buy his way out of prison. So you have hardcore jihadis who can get out if they can pay, and really poor people who have been swept up who are innocent, who are going to be executed in their stead. And so he said listen, like, sometimes when we know it's a really hardcore guy, we just carry out the murder and - so that they can't get out and we have to fight them again.

But he said, you know, the overall strategy is just doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. There's a consensus - pretty much the only thing that everyone I spoke to agreed upon - and that's ISIS supporters, intelligence officers, judicial officers, ISIS widows - everyone I spoke to in Iraq agreed on one thing, and that's that the Islamic State is going to come back. It might take some time, but the state is doing almost everything possible to blunder its own recovery.

DAVIES: Ben Taub is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article in the current edition about Iraq's campaign of vengeance against the followers of ISIS is called "Shallow Graves." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Ben Taub. He has a new article in the current edition about what's happening in Iraq in the wake of the defeat of ISIS. It's called "Shallow Graves."

I wanted to talk a little bit about how your career got started. You were in Princeton when you first went to the Middle East and did a story about war tourists for The Daily Beast.

TAUB: Yeah.

DAVIES: How did you get into this?

TAUB: So in 2011, I was studying philosophy, and I thought that I wanted to become a stage actor. But then towards the end of that year, I met a girl who was a couple of years older and was graduating that year, and she went to work for a refugee rights organization in Cairo. And I got a grant from Princeton to do some research in France that summer. It was my sophomore year. And I essentially misused the grant to go to Egypt and see her.

And of course, this was summer of 2011. The Arab Spring was in full swing. And I conflated the excitement of being in love with someone for the first time with the excitement of everything that was happening around us and didn't really know how to separate that and parse that, I think.

So I became very curious about this part of the world that I'd never previously seen. And when I came back to Princeton, I took my first journalism class, actually with someone from NPR. It was Deborah Amos...

DAVIES: Right.

TAUB: ...Who covered Syria for NPR. And she guided me. And I found her to be someone whose life seemed so fulfilling that I wanted to try to live some approximation of it in whatever way I could muster up and scramble. And so I took a year off school. I worked on some music projects for a while and then used the funding from those to travel to the Turkish-Syrian border, sort of with Deborah's advice, and ended up living in a town called Kilis, just north of Aleppo. This was a major crossing point for the city of Aleppo, so you had journalists, aid workers and jihadis going in through Kilis, and you had refugees coming out.

And during that time, my intention was not to do reporting, because I didn't really know how, I wanted to learn from correspondents who do cover war about how they take the security measures to protect their sources, to protect themselves, how they plan a trip into a complicated war zone and to see, really, whether that was something I wanted to do.

DAVIES: When you were in this town of Kilis in Turkey, close to the Syrian border - which there were jihadists and journalists and various fixers operating - I wonder what you saw and observed of journalists and how they do their work when they're never quite sure who to trust. They have to rely on locals, as fixers, to drive them, to give them good information about - connect them. How hard is it for - was it for you and others to stay safe?

TAUB: It was extremely difficult for people who were going to Aleppo. I stayed on the Turkish side because I was there, really, to learn how they do their work. But there were journalists who were competent and experienced who were going in, unlike me at the time. And they had an enormous amount of difficulty operating in this area because, at this point, in the summer of 2013, ISIS had realized that Kilis was the crossing point for journalists, and it was therefore the place to pick up targets for abduction.

So they had spies in Kilis, and they would wait for journalists to cross the border and then phone ahead and say, you know, someone just left this hotel carrying a flak jacket and a helmet and got in a taxi, and they'll be there in 30 minutes. And so the journalist crosses through the border and, within minutes, is picked up on the other side by the Islamic State. And a lot of these abductions happened by targeting the fixers.

ISIS fighters realized that journalists always worked with the same cadre of local fixers who speak English, know the checkpoints, know where the snipers are and so forth. And so ISIS just had to monitor the fixers, many of whom were not suspected of having made any deal with ISIS, some of whom were suspected of having made deals. And they could just follow the fixer and know that, every so often, they're going to pick up a journalist, and you can kidnap them out of the back of the car.

DAVIES: And you described how this guy who was connected to ISIS, who you had met in a taxi, you kept trying to meet with him, and there were these negotiations about where and when you would meet, which ended in a kind of a confrontation. Do you want to just share that?

TAUB: Yeah. He was a British citizen who was a doctor. And he had gone to - as a sort of - like a sort of a medical job to, like, help the jihadis' wounded fighters on the battlefield. And so because he was a doctor and because we'd met, actually, on a taxi in the Turkish side of the border, we'd exchanged numbers. And I thought, maybe this will be my first piece of journalism if I can get him to talk on the record. And so over the course of several weeks, we would talk every so often.

I actually didn't have his number. He gave me the number of an Iraqi guy, who I would then call, and then, a few minutes later, I'd get a call from a blocked number from this British guy. And then we would have this discussion in which we would both refute. I would say, you should come to Kilis, and I'll take you out for tea, and we can talk. And he would counter with an offer for me to go to Syria, where he would take me out for dinner and cook for me and show me great hospitality and so forth. And then each of us would reject the other one's offer and pretend it wasn't weird and then sort of repeat the routine the following week.

I reached out to this British guy again, and for the first time, he agreed to meet me on the Turkish side of the border. And the terms were that we would meet at this open-air cafe that I had selected at 6 p.m. And I picked that place because I knew a back alleyway that I could stand in and see the entire entrance, which was on the main road through town - a one-way street that he would have to approach from a certain way and have to leave from a certain way. It was a crowded area. There were Turkish soldiers on the streets. There was no way to carry out, like, a forcible abduction because it would have been caught, and there was too much traffic for him to make a quick getaway.

He was supposed to come alone, but he ended up showing up with two vans-fuls (ph) of guys. And he parked outside a cellphone shop and called me and said, OK, we're outside the cellphone shop. Get in one of the vans. And I said, no, you get out like we had agreed, and we'll have tea here. And at a certain point, we went back and forth. And then he was berating me, accusing me of Islamophobia, for not trusting him, but in fact, you know, he'd shown up with a bunch of Syrian and Iraqi fighters and was in a van on this street, waiting for me to get into the car.

Because once they get you in a car, they can spirit you across the border without any trouble. So I had made some preparations. I had a car waiting. I had already packed my bags. And so he didn't know exactly where I was, but I could see him from behind the cafe. And at that point, I left.

DAVIES: It's also fascinating that you were a contestant on the TV show, "The Voice." You did a lot of singing, did a lot of musical theater. Why - was that something you thought of as a career?

TAUB: Potentially. I mean, I tried out for the show for fun, really and because CeeLo Green was my favorite singer at the time. And I really, honestly, I just wanted to meet him. I thought it would be cool (laughter). So I was considering trying to become a jazz singer. And this seemed like - the opportunity to audition came up, and it didn't seem like something to not do, so I did it. And I ended up on his team for a few episodes. And then - but I found the production of a reality TV show to be so far from actual reality that the only thing I was craving the whole time was some sense of scale and importance.

DAVIES: Right.

TAUB: That was, at least, the goal.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well - and you actually managed to use some of the money that you got - part of the stipends that came with "The Voice" to fund some of your travel. And you eventually went to the Columbia Journalism School, I know. I wonder if we should just hear a bit of your singing. Is there a favorite...

TAUB: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...That we should play?

TAUB: Oh. I mean, I don't know what - I don't know if there are any recordings besides the one that they made. But it's called - it was a recording of "Feeling Good" by Nina Simone.

DAVIES: We do have that. Why don't we just listen to a bit of that?


TAUB: (Singing) Fish in the sea, you know how I feel. River running free, you know how I feel. Blossom on a tree, you know how I feel. It's a new dawn. It's a new day. It's a new life for me, and I'm feeling good. Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don't you know? Butterflies all having fun, you know what I mean. Sleep in peace when day is done, that's what I mean. And this old world is a new world and a bold world for me.

DAVIES: That is our guest, The New Yorker staff writer Ben Taub, yes, singing. The song is "Feeling Good." Well, Ben Taub, thanks for your reporting. And thanks for speaking with us.

TAUB: Thank you.

GROSS: Ben Taub's article about Iraq's post-ISIS campaign of revenge is in the current issue of The New Yorker. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will tell us what's on his best of the year list. This is FRESH AIR.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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