The darker side of tribal kidnapping

Yemen's tribal practice of kidnapping to extort concessions by the government in Sanaa and ransom payments from abroad has two faces. At one extreme is the romanticized version of rural tribesmen taking hostages and, in accordance with Yemeni tribal custom, treating them as honored guests until an agreement is mediated with the government. According to one story, a Chinese construction worker was kidnapped and held hostage for months, living better than he had as a laborer; when the Chinese government wouldn't negotiate, he was dropped off in Sanaa. As was the case with journalist Adam Baron, who wrote about being kidnapped recently, things can often end well.

Then there's the other side of tribal kidnappings -- the side that illustrates the desperation that motivates these tactics as rural factions struggle for the attention and resources of Yemen's overwhelmed central government. The video above was posted to YouTube on Feb. 21. In it, Dominik Neubauer, an Austrian citizen who was kidnapped in Sanaa along with a Finnish couple two months ago, pleads at gunpoint for the Yemeni and Austrian governments to negotiate his release.

I've been taken hostage on the 21st of December, 2012, by a Yemeni tribe. They want ransom money. I appeal to the Yemeni government, to the Austrian government, and to all other governments concerned, and to the European Union to give them what they want. Otherwise they will kill me seven days after this video is published.

That would be this Thursday. He added a message to his family in German: "Mom, Dad, Lukas, Angela, I love you more than anything. So far I'm in good health."

Neubauer, 26, was in Yemen studying Arabic. A recent graduate of the masters' program at the London School of Economics, he had spent time interning for the European Union's diplomatic corps, according to an infrequently updated LinkedIn page that appears to be his. An acquaintance of Neubauer's said he had been planning on returning to Europe just days after he was taken.

The YouTube video is the first evidence that Neubauer is still alive, a spokesman for the Austrian Foreign Ministry told reporters. There has been no news about the Finnish couple that was also kidnapped. Authorities say they do not know where the hostages are being held.

The sheen came off tribal kidnappings in 1998, when religious militants belonging to the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army kidnapped 16 British, American, and Australian tourists, rebuffed traditional tribal mediation efforts, and executed at least two of them while two others were killed in a rescue attempt. It is unclear if the people holding Neubauer will hold to their stated timetable -- a spokesperson for the Finnish Foreign Ministry pointed out that "the time limits are common in these kinds of demands, and often they are flexible. There is no need to draw too many conclusions over this."



No, John Kerry has not invented a new country

John Kerry, we're told, has committed his "first gaffe" as secretary of state. In a slip of the tongue ahead of his overseas trip this week, Kerry appeared to confuse the Central Asian nations of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, blurting out what the Global Post heard as "Kyrzakhstan." Today, news outlets from the U.S. to the U.K. to Russia are ribbing the newly minted State Department chief for inventing a new country.

Here's the thing -- listen to the video closely, and it sounds more like Kerry simply mixed up the "z" and the "g," saying something like "Kyrzygstan." Is that really what qualifies as a gaffe these days? Especially when compared to George W. Bush not knowing the name of Pakistan's top general, or a U.S. presidential candidate deliberately and dismissively mangling another country's name? If Kerry's critics want something to latch onto, they might want to focus on the difficulties he's having in securing a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders.

Even if Kerry mixed up Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, it's worth noting that he wouldn't be alone. West Wing fans may remember that Sam Seaborn stumbled into a similar trap when he tried to impress a newspaper columnist by spouting off about nuclear weapons in Kyrgyzstan. "There are barely pots and pans in Kyrgyzstan," he ruefully observes once the mistake dawns on him (starts at 4:00):