Release of American Journalist Shows Qatar Playing Both Sides

"We don't pretend to know everything that happened."

Those are the words of Amy Rosen, a cousin of Peter Theo Curtis, the American journalist who was released from his captivity in Syria over the weekend. Speaking to the New York Times, Rosen said that her family was assured by the government of Qatar, which brokered Curtis's release, that "under no circumstances would a ransom be paid."

But on the news that the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra had decided to free Curtis a week after a video emerged of the brutal execution of James Foley, it is not surprising that Rosen would qualify that statement. Indeed, the U.S. government has categorically denied paying a ransom, and it remains unclear why Curtis was released. (Incidentally, similar questions remain about whether a ransom was paid for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was set free with Qatari help.)

One thing that is clear, however, is the leading role of Qatar in securing Curtis's freedom -- and that goes a long way in explaining what happened here, even if concrete details are scant. In a statement, the Gulf nation said it had worked for Curtis's release because of "Qatar's belief in the principles of humanity and its keenness on the lives of individuals and their right to freedom and dignity." That statement offered no further details.

As it is extremely unlikely that a group like Jabhat al-Nusra would free Curtis, a highly valuable bargaining chip, out of the kindness of its heart, the Qataris probably ponied up the cash to set him free. But why would the Qatari sheikhs do so? The answer lies in the double game the Gulf nation is playing.

The beheading of Foley marked an ugly turn in the Syrian civil war, one that has already been marked by awful brutality on all sides of the conflict. Qatar has played a role in fueling that violence, by funneling arms and weapons to Islamist groups. Some of those weapons have ended up in the hands of hard-line radicals. Qatar also provides a home for a handful of influential Islamist leaders, including the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, and Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi, an al Qaeda financier.

At the same time, Qatar continues to serve as a vital ally of America in the region, playing host to key U.S. military installations and reveling in its role as a power broker.

Events like Foley's execution inevitably upset the balance between Qatar's competing impulses and force its leaders to compensate in one direction or another.

Specifically, the gruesome beheading of Foley put intense pressure on the White House to answer for its efforts to secure his release -- pressure that Qatar has now slightly relieved. Curtis's sudden release provides Barack Obama's administration with a piece of good news -- and tangible evidence that Americans can be freed without Washington doling out ransoms.

This, then, is what a double game looks like.



The Angry, Disillusioned Music of the London Rapper Accused of Beheading James Foley

The British intelligence community has been racing to identify a man who appears in a video of James Foley's beheading by an Islamic State militant who speaks with a distinctive London accent. According to British media outlets, they have a "key suspect": Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a 23-year-old British-Egyptian rapper from west London.

Bary reportedly traveled to Syria last year to join radical Islamist fighters. From there, his militant career appears to have taken a grisly turn. In August, he tweeted a photograph of himself holding a severed head. "Chillin' with my homie or what's left of him," he captioned the photo. With his alleged appearance in Foley's execution video, Bary has attained a measure of jihadi infamy.

Whether the American journalist's executioner was Bary is still unclear, but the former rapper is a fascinating figure who grew up swathed in Islamist politics. He is the son of Adel Abdel Bary, an alleged member of Islamic Jihad who was extradited from England to the United States in 2012 on charges related to his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

British authorities couldn't secure a conviction of the elder Bary on similar charges. U.S. prosecutors charged him with conspiring with Ayman al-Zawahiri to attack the embassies and after a lengthy legal battle secured his extradition. His trial is expected to begin in November.

According to a 2013 interview with Abdel-Majed mother in the Guardian, the elder Bary spent large parts of his son's childhood in jail, fighting terror-related prosecutions brought first by British authorities and then the United States. His mother, Ragaa, describes frequent visits to jail during which her children would play with their imprisoned father. Ragaa struggled to make ends meet and eventually pursued an education as a dressmaker. "Twenty years of all this politics has been too much. I have to live my kids' lives," she told the Guardian.

Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary's mother appears to have been a signal influence on his life and is repeatedly mentioned in his music. Indeed, with Bary now likely in Syria, apparently pursuing a life of ultraviolent jihad, his music provides a partial picture of the life he left behind in Britain. His music touches on familiar themes of growing up amid poverty and as an outsider in British society. He raps about his father's incarceration and his mother's struggle to provide for her family. He may at one point have struggled with a drug addiction. As twisted as the choice may be, it is not surprising that this young man may have embraced a life of nihilistic violence.

In "The Beginning" -- set to the unimaginative but excellent choice of "Intro" by the xx -- he raps: "I remember getting no nice gifts/ I rose/ From the rubble in the cold night shifts." He reminisces about his father's arrest and the anger it inspired:

Gimme that nine and I'll cock it for my partners.
Gimme the pride and I'll honor it like my father.
I swear the day they came and took my dad I could've killed a couple too.
And I wouldn't have looked back.
Imagine back then I was only six.
Just picture what I'll do now with a loaded stick.

Toward the song's end, Bary dwells on his mother. "Shouts to my mother/ cause I seen her raising eight kids/ You always knew what's best for me/ I hope I die before I see you rest in peace./ Calm; yeah, I'm calm."

In "Bar Session," Bary -- or L Jinny -- raps about drug dealing. Again, his mother appears -- "I'm trying to get my mother in that bigger home." The rap speaks of disillusionment and wonder at how the song's character has arrived at a life of selling drugs and its emptiness. L Jinny then hints that he may have found something more meaningful: "Soon I’ll be leaving/ Give me something to believe in." It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to read that as an allusion to his decision to wage jihad in Syria.

In the first track in the video below, L Jinny once more references his tumultuous family life. "And now they want to send my family back to Egypt/ Already feeling sea sick/ Gotta get that peace quick …. On top of that, the pops is doing life without remand/ I gotta keep my calm/ Can't write with that shit on./ It's hard to focus on the future with a damaged past./ And still I try to count my blessings and I thank Allah."

On the second track, wrapped up in a clunker of a metaphor, L Jinny references the violence he now stands accused of committing. "You can tell from my voice that I been cold, like a sore throat./ Sign of swagger, with the dagger we still sword throats."

If the embrace of jihad can be seen as an intellectual attempt to reject the chaos of modernity in favor of a simpler, Manichean fundamentalism, then L Jinny might have been searching for his ideological home for quite some time: "I need something with a deeper meaning, food for thought/ Something that will keep me eating," he says in "Overdose."

On "Dreamer," L Jinny appears alongside the rapper Tabanacle on a track about a pair of guys not going anywhere any time soon. "I remember when I used to be young/I had big dreams; I wasn’t just your usual thug/ A decade down the line, still in the same position/ Now only hope I have is music or drugs."

YouTube/Rachel Hutter