#OpFOQ: A Campaign to Free Two Dozen Hostages

A group of human rights activists and members of Anonymous launched an operation directed at Iran on March 24, #OpFOQ, to focus attention on a mass kidnapping in Iraq, to force the government of Iran to divulge what it knows about the whereabouts and health of two dozen Qatari hostages, to bring this case to forefront of the world’s consciousness, and to earn the freedom of the hostages.

The men were kidnapped in December 2015, and since April 2016, when two of the hostages were freed, the missing men have been absent from the world’s headlines and attention as well, despite the fact that a handful of the hostages are members of the royal family of Qatar. Families are missing sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. The men were not taken by an official government entity, so groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been bystanders as the mystery deepens each day.

The men were sportsmen—falconers—who crossed the Saudi Arabian-Iraqi border with government-issued permits and their birds, and they set up camp in Iraq’s remote southern province, Al Muthanna. December is training season for the falcons because December is the breeding season for the houbara bustard, a turkey-like bird found in Central Asia that the falcons hunt.

Thus, a large falconry party of twenty-seven men and the birds they were training seen in that part of the world in December is nothing out of the ordinary. What followed was.

Al Muthanna is desert, sparsely populated, and only nominally governed by the politicians in Baghdad. The Imam al-Ali Brigade of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iran-backed Shi’a paramilitary force, controls much of the desert region of southern and western Iraq, where the kidnapping took place.

Between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. on the night of December 16, 2015, while the group slept, a convoy of about 100 armed men in pickup trucks and vans descended on the hunting party’s camp, near Busaya in the Samawa desert, and took the entire group hostage. Not a shot was fired. The hunters who were taken hostage were almost all from Qatar, among them six members of the Qatari royal family, the Al Thani family. The fate of the falcons remains unknown.

No group claimed responsibility in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping, and nine hostages were released or escaped within days—one Kuwaiti, two Saudis and six Qataris. None of the nine were members of the ruling Al Thani family of Qatar; all were servants of or helpers to the falconry party.

Ransom notes have appeared in the Iraqi media every so often, but their veracity is usually questioned. It appears that the hostages are to be used as “bargaining chips in negotiations to secure the release detainees held by armed factions in Syria,” but the incident took place fifteen months ago.

It is believed that the hostages may be held in small groups scattered among small villages near Basra, Iraq. Since the night of the kidnapping, December 16, 2015, only two hostages have been released: one member of the Al Thani family and a Pakistani aide who were both freed in April 2016. It is not known where the remaining hostages are being kept, or even if all twenty-five are still alive. They may be held in various Iraqi prisons.

Qatar’s government has attempted negotiations with Iraq’s government, but neither entity has the ear or allegiance of the group or groups that took the falconers hostage. Iran probably does.

For the last eleven months, this is where matters stood … until March 24. On that date, an announcement was published on Pastebin by the creators of the #OpFOQ campaign: “We call on #Anonymous and all Human Rights activists from the west, from the U.S. and from the whole of the Middle East to join in … while the Arab Summit is taking place, 23-29 March.”

The annual conference of the Arab League, the Arab Summit, meets this week, from March 23 to March 29, in Amman, Jordan. #OpFOQ was launched on March 24 to direct the conference’s attention to this mass kidnapping and ultimately to earn the freedom of the two dozen Qataris held against their will in Iraq. A media campaign centered on the #OpFOQ Twitter account and a post on Medium (full disclosure: I wrote the post) have been re-Tweeted several thousand times and seen by more than a million people in just the first 24 hours.

Human rights activists will use every social media tool available to force Iran to answer questions and use its clout to free the Qatari hunters held in Iraq. The Arab Summit’s organizers set up social media accounts, and #OpFOQ activists will make their presence known on each platform: Arab Summit 2017 on Facebook, Arab Summit 2017 on Twitter, Arab Summit 2017 on YouTube, Arab Summit 2017 on Instagram. Text messages and emails will be sent to conference attendees.

Answers will be learned before March 29.


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